The Crescent City Chronicles: Or, Everything You Never Wanted To Know About Sea Stars

Crescent City, California, might not be a city of dreams, nor as glamorous as Hollywood. But I dreamed about it for years, specifically the Battery Point Lighthouse. And it’s certainly a great place to see stars – sea stars, that is.

When I was a kid, my family and I would often drive between Montana and the Sonoma Coast to visit my grandparents, and one common route took us through Crescent City via 101. And one very clear memory that has stuck with me is sitting on a staircase leading down from the bluff, looking at the lighthouse. It was a memory so strong that I once included it in a (terrible) short story about an invented road trip, because I told myself it was “Significant and Profound.”

So in August, 2021, while we were spending a month in Smith River to escape the smoke and Covid of Sacramento, I was excited to revisit to see if it really was as nice a spot as I remembered.

To avoid any unnecessary suspense: it is.

Low tide

When it’s low tide, you can walk out to the lighthouse over a narrow neck of beach. A cement road winds up the knob of rock to the lighthouse and the adjoining museum. But don’t linger too long, because at high tide, that neck of land you see in the picture? Filled with water. (On one of our visits to the beach at a higher tide, a disconcerted Japanese man in his early 20s was befuddled to find himself stranded on the lighthouse-side by the rising tide, and spent a good five minutes working up his courage before taking off his shoes and fording the newly-liquid channel. Fortunately, no sneaker waves showed up to ruin his day).

But low tide leaves excellent tide-pooling to either side of the path to the lighthouse, and because of that, P and I learned everything we never knew about sea stars.

P had been to this beach earlier in our stay on an outing with M, so she was eager to show it off to me, leading the way over damp boulders, where we found a network of vibrant, connected pools, where we got some great views of hermit crabs, snails, and sea stars like the beautiful specimen above, which I think is an ochre sea star.

Have you been tide-pooling? Not at an aquarium, but an actual tide-pool. It sometimes takes patience. Something that looks empty suddenly reveals fiddler crabs scurrying under rocks and tiny fish darting here and there beneath little puffs of sand. Others are rife with activity, hermit crabs going everywhere, attacking, overturning, and eating snails, with sea anemones ready to suck in and devour any wandering critter that fails to pay attention.

And then you have the Star Destroyer that is a sea star crawling over the rocks, eating anything it can. Sea stars have a very sci-fi/horror way of eating – they crawl over the top of something and extend their stomachs outside of their bodies to envelop and digest the prey.

Tide pools are metal, in other words. Check them out.

We learned a lot about sea stars in a very short time, thanks to observation. Or at least came up with a lot of questions to check out via Google. My first question was:

  1. Is it a starfish or a sea star? Yes.

I realized I wasn’t sure how to tell the difference between a starfish and a sea star, other than a vague impression that sea stars were somehow more spindly and fragile than starfish. As it turns out, there is no difference.

Starfish and sea stars are simply different names for the same creature, based on language and custom. And in fact, marine scientists will verbally slap you down if you call sea stars “starfish”, because they aren’t, in fact, fish.

Which makes sense. You don’t see too many fish re-growing a missing fin or tail.

2. Those suckers can move. Gradually.

Sea stars have hundreds of little tube-like feet on their arms that suck in water. Moving the water through the body can change the water pressure in the feet, allowing them to move.

I mean, this point is obvious in hindsight. They have to move to be able to eat. But other than knowing that sea stars probably don’t hire octopus friends to hurl them great distances like aquatic throwing stars, I couldn’t visualize how fast they could move. I pictured it as a time-lapse photography situation, where it would take hours to get anywhere.

And while they’re not exactly Usain Bolt, they don’t have to be. They just have to be faster than bits of coral, shellfish, sponge, algae, or other slow-moving tidal residents.

3. They don’t necessarily have to be faster than a shrinking tide.

As the water level starts rushing out, do sea stars have to follow to deeper water? A slow-mo retreat?

If that were so, this one below probably didn’t make it far enough (look carefully at the underside of the rock).

Low and semi-dry

As it turns out, while fresh air isn’t exactly the stuff of life for sea stars, some species, such as the ochre sea star, are adapted to life in the intertidal zone: able to tolerate 8 hours of air while the tide is out, and able to anchor themselves to rock or seaweed to avoid being tossed about by waves. In fact, in some cases, given shade or a blanket of moist algae, ochre sea stars can tolerate up to 50 hours of air.

5. Hug-Free (Intertidal Zones)

Sea stars are generally solitary, but in one of the tide pools on our trip, we saw two sea stars with arms interlocked. “Aw, how cute, they’re hugging,” was my initial thought (sadly didn’t get a photo).

But they were probably not hugging.

With no brains and an asexual reproduction system that is akin to that of fish, hugs would be meaningless. More likely they were ‘brawling’ for territory.

Or, in a darker possibility, one was trying to cover the other to consume it. Sea stars aren’t very picky as to diet.

So probably not a sea star version of Destination Wedding, the Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder rom-com for cynics and misanthropes.

6. One Of The Stars Of A Healthy Marine Ecosystem

As a vigorous, insatiable carnivore, a sea star has a critical role to play in maintaining a healthy balance of life in the sea. Without sea stars, things get out of whack.

For example, Northern California coasts have seen a heavy loss of sunflower sea stars due to the combined effects of a warming ocean and a sea star wasting disease. In turn, this loss of a key predator has caused a population explosion of purple sea urchins, with a resulting devastation of kelp, leading to additional problems with ocean warming. And, for the less-globally minded, problems for the commercial fishing industry, which depends on the more-profitable red sea urchins which have been devoured by the purple.

In other words, the loss of such a small creature, found in tide pools up and down the coast, has a ripple effect that goes on and on. And it highlights the need for more education, more action, and more urgency.

But that part, we didn’t discuss as much in the moment. For the moment, we were at the beach for a chance to study P studying tide pools, bending low, the sea breeze ruffling her hair, as she studied how sea stars moved with unbridled fascination. And for me, a response to that nagging memory of Crescent City, seeing it again through a father’s eyes watching a kid explore the ocean.

And that made it magic.

Although not as magic as being able to regrow body parts. Like sea stars can.

Published by dmhallett101

Husband, father, writer, reader, mostly in that order. Staying sane by pretending to be creative by playing with (WordPress) blocks.

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