Science and nature on the coast: West coast, Alaska, Hawaii

By | June 13, 2017

Is there anything that says summer like a trip to the beach? When you think of the beach, though, you’re probably not imagining a generic place, but a particular landscape: rocky tide pools, sandy barrier islands, the warm bathtub of the Gulf of Mexico, or the dramatic cliffs and sea stacks of the Pacific coast. Luckily, you have many options for exploring the wildlife and geology of the US coastlines. This post covers the Pacific coast. Another post covers the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.

Eroded land form on Oregon coast.The west coast of the US is what’s called an active margin, where tectonic plates are meeting and interacting. As a result, the continental shelf is narrow, and the waves are vigorous. The ocean along the west coast is cooled by the California Current, which carries Alaskan water southward. It’s also cooled by upwelling, which brings colder water to the surface as the prevailing winds push water offshore. All of these things combine to form distinctive climate patterns, plant and animal habitats, and landforms, including sea arches and other beautifully sculpted rocks (like this one on an Oregon beach; the beauty is courtesy of erosion, and the photo is courtesy of Pixabay).

Let’s start with Hawaii and Alaska. The aquarium at Maui Ocean Center in Wailuku showcases the marine life of Hawaii and a large collection of live Pacific corals. You can go in-depth with a behind-the-scenes presentation or check out the daily presentations in a variety of marine habitats. There’s a shark dive for certified divers, and you can explore the dry-land plants and animals of Hawaii on the center’s grounds.

The Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward is a center for research and wildlife rescue and rehabilitation. It also houses a public aquarium and offers tours that will introduce visitors to the sea life and birds of this part of the Alaska coast. Each tour can accommodate a relatively small number of people, so it’s best to make a reservation.

Now we’ll head down the Pacific coast. The Coastal Interpretive Center in Ocean Shores, Washington, offers exhibits and educational events focusing on the natural history of the Washington coast, including the wildlife, geology, and human history of the place. The 2017 lecture series will begin in October.

The Humboldt Coastal Nature Center on Humboldt Bay (Arcata, California) is an educational facility managed by the Friends of the Dunes. It hosts exhibits and programs and also offers trails on which you can take guided or self-guided walks. If you’re interested, check out the Science and Nature page, which has information on the area’s ecology and history.

The Seymour Marine Discovery Center is essentially the educational component of a marine laboratory at UC Santa Cruz. With a blue whale skeleton out front, an aquarium inside, and landscape restoration underway, the center provides a broad view of the marine life, plant life, and wildlife of the coastal bluffs in this part of California. There are events and programs for students of all ages.

A visit to the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History in Pacific Grove, California, and the nearby Monterey Bay Aquarium would be a great way to learn about this beautiful part of the world. The museum bills itself as “your living field guide” and “one of the birdiest places in America”; it features indoor exhibits, a native plant garden, and monarch viewing (typically November to March). The web site has lots of information about how you can explore the geology, natural history, and human history of the central California coast. Many of the exhibits in the aquarium focus on various habitats on or near the bay.

The Palos Verdes Peninsula Land Conservancy manages the Palos Verdes Nature Preserve, a large area with 30 miles of hiking trails through various coastal landscapes ranging from sea level to an altitude of about 1400 feat in Ranchos Palos Verdes in California. White Point Preserve and Nature Center in San Pedro offers presentations and guided hikes in coastal habitat.

The Birch Aquarium at Scripps, like some of the other places I’ve mentioned, is the outreach component of a research center, in this case the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego. The aquarium offers a rich variety of activities and exhibits, including many that focus on very local sea life (for example, the Tide Pool Plaza) or Pacific sea life in general.

At the Living Coast Discovery Center (San Diego Bay at Chula Vista), you can learn about native wildlife, visit several different bird habitats, and check out the native plant gardens.  Walking trails take you from the center to the shore. The center offers various events, including summer camps.

You can see that a couple of these destinations are minimally guided. A great way to learn about any landscape is just to get out into it with a guidebook that will tell you about what you’re seeing. Check out the Science Vacations bookstore, which will point you toward useful guides for the US coastline.