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Botanical Beach dazzles with marine jewels

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Imagine a treasure chest that makes Tiffany or Cartier look like also rans. One of the world’s premier jewel boxes is on open display at Juan de Fuca Park’s Botanical Beach, a two-hour drive northwest of downtown Victoria. But there’s a catch: viewing hours vary with the tides. In the beach’s case, the lower the better. Only then can you venture into the heart of the vault.

Sandstone and basalt shelves skirt out from thickly-forested ridges. High above the gravelled beach’s foreshore, every inch of soil erupts with life. Greenery dominates the skyline and overflows from ridges onto sheer, bare walls of shale and quartz, a conglomerate of the West Coast’s geological history built up over the past 100 million years or so.

Life is displayed on a dazzling scale. All this before even stepping out onto flat runways grassy with green growth and stippled in places with hummocks of black granite. If you timed it right, you’ll be staring bug-eyed into jewel boxes carved into the shelves by the spinning of rocks loosened within the sandstone and rounded by the swirling motion of the tides. Colonies of Blue and California mussel shells appear to have been stuffed into the pockmarked rock face like snails in escargot shells. Starbursts of purple sea urchins and wreathes of giant green anemones necklace the sides of the tide pools.

Pull out a guide to seashore marine life from your pack and do some sleuthing into the more delicate, though no less resplendent creatures, such as chitons, whose backs are plated like tortoise shells and whose undersides are as nacrescent as mother-of-pearl.

Whatever you do, look but don’t touch. Pretend the surface of the clear seawater is glass plating on these extraordinary showcases. That will make Don McLaren, area supervisor with B.C. Parks’ Goldstream and Juan de Fuca district, a happy man indeed. McLaren spoke with Pique about the challenges of managing Botanical Beach, which became a protected area in 1985 but which has been an area of keen scientific study since the early 1900s.

“There are other tide pools on the coast,” he said, “but because of its easy accessibility, Botanical Beach has become a world-renowned focus point. We’ve heard comments regarding resources disappearing but the studies are inconclusive on missing specimens. Any changes may be the result of species migration or die off.”

McLaren mentioned a recent discussion he had with a University of Washington professor who offered her professional opinion that not much or any change has occurred during her long-term study of the beach environment. “The area is naturally protected by the elements. Over the winter, plankton and organisms return to places where people have worn trails and the beach repairs itself. However, what people consider low impact is not always so,” he cautioned. “There are three things visitors should know: turning over rocks disturbs habitat; sea shells, such as dogwinkles and whelks, need to stay where they are as shelter for hermit crabs; and plunging your hands into the tide pools, especially if you’re wearing sun screen, may contaminate them with oils.”

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