Tidepool Sculpin

Focus your attention long enough on a tidepool, and you're likely to see a Tidepool Sculpin suddenly dart past. Sculpins are big-headed fish with tapered bodies and large front fins. Of Puget Sound's many sculpin species, the Tidepool is among the smallest and most widespread. At its biggest, this fish is 3½ inches long.

Tidepools, depressions in rock that hold water when the tide is out, are home to many creatures. This is a challenging environment. Direct sun heats the water, and the returning tide suddenly cools it. Evaporation makes the pool saltier, and rain dilutes it. In these fast changing conditions Tidepool Sculpins do just fine.

Creatures living in tidepools are vulnerable to predators. The Tidepool Sculpin's color and pattern, mottled with brown, green, and black help it disappear into the background. And in twenty minutes, this little fish can change its appearance to closely match its immediate surroundings.

The sculpin is a predator, lying still, then suddenly darting out and opening its big mouth wide to gulp even smaller fish, shrimp, or crabs. When high tide reaches the sculpin's pool, it wanders away some distance looking for food. Then as the tide recedes, the sculpin returns to its home pool by smell.

Tidepools are homes to many plants and animals. They are fragile environments, easily damaged by people wading or reaching into them with bare hands whose oils can affect the water's chemistry. Treat a tidepool like an aquarium. Observe the creatures living their lives in this little world but don't join them!

Swimming Scallop

In the whole world there's a single two-shelled animal with eyes. Unlike clams and mussels, the Swimming Scallop can see. Just inside its shells are two rows of brilliant blue-green eyes, 30 or 40 of them. Scallops don't have brains to form images, but their eyes catch shadow and movement. Things that eat Scallops, like sea stars, crabs, and octopuses, can't sneak up so easily.

Detecting an enemy, the Swimming Scallop uses another trick clams and mussels don't have: it swims away! The Scallop lies with its shells slightly open. It draws in water, and gills remove oxygen and bits of food. Between the eyes little feelers sense what the water's bringing in. When the Scallop detects an enemy it suddenly claps shut. Water shoots out the front, jetting the Scallop backwards — or it squirts water from either side of its hinge and zooms forward to escape.

And the scallop has another adaptation for dealing with enemies. A crusty sponge grows on and covers its upper shell. A sea star touching this sponge doesn't detect the Scallop — and can't get a good grip anyway.

Puget Sound is full of amazing creatures. Like us, they depend on habitat meeting their needs and particularly on clean water. We can all help keep Puget Sound clean. Take your car to a carwash that filters the water you use. Landscape your yard with plants not needing fertilizers and pesticides, which end up in Puget Sound. There's lots you can do to make a difference.

Sunflower Star

While wandering a Puget Sound beach have you ever found a very large, orange sea star with not five arms but fifteen, twenty, or more? Do you know what that amazing animal was? Most likely — the giant Sunflower Star.

Sunflower Stars begin life with five arms, just as many other sea stars. But as they get older, Sunflower Stars grow many more. These are among the largest sea stars in the world and can be over 3 feet across. A big Sunflower Star can have 24 arms with 15,000 little tube feet beneath.

What do Sunflower Stars do with all these arms and tube feet? They move fast! They're probably the speediest sea stars in the world, racing up to 4 feet a minute along the sand and gravel hunting food.

Sunflower Stars are aggressive and will eat almost anything they can get their "arms" on. Sea urchins, clams, crabs, snails, sea cucumbers, even other sea stars are their prey. This star's quite flexible and can open wide to swallow its food whole.

Gulls and other birds sometimes attack Sunflower Stars on the beach. To protect themselves the stars release an arm — and later re-grow it. Sea stars can live a long time — 10 years or more for the Sunflower Star — time enough to grow those 24 arms.

You can help protect this amazing creature by not detaching it from rocks and damaging its arms or tube feet. The Sunflower Star is part of the fantastic diversity of life in Puget Sound which depends on clean water. Limiting use of chemicals around your home and yard will help Puget Sound's creatures survive.

