A Lagoon Yields Its Secrets : Plan a Weekend Visit to Surprising Ballona Lagoon

It's Saturday in Marina del Rey's Ballona Lagoon. The tide is low. Coastal fog is just beginning to lift. Great blue herons and snowy egrets are busily hunting breakfast along the lagoon's shore. Small shore birds probe the sand banks and mud flats. A hermit crab rummages through shells looking for a new, larger home. Flying overhead, a brown pelican watches as a bulla snail deposits her spaghetti-like eggs among the lagoon's sargassum, and a green anemone, in search of prey, unfolds seductively like a flower.

Relaxing, exciting, educational, controversial, rare. All these words describe Ballona Lagoon. Never heard of it? Don't feel bad. It's one of Los Angeles' best-kept secrets.

Ballona Lagoon is a rich tidal wetland that flows between Washington Street and the entrance to the Marina del Rey channel. It feeds the Venice canal system. Don't confuse Ballona Lagoon with Ballona Creek or the Ballona Wetlands, both of which lie south of the Marina del Rey channel in Playa del Rey.

A Rich Ecosystem

Although the lagoon is still, and may even appear stagnant in spots, marine experts say 95% of its water is changed daily through fresh inflow through the tidal gates at the lagoon's south end. Due to the daily flushing, pollutants cannot build up, and the oxygenated water supports a rich, easy-to-view ecosystem of marine life. The nearby Marina del Rey marina, by contrast, undergoes a complete change of water only once a week, according to marine biologists, so plant and animal life there is greatly diminished.

To get to Ballona Lagoon, follow the San Diego Freeway (Interstate 405) to the Venice Boulevard/Washington Boulevard exit. Take Washington Boulevard (it laters becomes Washington Street) west toward the ocean. Turn left on Via Marina and follow it for about a mile. It will take you to the lagoon's south end.

There is a public parking lot off of Via Marina just as you pass Via Dolce. There is also metered parking along Via Marina as it skirts the south end of the lagoon, plus some unmetered street parking close by.

In order to see everything the lagoon has to offer, you'll have to get your feet wet, so take an old pair of tennis shoes (those broken seashells can be sharp).

It might be handy to pack a good reference book on marine life. It's always nice to be able to explain to children why and what a particular animal is doing. It might also be handy to have a book on wildflowers and tidal wetland birds.

If you take a net and bucket, remember that marine animals have delicate life systems and will die if left out of their environment. Look at them, then gently put them back where you found them.

The best time to observe marine life is low tide. Check The Times weather section for current information.

The Best Starting Point

The south end of Ballona Lagoon, by the tidal gates at the Marina del Rey entrance channel, is the best place to start. Follow the sandy shoreline north along the east side of the lagoon. Most of the marine life species that live in the lagoon can be found in the first hundred yards here.

On the dry rocks that border the tidal gate are several species of mollusks. Chitons are about an inch long, three-eighths of an inch wide and look like marine fossil specimens. Limpets are slightly larger and resemble a half shell lying flat. These two creatures may look dead but, if you watch closely as you touch their shells, they pull down and tighten their grip on the rocks.

Among the rocks, different species of shore crabs scurry about, scavenging bits of food. Acorn barnacles and volcano barnacles can also be found on the rocks' dry surfaces. These ancient creatures both look like small volcanoes. If you splash water on them and watch the hole at the top, you may see some movement within.

Closer to the waterline you will see the four-inch-long black California mussel, growing in clusters. Also attached to the rocks close to the waterline, you may find some dirt-colored, "brain-looking" shapes about two inches in diameter. These are tunicates that have closed in order to preserve moisture. Tunicates are filter feeders (they suck water in, filter out food particles, then expel the water). If you look along the rocks in the water you will find some tunicates feeding. They have their small mouths open and look like Venetian urns.

Alongside the tunicates in the water, active volcano barnacles fish the currents for plankton with their sticky, feathery pink tongues.

Colonies of Sponges

Colonies of pink and yellow sponges grow where they find a suitable foothold in the lagoon and inside the large tidal-gate pipes at low tide. Along with sponges, you may see some brilliant orange or yellow jelly-like masses of colonial ascidian (marine animals that live in colonies), and from time to time, globular sulfur-colored tunicates.

The rocks on the bottom of Ballona Lagoon, by the floodgates, bloom with colonies of beautiful, flowery, green sea anemone, rose anemone and the pale-salmon colonial sea anemone. Though they may look docile, they are actually carnivores, stunning small fish with their poisonous tentacles, then devouring them.

Schools of minnows of various fish species tend to congregate at the tidal gate too.

Innkeeper Worms

Just a few yards from the tidal gate, in the moist sand exposed at low tide, you will see small, two-inch-high "chimneys" of sand. These are built by the unseen innkeeper worms, so called because their holes are used as sanctuaries by other bottom-dwelling marine life, such as clams and goby fish.

