If you are planning on hiking the North Coast Trail, you are probably a keen beachcomber. The 43-kilometer route hugs the northern coast of Vancouver Island, connecting Shushartie Bay to Nissen Bight. Over half of the trek is along the shoreline where you can be sure to see rocky headlands, lively tide pools, incredible sea stacks and Caribbean-esque white sand beaches with turquoise waters. These coastline features are also home to hundreds of thousands of animals and plants waiting to be discovered along the trail.
Here are a few common species of marine life to look for during your trip.
You are more likely to see a stranded Moon Jelly on the shore than floating in the water, unless you plan on snorkeling. Snorkeling is world-class in the area, and is worth another visit to the park as hauling around the gear can be a handful on the NCT. It is common to see the washed up transparent body of this species at low tide. They can be found anywhere along the expansive beaches of the park. Some grow to be quite large, although most we see have a diameter of around 10 centimeters. The Moon Jelly’s squishy, clear body and short trailing tentacles are interesting to look at if you stumble upon one.
You may also come across a much larger, orange tinged Jelly that sometimes is beached on the trail. This is the Lion’s Mane, the largest Jelly species in the world. Don’t be tempted to touch these guys; they can still excrete some toxins that cause rashes and irritation to human skin.
- Giant Green Anemone
The Giant Green Anemone is one of the species that you can find on the low-tide trails in the little pools that appear on boulders in the intertidal zone. There are several tide pools swarming with life on the low tide trail from Experiment Bight to Guise Bay that we mentioned in our last post.
This species of Anemone is easily recognizable by its beautiful emerald green tentacles that surround a deep green disc. It is a shy animal, and will pull in its tentacles to close its disc when touched lightly. It can live longer than 30 years in captivity and was used by First Nations peoples historically as a food source.
- Rockweed Seaweed
It is common to see Rockweed Seaweed washed up in deposits along the beach at low tide on many of the beaches along the North Coast Trail. In its natural habitat, you will find Rockweed Seaweed attached to rocks on either end of the beach in the mid to low intertidal zones. A hearty breed, it can withstand both freezing winters and sweltering summer temperatures.
The cool thing about this particular species of seaweed is that when you see the distinctive swollen yellow tips of its teeth-like blades, they contain its gametes for reproduction. So, when the tide goes out, the gametes are squeezed out of the pockets. Then, when the tide returns, sperm cells from the plant find these eggs and fertilize them. Pretty cool!
- Purple Sea Star
Finding a Purple Sea Star can be a bit of work, but is well worth the adventure. The creatures like to hang out in well-protected areas, squished underneath overhanging rocks or in small crevasses carved into the side of tide pools. They love anywhere that is protected from rough waves and swooping predators. Their beautiful ornate body protects a strange feeding system that allows the Sea Star to evert its stomach through its mouth, engulf its meal and then liquefy it outside of its body before ingesting the processed food!
By very delicately removing the Sea Star from the rocks, gently loosening its grips by rocking it back and forth (do not force it if it does not want to move- this can do serious damage), you can see the digestive system and juices in the middle of the bottom of the star.
The best place to look for Sea Stars is around Fisherman Bay and at the tide pools in Nissen Bight. We have also spotted several of these guys in the tide pools between Nels Bight and Guise Bay.
- Shore Crab
It is almost impossible to make it through the expansive sections of coastal walking without seeing a few of these guys! Many different species inhabit the coastline of Cape Scott Park, the most notable being the Purple Shore Crab, Dungeness Crab and Porcelain Crab. All three love to scurry along the distance between the high and low-tide lines at low tide, keeping close to the moving waterline.
You will pass many empty Dungeness Crab shells, most without any remaining legs, as you walk along the shores. When a crab outgrows its shell, it will emerge from the one it has outgrown, shedding the too small version on the beach for hikers to find. They bury themselves under the sand as they wait for their new shells to harden to avoid predators looking for an easy target.
The crabs are active carnivores, and feast on tens of different species including shrimp and small clams. You can tell the males from the females based on the marking on their underbelly. A female crab has a distinctive beehive etched on their belly, whereas the male crab has a more lighthouse shaped design.
Enjoy your trek and share your finds with us on Facebook! Happy travels this summer fellow hikers.