Welcome to our Expert Travel Tips series, where we hope to give you a little taste of our expertise and whet your appetite for potential trips.
This week’s installment is from Danielle, a marine biologist. Danielle works for NOAA and does research on native oyster populations and habitat restauration procedures at the University of Washington in Seattle. Danielle is an avid scuba diver and has been passionate about aqua culture her entire life. As a native of Northern California and a current resident of the Pacific Northwest, she has a unique and knowledgable perspective on the bounty of America’s West Coast. We hope you enjoy her contribution to our blog, and we wish you safe and smooth, fun and informed travels. Take it away, Danielle!
If you’re like me, no vacation is complete unless you get to spend time by the water. From traversing Norwegian fjords to scuba diving in Monterey, CA, many of my favorite travel memories have come from experiencing the fun and excitement of aquatic activities. I’m lucky enough to live in Seattle, one of the great American maritime cities. Moving here has given me the opportunity to explore the West Coast between the San Francisco Bay Area and British Columbia, a region rich with beauty, adventure, and fun. The North Coast has something for everyone, but it is especially fun for a marine scientist like me. I have learned how to shuck oysters, gasped at the beauty of clifftop ocean views, and immersed myself in the incredible history of the Pacific Northwest. If you’re a science junkie or just curious about the links between the sand, the sea, and the city, read through for my thoughts on some of my favorite marine activities from California to Washington.
The Land-Sea Interface
Exploring the beaches of Northern California as a child was probably the first step that set me on the path to becoming a marine scientist. Though they might lack the palm trees and sugar-fine sand of more tropical locations, you would be hard-pressed to find a better region for beach combing and tide pooling. There is so much to learn from studying the narrow border between the land and the ocean. At Glass Beach in Fort Bragg, CA, observant beachgoers can find thousands of pieces of beach glass mixed in with the sand. While beautiful in its own right, the sea glass is the legacy of the old dump sites that used to line the coast. The clean-up effort left behind a unique coastal landscape covered with blue, green, and brown flecks of smooth glass. There is noticeably less glass than there used to be due to tourists taking mementos from the beach. A good rule of thumb for all beaches is to take nothing but trash and leave nothing except careful footprints. Not only will you be leaving fewer natural treasures for other people to enjoy, but you are removing essential pieces of the environment. The glass will eventually dissolve into smaller pieces of “sand”, which will help replenish the beach. Shells found in tidepools are future homes for the many hermit crabs that inhabit the rocky shore. A stray step could crush fragile invertebrates hidden among the rocks. Enjoy the beach, but remember that it is a vibrant and delicate ecosystem which deserves respect.
As you drive north along Highways 1 and 101, other beaches invite a range of activities for all interests. Cannon Beach near Astoria, Oregon offers breathtaking views and long walks for nature buffs, and an immersive experience for fans of The Goonies, Point Break, and Twilight, all of which were filmed there. The low tides in Coos Bay, Oregon, and Hood Canal on Puget Sound offer opportunities for clam diggers (provided you have a permit and the beach is open to the public). With all they have to offer, the beaches of the North Coast guarantee a good time for marine biologists and laypeople alike.
When my colleagues talk about what got them into marine science, many of them say their love of whales and dolphins sparked their interest. As a relatively new resident of the Pacific Northwest, I am now lucky enough to have opportunities to observe these beautiful and charismatic animals close to home. The orca pods which inhabit Puget Sound in the summer months are treasured icons of PNW culture and history. A ferry ride from Anacortes (just north of Seattle) to Friday Harbor in the San Juan Islands will give you a good chance to spot these beautiful cetaceans. Along the way, you may also pass pods of grey whales, humpback whales, and dolphins.
Further south, in Oregon and California, pinnipeds rule the rocky shore. If you want to combine wildlife viewing with dramatic scenery, check out the Sea Lion Caves near Florence, Oregon. What looks like a small roadside attraction is actually a privately-owned nature preserve. A long elevator ride will take you down to the cave itself, where you can view a large sea lion rookery. The barking and diving mammals, surrounded by pounding waves and echoing cave walls, will provide a cool glimpse of how they behave in their natural environment. The attached interpretive center provides good information for those who are interested in learning more about these amazing animals.
