Portals of Discovery

by Sharon Pegany

Photos & video by John F. Williams except where noted
Image courtesy of Feiro Marine Life Center
Image courtesy of Feiro Marine Life Center

Portals of Discovery

By Sharon Pegany, Summer 2019

Photos &  video by John F. Williams except where noted

As spring gives way to summer, we are blessed with longer days of golden light and robust signs of new growth after a long, dark winter. It is a season of daytime low tides, when the Salish Sea folds down her foamy quilt a bit further to reveal a world brimming with life. As the tide recedes, pockets of isolated seawater are trapped by rock and sand, providing a place where plants and animals can hang out until an incoming tide blankets them once more. At those times, we earthlings are permitted to venture deeper into the alien world just below the frothy waves.

These small tide pools beckon beach goers to stop and search their depths for busy marine animals going about their daily business. A beguiling air of suspense urges us to return time and again to experience low tide because we never know what we might find. Shore-dwelling birds and animals seem to loiter at the water’s edge in hopes of a bountiful banquet. “Tide poolers” mark up their calendars with upcoming extreme daytime low tides as they eagerly await the chance to see the pockmarked seabed laid bare for a few hours. It is truly a time of unbridled curiosity and wonder.

Low tide: Why now?

High and low tides are the result of a celestial game of tug of war. The gravitational pull of the moon and sun literally tug on the waters of the deep, causing a rise and fall of ocean water across the globe. Depending on their positional relationship to the earth and in conjunction with the movements of the earth itself, the moon and the sun cause two high and two low tides every lunar day (24 hours and 50 minutes). When the sun, moon and earth align during either a new or full moon, a turbo boost of gravitational pull creates higher high tides and lower low tides, known as spring tides, because they “spring up,” not because it is spring.

The Salish Sea is an interconnected collection of bays, straits, sounds, bights, estuaries, rivers and fjords, as well as the freshwater streams and rivers that flow into them. Although highly dependent on each other, each environment is unique and provides a myriad of opportunities for explorers. Low tides occur every day, but periods of extreme daytime lows only happen a few times a year.

While thousands of online and print resources offer guidance, a good marine center environment excels at providing experiences and snippets of local information to prepare tide poolers for more meaningful adventures. The Salish Sea is rimmed with impressive marine centers, teeming with sea life as well as enthusiastic staff and volunteers ready to illuminate the mysterious world of the intertidal zone.

Bay Connection: SEA Discovery Center – Poulsbo, Washington

One such center can be found perched on the edge of Liberty Bay in the quaint town of Poulsbo, Washington. Started in the 1960s by the local community, Poulsbo’s marine center has changed ownership as well as locations. It is now called SEA Discovery Center and is operated by Western Washington University (WWU). Visitors to the center are invited to explore a large touch tank full of fascinating tide pool creatures from local waters while volunteers offer additional information and guidance in handling sea stars, cucumbers, anemones and many other marine animals.

Image courtesy of SEA Discovery Center

Like most marine centers on the Salish Sea, maintaining saltwater aquariums and interfacing with daily visitors are only a fraction of what happens at SEA Discovery each day. A significant part of their work is to act as advocates for the sea, watching for and responding to evidence of change. They attempt to ask and answer the hard questions that must ultimately lead to action, engaging entire communities in conservation and stewardship.

Image courtesy of SEA Discovery Center

For instance, the SEA Discovery Center provides school outreach programs, hosting between three and four thousand local students each school year. In a clever simulated “research vessel” on Liberty Bay, students are exposed to the wonder and mystery of the Salish Sea as well as the science of monitoring and advocating for its inhabitants. The center also regularly provides day camps for children of all ages and their families, as well as special events throughout the year.

People of all ages can see scientific instruments lowered into the water to view, hear, and measure what is below the research platform. Image courtesy of SEA Discovery Center

Students from WWU work and study at the center as part of their marine science training. The center also conducts its own research on various marine issues in conjunction with nearby marine centers or conservation groups. SEA Discovery Center recruits and trains collaborative teams of staff, college interns and volunteers for projects such as monitoring oyster, plankton and eelgrass populations in local waters. The center is a small but important node in the vast network of public and private organizations working to answer time-sensitive questions.

Estuary Connection: Nisqually Reach Nature Center – Olympia, Washington

At the southern end of the Salish Sea, the Nisqually Reach Nature Center offers similar opportunities, but focuses on the unique aquatic community known as a tidal bay estuary. Estuaries are fragile places bridging two vastly different worlds of land and sea. Here the freshwater of the Nisqually River mingles with the salt water of Puget Sound which presents intertidal inhabitants with a few extra challenges. For instance, as the salty ocean tide recedes, freshwater trickles across shallow pools, changing chemical makeup and influencing temperature among other things. In the Pacific Northwest, very few estuaries remain that have not been altered in some way by development. The Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1974, but serious restoration did not begin until 2009 when century-old dikes were removed. Seven hundred and sixty-two acres of delta were reconnected to Puget Sound, making it the largest estuary restoration project in the Pacific Northwest and a vital step in restoring the southern Salish Sea to health. The Nisqually Reach Nature Center is housed in an historic building that was once part of a hunting and fishing camp at Luhr Beach. It is the perfect location for the center to carry out its mission of promoting the understanding, appreciation, and conservation of the Nisqually Estuary through education, interpretation, and citizen science. Each year, over 3,000 local students participate in programs such as nearshore netting and surveys of  benthic (bottom dwelling) invertebrates. For these surveys,  marine creatures are collected, identified, measured, counted, and then released.

