Guidelines for Gentle Beachcombing and Tide Pooling

With summer in full swing and millions of visitors taking refuge along the coast, tide pools and shoreline ecosystems can really take a beating. There are simple guidelines to follow, though, that can allow nature lovers to enjoy these fragile areas without creating too much impact.


Shells are important for keeping sand in place and are the raw material to create more as they’re crushed by waves and other forces. They provide food for birds and fish, and the scavenging and filtering performed by certain mollusks help cleanse waters. Laws vary from area to area. For example, the State of Florida has outlawed the collecting of live shells on the Sanibel and Captiva Islands, which also applies to sand dollars, starfish and sea urchins; while all shelling is prohibited in certain National Wildlife Refuges. Some places don’t allow collecting at all, some have limits on how many and what types of shells you can take. Contact the local office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to inquire about local seashell collecting rules.

Tide Pooling

The National Park Service provides these Tide Pooling Rules:

  • Many tidepool animals can be safely touched as long as it is done with great care and respect. A general guideline is to only touch animals as gently as you would your own eyeball. For example, anemones should not be poked and sea hares should not be squeezed.
  • As a general rule, organisms should only be picked up if this may be accomplished easily.
  • No organism attached to a surface should be removed by force, however slight. Many animals, such as limpets, chitons, barnacles, mussels, seastars, and urchins are attached directly to rocks (permanently or temporarily) and using force to remove them would be harmful to them.
  • Animals that are actively swimming or moving away from people, or that resist being handled, should not be pursued or picked up.
  • Animals such as lobsters or sea urchins, that are protecting themselves in crevices or under rocks should not be pulled free or picked up.
  • Organisms such as octopus that are fragile, easily stressed, or sensitive to light and air should not be handled.

When handling animals that are easy to pick up, such as hermit crabs, please observe the following guidelines:

  • Return organisms quickly to their original location and position. Handle them for short periods of time and return them to exactly where they were found. Very different environmental factors can exist between locations that are not far apart, and moving animals from where they are naturally found can expose them to harmful conditions.
  • Rather than passing an organism around a group, one person should handle it gently, briefly show it to others, and then return it promptly to where it was found.
  • An organism that was found in the water should only be handled in the water, rather than exposing it to air while handling it.
  • Organisms that appear to be in the “wrong” place (e.g., it appears that a person has moved it from the lower intertidal to the upper intertidal) should not be disturbed unless it is clear that it has been artificially moved. When in doubt, ask a Park Ranger or Volunteer. Many intertidal organisms, such as sea hares, have adapted to short periods of exposure to air and naturally wander into the upper intertidal, but appear to be suffering and drying out. Well-meaning people can move animals away from their natural habitat into deeper waters, with unknown consequences. Less commonly, sometimes an organism is found that has clearly been harassed and moved (e.g., a seastar rolled in a ball on the beach). In these cases, contact a Park Ranger or Volunteer who will transport the animal to typical habitat for that species.
  • Rocks should not be moved and should be left in their original location and orientation. Organisms living under the rocks have adapted to a certain environment, and rock-turning can harm them.
  • Nothing, especially rocks, should be thrown in any area of the park. Rocks can do great damage when they land in the water, and continue to do damage as they are tossed by wave action.

Visitors are encouraged to enjoy the tidepool inhabitants by observation as much as possible. The following should not be introduced into the tidepool area:

  • Containers, such as buckets or cups.
  • Scraping, probing, or prying instruments such as spatulas, trowels, knives, screwdrivers or sticks.
  • Collection of any natural item, including living and dead organisms, shells or rocks, is strictly prohibited in many areas.
Guidelines for Gentle Beachcombing and Tide Pooling
Summer hordes at the beaches and tide pools can be murder on fragile ecosystems.

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