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Vertebrate Species in Tide Pools at Southern California Beaches

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California Sea Lions
Credit: Public domain.

Sea lions playing.

Tide pool exploration: Favorite beach activity

Many of the animals that can be seen in the tide pools and along the beaches in Southern California are also found in other locations around the world.  What is shared below are vertebrate animal species that I’m familiar with, as a lifelong California resident who has visited the beaches and explored the tide pools many hundreds of times.

Vertebrate species simply defined are animals that possess a backbone or spinal column, as in fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals.[1]  Invertebrate species on the other hand lack a backbone or spinal column, and include arthropods (insects, spiders, crabs, lobsters, etc), gastropods (snails and slugs), cephalopods (octopuses and squids, etc) and more. I’ve devoted a separate article to invertebrate species found in Southern California’s tide pool and beach areas.

What is listed below is what is most commonly seen, although some you may not see at all even after many visits and explorations. Some I’ve only rarely seen.  

There are many fun things to do at the beaches, although in my opinion nothing tops tide pool exploration and searching for the animals that reside there. Note that “tide pools” or “tidepools” are both correct – the word is spelled either way.[2]

I’ve written many articles about animals, and the science of zoology, here on InfoBarrel and also on my blog, and although my goal is to always write in a manner that anyone can understand, what I share below is less technical than how I typically write. This is because the intent here is to share information for travelers more than to be scientific. 

Some animals found in tide pools or at beaches are potentially dangerous, such as the moray eels discussed below. For more about tide pool exploration safety and swimming safety at beaches, see my article dedicated to the topic.

Garibaldi fish (adult and juvenile)
Credit: Wikimedia Commons - left photo by star5112, CC BY-SA 2.0 - right photo by Aquaimages, CC BY-SA 2.5.

Adult (left) and juvenile (right) garibaldi.


I usually see opaleye, which are a dark greyish or greenish color with a white spot on their backs.[4] Other times I’ve seen bright orange garibaldi, and other species.

Juvenile garibaldi are awesome. They are bright orange like the adults but with amazingly bright blue spots on them as well.[3]

Harbor Seal
Credit: Wikipedia photo by Andreas Trepte, CC BY-SA 2.5.

Harbor seal relaxing on a beach.

Harbor seals

Although they live along Southern California’s coasts,[5] I’ve only seen one ever, and it was at Two Harbors on Santa Catalina Island.

These seals are smaller than the sea lions discussed below, and they are generally round and fat in appearance, and a light grey with darker spots. They can also be brown or tan in color.[5]

Seals are carnivores and primarily eat fish, but sometimes will eat squids, crabs, seagulls, and other animals if they can catch them.[5]

They are known to always stay close to the coast, and they are shy and dislike being near humans.[5]

Leopard Shark
Credit: Wikimedia Commons photo by tomhilton, CC BY 2.0.

Leopard shark.

Leopard sharks

If you see a shark, perhaps two feet to four feet in length (typical size I’ve seen) with black splotches, know they’re not really dangerous. They are certainly beautiful, however.[6]

You still shouldn’t grab one or anything, since they are capable of biting. They don’t attack beachgoers though.[6]

Ordinarily they’re not in tide pools, but occasionally may be in a larger one. They often hang out near the rocks right at the edge of tide pool areas, sometimes visible if you look down into the water.

Moray Eel
Credit: Wikimedia Commons photo by P.Lindgren, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Green moray eel swimming out in the open. More commonly they're hiding amongst rocks, and only their heads are seen and not much more.[7]

Moray eels

Here’s an animal to avoid. These large green or greenish brown eels have sharp teeth and can do damage. Often just their head can be seen sticking out of rocks, although they can be longer than you overall. They eat octopuses, amongst other things.[7]

Divers who see them are encouraged to keep their hand closed into a fist, since the eels may take fingers thinking they’re being offered a snack.[7]

Once I saw a large quantity of squids washed up on a beach on Santa Catalina Island, and there were moray eels having a grand time eating them up. I’ve seen one in a tide pool only once.

Pterosaur-Pelican Comparison
Credit: Created by TanoCalvenoa on InfoBarrel.