Click on any of the plus icons below to see more details
Discovery Passage Aquarium

621B Island Hwy

Campbell River, BC Canada


Feiro Marine Life Center

315 N. Lincoln St. Port Angeles, WA

At Port Angeles City Pier


Marine Life Center

Marine Life Center

1801 Roeder Ave #100

Bellingham, WA



MaST Center Aquarium

28203 Redondo Beach Dr. S

Des Moines, WA


Nicholas Sonntag Marine Education Centre

473 Gower Point Rd

Gibsons, BC Canada


Nisqually Reach Nature Center

4949 D Milluhr Rd NE

Olympia, WA 98516


Olympic Beach Visitor Center

200 Admiral Way

Edmonds, WA

At the base of the fishing pier


Padilla Bay Breazeale Interpretive Center

Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve
10441 Bayview-Edison Road
Mount Vernon, WA 98273-9668

Port Townsend Marine Science Center
532 Battery Way
Port Townsend, WA 98368
Puget Sound Estuarium

309 State Ave. NE

Olympia, WA


SEA Discovery Center

18743 Front St NE

Poulsbo, WA


Seattle Aquarium

1483 Alaskan Way – Pier 59

Seattle, WA


Shaw Ocean Discovery Centre

9811 Seaport Pl

Sidney, BC, Canada


Vancouver Aquarium

845 Avison Way

Vancouver, BC Canada


Strait Connection: Discovery Passage Aquarium – Campbell River, British Columbia

At the opposite end of the Salish Sea, on the eastern shore of Vancouver Island, lies the opening to Discovery Passage, widely known as the “salmon capital of the world.” Salmon are a keystone species vital to a healthy and varied ecosystem and are found in abundance in this section of the Strait of Georgia. The narrow channels that form the northernmost part of the Salish Sea are unique and sustain bountiful marine life, attracting curious visitors interested in experiencing this very special part of the region.

The east coast of Vancouver Island is popular due in part to unique stretches of broad sandy beach that appear at low tide. In some areas, as much as a kilometer of the ocean floor is exposed at low tide, making it perfect for playing and exploring before slow-moving water creeps back in over sun-heated sand. The resulting warm water feels almost tropical. Tidal life flourishes in these protected waters of the Strait of Georgia, making it a tide pooler’s paradise. Along the strait, some of the most popular Vancouver Island beaches to explore at low tide are Miracle Beach Provincial Park, Qualicum Beach and Rathtrevor Beach further south in Parksville.

Discovery Passage Aquarium in the town of Campbell River serves as an informational hub at the top of the Salish Sea. Operated by the non-profit Discovery Passage Aquarium Society, the three-pronged goal of the center is to increase knowledge, appreciation, and stewardship of natural resources and ecosystems in the region. Small, yet mighty, this aquarium opens every spring after handlers have carefully gathered specimens from local waters.

The aquarium also provides week-long day camps as well as a speaker series to keep the fire of marine health awareness alive and well in the community. Every fall, animals that have helped advance the mission are celebrated and gently returned to the places from whence they came (see Octopus Release video below). During the winter months, the aquarium operates Explorer Lab, a classroom facility featuring a closed system aquarium used to deliver marine related experiences to local school children and community members.

Photos courtesy of Discovery Passage Aquarium
Video courtesy of Discovery Passage Aquarium

Marine Stewardship

Marine centers across the Salish Sea are in the process of forming a Community Aquarium Collaborative, dedicated to the notion that each center is stronger when working closely with others. The group has adopted the octopus to symbolically represent their partnership. Octopus are about 90% muscle.

They have three hearts, copper-rich blue blood, and nine brains, including a small brain at the base of each of their eight arms.  These brainy bundles of nerves enable octopus arms to operate independently as well as under the direction of its central brain. The octopus is a perfect metaphor for the strength of the people who power our marine centers: multiple brave hearts, exceptional brain power, and lots of muscle to get the job done.


This is just a small image of a Google Map. Follow the Community Aquarium Collaborative link to see the interactive Google map and more details about the Collaborative.

Salish Sea marine centers enthusiastically welcome volunteers of all experience levels and are in the business of nurturing citizen scientists, helping individuals to find unique roles in caring for the sea. The only prerequisite is a tiny ember of interest that just might be fanned into a roaring fire of active involvement. Marine centers connect people with information, training and a multitude of projects happening in real time throughout the region. Best of all, marine centers connect people with others who share deep wonder and curiosity about the sea.

With summer 2019 already here, make this the year to explore the intertidal zone and the pools created during low tide. Whether you are a seasoned tide pooler or just starting out, remember to take advantage of the prodigious resources found at a nearby marine center. If you can’t get to one, check out their websites for local information and upcoming regional events. Many of the centers listed here are small and operate at no or low cost to visitors, making them perfect for repeat visits for younger children with short attention spans. Be sure to call or check marine center websites for detailed information as some centers have limited visiting hours.

No matter your age or experience, expect to be rewarded with new insights and connections when you enter one of our Salish Sea marine centers with a playful spirit of curiosity.

Sharon Pegany is an educator and citizen scientist who loves to indulge her insatiable curiosity for the natural world.  After teaching inside elementary classrooms for over 30 years, she now spends her days outside exploring, learning and encouraging others to wonder about sky, sea, and land through shared hikes, writing, photography and art.  Wander with her through the contrasting naturescapes of desert, ocean and forest at pacificwondertracker.com

Table of Contents, Issue #4, Summer 2019

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