Long-Armed Brittle Star

Search carefully beneath rocks at low tide, and you may find the Long-armed Brittle Star, a sea star relative. With five arms and a central disk, brittle stars look a lot like sea stars but differ in many ways.

Brittle stars are called "brittle" because their arms readily break off when handled roughly or attacked. Like sea stars, these creatures re-grow lost limbs. They also have tiny tube feet lining the undersides of their arms, but brittle stars don't use these tube feed to move. Instead, they position some arms ahead, others behind or to the side, and push and pull themselves quickly along. The Long-armed Brittle Star also moves by wriggling its snake-like arms. Its central disk or body is only a half inch across, but each arm can be more than 7 inches long.

The Brittle Star's tube feet give traction, absorb oxygen, and both sense food and pass it to the creature's mouth beneath its disk. Unlike sea stars, brittle stars can't project their stomachs outside to envelop food. The Long-armed Brittle Star buries itself in sand, the tube feet moving grains from beneath to atop the arms and disk, slowly sinking the animal from sight. Once buried, the star extends its snaky arms above the sand and snares bits of dead animals and plants passing in the current. Brittle stars in shallow water come out after dark and scavenge for food on the seafloor.

If you lift rocks at the beach to see what's beneath, be sure to replace them exactly as they were. Fragile creatures like the brittle star depend on the care you take.

Lion's Mane Jelly

In the Sherlock Holmes mystery "The Adventure of the Lion's Mane," the murder weapon is an impressive sea creature. Walking the beach each fall you often find colorful Lion's Mane jellies high and dry. DON'T TOUCH them! The Lion's Mane jelly has a very toxic sting even when stranded. Touch it and your skin will burn and blister.

Red-brown to yellow, 20 inches across with tentacles 7 feet long — this is the largest known jelly in the world. In colder waters its tentacles may grow to over 100 feet, longer than the Blue Whale!! Its name comes from the flowing, reddish tentacles, which in water look like the mane of a lion. Stingers filled with toxins line these tentacles and shoot like little harpoons to stun or kill the jelly's prey.

The Lion's Mane travels with the currents inside Puget Sound and along the outer coast. Although rarely seen south of the Oregon-California border its oceanic range overlaps with leatherback sea turtles, which eat these large jellies. Unfortunately, turtles can mistake floating plastic bags for jellies, which can be fatal. Always dispose of trash properly — never in the water.

Humpback Whale

Puget Sound is home to many animals, a stop-over for others. The Humpback Whale is one such visitor. Passing the Washington coast on their long migration, a few Humpbacks enter Puget Sound each year.

This acrobatic whale winters in the tropics, breeding and calving. It summers in cold, rich Alaskan waters feeding on small schooling fish and little shrimplike creatures called krill. Humpbacks use a variety of methods to capture large quantities of the small creatures they eat. Their most inventive technique is bubble netting. From below their prey, the whales blow bubbles through their blowholes making a curtain to corral the prey. Then with mouth open wide, the whale swims upward through the mass engulfing its meal.

Male Humpbacks are well known for their long, complex songs, created by forcing air through nasal cavities. Sung primarily in the tropics, each song is unique and changes yearly. Why Humpbacks sing remains a mystery.

Scientists recognize individual Humpback Whales by the distinctive markings on their flukes, or tail, which they raise high just before diving.

In our waters, these gentle giants are slowly recovering from years of whaling. But danger remains. Each year around the world, thousands of whales, porpoises, and dolphins die entangled in fishing nets.

Harlequin Duck

Puget Sound's rocky shores are home to one of the world's most spectacular ducks: the Harlequin. The male Harlequin is boldly patterned with purple, chestnut, black and white. Although this may seem a flashy costume, it provides good camouflage while the duck swims in foaming surf. Harlequin Ducks dive where waves break on rocks. The nail at the end of their strong bill pries loose shellfish such as limpets. Harlequins also eat snails and mussels and capture small crabs and shrimp.

In spring, instead of migrating north to breed, these ducks fly inland to mountain whitewater streams and rivers from the Cascades to the Rockies. There they dive among rapids catching aquatic insects and finding fish eggs. The female Harlequin, dull-colored to hide in shoreline vegetation, lays her eggs and raises the young along tributary streams. At summer's end, they rejoin the males at the coast, bobbing in the waves and resting on offshore rocks.

Next time you're along a rocky Puget Sound shore, watch for this beautiful bird that splits its life between mountains and sea.

