Moss Beach – low tide, high visibility

Moss Beach marvels, clockwise from upper left: a purple-colored ochre star lounges in a tide pool; a visitor follows a squadron of pelicans above Seal Cove; giant green anemones flaunt their tentacles; and stalked barnacles cling to a rock face.

Sun and moon tug on our ocean and its waters recede. Earth twirls on its axis and the blue sky dissolves to black. These eternal rhythms do more than inspire awe – they unmask marvels. When the sun sets, we see stars. When the tide rolls out, we see starfish.

And we see them in full glory at the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve in Moss Beach. When winter rains make a mudfest of conventional hiking trails, what better venue for an adventure than a sandy beach?

The organisms that roam the coast are as bizarre as the monsters of sci-fi. The hermit crab wears a snail shell like an oversized turban while scavenging for decayed plant and animal matter. The starfish known as the sea bat feeds by projecting its stomach through its mouth into its victim’s shell opening, discharging digestive enzymes, sucking its liquefied prey like some ghastly slurpee and retracting its stomach back into its body.

South of San Francisco and north of Half Moon Bay, the Fitzgerald reserve’s 3-mile stretch of shoreline and rocky reefs displays an impressive quantity and diversity of marine life, from delicate coralline alga to giant green anemones, from stalked barnacles to gray whales. Bird lovers can trace the graceful glide of pelicans low over the sea or watch herons wade in the shallows looking for lunch while harbor seals cool their heels on the sand.

For the record, you’ll find scant moss at Moss Beach. In the late 1800s, a German immigrant named Jürgen Wienke bought the seaside property and, according to legend, dubbed an odd form of alga growing there “moss.” Wienke’s misnomer eventually spread to include the entire beach. The moss you will find here is well above the beach – delicate tendrils flowing from a throng of Monterey cypresses standing sentinel on the reserve’s tall bluffs. The Bluff Trail affords not only a bird’s-eye view of the beach; from it you can commandeer a vista both intimate and breathtaking. Sunset on the Pacific doesn’t get any finer.

Harbor seals enjoy a snooze on a blustery afternoon.

Head south on the cliff trail and in a few minutes you’ll pop out onto a street leading to the historic Moss Beach Distillery, founded in the rum-running Prohibition era. You can mosey over to a patio anchored on bluffs overlooking the ocean and, libation in hand, sit down to an excellent seafood dinner. The distillery even boasts a resident ghost, the Blue Lady, responsible for weird cameo appearances on premises.

To catch the optimal exposure of Fitzgerald’s reserve’s reefs and terraces, visit at low tide. Log on to The site gives you a detailed table of tides for a given date and time of day. You’ll find that this Saturday and Sunday, January 9 and 10, low tides in the afternoon will unveil the wonders beneath the water.

Surf’s down!