Tidepoolling with Toddlers at Fitzgerald Marine Reserve

Traveling with Toddlers

Finding travel destinations that are enticing to young children and adults can be a challenge. Sure, we all love the beach, but after a couple of days of sand and sun everyone is looking for a little more stimulation. Visiting tidepools is an activity every member of the family can appreciate. It’s a hobby that never gets old, offers creativity and mental stimulation and delights the reward center of the brain with endless discovery.

You’re never too young to experience tidepools

Children old enough to walk are old enough to visit and delight in tidepools, if you choose a destination without challenging geography. In fact, both of my children started visiting tide pools before they could walk. (A baby carrier is a magnificent invention.)  The one trouble with planning a vacation that includes tide pooling is the terrain. The coastline running down the Pacific is loaded with fascinating tide pools waiting to be discovered. The trouble is, the trek in, or across the beach, is full of steep or sharp rocks, too difficult and dangerous for young visitors.

The magic of Fitzgerald Marine Reserve

Tidepooling at Fitzgerald Marine ReserveOne destination better preserved and far more accessible than most is the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve just north of Half Moon Bay, California. This tiny patch of paradise is home to a wide range of marine species and is considered one of the finest marine life habitats on the West Coast.

At low tide, visitors will find a colorful array of marine life thriving in sandy pockets and crevices between the tide-worn rocks. It is also an excellent spot to view shorebirds and, usually, the colony of harbor seals that calls this marine reserve home. A lucky visitor may even spot a sea otter or two frolicking in the waves.

The lay of the land

Unlike many of California’s less populated beaches, visiting Fitzgerald Marine Reserve doesn’t require hiking down a cliff. At either end of the reserve, there is a set of stairs leading down to tide pools. At the northern end (Kelp Cove), near the Visitors’ Center (a loose term for a couple of signs and restrooms), the staircase is quite short and leads to a slightly rocky beach. Here, there’s a small parking lot. But be warned, the lot fills very quickly during low tide. At the southern end (Seal Cove), there is also a staircase but it’s steeper. However, it leads to a wider expanse of beach. You should know that there are no public facilities or parking at this end. Visitors must park on the nearby (fortunately quiet) streets. On many days, you can easily walk across the rocks at low tide from one beach to the other. But if you see a string of cones blocking the path, it means you cannot pass. (Park rangers do this when the harbor seals are resting on the rocky outcrop separating the northern and southern beaches.)

What you can expect to find

Starfish in tidepools at Fitzgerald Marine Reserve in Moss Beach, CAAt both beaches, you can enjoy the tidepools from the sand, if your little one doesn’t feel like adventuring. Sitting and staring at a pool is the best way to find hidden creatures. If you look long enough, a hermit crab might crawl right onto your hand. In an undisturbed pool, tiny fish called sculpins will begin to dart about. A Giant Green Sea Anemone may begin to unfurl and wave its tentacles in your direction. Sitting and staring into one pool while my daughter made me sand pies, I watched an anemone eat a crab. I had no idea that sea anemones ate crab! Peek under rocks to find starfish in extraordinary colors like pink or neon orange. You may also see scuttling Kelp Crabs or sea urchins with bright purple spines.

A favorite discovery in the Marine Reserve doesn’t have to dance about to impress. Iridescent Algae reflects light in such a way that it appears to have a green cast in shallow water and makes the rocks look as though they’ve been painted pinkish-purple when the water gets deeper. The look of chitons will delight little boys. These odd little mollusks look like they’re wearing armor. My son compared them to shields knights would hold up to fight sea dragons. Pink Volcano Barnacles were also among his favorite finds.

Hopkins Rose NudibranchAmong the more rare, and definitely most dazzling finds are the nudibranchs, (pronounced noodie-brank). Look closely under the waving kelp and sea grasses for brightly colored creatures that look more like something out of Walt Disney’s imagination than animals that belong on the California coastline. Our best find was the Hopkins Rose Nudibranch. The Marine Reserve happens to be one of the best spots up and down the coast to see this marvel of nature. The Hopkins Rose is a sea slug but is unrecognizable as a slug…or any animal! Its color is a shade of pink you would swear didn’t exist in nature. Somewhere between Pink Lady and deep fuchsia, the color of these tiny, tentacle-covered creatures makes them pop out from under the water, no matter how hard they try to hide.

Know before you go

Fitzgerald Marine Reserve opens at 8am every day. The closing time varies with the season. The best time to visit with little ones is from about one hour before low tide until about one hour after low tide. This is when the tide recedes far enough so that you can spot the most creatures safely, without worrying about waves. The very best time is when the beaches in the area are experiencing Minus Tides. These are low tides that recede below the normal lowest water level, which means you’ll have an even longer time to explore the tide pools before the tide washes back in. (Minus Tides typically occur around the full or new moon but check a tide chart to make sure of when they will occur.)

The toddler necessities

A Toddler Playing in the Sand at Fitzgerald Marine ReserveBe sure to bring plenty of sunscreen. The sun reflecting off the water, even when there’s partial cloud cover, is very strong. You’ll also want to have protective footwear. Rocks and coral can be sharp and cuts in this marine environment can quickly get infected. Rain boots with a good grip or water shoes are recommended. My two year old does the best in rain boots, but my older child prefers the flexibility of a lighter shoe for climbing around the rocks. Water resistant hiking boots also work but tennis shoes are not recommended. Many do not have the proper grip for the algae-covered rocks and leather shoes will get ruined in the moisture. Keep in mind that in California, the coast can be cold in summer or warm in winter. Dress in layers and be sure to have a windbreaker or jacket handy just in case Mother Nature decides to whip up some wild weather. It won’t impact the beauty of the reserve, but the rolling fog or a surprise sprinkle of rain could make you suddenly cold on what you expected to be a warm day.

If your little ones love digging, bring sand toys, although park rangers ask that you don’t bring buckets and shovels out on the rocks. The marine environment here is very fragile. Visitors are asked not to touch any of the animals or take any of the shells. They also don’t want to risk a little one slipping and dropping a plastic shovel into a crevasse where it is impossible to retrieve and potentially damaging to the marine life.

Fostering a love of the sea

Whether you’re able to time a tidepooling trip to hit the minus tides, the sunshine or even a little rain, it doesn’t matter. No matter when you go, taking young children tidepooling is a great opportunity to show them the wonders of our natural world. It starts them down the path to caring for our environment early. And most importantly, it provides a great opportunity for the whole family to unplug, unwind and get a little dirty together.

Where to stay

Fitzgerald Marine Reserve is located in Moss Beach, California. The best options for accommodations are in nearby Half Moon Bay, a small, beach-side community famous for its picture-perfect crescent beach.

Beach House, Half Moon Bay

Beach House Hotel, Half Moon Bay - an upscale, family-friendly hotel near Fitzgerald Marine ReserveBeach House Half Moon Bay provides upscale, family-friendly accommodations with ocean views. The hotel is conveniently located on the north end of Half Moon Bay, just a few miles south of Fitzgerald Marine Reserve. Each of the hotel’s 54 rooms are junior suites with separate living and sleeping areas. (All rooms are equipped with a queen sized sofa bed.) The hotel is situated on the quiet beach of a marina and also boasts a small, year-round pool. Rates include a continental breakfast with plenty of hot coffee for parents and fruit for the little ones. For more information and reservations visit http://www.beach-house.com/ or call 650.712.0220.