Starry Flounder

This common fish lives in Puget Sound and along the Pacific Coast from Alaska to southern California. It's especially common in shallow water estuaries, the places where fresh meets salt water.

Starry Flounders are oval-shaped with a fan tail and fins striped orange and black. What makes this fish "starry" is the star-shaped, rough plates on its upper side. We say "upper" side because the flounder is a flat fish, spending its adult life on sandy and muddy bottoms with one side down and one side up. At birth, flounders look like typical fish with an eye on each side of the head. But as the flounder grows, one eye gradually moves to the other side of the head until it stops next to the other eye. Then the flounder can lie flat on the bottom, shivering its fins to cover itself with sand or mud except for eyes and mouth. It can move each eye independently of the other and can change color to match its background too.

Hidden from bigger fish that might eat it, the flounder lies camouflaged in wait for its prey. Little fish swim by overhead, and it lurches upward to grab them. At other times, the Starry Flounder swims along the bottom, nosing in the sand for worms, snails, and clams. When it happens upon crabs and shrimp, it eats them too. Flounder may not look sleek, but they're fast and effective predators.

Young Starry Flounders are one of many creatures that depend on healthy expanses of eelgrass. When you're boating or planning a waterfront project, be sure to follow regulations designed to protect eelgrass and all the creatures it shelters.

Six-Rayed Sea Star

Unlike other sea stars, the unusual Six-Rayed Sea Star has six, rather than five, broad arms. Living on rocky shores, it spends its life hiding beneath rocks and in crevices. The Six-Rayed Star's mottled green to brown or orange color blends into its surroundings. When mature at two years old, this creature is just four inches across.

The Six-Rayed Star feeds mostly in summer. It's a meat eater, preying on calorie-rich sea cucumbers, barnacles, mussels, limpets, snails and other small animals.

Another common name for the Six-Rayed is Brooding Sea Star. In winter, groups of these stars gather under rocks to spawn. Like other sea stars, this species has many tiny tube feet below its arms. The female attaches to a rock by the tips of these tube feet, forming a cup-shaped brooding area under the disk of her body. She lays golden-yellow eggs into this cup for the male to fertilize. For two months the female stays hunched in this brooding position without eating, moving only to clean and tend her eggs. Because she may hang upside down on tippy toes, holding her eggs, waves will sometimes dislodge her, washing the eggs out to sea. If she's successful in keeping her eggs until they hatch, the Brooding Sea Star will stay with the young a few more days. The miniature stars then become active and leave. The attention this creature gives her young is another of its unusual features.

While looking under beach rocks, be careful not to dislodge a brooding mother by accident. Carefully return stones just as you found them to protect the plants and animals living on and beneath.

Shield Limpet

The Shield Limpet is a common animal you can easily find around Puget Sound at low tide. Like snails, Limpets are gastropods though they look very different. Next time you visit the beach, look for tiny volcano-shapes attached to big rocks or among mussel beds. Viewed from above Shield Limpets are oval with a slightly off-center peak. Their color varies from white or gray to tan or brown. It's often good camouflage.

At a bit over 2 inches wide at most, Shield Limpets are small. They clamp tight to rock with a foot-like a suction cup. This seals in moisture when the tide uncovers them. As the tide returns, the Limpet begins to wander across the rock, scraping and eating algae. An important part of the Limpet's anatomy is key to this grazing — the radula ("rád-ū-lă"), a little strap with file-like teeth that rasps tiny plants and seaweeds. Eating its way across the rock, the Limpet leaves a curving trail and goes back to start before the tide recedes again. Look for these trails and see what this creature's been up to.

By returning to the same place again and again and rasping a bit each time, the Shield Limpet wears a depression. That slight indentation in the stone helps the Limpet get an even better seal and resist attacks by the many limpet-eaters: crabs, fish, sea stars, predatory snails, birds called "oystercatchers," and more. Youíll notice faded oval spots on rocks where Limpets used to be.

These creatures are important food for many other animals, so people shouldn't pry them off the rocks and injure them. Please just watch the Limpets and wonder at their unusual lives.

