Abnormally Low Tides Shrink Puget Sound

Steve Berglund stood amid the barnacled nubs that sprouted from Alki Beach and ran his thumb across a 1893 dime, worn smooth from the scrub-and-rinse cycle of Elliott Bay.

Between 1907 and 1913, the piling lifted Luna Park, Seattle's Coney Island, from the waters of Puget Sound.

The decaying wooden beams are all that's left of the amusement park - burned by an arsonist in 1931 - and they only come out when the tide is abnormally low.

In fact, yesterday afternoon's tide was minus 4 feet, the lowest level in four years. At 12:54 this afternoon, the tide will be almost as low at minus 3.8 feet and almost as revealing.

That means more opportunities - for sea gulls to munch on fresh seaweed, for clam diggers to unearth a new crop and for scavengers like Berglund to pocket dimes that probably rolled off the dock decades ago.

When the surf withdrew yesterday, it exposed black sand and moon snails, starfish and horse clams squirting water, and the natural clutter usually swept below the water's surface.

The abnormally low tide is caused by a number of astronomical forces, said Hal Mofjeld, oceanographer with the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory of NOAA. The moon is at its at its most northern point and is closer than usual to the Earth, said Mofjeld. Also, the moon, sun and Earth are in alignment, causing a further tug on the ocean.

The lowest tide ever recorded in Seattle was minus 4.87 feet in

January 1916 and June 1951. The highest was 14.63 feet in December 1977 and January 1983.

A tremendous volume of water - estimated at a cubic nautical mile - must drain from Puget Sound to create such low tides.

That's enough to fill Lake Washington almost three times. It must squeeze through such narrow gaps as the Tacoma Narrows and Deception Pass, causing the strong currents there.

If you're looking for good beaches to view the sea creatures or just roam, the Seattle Aquarium recommends beaches at Lincoln Park, Me-Kwa-Mooks Park (Beach Drive Southwest at Southwest Oregon Street), the south side of Alki Beach, and Golden Gardens, Carkeek and Edmonds Beach parks.

Roland Anderson, Puget Sound biologist for the aquarium, said the low tide offers a fairly rare view of creatures such as sea pens, carrotlike animals that bury their lower portion in sand while snaring food from the water, sea cucumbers and moon snails.

But Anderson urges people to be sensitive to the world they are entering. ``Touch gently; these are living creatures,'' said Anderson. ``If you turn over a rock, put it back because there is life below it and on top that depends on it.''

Three men in their early 20s had scoured the tide pools at Alki yesterday. One left with a stack of starfish he said would serve as decoration in his new Alki Beach apartment.

``Not a good idea,'' said Anderson. ``They'll die, rot, stink and he'll just have to throw them away.''