Active explorers in California should rent a kayak and take a paddle through Elkhorn Slough, a haven for the adorable and elusive sea otter. Once in danger of extinction, these mammals have made an extraordinary comeback along the North-Central California Coast. As you guide your kayak through the peaceful waterways of the slough, remember to keep your distance from the otters and harbor seals. Under the Marine Mammal Act, it is illegal to harass otters, seals, whales, and other marine mammals. This includes coming within 200 feet of these animals, so be vigilant as you observe the wildlife.
No trip along the coast is complete without enjoying the bounty of the sea. However, not all seafood is created (or sourced) equally, and it is prudent to do your research before you sit down for your meal. Sustainable seafood is a topic of great concern not only to me, but to fishermen, scientists, and policymakers throughout the country. The Seafood Watch program at the Monterey Bay Aquarium makes it easier for consumers to find out whether they are making good, sustainable choices at restaurants and aquariums. That being said, it never hurts to ask your server where they source their seafood. In cities like Monterey and Seattle, it is easy to find restaurants for any budget that pride themselves on local, sustainable seafood. However, be aware that it is expensive and difficult for a fishery to become certified sustainable through the MSC and other eco-labels, and a fisherman who is uncertified does not necessarily run an unsustainable operation.
Travelers in Tomales Bay, California, Coos Bay, Oregon, and Puget Sound, Washington, should take advantage of the incredible shellfish available in these regions. Diners who are wary of farmed seafood should let their guard down for oysters, mussels and clams, all of which are actually highly beneficial for the water bodies in which they are grown. As filter feeders, they improve the water quality around the tideflats and rafts where they are farmed. Adventurous types who want to gather their own clams and oysters should observe permit requirements and check online for beach closures, as gathering areas will close when dangerous levels of toxic algae or bacteria are found in the water. My personal favorite destination for oysters is the Hama Hama Oyster Company in Liliwaup, Washington. They serve and sell delicious oysters, clams, and geoducks year-round, and visitors in April can attend the Hama Hama Oysterama, a festival dedicated to celebrating shellfish and the history of oyster farming in Washington.
History and Industry
Humans have always been drawn to the sea for their livelihoods. The North Coast has a long history of supporting civilization, and marks of that history remain for tourists to enjoy today. Long before Europeans settled here, Native Americans used the productive coastlines for sustenance and trade. The Suquamish Museum in Suquamish, Washington provides an informative perspective on the canoe culture of the Salish tribes.
Seattle is one of the nation’s great port cities, and there are many attractions for those who wish to experience its history. The Ballard Locks, which recently celebrated 100 years, are a marvel of maritime engineering. I have spent many afternoons watching the water rise and fall as boats pass between Lake Union and Puget Sound. In the late summer and early fall, visitors can watch salmon swim up the fish ladder built into the locks as they return to freshwater to spawn. While the locks provide entertainment for visitors and utility for ships, they also represent a darker history of ecological destruction and Native disenfranchisement in Washington. The construction of the locks destroyed salmon runs which were essential to many local tribes, and the small number of salmon which enter the fish ladder are nothing compared to the huge runs which used to enter Lake Union along historic rivers and streams. The locks can still be appreciated for what they are, but visitors should inform themselves on the complex history surrounding many of the industries in Seattle.
One attraction which seamlessly incorporates the traditional and the modern is the Center for Wooden Boats in the South Lake Union neighborhood of Seattle. This small museum and boat shop works to preserve the tradition of wooden shipbuilding in the Pacific Northwest, including the traditional wooden canoes of Salish tribes. On Sunday afternoons, arrive early in the morning to sign up for a free ride on one of the Center’s beautifully restored wooden boats. The relaxing ride around Lake Union will include views of the adorable houseboat communities, the rusted pipes of Gas Works Park, and the comings-and-goings of the sea planes. This is one of my favorite places to bring visitors to the city.