Sea Pen

One of the most graceful creatures on the sea floor, the Sea Pen resembles an old-fashioned feather pen emerging from the mud. Its colors range from pale to rich orange. Most Sea Pens live in deep water but on low tide days you may see them just beyond the water's edge. In aquariums, this beautiful marine animal always attracts attention.

Each Sea Pen is a colony of small animals, called polyps, working together for survival. Every polyp has eight tentacles and a job. The division of labor among the polyps is pretty cool. Some feed by using stinging cells to catch plankton; some reproduce; some force water in and out of canals to ventilate the colony. Larger Sea Pens, up to 18 inches long, have 40,000 or more polyps working together in this colony that looks to us like a single creature.

After hatching, a young Sea Pen larva swims around looking for a good muddy spot to settle. It becomes the "founder polyp". This polyp multiplies to form the Sea Pen's stalk. The lower half buries itself in mud; the upper half grows feathery branches. The feather shape helps the Sea Pen capture food efficiently while minimizing the drag caused by the turbulent water in which these animals live.

Sea stars and sea slugs, or nudibranchs (pronounced "noo-dĭ-branks"), prey on Sea Pens. When a predator disturbs one, the Sea Pen forces water out of the colony, allowing itself to shrink and retreat into its muddy foot.

Once plentiful in some areas around Puget Sound, Sea Pen populations have declined, affecting the food chain and maybe indicating an ecosystem in trouble.

Sea Gooseberry

The Sea Gooseberry is curious-looking creature. Fishermen often call it, "cat's eyes." Not a berry but an animal, the Sea Gooseberry is just a little over a half inch long, roundish, and transparent. Streaming behind it are two 6-inch tentacles. Watch near shore for large swarms of Sea Gooseberries in spring, summer and early autumn. Sometimes they wash up on beaches. Though often mistaken for small jellyfish these creatures are not related. The Sea Gooseberry is a Comb Jelly and biologically very different from jellyfish.

Instead of pulsating like a jellyfish, the Sea Gooseberry moves steadily through the water with 8 rows of tiny, beating hairs, or combs, running down the side of its body. These little hairs are shaped like paddles and beat rhythmically to propel the animal as it feeds. When a predator approaches, the combs reverse direction to paddle out of danger. Comb Jellies are not strong swimmers, and they drift on the current.

Comb Jellies and jellyfish feed very differently too. Jellyfish capture prey by stinging, but the Sea Gooseberry gets its food by dragging its two tentacles through the water. The tentacles have many sticky branches with glue cells that attach to any prey the creature touches. The tentacles then spin around to bring trapped food to the animal's mouth on the other side of its body. Sea Gooseberries are voracious carnivores, eating various types of tiny eggs and fish, small crustaceans — and sometimes each other.

During certain points in their life cycle Comb Jellies can be very sensitive to water quality. Changes in their population and health can be a tip-off to larger environmental problems.

Sand Lance

This skinny little fish burrows tail-first into the sand to anchor itself against strong tides and protect itself from predators at night. During the day, big schools of Sand Lance venture into open water. Sand Lance can grow 8 inches long. They mostly eat copepods, which are tiny crustaceans, some like little shrimp, that graze on even tinier floating plants.

Unlike herring and smelt, their similar cousins, Sand Lance stay mostly near the bottom and so don't need a swim bladder for floating higher. Their eyes can rotate independently like a gecko's or a flounder's, giving them an excellent view around and above.

Like smelt, Sand Lance spawn on sandy beaches. From about November first to mid-February they lay many tiny eggs, each about the size of a sand grain. A sticky coating attaches the eggs to sand making them almost invisible on the beach. Around Puget Sound this camouflage kept scientists from discovering Sand Lance eggs until 1989.

Along with herring and smelt, the Sand Lance is an especially important species in the category we call forage fish. It provides the Chinook salmon with its most favorite meal. The presence of these little fish in Puget Sound is crucial to the survival of salmon, other large fish, marine mammals, and sea birds.

Sand Lance depend on the right kind of beaches for spawning and on clean water, as do all marine creatures. If you own shoreline property, consider becoming a Shore Steward and learning what you can do to help Sand Lance survive and thrive. For information, go to shorestewards.org.

