Home > Biology, Featured Articles, Travel > A Trip to the La Jolla Tide Pools of San Diego

A Trip to the La Jolla Tide Pools of San Diego

January 25th, 2009. By Dave Oei. 11,776 views.
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La Jolla Tidepools at Sunset

La Jolla tide pools at sunset in January 2009. Photo by Dave Oei.

2 year Old Curiosity at the Tide Pool. Photo by Dave Oei.

2 year old curiosity at the tide pool. Photo by Dave Oei.

Nestled along the shores of La Jolla, California lie some of the best tide pools offered in San Diego.  While these can’t compete with the likes of what is found in Monterey Bay, the La Jolla tide pools are no more than a few minutes drive for most San Diegans, and their ease of accessibility makes visiting them well worth the while.  There’s an abundance of wildlife, including starfish, a variety of crustaceans, mollusks, and octopus.  And usually, without trying to hard, you’ll be able to spot seals and dolphins.

Did I mention that it’s gorgeous?

A Clump of Different Colored Starfish in La Jolla.  Photo by Dave Oei.

A clump of different colored starfish in La Jolla. Photo by Dave Oei.

My family and I visited the pools a few weeks ago.  We arrived late in the afternoon when the tides were predicted to be quite low and we found ourselves shedding off the sweaters in the 70 degree weather.  That’s right: 70 degrees, by the beach, in January.  It really does happen in San Diego.

To go tide pooling, you’ll need to see to two pieces of logistics: Planning and Parking.

Planning is easy.  If you want to see the tide pools, you’ll have to go during low tide.  If you don’t have a tide predictor, there are online resources, such as the  tide plotting tool offered by the Scripps Research Institute.

Interpreting the plot is easy.  The vertical Y-axis will give you the tide height while the horizontal X-axis displays time.  You’ll want to visit when the tide is at least 0 feet or -1 feet to view the creatures best.  Once you’ve found what time low-tide corresponds to, plan on arriving at least an hour before that since it’s better to be situated early and let the tide roll out, instead of the other way around.

Tidepools Parking.  Courtesy of Google Maps.

Tide pool parking. From Google Maps.

Parking can get tricky.  The beach is beautiful (it is San Diego) and surfing is popular.  Most people probably park at Kellogg Park adjacent to La Jolla Shores beach.  But it’s almost a mile south of the tide pools and parking is iffy.  A better spot could be found at the intersection of: El Paseo Grande and La Jolla Shores.

Actually, if you can find parking anywhere along El Paseo Grande you’re in good shape. And just west (left) of the “A” marker on the map, there’s a parking lot for those affiliated with UCSD.  But unless it’s a federal holiday (or you’re affiliated with UCSD), I wouldn’t chance it.

Once you park, make your way to the beach.  There’s access directly west from the “A” marker.  Or, if you parked further south, enjoy a leisurely stroll north up the beach.

The place you’re heading for is just north of Scripps Pier, pictured on the map.  It’s an easy hike – my 2 and 5 year old kids didn’t complain.  Much.

La Jolla Tidepools Rocky Outcroppings.  Photo by Dave Oei.

La Jolla tide pools rocky outcroppings. Photo by Dave Oei.

Once at the tide pools you’ll be treated with several large sections of rocky outcroppings comprised of many small roundish and slippery boulders. Usually that spells disaster if you’re worried about little ones falling down.  But we found that using our bare feet worked best.  And, doing so had other benefits.

What I’m getting at is this sad fact: Walking along the tide pools results in destruction of tide pool habitat.  To get a great view of what’s going on, you have no choice but to destroy the homes and some creatures in the process.  It’s double-edge sword, like zoos.  But I digress.

Going barefoot helps.  First, you’ll have a better feel for where you’re stepping and will less likely walk onto an anemone.  And second, you’ll have a natural inclination to walk where others have already tread – minimizing additional damage to otherwise untouched areas.

There’s a lot to see and I suggest to explore it all.  Often you’ll see people congregate around one area – usually signifying a “major” discovery.  But the truth is, a lot of the most interesting creatures are spread out across the entire expanse and tend to stay hidden.  If you’re mindful, patient, and keep a keen eye, you can make your own discovery while keeping it a secret.