When exposed, an innkeeper worm looks like a fat sausage over an inch in diameter, but in the confinement of its U-shaped hole it must be more the diameter of a kindergarten pencil.

Clams of various species also live at the bottom of Ballona Lagoon--little neck, razorback, croakers and others. It's fun to see how many different types of shells you can find and identify.

"Been clammin' and gettin' bait down here for 30 years. It's pretty clean because of the gate (tidal gate) letting fresh water in every day," offered a lagoon regular on a recent Saturday morning. "The water's protected. It's a natural nursery for marine life. People get a kick out of looking at the things in here."

The bottom of Ballona Lagoon is home to a variety of clams. They thrive in the rich sediment of the sandy bottom and further north in the mud flats, where they pump food-laden water through their system and multiply. Some species of clams produce as many as 16 million eggs, most of which are eaten by predators and become part of the lagoon's complex food chain.

A good place to watch worm-hole gobies, a small sandy-colored fish, backing down an innkeeper worm hole is in the small tide pools left in the sand on the east shore. Watching goby behavior takes patience, though. If you don't have it, move on about 50 yards north.

Sargassum Seaweed

There, about 50 yards north of the tidal gate at the water's edge, you will start to find some concentrations of sargassum, a brown seaweed. Sargassum offers food and shelter to a variety of marine species.

Bulla snails have a round, tapered shell, about two and a half inches long. They breed and fasten their eggs among the sargassum. Bulla snail eggs are stringy, yellow "spaghetti-looking" masses deposited in the sargassum and left to be incubated by the sun.

A slug-like creature called the sea hare can sometimes be seen grazing among the sargassum. Named because of the rabbit-ear-like structures on their heads, sea hares are typically a mottled brown or green color--great camouflage that may make them hard to see. However, some sea hares grow to 18 inches long, seven inches across and weigh 15 pounds. Sea hare eggs look similar to bulla snail eggs, but the strands are smaller in diameter and usually lime-green.

Brilliant Blue Stripes

The navanax is another marine animal often found among the sargassum. Also shell-less, navanax average four inches long and have a dark body with brilliant blue stripes. They are carnivorous and eat bulla snails and sea hares.

Just north of the first telephone pole on the lagoon's east shore is a large population of fiddler crabs. You'll know you're in the right spot when you see several small holes in the sand, with groups of small sand balls around them. Sit still and hundreds of fiddler crabs will creep out of their burrows and begin to feed. Fiddler crabs have one claw larger than the other, making them easy to recognize.

All along Ballona Lagoon's shoreline you will see hundreds of small cone-shaped snails. They may look dead but they are all alive. Watch closely and you will see them move as they search the sand for algae and debris.

At different times during the day, Ballona Lagoon provides food for different types of birds. When the water is high, swimming birds like ducks, mergansers and coots hunt in the water. During mid-tide, diving birds, such as the least tern, take advantage of the high volume of minnows. And at low tide wading and probing birds--herons, egrets, sandpipers--and others, such as ravens and gulls, fly in to feed.

Wildflowers on Path

Along the footpath that runs the length of Ballona Lagoon there are at least 14 colorful species of wildflowers--including sea rocket, beach sand verbena, stork's bill filaree, California dodder and desert primrose--that add to the Lagoon's rugged beauty. These plants are all species specially adapted to sand dune existence and require little water. They help stabilize the banks of the lagoon. Every time I look I seem to find another species.

All these wildlife and marine-life species are interrelated and dependent upon each other for their survival. Unfortunately for amateur marine biologists, the lagoon is in danger of being ecologically altered, according to biochemist Rimmon Fay, owner of Pacific Bio-Marine, a Marina del Rey firm which studies the impact of public and private development on natural habitats. A permit has been applied for that would allow construction of a private marina in Ballona Lagoon, according to Army Corps of Engineers spokesman Larry Hawthorn, a development which Fay says would destroy all the marine life in the lagoon. "The new marina habitat would in no way support the type of marine organisms living there now," Fay said, adding that "interdependent wildlife also would leave."

Marine biologist Judy Hopkins is studying Ballona Lagoon and has done research at the Malibu Lagoon in Malibu. "I can't believe how much more fertile Ballona Lagoon is," she says.

"No place on the entire coast I know of like it," says marine biology instructor Steve McDonough. "Ballona Lagoon is the perfect environment for teaching kids. It's safe and it's clean and the kids love it," adds McDonough, who teaches in both Los Angeles and San Diego county schools' marine science labs.

After your visit, there are some great restaurants in the area, many with patio dining and other attractions, plus Venice Beach, Fisherman's Village and the yachts of Marina del Rey.

Have a great weekend.

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