Tidepool, Alaska, Color, Starfish

Celebrating the Colors of Low Tide

Peer into a tide pool and there is one thing you will notice for sure : all of that color!! Sea creatures with oddly shaped legs, flippers, fins, tentacles, tongues, and feet will dazzle you with their complex, rainbow coloring. Every nook has a new wonder to behold, and shifting your eyes to peer into a new cranny brings more new content than turning your TV’s channel. The combination of clear water and ROYGBIV-colored creatures abounding in our local coastal waters delighted my wife and I during a recent low-tide cycle in Southeast Alaska.

Of all the creatures of the sea the Sea Star must have the most color variation. These are all Mottled Starfish and check out all of those colors – ROYGBIV!

Starry ROYGBIV

Walking along the water’s edge is one of my fierce joys of living along the coast. On that sunny day, my wife and I traversed the low tide line and the bottom of the inter-tidal world, abandoned by the ocean, laid bare in front of us in the fresh air. Hundreds of Sea Stars exposed by the receding water sat perched on the exposed sand and rocks, thrilling us. Black, blue, red, gray, green and everything in between. Camera in hand, I photographed each new variant and learned more as I looked closer. There was more than just different colors – each color had different shades. There were four or five shades of every color of starfish we found meaning I only captured a small slice of them below!

It is not intuitive to bring a 150mm macro lens to to a tidepool, but I found that limiting myself to that lens made me focus on the small details of each creature along the beach and in the tidepools. Here’s a mosaic of Mottled Sea Stars – each image was made along the same beach during the same tide. Look at those colors!

A Split World

Phytoplankton and small marine invertebrates drive Southeast Alaska’s abundant ocean resources. In the summer, those creatures turn the water green and cloudy – you may have heard of “marine snow”. However, after a long cold winter like we’d just come through the water is extremely clear due to a season of low light and low temps. With those conditions in mind, I brought my underwater housing and dome port and sought to tie together sealife with their surroundings. I am very happy with the final images which capture the full story of low-tide in this mountainous, coastal region.

This Sunflower Sea Star is a top predator of the ocean bottom and grows up to 3.3 feet across. They have a lot of legs (16 – 24 of them) which they use to out-maneuver and catch a variety of creatures. I used an underwater housing to document this individual in the shallow water surrounded by mountains.
Sea Stars have a tendency to gather on any rocks in a sand bottom. I think this is because the currents are less likely to detach them from a rock. In the clear water, the sunlight rippled like firing neurons across the bottom.
On the outer point of a rock outcrop I found this collection of starfish, urchins, and Christmas Anemones. A nest of color!
I love the context of this shot. You can see the Mottled Sea Stars caught above the low tide line and a large group just below the water’s surface.
Although they lack the color variation of the Sea Stars, these Plumous Aneomone are intensely colored and very beautiful! In this image they’ve colonized a dock piling.

Tidal Macros

Although Mottled Sea Stars are by far the most common of the sea stars in our area, they have some unique and vibrant relatives. The large red specimen below is a Vermillion Sea Star (Check out NOAA’s Guide) and the smaller pink one is a Northern ScarletStar. Their skin is so different than the Mottled Star! It appears to make it more breathable and flexible. I wish I knew why!

I believe this is a Northern ScarletStar. After posting it to my social media feeds a few of my followers said it reminded them of Peach from “Finding Nemo” and Patrick from “Spongebob Squarepants”. I can see the resemblance of each!

Green Anemones, despite their electric green color, are easy to overlook. They seek small, sheltered spaces and are a few inches in size. By putting your nose at the water’s surface you can truly appreciate their beauty. Fine striping in their tentacles and a green and yellow mosaic of colors on their flat surfaces. A beautiful animal!

Snorkeling the Low Tide

The following week I set out for another low tide, but this time it was a +3.2 tide – 6.7 feet higher than the extreme lows I’ve documented above. The water conditions were very different in the new estuary I explored. Tanins and silt washed in from spring melt and phytoplankton blooms added to the cloudy water. In the shallow waters, the cloudiness filtered the sun’s rays and added to the beauty of the scenes only a few feet below me. The currents slowly pushed me along the shore and I floated in my drysuit with my face in the water. The species diversity and multitude of colors mesmerized me!!

In the shallow waters of the estuary I found vibrant colors and animals. I love the story of this image – the sun’s rays filtering through plankton filled waters which are filtered out by all sorts of creatures like this Plumous Anemone.
A Mottled Sea Star clings onto the hard surface of a rock.
One of the perks of snorkeling compared to tidepooling was that the Christmas Anemones were fully open. They are beautiful when fully unfurled!
So many elements in this image! 4 ore more species of seaweed are tied together by a starfish and orange anemones.
Brown fronds of kelp coated the rocks and bottom as I floated along in my snorkel and drysuit. Their rich tones were accented by the sunlight shining through them.
This is probably the brightest hermit crab I’ve ever seen, especially juxtaposed against the hues of the brown algae surrounding it.

I would be remiss if I didn’t reflect on the joy these colors of nature brought me in the era of quarantine and shelter-in-place. To me it was another example of how slowing down and taking time to learn new things, enjoy more fully the time you have outside, and seeking opportunities to truly observe your surroundings is cathartic and valuable. You may not have a tidepool in your backyard and I hope my pictures have brought you joy, but here’s the reality : you don’t need a tidepool. Walking outdoors and taking a closer look will reveal amazing things. Microsms of color inside of microsms of textures inside of microsms of smells that will leave you hungry for more!

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