Harbor Seal

Harbor Seals are very curious animals. With eyes just above water, they watch drifting boats and kayaks, giving boaters an unsettled feeling they are not alone. Just when you notice a seal's presence, it sinks with hardly a ripple, leaving you wondering. On land, seals are cautious and dive into the water if approached.

This well-known resident of the Pacific Northwest is the marine mammal you're most likely to see every season and in many places.

As a true seal, the Harbor Seal has ears but lacks the external ear flaps of sea lions. Streamlined bodies make them fast, efficient swimmers. On land, seals grip with claws on their front flippers and move like big caterpillars. Look for Harbor Seals "hauled out" at low tide on rocks, sand bars, and tide flats.

Harbor Seal pups are born in summer and an hour after birth can already swim. In the first few weeks of life, mom often leaves her pup high and dry while she searches for food, sometimes for more than a day. Harbor Seals eat fish, squid, crabs, and small octopi. At times well-meaning people remove pups, thinking they're abandoned. Leave seal pups alone and let mom retrieve them.

There are lots of Harbor Seals, but they do have their challenges. Each year many are tangled in fishing nets and drown. Though they are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, people sometimes kill seals thinking they compete with people for fish. The most important thing for Harbor Seals and all marine creatures is a clean marine environment. We can help them by keeping our own impacts to a minimum.

Harbor Porpoise

The shy Harbor Porpoise is a marine mammal, the smallest and most widespread of the family called cetaceans (pronounced "sě-tā-shŭns"). It can be found along ocean shores throughout the Northern Hemisphere. Although Harbor Porpoises are common and travel close to land, they're difficult to observe for long. Sightings are usually fleeting. Traveling singly or in small groups, these creatures avoid noisy boat traffic and rarely show much of themselves above water. Your best chance for spotting them is on a calm day from shore or a silent boat.

When watching for Harbor Porpoise look for a small triangular black fin projecting from a low, curved back. Adults are about 6 feet long with a small round head, dark back, gray sides and a white or speckled belly. One to three dark stripes run from jaw line to flipper. When a Harbor Porpoise breaks the surface, it makes a quick sneezing sound, giving it the nickname "puffing porpoise". This marine mammal often travels with a slow, rolling motion, sometimes making an arc-shaped leap when chasing its prey, usually schools of small fish. Because Harbor Porpoises are compact and streamlined they can travel at a good clip but rarely perform acrobatics.

Both male and female porpoises are full-grown at 3 to 4 years of age. Most females calf every year. Their lives are short — only 10 to 13 years.

The Harbor Porpoise was once very abundant throughout our coastal waters. Now populations are declining. Living close to shore, porpoises are in contact with human activities that increasingly threaten them. They are vulnerable to high levels of toxins, to tangling in fishing gear and drowning, and to illegal hunting.


The closer we look on the beach at low tide, the more life we see. Carefully lift a rock, and you may find a gunnel beneath. This fish resembles an eel and when out of water slithers like a snake. Among rocks, gunnels are dull green or brown. Around eel grass or sea weed, they're yellow or bright green.

What gunnels eat affects their color too. When the tide is in, they swim from beneath the rocks and feed on small shrimp-like animals, clams, and worms. They bite off the feathery feet that barnacles extend to capture their own food.

The gunnel you see under a rock may be curled around its white eggs, protecting them until they hatch. Gunnels and their eggs are vulnerable to oil spills or polluted runoff from inland sources.

It's always interesting to find creatures on the beach, but be careful to return each to its original spot. And please gently put rocks back just as you found them so that you don't leave creatures exposed.

Grunt Sculpin

Picture a three inch fish with a head over half its body length, a long snout, brownish stripes, orange fins, and little bristles all over. This is one cute and interesting little fish!

The Grunt Sculpin swims with its head much higher than its tail, but more often this guy walks or hops over rocks and seaweed. Two of its big fins have rays like fingers to make such un-fishy movement possible.

Grunt Sculpins are just the right size and shape to fit inside vacant giant barnacle shells. Backed in with snout sticking out, the Sculpin looks just like a barnacle closed up tight. And turned around with tail fin protruding, it mimics a barnacle filter feeding.

When ready to lay eggs, female Grunt Sculpins block males into barnacles or rock crevices to make sure the eggs get fertilized. Then either parent protects the eggs in the barnacle shell until they hatch.

No barnacles available? The Sculpin may use a discarded bottle or can instead. Venturing out of its borrowed shelter, the little fish feasts on tiny floating creatures and little crustaceans.

