Saturday, February 13, 2010

Exploring the Intertidal

Trip to El Matador State Beach

A couple weeks ago, friends invited us to explore tide pools at El Matador State Beach during an unusually low tide. How could I pass?

My son has touched sea stars and other marine invertebrates at the Aquarium of the Pacific, but he's never seen them in the wild.

It was a long haul from the San Gabriel Valley, but the drive through the Santa Monica Mountains alone was worth it. I gasped at the view above, looking west from Decker Road (Highway 23). I thought, "Tuscany has nothing on these mountains."

This route isn't the quickest over the range, but it's a gorgeous drive. The white ceonothus studding the hillsides glittered like diamonds.

Sadly, much of the roadside is lined with invasive, nonnative fountain grass (Pennisetum sataceum) that has escaped gardens and threatens rare habitats.

At El Matador, Giant coreopsis (above), bladderpod, and California encelia were in bloom. Cormorants sunned themselves on the rocks, and brown pelicans took a few exciting turns over our heads.

I pointed out several ochre sea stars (Pisaster ochraceus) to my son. Don't be fooled by their sedentary appearance, these fellows are accomplished hunters. They travel around on their tubed feet, attach the little suction cups to mussels, and slowly pry open their prey.

Once it cracks an opening, the sea star injects its stomach into the mussel, chows down, and retrieves stomach.

We also saw quite a few anemones, but they had contracted their tentacles, blending in with the rocks.

If you visit intertidal ecosystems, do so very carefully. People I observed on this visit seemed unaware of the camouflaged anemones and likely stepped on some.

A few years ago, I interviewed UCLA ecologist Rich Ambrose about intertidal habitats in L.A. County. He told me people are collecting or stepping on just about every kind of animal in and around tidepools.

He pointed to a fluid, deep purple sea slug: "This is an animal that’s really heavily impacted by visitors because as you can see it’s very soft bodied. People don’t see them and step on them and they squish."

People are also taking starfish home as souvenirs. And they’re illegally snagging crabs, sea urchins, sea cucumbers and other animals for their own dinner tables, or to sell to restaurants and aquarium stores. Ambrose’s research has found that about six percent of visitors collect something. That doesn't sound like a lot, but consider about 30,000 to 50,000 people a year will visit a single site.

Ambrose has tried to educate people, but he says some just don't care:

When I’ve tried to talk to them they’re not interested in hearing it’s not legal. They’ll collect big crabs that are uncommon. At one point we saw somebody drive down a pick up truck and was just filling up the back of the pickup truck with sea urchins.

(I pause for you to grumble, mutter, swear.)

Needless to say, the state lacks sufficient game wardens and park rangers to protect resources. On our Saturday visit, El Matador was entirely unstaffed.

All the more reason for those of us who can't hold our tongues, to keep our eyes open.

El Matador is located in north Malibu at 32215 Pacific Coast Highway.
The day use fee is $8

1 comment:

  1. Although I'm a California native, I don't know where this is, and you don't give any clues in the article. Perhaps you could include a link, an address, some directions...


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