Sand Dollar

This close relative of sea urchins lives on sandy bottoms below the lowest tide. Sand Dollars are round like urchins but flat. Tiny gray or reddish purple spines cover them giving a velvety appearance. Dead Sand Dollars washed up on the beach are white because they've lost these spines.

The spines are very important to the Sand Dollar. As it lies on the bottom, bits of edible plants and animals fall onto the creature. The spines can move, and they relay food to the Sand Dollar's edge. Then other spines and tube feet on the bottom send the food along grooves to the animalís central mouth. Before the food is digested a special jaw chews it up, sometimes for 15 minutes.

Sand Dollars can move. With a wave-like motion of its spines, this flat animal slowly flows across the sand. Or it can burrow just beneath to escape enemies such as sea stars, crabs, and fish.

In rough or very calm water the Sand Dollar stays flat on the bottom and partly buried in the sand. But when there's moderate current, Sand Dollars stand on edge leaning with the flow. Then they can snag tiny animals and bits of seaweed floating past, holding them with tiny pincers and those handy spines.

Trawler nets and anchors dragged across the sand destroy Sand Dollars and other creatures at home on the sandy seafloor. Follow low impact practices when boating. And learn how your seafood has been caught. You can make a difference!

Rough Piddock

The Rough Piddock is a clam able to drill through rock. Look along the beach for clay or stone riddled with holes, and you may find the home of this unusual creature.

Rough Piddocks have shells up to 6 inches long, one half smooth and the other rough with ridges and points. A fleshy foot extending from the rough end sticks to rock like a sucker. Once in place, muscles in the piddock's foot and body slowly turn the rough shell against the clay or rock and grind away. Thirty slight turns take an hour and rotate the piddock a full circle. Then the creature changes direction and grinds the other way. Slowly, the piddock burrows in.

Rough Piddocks can live 8 years. They start burrowing right away and enlarge their burrow's diameter as they grow, effectively trapping themselves inside their rocky home. To obtain food and get rid of waste, this shellfish has a pair of long, fused tubes, called "siphons", extending from its smooth-shelled end. The siphon reaches up to the burrow's mouth and extends further to penetrate any sand covering it. A square yard of seafloor may have 50 colorful piddock siphons poking above its surface taking in minute plants and animals while ejecting waste from the creatures burrowed in below.

When the piddock dies, its burrow is a ready home for small crabs, worms, and snails. All these creatures and the amazing piddock too depend on clean water to thrive. You can help them by doing things to prevent polluted run-off; for example, dispose properly of used motor oil, avoid spreading chemicals around your yard, and dispose of pet waste in the trash.

Rough Keyhole Limpet

The Rough Keyhole Limpet lives low on rocky beaches around Puget Sound. Shaped like a tiny volcano, the Limpet shell is 2 to 3 inches long and ridged with a hole in the center. The keyhole, used to eject water and waste, separates this limpet from the so-called "true" limpets, which look similar but whose biology is quite different.

This hat-shaped critter is in the class of creatures called "Gastropods," which includes land snails and slugs. Limpets travel on a muscular foot and have a tongue-like "radula" studded with many tiny teeth. With this radula, they graze algae and colonial animals such as bryozoans and crust-like sponges. As the Limpet's front teeth wear out, back ones move up to replace them.

Almost all Keyhole Limpets have a tiny scale worm hidden between their foot and a fleshy body part called the "mantle." From this snug home, the worm feeds on left-overs and helps the limpet by nipping the feet of attacking sea stars.

Be careful as you walk along the intertidal zone on low tide days. To hold in the moisture they need to breathe, Limpets hunker down tight on rocks when the tide is out. Knocking them from their spot will cause them harm.


Wherever there are rocks or pilings along the shore, you can find bunches of this greenish to yellowish brown seaweed. Especially in spring and summer its lush growth covers large areas.