Why the name Grunt Sculpin? When alarmed or out of water Grunt Sculpins make the noise for which they're named. But please don't test this. Rather than alarming this fine little fish, let's help it survive. The Grunt Sculpin is part of the incredible diversity of life along the Pacific Coast and in Puget Sound. Everything you do to avoid chemical use around your home helps improve Puget Sound water quality and preserve this unusual fish's home. Maintaining your vehicle in good condition and limiting your driving helps too!

Great Blue Heron

The Great Blue Heron is a bird you might not usually associate with salt water. This four-foot tall, grayish blue and white bird stands in shallow ponds, marshes, and ditches on its long legs watching for fish, frogs, and other animals to eat. In summer, when Puget Sound's lowest tides are during the day, large groups of herons gather on mudflats to catch a meal. Where there's a shallow pool, Great Blue Herons can easily grab small fish or other creatures with quick thrusts of their long, pointy bills.

North America has other tall wading birds, but the Great Blue Heron is the most widespread. It has adapted to wetlands from Alaska to Florida and from the Atlantic to the Pacific Coast.

Around Puget Sound, places like Padilla ("Pa-dee-a") Bay teem with food for these stately birds. And that's why there are big heronries nearby, groups of large trees where herons build their stick nests in crowded groups. One small woodland may host hundreds of pairs. From their fragile-looking nests the herons, on wings spanning six feet, fly slowly out to the bays to catch fish, crabs, shrimp, and other food for themselves and their young. Returning to the nest, heron parents regurgitate a partly digested meal for each of their two or three chicks.

Clean water in saltwater bays supports the abundant life on which herons depend. You can help them by keeping pollutants from flowing into Puget Sound. Dispose of used motor oil properly. Wash your car at a commercial car wash that captures and filters waste water. And avoid using chemicals around your yard.

Gray Whale

Each year Gray Whales summer in cold Arctic seas and travel to warm Mexican waters for winter. In the far north they gorge on food, storing up fat for their 10,000 mile round-trip. During their southern stay the whales mate and give birth but eat very little. Puget Sound is a regular stop between March and June for one group of Grays on their way north who pause to snack on ghost shrimp.

Gray Whales can be almost 50 feet long and weigh 33 tons. Whitish patches of barnacles and lice mottle their gray skin. Migrating north, the whales swim close to shore, and you may see their narrow triangular head; short, wide flippers, and the bumps called "knuckles" lining the ridge of their backs.

Of all the world's whales, only the Gray is a bottom feeder, lying on its side with mouth open, expanding its throat plates as it scoops up sand and mud. Silt trails behind as the whale's tongue pushes water and sediment out through flexible bony plates called "baleen" that trap shrimp and other food. For some reason most Gray Whales lie on their right side as they scoop. At low tide look for big shallow pits where whales have fed.

Gray Whales were hunted almost to extinction, but they're slowly recovering their numbers. Now the danger for them is trash lying on the ocean floor waiting to be scooped up with the next mouthful of food, filling the whale without providing nutrition. Help protect Gray Whales — don't throw trash into the water.

Giant Pacific Octopus

The Giant Pacific Octopus is the largest of the world's 300 octopus species. This eight-armed relative of clams and snails lives in rocky crevices and caves along the West Coast. It's in Puget Sound too. Although there have been much bigger ones, a full-grown Giant Pacific Octopus spreads its arms 14 feet and may weigh 100 pounds.

Of all the world's creatures without backbones, octopuses are probably the smartest. They figure out mazes, unscrew jar lids to get food, and recognize human individuals. Because its parrot-like beak is the only hard part of an octopus' body, it can squeeze through small spaces to escape predators. If that's not enough, the octopus emits a cloud of ink that both hides it and interferes with its enemy's sense of smell.

When hungry, the Giant Pacific Octopus hunts crabs. With the almost 2,000 suction cups on its legs, the octopus grabs the crab, bites with its beak and injects a paralyzing chemical to start digesting the prey. If a predator happens along, the octopus instantly camouflages itself, changing color and skin texture to match its background.

It may seem strange for such a large animal, but the Giant Pacific Octopus lives a short life. Females lay as many as 100,000 tiny eggs, often attaching them to the ceiling of a watery cave. They care for them there, never eating, and die once the eggs hatch. Both females and males live 5 years or less.

With luck, you may see a young octopus in a tidepool or along a rocky shore. They can give a painful bite so don't touch. Just feel fortunate to spot one of the Pacific coast's most amazing creatures.

