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DIVERSIONS : Tide Pooling: How to Get Your Feet Wet

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

You want to relax. You want to forget about that report due yesterday, about the presentation next week, about the recent round of layoffs.

Sunbathing is too passive, an amusement park too hectic. You need something peaceful and meaningful to connect with nature--but it can’t be a hassle.

What do you do?

Observing small intertidal invertebrates may not instantly come to mind. But why not explore this harmonious world of tide pooling where sea and land meet? All you need is a pair of old sneakers and a friend.

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“It’s the most relaxing thing I do--the thing that makes me happiest--and good for your psyche as well as your intellect,” says Linda Tway of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, who has written a book called “Tidepools of Southern California.” For those unfamiliar with the concept, a tide pool is a coastal rocky outcropping where the water levels change with the ebb and flow of the tide.

Because of the varying water level and the relative isolation, an array of animal and plant life is easy to observe. Starfish, anemones, sea urchins, kelp and algae are some of the brightly colored and exotic life to be seen.

Tide pooling seems simple enough, but there are important things to know before setting out on your adventure. In fact, if you’ve tried it before, you’ve probably found that there appears to be an utter lack of information on where, when and how to tide pool.

“Several books already exist describing animal and plant life in Pacific Coast tide pools, but none tells you where to find these fascinating life forms,” says Tway, who has a background in biology and geology.

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Other than commonly known spots that are crowded and picked over, most people don’t know where to find one. So Tway decided to explore the coasts of Santa Barbara, Ventura, Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties looking for tide pools.

Her easy-to-read 175-page guide compiles her discoveries, listing the best tide pools, providing maps and information on parking and nearby facilities and including a tide pool rating based on diversity and abundance of the plant and animal life.

Now that you know what a tide pool is, you need to know when and how to explore them:

* To see the most plentiful life forms, wait for low tides and good light. The lowest tides occur in winter, but the warmth and light of summer months make tide pooling more enjoyable. Check the tide charts in the newspaper or purchase an inexpensive tide guide, available in surf and diving shops.

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* A tide guide also saves you from getting stranded on jutting rocks. You may become so absorbed in tide pooling that the tide may come in and cut you off from the mainland or large waves may break over your path back.

* Be prepared to get wet. Waves will occasionally splash you.

* Watch your step. Dancing around on slippery rocks can lead to serious injury.

* Wear shoes that encase your feet and have a good tread, like canvas sneakers, which dry out easily, or reef shoes, which are available in water-sports stores.

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* Always go with a friend. Some of these locations are isolated and can be treacherous because tide pools are made up of smooth rock shelves and more dangerous small, loose boulders and rocks.

“The main thing is to be careful for yourself so you don’t get hurt and careful of the life so you don’t destroy it,” says Tway, who lists challenging areas and climbs for the more adventurous in her book.

Tide pooling also offers a valuable lesson in respect for the environment, says Tway, who cautions against touching or picking up anything in a tide pool. Even scraping a starfish off a rock and putting it back is harmful--not to mention leaving it in a bucket to die.

Collecting--which is against the law in most areas--also throws off the balance of the tide pool, creating an overabundance of one organism when its predator diminishes. And because of careless collecting of plant and animal life, some of the better-known tide pool areas also have been picked over and now are sparse.

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If you want a souvenir, bring a camera. Peering into a tide pool is like peering into another world. You’ll soon be discovering a bat star or a warty sea cucumber or a Spanish shawl nudibranch.

“It is so absorbing to see, to notice and make yourself see and be aware--absorbing one thing so much,” says Tway, “you naturally forget about problems.”

“Tidepools of Southern California” (Capra Press, $15.95) is available at museum shops, nature and outdoor stores, most chain book stores and Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Tide Pool Treks

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Tide pooling is more than staring at a sea urchin. It can be part of a daylong excursion that includes picnicking and hiking. Here are some places that offer tide pooling and other things to do.

* Los Angeles County: Paradise Cove to Dune Point. About a three-hour walk with a variety of tide pool life, but you need a low tide. There is a pier, a restaurant and a beach area for a picnic.

* Orange County: Heisler Park. At Laguna Beach there are gift shops, restaurants and museums.

* San Diego County: Dyke Rock and the Marine Room. Near the Scripps Institute’s Aquarium, the pier and the beach.

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* Ventura County: Hobson County Park and Thornhill Broome State Beach. Picnic areas and swimming.

* Santa Barbara County: Carpinteria State Beach has excellent tide pools and good places to swim, picnic and walk.


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