tide pooling
Ecotourism,  Education,  Finance,  How-To's

15 Tips to Make Your Tide Pooling Trip Safe, Fun, and Affordable

When you’re looking for that aquarium experience—but without the swarms of strollers and the costly souvenirs—consider a tide pooling trip. Along the rocky intertidal zone, you may come across all sorts of bizarre critters, ranging from mussels and barnacles to seals and sea lions. You may even find an octopus. Or, maybe a bright purple sea star!

Since tide pooling is full of possibility and discovery, it’s a great activity for families. If your child wants to learn more about animals, the tide pools are a perfect place to start. Peering into a tide pool is, oftentimes, like peering into a miniature ocean. So, next time you want to engage in science—while also making it as fun and free as possible—go for a tide pooling trip.

Aside from being a fascinating and financially sound activity, tide pooling can be a great way to get outside, be active, and inspire others to care for the ocean.

At the end of the day, tide pooling is all about observation. Because observation is the foundation of science, observing the natural world will help you uncover a new perspective of the world and your place in it. Always keep your eyes peeled; you never know what you’ll find.

To make your next tide pooling trip as smooth and safe as possible, follow these tips.

tide pooling
Intertidal Zone | Photo by Kelsey Fleming

1. Pick just the right time for tide pooling.

To ensure your tide pooling trip starts off on the right foot, make sure you go when the tide is at its lowest. When the tide is low, there’s a better chance you’ll be able to spot reclusive creatures who normally stay hidden in the intertidal zone.

Some of the more secluded creatures include urchins, sea stars, octopuses, sea hares, and sea cucumbers. Spotting these creatures will require more diligence and timing. However, if you’re more interested in barnacles, mussels, and anemones, you can go tide pooling almost at any time.

Pro-Tip: Download the Surfline app. By keeping this app readily accessible on your phone, you can check the tides at any time and plan when to go tide pooling.

2. Bring some friends.

Besides being a good idea safety-wise, bringing your friends tide pooling can be an exciting, rewarding experience.

Firstly, it never hurts having a pair or two of extra eyes searching the tide pools. Chances are you’ll probably spot a few extra sea creatures you normally wouldn’t have.

More importantly, though, having friends around is just fun. Besides spending time together, you’ll be able to learn something new together. Every time I go tide pooling, I end up learning or noticing something new. Sharing tide pooling experiences and scientific discoveries with your friends can help you build a community of ocean lovers.

3. Wear a hat, sunscreen, and some waterproof shoes.

Believe me, it’s easy to get sunburned at the beach, especially when you’re hovering over a tide pool. To prevent this, please bring along a hat and some reef-friendly sunscreen by brands, like Sun Bum or Bare Republic.

If the dreaded sunburn ends up happening anyway, make sure you always have some aloe vera or coconut oil on hand. Since some of the worst burns happen at the beach, you’ll want to ease your suffering as much as possible.

Besides wearing comfortable clothes, you’ll want to wear some waterproof shoes. Tide pooling barefoot can be uncomfortable and dangerous at times. To prevent any unnecessary injuries from stepping on things, like sharp barnacles or rocks, you’ll likely want a pair of booties or waterproof tennis shoes.

tide pooling
Sea star on rocks | Photo by Kelsey Fleming

4. Don’t bring a bunch of stuff with you when you’re tide pooling.

Being responsible for a bunch of items can be annoying when you’re trying to focus on other things, like that fish who just zoomed by you.

Also, since tide pooling requires a bit of maneuvering around rocks and water, you’ll want to keep your hands free. Therefore, try to keep unnecessary items back at home or safely stored in your car (try not to put anything too valuable in your car.)

If you do need to bring a few personal items with you, consider using a small backpack or fanny pack.

5. HOWEVER, bringing along a field guide is always a good idea.

Exploring the tide pools can be an interactive learning experience. However, when you stumble across unfamiliar plants or animals, having a field guide will help you learn even more!

When I go tide pooling, I try to always bring my field guide with me. Personally, I use Pacific Intertidal Life: A Guide to Organisms of Rocky Reefs and Tide Pools of the Pacific Coast by Ron Russo and Pam Olhausen.

6. If you’d like memory keepsakes from your tide pooling trip, pack a camera.

Being at the beach is not only exciting and refreshing, but it’s also scenic, and, at times, breathtaking. To capture the special moments on your next tide pooling trip, bring along a camera.

To prevent your camera from falling in the water, attach any safety straps you can. If your camera is waterproof, even better! If you’re concerned about damaging your camera while traversing slippery rocks, purchasing a disposable waterproof camera can be useful.

tide pooling
Moon jelly and sea star in intertidal zone | Photo by Kelsey Fleming

7. Keep your phone in a waterproof pouch.

Phones have become a universal part of our lives. And, chances are you might want to bring your phone along with you. Even though I always recommend leaving phones at home while you’re tide pooling, if you must, stow your phone away in a waterproof pouch.

Using a waterproof pouch will prevent that frantic rush to find rice and will ease your phone anxieties. However, as the years go by, it seems more phones are becoming waterproof. So, I’d recommend doing a little research on your phone to see if it will survive a mistaken drop into the tide pool.

8. Do not disturb the tide pools.

Even though it might be tempting to move rocks around to get a better look, please refrain from rearranging the rocks. When you change up the tide pools, you may uproot an entire community of critters. To top it off, you could injure some of the sea life when you place a rock back down.

Imagine being cozy under your favorite rock, and a giant lifts up the only world you know. So, try to always be mindful of the creatures you’re visiting. Remember we are in their domain.

