Cruising Alaska: Tide Pooling in a Salty Parfait of Sea Life

As we enjoyed breakfast aboard our American Safari Cruise, our guide reminded us that with the beautiful full moon we enjoyed last night came a very low tide this morning. And in 15 minutes, the first skiff would head out for some tide pooling in Port Houghton. The little boy in me jumped into action, as I once loved nothing more than to lose myself in the wonders of a bay drained of water and entirely exposed at low tide. Every tide pool was both crisp and slimy, a salty wonderland. Every rock was some crunchy creature’s castle.

Tide pooling — life underfoot.

(All photos by Trish Feaster)

Landing with a dozen cruisers, our guide oriented us. I figured I’d wander off on my own. But he gave meaning to each discovery in a way I had never appreciated. He wielded a guidebook to the sea life (Audubon Society Nature Guide: Pacific Coast) like I would employ a guidebook to the Renaissance. Empty clamshells had a neat hole hammered by the beak of an oystercatcher. Chitons, considered one of the oldest life forms, clung to rocks as if part of the rocks themselves. An array of barnacles adapted to their environment so obviously that they inspired Charles Darwin to pursue his notion of evolution.

Standing alone in my mighty rubber boots, I just listened to the crunching, squirting, wilting, and tilting of the fertile compost pile of life all around me. With each step, I killed things… while convincing myself that they were heartless things that would kill me if they could.

Eagles soared overhead. Our guide said something about “obligate siblicide” among gulls, who had to kill their brothers and sisters to survive. I wondered, “Why? With this buffet of free and fresh seafood exposed with the falling tide twice a day, isn’t life pretty easy?”

After the ebbing tide reached its lowest point, it began its steady march back in. Watching a limpet go from high and dry to underwater a matter of minutes, I pondered the flexible toughness of these creatures — under the sun for half their lives, and then under the cold sea for the other…first the prey of grazing birds, then the prey of scary-looking crustaceans.

And surveying all this life — from that which the low tide never quite reached, to tide pools abundant with fanciful creatures; from the yellow lichen blanketing high rocks nourished only by sea spray, to birds overhead — I saw strata. It was a parfait of sea life.

A salty parfait of sea life.

Our ship’s dining room — 10 tables for the 60 of us, with the crinkled surface of the sea at about table level just outside the big windows on either side — was a place of conviviality, for feasting on seafood while still marveling at the majesty of Alaska. Sitting down for dinner, we left Port Houghton and were heading up Frederick Sound to Stephens Passage. Just before dessert, our captain suddenly slowed way down and turned 90 degrees starboard. On one side, the sun was dipping behind glacier-blanketed mountains in the distance. On the other side, a big full moon was rising over glacier-blanketed mountains in the distance.

After five days, I thought I had experienced all that a cruise through Southeast Alaska could offer: breaching whales, calving glaciers, bears dragging salmon out of waterfalls, kayaking among harbor seals in desolate inlets, and hikes through temperate rainforests. Now, with this meal, bookended by the sun and the moon, I thought, probably not. Southeast Alaska goes on and on.

Southeast Alaska goes on and on.