Which is what happened while peering at a lone starfish.  Our youngest son reached out and touched it’s hard, nubby surface, when out of nowhere a couple of foot-long arms reached out to investigate his fingers.  We were both initially startled, but immediately realized this was an octopus.  Sure enough, a few more legs emerged, but never the whole body.  We had this little guy all to ourselves.  And as the octopus explored it’s surroundings, we sat fascinated while I did my best to describe the intricacies of the creature.

Muscles Everywhere.  Photo by Dave Oei.

Mussels everywhere. Photo by Dave Oei.

If you’re lucky, you’ll also spot sea cucumbers and sea slugs.  Be careful if you touch them – they’re very delicate!

Other creatures are very plentiful.  Starfish are easy to find and are either loners or hand out in clumps.  We also found many little hermit crabs and even some odd-looking snails.

Plentiful too are the mussels and barnacles.  They’re not as sexy as the starfish or eight-armed bandits, but they’re role in the ecosystem is no less important. They’re filter feeders, and as a result help keep the waters clean.  And, mussels reside highest along the low-tide areas making them easy to see.  Of course, during low tide they’re clamped shut, but their numbers provide great visual interest often overlooked.

Sea anemone at La Jolla Shores.  Photo by Dave Oei

Sea anemone at La Jolla Shores. Photo by Dave Oei

Another creature hard to miss is the sea anemone.  When completely immersed in water they open up, tentacles spread out like these two pictured left.  They’re carnivorous but generally harmless to you and me.  If you gently touch a tentacle, you’ll feel a slight tug from their stinger, or nematocyst, which is what they use to capture prey.  Play with them too much and they’ll retreat, closing in on itself like a flower at sunset.

On the flip side, when anemone are out of water, they take special precautions to make sure they don’t dry in the warm San Diego sun. While these little guys don’t use sun screen, they instead make their own umbrellas. Out of sea shells!

Sea Anemone Exposed. Photo by Dave Oei.

Sea anemone exposed. Photo by Dave Oei.

This is where you need to be very careful where you tread.  As you explore the tide pools you’ll see odd concentrations of seashells on the surface of some rocks.  It’s odd because seashells do not normally clump together – on the beach you’ll find them scattered throughout.

But if you’re look closely, you’ll notice that these shells are held in place by something not quite firm and not quite soft.  In fact, thousands of anemone are holding tight onto these shells to reflect the sun’s rays while maintaining their moisture.  Yet to the casual observer it’s just a bunch of shells.  So be sure if you see this to give the anemone a wide-berth and enjoy them from afar.

Our trip to the La Jolla tide pools ended just after a wonderful sunset as we were fortunate to visit the area with a low tide in the late afternoon.  But spurned by the neat experience and our kids’ enthusiasm, we set out to find and others in San Diego.  In fact, the next day we visited one at Swami’s, just north of Cardiff by the Sea.  It’s geology is completely different.  And, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the native wildlife also different significantly.

But that’s another story.

Biology, Featured Articles, Travel

  1. Sarah
    January 31st, 2009 at 22:45 | #1

    Nice article! The planning and parking info was great, and I especially liked the section on “anemone umbrellas”.

  2. maryellen
    March 21st, 2009 at 21:05 | #2

    very nice article. We went to these tidepools today, March 22, 2009. We are trying to find some info on the geology of the tide pool rocks, or some history of possible structures previously there. We thought we found some native iron inclusions in the sandstone (?) rocks near the stairs. Very slightly magnetic. Might be man-made because of the regular spacing, but the pieces looked to be weathering out of the matrix, rather than showing evidence of being put into the rock. Any info or suggestions?

  3. Dave Oei
    March 23rd, 2009 at 17:17 | #3

    Unfortunately, geology is not my strong suit! However, you could look here for more info regarding that specific to San Diego. http://www.sdnhm.org/research/paleontology/sdgeol.html – In general, the San Diego Natural History Museum has all the insights into the geology, paleontology, archeology, etc… of San Diego. Good luck!

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