Frilled Dogwinkle

This predatory carnivorous snail eats almost anything, including its own egg-capsules. The Dogwinkle's main foods are acorn barnacles and mussels. It attacks its prey by scraping the shell with its radula, a specialized tongue lined with little teeth. Then the Dogwinkle uses its radula to drill a hole, releasing enzymes to soften its victim's shell, and finally it rasps the exposed flesh with its tongue.

The California mussel is not defenseless against this snail. The mussel makes a strong thread and attaches the snail to a rock. Unable to move, the snail starves.

The Dogwinkle prefers rocky habitat. In winter, large congregations of these snails come together to breed. Each female lays up to 1,000 eggs each year. At low tide you can see the clumps of yellow egg-capsules, called "sea oats," attached to the underside of rocks. The first snails to hatch eat the others.

These heavy-shelled, 3 inch snails vary a lot in shape and color. They can be frilled or smooth, white, gray, orange, yellow, brown, purple, or banded. Another common name for the Dogwinkle is the Winkled Purple. In Roman times this snail's shell was a source of purple dye for expensive clothing.

The Dogwinkle's major predators are the Mottled and Purple Sea Stars and the Red Rock Crab. The snail senses seawater that has passed over predatory crabs and moves away to escape.

Beachcombers enjoy collecting colorful shells, but even empty ones provide homes for hermit crabs and other animals. So instead, collect photographs of them and leave the shells in their marine environment to be used again.


Unlike worms in your garden, Flatworms are oval, are not divided into segments, and are usually very small. But if you gently look under rocks at low tide, you may spot one of the larger types. Often a Flatworm matches the rock's color and is so thin it resembles a film. Look for something less than an inch long and a half-inch wide and usually tan with darker markings.

Until nightfall, flatworms stay under rocks to avoid the sun. They can't see but have tiny spots on top or along the edge to detect and avoid light. They're quite simple inside too, with no blood or circulatory system, a simple brain, and just two nerves. The Flatworm's mouth is beneath its body about half-way between the ends. Food comes in and waste goes out this single opening.

To move, Flatworms secrete slime and flow along on it by waving tiny hairs that cover their bodies. Larger flatworms are predators, and some use this slime to glue prey in place. As the Flatworm glides along, it passes over and swallows animals much smaller than itself. To eat larger prey, alive or dead, the worm flows onto it and excretes chemicals to soften it up. Once the prey is semi-liquid, the Flatworm can move it into its mouth.

Feather Duster Worm

You can see the colorful plumes of the Feather Duster Worm in tidepools and on dock pilings. Puget Sound is home to many types of worms with a huge variety of life styles.

This particular one, the Feather Duster, lives in a dull white, leathery tube it makes and anchors tightly to pilings or rocks. These tubes are often in clusters that can be big enough to resemble shrubs. Other animals make their homes inside the clusters.

Feather duster tubes are tough and can withstand the impact of heavy waves, but these worms live in calm water too. At quiet times and when no predator is near, each worm extends feathery tentacles out the upper end of its tube, making it look like the feather dusters people used for housecleaning. These colorful tentacles, often banded green and maroon, catch passing bits of food from the water and take in oxygen too.

The tentacles are equipped with tiny spots very sensitive to changes in light. Watching a Feather Duster Worm in a tide pool, cast a shadow on it with your hand and in the blink of an eye, the worm will pull its tentacles down into that tough, leathery tube. You might be a predator! Wait a little while, and the tentacles will reappear as the worm goes back to feeding.

Feather Duster Worms are just one example of how well marine creatures are adapted to the challenging environment in which they live. When watching them and other tidepool animals, avoid putting your hands or feet into the pool so you don't disturb them. Sit at the edge and enjoy observing these miniature worlds.

Eelgrass Sea Slug

Puget Sound abounds in creatures both beautiful and superbly camouflaged. In places like Padilla Bay the waving strands of thin leaved, bright green eel grass hide many amazing creatures. One especially worth seeking out is the Eelgrass Sea Slug.

This little relative of the slugs in your garden is usually under two inches long. It spends its year of life on eelgrass blades wider than itself. Black lined white or yellow stripes decorate the Eelgrass Sea Slug's emerald green body — a vivid design but great for hiding on eel grass leaves. This fancy creature glides along the blades grazing algae and minute sponges growing there.

On their heads, sea slugs have 2 pairs of tentacles they use to smell and touch. Their eyes seem only able to distinguish light from dark — useful for an animal needing to stay well hidden from big predators and from the hot sun at low tide.

The slug's yellowish egg masses lying flat on eelgrass blades are difficult to find. Camouflaged even better than the animal itself, these well hidden eggs ensure the survival of this beautiful little inhabitant of Puget Sound.

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.