Beach Walkers illuminate tidal life at night

MUKILTEO — Under the stars at Lighthouse Park, Bernie Busch illuminated much more about the beach than the flashlights people were carrying.

Busch, 71, was one of the volunteer Washington State University Extension Beach Watchers helping lead an educational walk during a low tide in late February. It’s a passion he’s indulged since retiring 10 years ago from a career in social work.

“Now, who can tell me where the sea star’s eyes are?” Busch asked a group of children gathered around a tide pool. “I’ll give you a hint — they have five eyes.”

The fact that sea stars have eye buds, capable of seeing shapes and shadows, on the tips of their arms didn’t shock the elementary-school-aged kids as much as Busch’s next revelation.

Did you know, he said, that sea stars take their stomachs partway out of their bodies to feast on mussels and other critters?

“Ew! That’s kind of gross,” exclaimed one boy.

“Not by sea-star standards,” countered another.

That night’s walk was hosted by WSU’s Snohomish County Extension Beach Watchers, the county’s Marine Resources Committee and the city of Mukilteo.

Other beach walks have featured Edmonds’ waterfront and Snohomish County’s Kayak Point Regional Park south of Stanwood.

Despite his detailed descriptions of life in the tidal zone, Busch did not train in biology.

During his career in social work, he had a private practice in Richland focusing on adolescents and families.

“I decided I needed something different in retirement,” he said. “Instead of mental health, it’s Puget Sound health. I’m still dealing with educating and I’m still dealing with nurturing.”

WSU Extension provided him the opportunity. The university’s local Beach Watchers program trains volunteers to teach children and adults about the near shore.

Busch, like other participants, received 100 hours of training from scientists, teachers, regulators and other experts.

WSU’s local extension also provides a more condensed course for people interested in becoming beach naturalists. It offers 13 hours of training in exchange for a commitment to volunteer for at least 10 hours.

“You don’t have to be a scientist or any of these things to volunteer,” said Chrys Sacco Bertolotto, who coordinates the program. “That’s what the training provides is that baseline so everybody can be comfortable and accurate in what they share with the public.”

Beach Watchers started in Island County in 1989, and in Snohomish County in 2006. The naturalist component is newer. More than 100 people now participate locally as Beach Watchers and about 30 as beach naturalists, Bertolotto said.

Busch, a Mukilteo resident, also volunteers at the Seattle Aquarium one day a week and as a beach naturalist for the aquarium during the summer.

During February’s excursion in Mukilteo, on a fortuitously dry night, Busch seemed to have a running commentary for every tide pool and trickle of water.

Those tiny fish camouflaged against the sand and rocks? Tide-pool sculpins.

The prehistoric-looking armored mollusk? That would be a chiton.

The slippery green patch on a rock?

“It’s a mass of eggs from a worm,” Busch said. “In that jelly are thousands and thousands of worm eggs.”

An estimated 125 people showed up that night.

They included nine children from a Camp Fire group based in south Everett. They were learning about pollution in Puget Sound and working toward earning an emblem called Trail to Environment. Sandra Christiansen, a Camp Fire club leader, said it was the first outing of this kind for many of the youngsters.

“The most interesting part for children is getting to see what’s under the water,” Christiansen said. “It’s nice that it’s free and there’s a really good turnout.”

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, nhaglund@heraldnet.com.

Anyone interested in becoming a beach naturalist through WSU Snohomish County Extension can sign up for 13 hours of training. In exchange, trainees are asked to volunteer 10 hours this spring and summer teaching school children and visitors to local beaches. Short applications and background checks are required. There is a $10 fee for materials.

More info: visit www.beachwatchers.wsu.edu/snohomish or call Chrys Bertolotto at 425-357-6020 or chrys@wsu.edu.

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