Comparison of ancient pterosaurs, extinct as of 65.5 million years ago, and modern pelicans.


Those in Southern California are usually brown, although the larger white ones are sometimes seen. Even the brown ones are quite large.[8] With their long bills, they resemble pterosaurs as they fly low over the water, often in small groups.

They often stand on the rocks near the beach, and sometimes dive into the water to catch fish.[8] If a large group of fish shows up, you may see pelicans dive over and over into the water.

Occasionally dolphins, tuna, or sharks (sometimes two or all three of these will cooperate with one another) are offshore herding fish into a ball for ease of eating them, and pelicans and seagulls join in on the feast.[9]

These are my favorite ocean birds, much more majestic and fascinating than seagulls, discussed below, which eat trash and steal food from people.

Sea Lion
Credit: Wikipedia photo by David Corby, CC BY 2.5.

Sea lions are often called seals, although have some significant differences from seals.

Sea lions

All the time I hear people call them “seals,” which is technically incorrect. This large species is closely related to seals, and they can be found on the rocks and in the water near beaches and tide pool areas. They’re usually a dark brown color.[10]

They are known to follow surfers, snorkelers, and scuba divers around, and they’re well aware that humans don’t swim very well. They’ll swim around humans somewhat mockingly, being playful, even tugging on a diver’s fins.[10]

I’ve observed thousands of sea lions, and they are much more commonly seen than seals. They often play with one another and are very funny to watch. I’ve especially seen them near jetties, piers, buoys, and docks.

California Seagulls
Credit: Photo is from Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 2.5.

California gulls, one of dozens of seagull species found worldwide.[11]


These common birds, white and grey as adults, are annoying and steal food. Be aware of this if you bring any food to the beach. I’ve seen them fly off with other things besides food. Young seagulls are almost all grey.[11]

They’re actually very intelligent, and incredible fliers,[11] and also notorious for their droppings, which can land on people and their things and their cars in the parking lots. They’re not very afraid of people and will look for opportunities to grab things of yours and fly off with them.



Mar 21, 2015 8:24pm
We have seagulls here, but not as many in recent years. They aggressively steal food from ducks and other birds. They are definitely intelligent. A friend of mine was "blessed" with a seagull dropping (so far, I've been spared).

Sure would love to see a leopard shark someday.

Thumbs up, etc.
Mar 21, 2015 8:50pm
Although I live about 24 miles from the nearest beach (and there's a mountain range in the way), we get seagulls in the city of Corona, California - and they hang out around schools, amongst other places probably because of kids dropping food at lunchtime and then they clean up afterward. But they're also very, very notorious for "blessing" (funny word choice you used) many with their droppings. Enough so that when a flock takes off, everyone runs for cover.

Okay, funny story - to my knowledge I'm the only person who ever got the seagulls to leave Corona High School for about a month. They were all up on the gym, and I threw a red box drink up there from about 200 ft away, far enough away to see the sloped roof - and it exploded (I throw very hard, I was a baseball pitcher and outfielder). I'm assuming they thought one of their own was killed and that it was blood - the entire flock took off and left, whereas they would ordinarily fly around and land again in the same spot a few months later. And they didn't return for a month. I was treated like a hero.
Mar 21, 2015 8:51pm
Few "minutes" later.
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  1. "Vertebrate." Wikipedia. 20/03/2015 <Web >
  2. "Tide pool." Dictionary.com. 20/03/2015 <Web >
  3. "Garibaldi (fish)." Wikipedia. 20/03/2015 <Web >
  4. "Girella nigricans." Wikipedia. 20/03/2015 <Web >
  5. "Harbor seal." Wikipedia. 20/03/2015 <Web >
  6. "Leopard shark." Wikipedia. 20/03/2015 <Web >
  7. "Moray eel." Wikipedia. 20/03/2015 <Web >
  8. "Brown pelican." Wikipedia. 20/03/2015 <Web >
  9. "Bait ball." Wikipedia. 20/03/2015 <Web >
  10. "California sea lion." Wikipedia. 20/03/2015 <Web >
  11. "California gull." Wikipedia. 20/03/2015 <Web >

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