Friday, June 28, 2013

Celebrating Puget Sound's Annual Lowest Tides

"Would you like to see a gunnel?" asks a cheerful beach volunteer, holding up a clear plastic container filled with water.  

It's inhabited by the tiniest sea creatures I've ever seen.  A translucent eel-like thing (the gunnel) moves sinuously through the water, brushing past a teensy little seashell with a snail peaking out.

"We had a bigger gunnel in here, but it tried to eat the snail."
Big things eat little things everywhere.

I'm walking along the beach at Point Robinson Park on this cloudy June day, enjoying the eighth annual Vashon-Maury Island Low Tide Celebration as part of a kayaking weekend (next blog post). We're here on the edge of the Salish Sea, which encompasses Puget Sound in northwestern Washington. 

The Salish Sea, one of the largest and most biologically rich stretches of inland sea in the world, is teeming with marine life that's seldom seen. But around the summer solstice, the lowest tides of the year expose little seen shorelines and tide pools full of worms, crabs, snails, and other sea life.

Jellyfish, high and dry on the beach until the tide comes back up.
Volunteers set up signs for the low tide event, amongst exposed eelgrass beds.
Despite the abundant sea life, however, Puget Sound and the Salish Sea overall are imperiled by pollution and human development.  Point Robinson is part of the Maury Island Aquatic Reserve, which still has immense biodiversity. 

While there are naturalists on the beach enthusiastically sharing their knowledge and pointing out creatures to anyone willing to look, the celebration offers other temptations.  Free tours are being offered of the historic Point Robinson Lighthouse, and educational booths are set up on the adjacent lawn by organizations such as the Vashon-Maury Island Audubon Society chapter.

Point Robinson Lighthouse (night before the festival).
Descending the lighthouse tower stairs. 
While I'm atop the lighthouse tower, stepping gingerly around the outside balcony, I see a traditional Coast Salish tribal canoe pull up on the beach to the south.  Something I've never seen before!  So I go dashing down the stairs (while watching my step) to check it out.

View southwest from the Point Robinson lighthouse.

The Blue Heron canoe makes a tribal journey in the Northwest each summer.
As the Blue Heron Canoe crew starts to wander up the beach for lunch, I strike up a conversation with a tall, handsome member of the Duwamish Tribe who is one of the paddlers.  Ken tells me he recently did some research on his ancestry and discovered he's a direct descendant of Chief Seattle (Si'ahl).  I'm duly awed and impressed to meet a living connection to my city's namesake.

Before they eat, the tribal members do a traditional pre-meal chant with their drums, adding another touch of regional authenticity and a sense of history to the event.

Blue Heron Canoe skipper Mike Evans of the Snohomish Tribe, on the right, leads the crew in chanting.
After a couple hours enjoying the celebration (and the tasty grilled hot dogs,  shrimp, and homemade snickerdoodle cookies), most of my kayaking buddies are ready to continue our journey south.  The tide is now rising quickly. 

As we round the point, the Blue Heron Canoe is also on the water.  I find the image arresting, reminiscent of Edward S. Curtis photographs I've seen from over a century ago. We all paddle off on the calm sea in the gentle summer rain.

Blue Heron Canoe on Puget Sound
When You Go
If you'd like to get involved in protecting and preserving the Maury Island or other Puget Sound aquatic reserves, contact the People for Puget Sound's Aquatic Reserves Project Coordinator Maddie Foutch at or 206-631-2644. 

For next year's low tide celebration, check out the Vashon Park District website around early April. Although the celebration has come and gone for 2013, I hear there's a low tide beach cleanup event here in the Maury Island Aquatic Reserve the weekend of July 19/20. I couldn't find it on a Google search, but I suggest checking again soon.

You can also take a tour of the Point Robinson Lighthouse each Sunday afternoon from noon to 4 pm.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Since I live on the island I was there! Took my mon as it was her birthday. Got there later but still had a good time. Thanks as always for sharing.