We've started a new series of tidepool walks here at Fort Abercrombie State Historical Park. For want of a better term, they're "toddler-appropriate." We take the group to the Miler Point beach just across from Lake Gertrude. Response has been good; the walking is easy, everything is close to shore, and the site accommodates the variety of attention spans of young participants. For some of our little guests, fifteen minutes is plenty; for others, there's no such thing as too much tidepooling.
One reason for the arrangement is this year's proliferation of seaweed at the Ram Site beach on Monashka Bay. The footing is precarious, and our littlest tidepoolers were sometimes running into difficulty. Bandaids and antiseptic cream were being distributed from the Visitor Center First Aid kit at an unaccustomed rate. Rather than continue with what some were starting to call Fort Abercrombie's "No Child Left Alive" program, we decided to begin a series of lower impact tidepool excursions. The Lake Gertrude beach may not have the biological excitement of the Ram Site, but it is accessible to very young children, and they'll come away with a good experience and excitement about what they've seen.
They'll also focus on the smallest pools of water, and see things that our older tidepoolers miss, or have become over-accustomed to. A very common animal at both the Ram Site and Lake Gert beaches, for instance, one that never fails to please, is the sea anemone. We have several anemone species in Kodiak, but our largest and most conspicuous is the Christmas anemone, so named because of the red-and-green color pattern of its body column.
The Christmas anemone and other sea anemones are closely related to corals and jellyfish. They're found attached to rocks by the stout body column while a hundred or so tentacles surrounding the mouth wave in the water. The jellyfish relationship is fairly easy to visualize if you think of turning a sea anemone upside down and stepping down hard. Squish!! You've got a jellyfish!
The tentacles have stinging cells that can be used to paralyze hermit crabs, small fish, and even some of their jellyfish relatives. Humans are just too thick-skinned to be affected, and kids on the tidepool walks all get their chance to be "tickled" by a sea anemone. Exactly how those stinging cells work is still a bit obscure. There are even animals that can eat sea anemones or jellyfish and recycle the cells, collecting them just under the body surface where they can be used for protection. How they manage this without causing the cells to discharge isn't known.
We'll give an anemone a succulent chunk of limpet and see the tentacles quickly grasp it and move it toward the mouth opening where it's taken in. The coordination is remarkable, considering the absence of a brain. The anemone has a rudimentary diffuse system of nerves, with only a bit of concentration in a ring around the mouth opening and the area of the tentacles.
Christmas anemones are fairly sedentary animals; though they are capable of scooting on their soft sticky attachment disks or performing truly acrobatic slow motion somersaults to move to better places on a rock, most of them stay put. One Christmas anemone on the Washington coast has been observed since 1968, and hasn't changed position or size during that time. That long life seems to be a characteristic of the animals. An anemone named "Granny" was kept in an aquarium in Edinborough for 50 years. Granny outlived her first owner and was inherited by a second.
I'm not used to seeing sea anemones out of the water, but the Christmas anemones seem to do fine relatively close to shore where they will be exposed at low tide. They'll attach themselves to the underside of ledges and hang limply down with the tentacles in the water. Since they have this ability to withstand dryness they show up in areas that are easy for our toddler tidepoolers to reach.
Our next toddler tidepool session is Wednesday, August 18 at 10am. We'll assemble at the Fort Abercrombie State Historical Park Visitor Center. This is your child's chance to discover a realm that may be completely new. And this is our chance to watch the marvelous sense of wonder that's so much a part of the way that age group interacts with the world.