In search of urban marine life

This week is Week of the Blue over at Urban Science Adventures. Though every day is happy ocean fun day here at the Oyster’s Garter, I thought I’d join DN’s party by writing a bit on how to have a Marine Urban Science Adventure! You don’t need to go on a big fancy tropical vacation to see tons of cool marine life – you just need to go to the ocean, any ocean.

This is biased towards the cities that I’ve spent the most time in – Boston, New York, San Francisco, and San Diego. Please feel free to add more urban marine life resources in the comments.

Fouling communities

San Diego Bay fouling community, photographed under the docks by yours truly

San Diego Bay fouling community, photographed under the docks by your intrepid blogger

Fouling communities are the critters that grow on artificial substrates, like pier pilings and dock floats. Every coastal city has fouling communities and they’re easy to find – just head on down to a marina and peek over the side of the dock. Mostly, what you’ll see are sessile filter-feeding invertebrates – that is, animals permanently stuck to a surface that make their living by sucking in water, eating the nubbly bits, and squirting it back out again. You’ll likely see mussels, tunicates, bryozoans, barnacles, sponges, worms, and the odd crab. Yank out a couple handfuls (don’t feel bad, they’re mostly non-native invasive species) and look at it under a microscope to see all kinds of cool tiny things, like amphipods and nudibranchs and medusa worms.

Salt marshes

Many coastal cities were built on natural harbors – which means they used to be part salt marsh. Little pocket marshes remain in most coastal cities and are great places to find wading birds, fiddler crabs, mud snails, and burrowing clams. In the Northeast, these tiny marshes are filled with adorable Arctic ducks visiting for the balmy New England winters. Bring boots because marsh mud is deep and squishy. Many cities have salt marsh-themed visitor centers. New York has one in Brooklyn, San Diego has two  – Tijuana Estuary and Chula Vista Nature Center – with all kinds of live critters and exhibits.


Because most coastal cities used to be muddy river estuaries or salt marshes, there isn’t much natural rocky coast. But there are breakwaters and armored shores, often with a rocky-bottom tidepool-like community living on them. If you don’t have real tidepools, climbing around on the riprap can be a good way to see anemones, sea stars, snails, and limpets. Urban mammals like raccoons also use the animals on the riprap as a food source. Here in San Diego, some breakwaters are also known for housing giant lobsters and fish. I saw the biggest female sheephead I’d ever seen in San Diego while diving on Zuneiga Point jetty at the mouth of San Diego Bay.

Floats and buoys

Your local pinnipeds – seals and sea lions – are often lounging about right in urban harbors. You can usually see them right from the shore. San Francisco has sea lions at Pier 39, San Diego has harbor seals and sea lions at La Jolla Cove, and Boston Harbor is inhabited by harbor seals and even occasionally visted by harp seals. On the West Coast, find them by listening for the Urk! Urk! Urk! of sea lions.


Unlike the other urban marine ecosystems, whale watching costs money. (Though dolphins & whale spouts can also be sighted from land in many places in California.)  But as a special treat it is definitely worth it. There’s whales and dolphins living right offshore of most coastal cities. Boston has fin whales, minke whales, and humpbacks hanging around Stellwagen Bank, New York & New Jersey have humpbacks and bottlenose dolphins off Long Island and Cape May, and the entire West Coast has dolphins out the wazoo and grey whales migrating past all winter. You usually get bonus seal & seabird sightings, too. If you know you get seasick, I highly recommend asking your doctor about the prescription scopolomine patch – over-the-counter drugs and those stupid wrist bands have never done anything for me, but the patch really works.

A note of caution

The ocean demands respect. Use common sense – don’t get stuck behind a sea wall with the tide coming in,  don’t climb around on riprap on rough, stormy days with big waves, and don’t harass sea lions since they’ll bite you and then you’ll get fined for getting close enough to get bitten.



8 Responses to In search of urban marine life

  1. Mark Powell says:

    Good stuff Miriam! Don’t forget to encourage people to get underwater too! I know it’s harder, and it takes more gear, but gear can be rented and the result is fantastic. See Swim Around Bainbridge for inspiration!

  2. pinguinus says:

    Neat post. But man, I’d hate to get bit by a sea lion. They are best appreciated from a distance (and downwind.)

  3. DNLee says:

    Hey this is great. I missed it last week. But this is good stuff. I needed to learn this myself!!! Thanks, that’s why you’re my blogging BFF.

  4. Between your vole armies and my tunicate hordes, together we shall conquer THE WORLD!!!!

  5. Garrett says:

    How did you take pictures under the water of the fouling communities?

  6. Garrett says:

    How did you take pictures under the water of the fouling communities? If you can answer this one …

  7. A camera in a waterproof underwater housing, like this one.

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