Lastly, always look before you step, and don’t feed any of the animals! Feeding marine animals people food will not only irritate their stomachs, but it may inadvertently aggravate animals, putting everyone in danger. For example, at countless beaches, I’ve witnessed people try to feed or touch sea lions. This almost always leads to risky encounters where people and animals could get injured.

9. If you plan to touch anything in the tide pools, only use 1 to 2 fingers.

Whether it be an anemone, urchin, or any other tide pool critter, be careful when touching these animals. I recommend only using 1 to 2 fingers if you do plan to touch anything.

Firstly, use light pressure. Your goal should be to keep this creature safe and comfortable. To do this, only pet in one direction with the lightest pressure you can.

And, do not stress any animal out more than you need to. If you’ve pet an anemone several times, explore another part of the tide pool, and give that anemone a rest. Repetitively interacting with the same animal may increase stress.

tide pooling
Anemone hidden in the rocks | Photo by Kelsey Fleming

10. Know which sea creatures are safe to touch in the tide pools.

Please, I plead with you, do not pet the fish. To protect themselves from unexpected cuts and scrapes, as well as illnesses, fish have a slimy mucus coating their scales. When you rub fish, you risk removing this mucus coating, damaging their scales, and making their day escaping predators a whole lot worse.

Some fish even have spines that could seriously hurt you. Therefore, if you wish to protect the ocean and its marine life, please do not touch the fish. They will thank you for it.

Rich with biodiversity, tide pools are also home to myriads of other sea creatures. While some creatures are safe to touch, some plants and animals require extra care. For example, you should only touch creatures, like the warty sea cucumber, briefly. With warty sea cucumbers, you risk stressing them to the point of evisceration—a self-defense method where they throw up their guts and scurry away.

For more information about what creatures are safe to touch, read over your handy field guide.

11. Consider checking out tide pools at night.

It’s amazing what impact a few hours can have. For instance, some tide pools really do come alive at night. Those reclusive creatures you had trouble seeing during the day, like lobsters and octopuses, may wait until the end of the day to make an appearance. 

Therefore, grab your tide pooling gear, including a flashlight, and give night tide pooling a try! For night tide pooling, I highly recommend bringing a friend or group of friends for safety and help in case you need it.

Pro-Tip: If you’re a snorkeler, look into night snorkeling. There’s nothing quite like it. Imagine floating in dark black water, stirring the water up, and then watching in disbelief as your surroundings light up with what looks like millions of stars. During some times of the year, heavy amounts of bioluminescent plankton will accumulate, making night snorkeling even more memorable and special. I highly recommend night snorkeling, so you can experience the surreal feeling of swimming in bioluminescence.

Ever seen a bioluminescent wave? If not, check out this video.

Giant Pacific Octopus roaming beach | Video by Kelsey Fleming

12. Do not take any marine life home with you.

For the health and longevity of your local tide pools, please do not take any marine life home with you. For instance, do not capture and take any seagrass, hermit crabs, or fish from the tide pools Even if you find a cool shell, there may be sea creatures hidden deep inside that shell. Therefore, please refrain from taking anything with you (except any trash you find).

Furthermore, read up on the tide pools you’re visiting. By law, you may be prohibited from taking anything. To ensure you’re protecting tide pools and abiding by the law, please do your research and keep the tide pools just as you found them.

13. Pick up after yourself, and please pick up at least one piece of trash.

After your tide pooling adventure, always pack up anything you might have brought with you. If you brought along any food, dispose of those wrappers, and please don’t leave anything behind.

To help your local beach be as pristine as possible, make it a habit to also pick up one piece of trash before you leave. I’ve been doing this for years, and it can be a great way to look out for your beach and your community.

However, you’ll always want to be conscientious about what trash you are picking up. For example, there could be freshly broken glass on the beach or germy things, like needles and diapers. Perhaps, bring a pair of gloves with you, and keep a small bag to put these dirty or dangerous pieces of trash. That way this trash doesn’t become burdensome while you’re tide pooling.

tide pooling
Jellies near shore | Photo by Kelsey Fleming

14. Research more tide pooling spots to visit.

After enjoying the thrills of tide pooling, look up other popular spots. Some tide pools may be hit or miss, so exploring other spots can open you up to more discoveries and experiences.

For a list of popular tide pools in the US, check out this resource.

Some popular spots around where I live—San Diego, CA—are Dike Rock near Scripps pier, Cabrillo National Monument off Point Loma, and Sunset Cliffs Natural Park in Ocean Beach.

15. Share your tide pooling experience with your friends and family.

Take cool pictures on your tide pooling trip? Consider sharing these on social media. Getting the word out there can inspire others to focus on ocean conservation and mitigate the harmful impacts they may have on the ocean.

Share what you learned, and see if you can get another group together to go tide pooling. The more experiences people create with the ocean, the better the chance people will take active steps to protect it.

tide pooling
Tide pooling area | Photo by Kelsey Fleming

Knowing all this tide pooling knowledge, where will you go?

If you live near a beach or are planning a trip somewhere along the coast, get out there and do some tide pooling! The world is your oyster.

When you’re on your next tide pooling trip, consider contributing to citizen science projects and research. To learn more about citizen science and ways of getting involved, check out this article.

Hi, I’m a San Diego-based blogger who's passionate about marine biology, finance, and science communication. Having recently graduated from UC San Diego with a bachelor's in marine biology, I am now working on a certificate in science communication. Over the years, I’ve worked in laboratory research and science outreach at aquariums, zoos, and environmental research centers. When I’m not writing, you can find me home brewing, tide pooling, skydiving, playing DnD, or hanging out with my two adopted guinea pigs. Reach out to me anytime, and follow Sand Dollar Wallet!


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