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Counting critters

Professor Emeritus John Pearse has been monitoring intertidal areas in the Monterey Bay region since the early 1970s. Here on the north end of Monterey Bay, he set up two research sites: Opal Cliffs in 1972 and Soquel Point in 1970. These sites are separated by about 975 meters (3200 feet) as the gull flies. My understanding is that the original motivation for studying these sites was to compare the biota at Soquel Point, which had a sewage outfall at the time, with that at Opal Cliffs, which did not. The sewer discharge was relocated in 1976, and the project has now morphed into a study of long-term recovery at the two sites. In the decades since, John has led students, former students, and community members to conduct Critter Counts at these sites during one of the mid-year low tides. Soquel Point is visited on the first day, and Opal Cliffs is visited the following day. When John founded the LiMPETS rocky intertidal monitoring program for teachers and students in the 1990s, the Soquel Point and Opal Cliffs locations were incorporated into the LiMPETS regime.

Soquel Point and Opal Cliffs sampling sites
© Google

I have participated in the annual Critter Counts off and on through the years--around here, one takes any chance one gets to venture into the intertidal with John Pearse! I usually have my own plans for this series of low tides, but try to make at least one of the Critter Count mornings. This year (2019) the first 16 days of June have been designated the official time frame for Snapshot Cal Coast, giving marine biologists and marine aficionados an excuse to go to the ocean and make observations for iNaturalist. I had set myself the goal of submitting observations for every day of Snapshot Cal Coast, knowing that every day this week would be devoted to morning low tides. That's the easy part. Next week, when we lose the minus tides, I'll do other things, like look at plankton or photograph seabirds. My plans for this week included a trip to Franklin Point on Wednesday and doing the Critter Count at Opal Cliffs on Thursday. John asked me if I could also do the Wednesday Critter Count. As I alluded above, I'm not going to say "No" to an invitation like that! So I didn't make it out to Franklin Point to document the staurozoans for Snapshot Cal Coast, but that's okay. Some plans are meant to be changed.

Day 1- Soquel Point

Both the Soquel Point and Opal Cliffs sites are flat benches with little vertical topography. The benches are separated by channels that retain water as the tide recedes. The Soquel Point site has deeper channels that make the benches more like islands than connected platforms.

Intertidal benches at Soquel Point
2019-06-05
© Allison J. Gong

The benches are pretty easy to get around on, as long as you remember that surfgrass (Phyllospadix spp.) is treacherous stuff. The long leaves are slippery and tend to cover pitfalls like unexpected deepish holes. The difficulty at this site is that it takes very little rise in the tide for water in the channels to get deep. You can be working along for a while, then get up to leave and realize that you're surrounded by water. Keeping that caveat in mind, we worked fast.

My partner for the morning, Linda, examines a quadrat at Soquel Point
2019-06-05
© Allison J. Gong

For the Critter Count we keep tabs on only a subset of the organisms in the intertidal. The quadrat defines our sample; we put it down at randomly determined coordinates within a permanent study area. Some animals, such as anemones, turban snails, and hermit crabs, are counted individually. For other organisms (surfgrass, algae, Phragmatopoma) we count how many of the 25 small squares they appear in. Some quadrats are pretty easy and take little time; others, such as ones that are placed over channels or pools, are more difficult and take much longer.

Because of the rising tide I didn't have a lot of time to look around and take photos of the critters we were counting. Linda and I were worried about finishing our quadrats before the channels got deep enough to flood our boots. But here are two of the things that caught my eye:

Anthopleura sola at Soquel Point
2019-06-05
© Allison J. Gong
Sea lettuce (Ulva sp.) and anemones (Anthopleura sola) at Soquel Point
2019-06-05
© Allison J. Gong

Day 2 - Opal Cliffs

Opal Cliffs intertidal area
2019-06-06
© Allison J. Gong
Lizzy counts critters in our quadrat
2019-06-06
© Allison J. Gong

The next day we met a half hour later and a few blocks down the road. The Opal Cliffs site is a popular spot with surfers: If you've ever heard of the surf spot Pleasure Point or seen the movie Chasing Mavericks, you know about this location. As far as the intertidal goes, it's an easy site to study. The channels aren't as deep as those at Soquel Point so we could work at a more leisurely pace. As the rest of the group hauled up all the gear and left to get on with their day, I stayed behind to take pictures for my iNaturalist observations. The sky was overcast, making for good picture-taking conditions. I'll just add a gallery of photos to share with you.

There is one critter that deserve more attention here, because I'd never seen one in the intertidal before. Two of the guys finished their quadrats early and started flipping over rocks to look for an octopus. To my knowledge they didn't find any octopuses, but they did find a bizarre fish. At first it didn't look like much:

Fish under rock at Opal Cliffs
2019-06-06
© Allison J. Gong

Hannah, the LiMPETS coordinator for Monterey and Santa Cruz Counties, recognized the fish right away and grabbed it by the body. She held it up so we could see the ventral surface.

Plainfin midshipman (Porichthys notatus) at Opal Cliffs
2019-06-06
© Allison J. Gong

This is a plainfin midshipman. These are nearshore fish found in the Eastern Pacific from Alaska to southern Baja. Clearly, I need to spend more time flipping over big rocks! The midshipman is a noctural fish, resting in the sand during the day and venturing out to feed at night. Like many nocturnal animals, it is bioluminescent--those white dots on the fish's belly in the photo above are photophores. Midshipmen are heavily decorated with photophores all over the body. This bioluminescence is used both for predator avoidance and mate choice.

The lives of plainfin midshipmen and human beings intersect in the wee hours of the morning. During breeding season these fish sing or grunt. They breed in intertidal areas, where females lay eggs in nests that are subsequently guarded by males. Both sexes make noise, but it's the breeding males that are the noisiest. They grunt and growl at each other when fighting for territory, but hum when courting females. Females typically grunt only when in conflict with others. People who live in houseboats on the water in Sausalito have reported strange sounds emanating from the water beneath them, only to learn that what they hear are the love and fight songs of fish!

I've always been a fan of the intertidal fishes. They seem to have a lot of personality. Plus, any aquatic animal that lives where the water could dry up once or twice a day deserves my admiration. Of course, all of the invertebrates also fall into this category, which may explain why I find them so fascinating.

After we admired the midshipman's photophores and impressive teeth, we put it back in the sand and replaced the rock on top of it. It was probably happy to get back to snoozing away the next few hours before the tide returned. I don't know how I never realized the midshipmen were in the intertidal. I think I just assumed that they were in deeper water. Now that I know where to find them, I will spend more time flipping over rocks. And who knows, maybe I'll even find an octopus!

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