Crystal Cove State Park features three miles of Pacific coastline, wooded canyons, open bluffs, and offshore waters designated as an underwater park.
Low tide brought an ideal time for a stroll south on the beach to expoolore the tide pools below the cliffs at Crystal Cove.
|Low tide reveals mussels clinging to the rocks|
Sea stars are getting increasingly hard to find in the area. Jayson Smith, a marine biologist from Cal Poly Pomona, who scours Crystal Cove’s shallow rocky intertidal zone for sea stars, finds the search is getting harder every week. In October of 2013, there were 191 sea stars at the reef just south of the historic cottages that line the state park’s cliffs. In March of this year, there were 11. An outbreak of sea star wasting syndrome has resulted in the demise of hundreds of thousands of starfish along the Pacific coastline ranging from Sitka, Alaska, to Mexico’s Coronado Islands. Scientists have been unable to pinpoint a cause for the massive die-off, which is the most extensive sea star wasting event on record, extending farther geographically and hitting more species of sea stars than any other occurrence. The disease started showing up in the summer of 2013 in Washington state, where sea stars began developing lesions, or white marks on their bodies. Once infected, sea stars lose their rigidity, start to discard their limbs and literally pull themselves apart in the course of a few hours. Piles of white ooze often mark the areas a sea star once inhabited.In the fall, the disease wiped out massive colonies in Northern California, and by February, Southern California had been hit just as hard.At the four locations regularly monitored in Orange County, total counts of sea stars went from 921 in the fall to 12 by April. But Smith is only looking for sea stars in the intertidal zones, meaning the shallow, rocky reef areas that are exposed during low tides, creating the tide pools and little oceanic dioramas that provide small snapshots of sea life. In deeper water of the subtidal zone, sea stars are reportedly no better off.
The dominant sea star in the area is the ochre star, known for its purple or orange coloration, five-limbed body and voracious appetite for mussels. Noticed as a “keystone” species that can determine the health of a marine environment, the ochre star has been one of the species most affected by the disease. With its disappearance, scientists are worried mussels could dominate the area’s tide pools, pushing out other marine species in the process.