In her book The Edge of the Sea Rachel Carson called these dense rockweed mats, "a fantastic jungle, mad in a Lewis Carroll sort of way" because of how they collapse in a messy heap when the tide goes out. When it returns, little inflated bladders at the tips of the rockweed blades float the seaweed up again. In that position, the blades are efficient about photosynthesis, just like plants on land. Even collapsed in a heap, rockweed plays an important role. Rachel Carson described collapsed rockweed as, "holding the wetness of the sea, and nothing under [its] protective cover ever dries out." Many marine creatures living on or under rockweed survive beneath this moist cover until the tide returns.

Rockweed itself has a terrific ability to endure being alternately covered by salt water and then uncovered and exposed to drying summer sun or freezing winter temperatures. Substances in its cell walls help keep moisture in and also make this seaweed's blades strong and flexible.

Each rockweed plant holds tight to its rock with a thick button at the base of its stem. Strong waves can't tear it free, but trampling by people will damage the blades — and all the creatures living on and under the rockweed. This seaweed is slippery too, so please avoid stepping on it when you explore the beach.


In Puget Sound there are 36 different Rockfish species, and worldwide there are 100 different types of this creature that is popular with fishermen. Each type has its own shape, size, and color. What Rockfish have in common is big heads with large eyes, broad down-turned mouths, and bony plates covering the head and body. They also sport mildly poisonous spines whose sting causes swelling, burning pain and fever.

As you might expect, Rockfish usually live near rocks, in various habitats and depths down to 9,000 feet. An air bladder helps them float by adjusting the fish's weight, keeping it from rising or sinking too much and being injured by changing pressure. When fishermen catch Rockfish in deep water and reel them to the surface too quickly the fish can't equalize their air bladder pressure and die. There's no catch-and-release with Rockfish.

These creatures grow slowly and live long. In fact, the Rough-eye Rockfish, whose life can exceed 200 years, may be the longest-lived fish on earth. Female Rockfish give birth to live young the size of eye lashes. They don't reach maturity until they're 20, which makes them vulnerable to overfishing. Another problem Rockfish face is that many are homebodies spending their entire long lives in a small area. It takes many decades for Rockfish to re-colonize good habitat once they're fished out.

Fishing pressure, both commercial and for sport, and habitat loss have caused rockfish populations to plummet. Some have declined 98%, and species such as the Yellow-eye Rockfish are federally listed as threatened with extinction. You can help Rockfish by protecting their habitat, carefully following fishing regulations, and choosing seafood wisely.

River Otter

The River Otter is a mammal you might be surprised to spot in salt water. From its name, you'd expect to see this weasel family member only in rivers, but it's at home in salt water too. Along Washington's ocean coast there's the much larger Sea Otter, but the River Otter's the one to look for around Puget Sound, where it occurs in many places.

Including the long tail that propels it through the water, the River Otter grows to 4 feet and over 30 pounds. With a streamlined shape, nostrils that close underwater, and sensitive whiskers for feeling its way and catching prey in murky water, River Otters are perfectly adapted for the life they lead.

This otter dens in driftwood piles, boulder crevices, or among tree roots. It readily makes itself at home under beachfront buildings too. The den is where the young are born and rest for the few hours each day they're not out hunting and playing.

On the otter's menu, fish are the most important item, and they'll dive 60 feet deep to catch them. They like crabs too and eat mussels, shrimp, and even young seabirds when they have the chance.

River Otters were once common across most of the United States. They still are in Washington, but many other states are making great efforts to restore them after trapping and habitat loss took a toll. In Puget Sound, shoreline development and water pollution threaten these creatures we so enjoy seeing in the wild. You can help River Otters by keeping shorelines natural and avoiding sending chemicals to the Sound when you change your oil, maintain your yard, or wash your car.

Information on this Trail Tales website was prepared under funding from the Washington State Department of Ecology’s Public Participation Grant Program. While the information was reviewed for grant consistency and accuracy of project references, this does not necessarily constitute endorsement by the Department.

Learn more about Ecology’s Anacortes Baywide Cleanup

Photo credits: Anacortes History Museum, Washington state Dept. of Ecology, Samish Indian Nation and others, as noted. Illustrations by Linda Feltner.