Collections Close-Up: In Touch with Touch Pools

A parent with two children leans over the intertidal touch pool at the museum.

Since long before Laura Hecox hauled her petticoats across the rocky and rich worlds of West Cliff’s tide pools, the natural wonders of Monterey Bay have captivated all who encounter them. Pounded by the mighty surf and subject to the extremities of the changing tides, the plants and animals of the intertidal zone are especially intriguing. Efforts to get closer to these and other creatures held within the depths of the ocean gave rise to the modern practice of holding marine life in aquariums. This month we explore our interactive side by examining a special form of this phenomenon: the museum’s touch pool.

Museum staff in 1977 stand around the then new touch pool exhibit.
First touch pool with Charles Prentiss, Nikki Silva and John Anderson

To the outpouring of public delight, what was then the Santa Cruz City Museum poured gallons upon gallons of seawater into our first touch pool in 1977. Curator Charles Prentiss designed this pool, which was built with the assistance of Museum friends and local companies. It consisted of a circular fiberglass tub, collared by redwood boards. An educational structure from the start, the edges of the pool were inscribed with labels describing the life teaming within. A particular fan favorite, featured often in local news articles, was any kind of sea star. 

A black and white image of a girl holding up a sea star from a 1977 Sentinel article.
Sentinel article, 1977

Early on, the Museum hosted classes on marine life in tidepools and the broader ocean, both at this interior pool and along the local coast. Touchpools have long offered direct and accessible engagement with seldom-seen creatures from another world. From the outset, gentle engagements with the animals have been a must, as the modern use of aquaria and touchpools emphasize their function as tools for the empathy and conservation of wildlife – an especially tricky task for animals that aren’t typically seen as charismatic as big cats and beautiful birds, like prickly urchins and slimy sea slugs.  

The Museum’s original touchpool was brought into being during a boom in local marine science and conservation construction. The Monterey Bay Aquarium Foundation formed in 1978, and successfully opened a world class aquarium showcasing the bay’s unique marine environment in 1984. UCSC’s Long Marine Lab was first opened in 1978, a research lab with early public facing components that ultimately developed into today’s incredible Seymour Marine Discovery Center

The initial boom in the popularity of aquaria was driven by a sense of wonder, though with a greater focus on rampant collection rather than empathy and conservation. The first burst of aquarium popularity was inspired in the 1850s by Englishman Phillip Henry Gosses’s books on aquarium construction, specimen collection, and observation. Packed with stunning illustrations and spell binding descriptions, the coastal collecting mania Gosse’s work inspired overtook middle class Victorian fern fever and bolstered support for the creation of large public aquariums. Long before the institutions above created their own aquaria, a fascination for the “natural aquariums” of Seabright led local residents to bring bathtubs to the beach and fill them with tide pool creatures in the late 1800s. In her Reminiscences of Seabright, Elizabeth Forbes notes that despite the community’s best caretaking efforts, the creatures were unhappy, and they were returned to the sea before too long.

Today’s Seabright touch pool depends upon special permits and CA Fish and Wildlife Department regulations for the collection, care, and use of specific marine plants and animals. Rebuilt in 2016, the current pool provides enhanced physical accessibility through the use of low-slung walls and clear sides, while portraying a more realistic sense of the tidepool with its rocky border aesthetic. Housed within the SC Naturalist Exhibit, the pool pays homage to the life of our foundational collector Laura Hecox, whose story of being an untrained female nature observer at the turn of the 20th century illustrates how anyone, regardless of formal credentials, can be a naturalist.

Former museum director Heather Moffat McCoy stands by the old tide pool exhibit in 2016 as she makes plans for designing a new one.
Heather Moffat McCoy, former director, makes plans for a new pool in 2016

In 2020, we’re still appreciating algae and asking naturalists how best to start tidepooling – but we’re doing so at safe distances or masked. In the same way, Covid19 has implications for the care of our living collections. In general, the pandemic has been difficult for zoos and aquariums whose obligations to care for their animals and plants do not get any cheaper even as they lose funding from admission prices. The lack of admissions also means that animals are becoming shy of human guests – losing a level of comfort that is important for the well-being of the animals and the success of the exhibit.  

While our living collections are small in scale compared to other institutions, they still take special consideration – like making sure we have lights on timers to extend the “daylight” our touch pool residents would have experienced during normal open hours. A return to open hours presents its own new problems – how might the delicate balance of water chemistry be changed by an influx of extra hand sanitizer?  

For more about the nuts and bolts of what it takes to keep our touch pool running, in both ordinary and extraordinary times, as well as the educational and ethical dimensions of working with these plants and animals in our upcoming event, Tidepools and Touch: Care for Living Collections.

The intertidal touch pool exhibit seen from above as it appears today.
The intertidal touch pool remodel in 2016

First Peoples of Santa Cruz | Lesson Intro

Note about terminology

While we know it is common to use the term Ohlone to describe the Indigenous people of the Santa Cruz area, these lessons use Awaswas (the language once spoken in what is now Santa Cruz County), Uypi (the name of the tribe that lived in what is now the City of Santa Cruz), and Amah Mutsun (the name of the tribal band that represents the Santa Cruz region today).

If you have been using Ohlone with your class, you can share that Ohlone is the name of the culture that these tribes belong to (culture is the way you live your life). Further explore the tribal distinctions along the Central Coast with this map.

This video is the introduction to our First Peoples of Santa Cruz digital lessons. Download the lessons by filling out the form on this page.

Naturalist Night: Santa Cruz Sandhills

The Santa Cruz Sandhills are a rare habitat in the Santa Cruz mountains that support a very specific niche of plants and animals. Many of our endemic species in the County are limited specifically to the Sandhills. Join us for an overview of this habitat’s geologic history, rare plants and animals, and the human impacts that have added to its scarcity. This is a great class for budding naturalists and those looking to revisit the basics.

We are excited to be joined this month by paleontologist, science teacher, and Sandhills-local Wayne Thompson who will help us dig deeper into the geology of the habitat by showing off his fossil finds.

About the series: Join fellow nature enthusiasts for monthly explorations of the biodiversity of Santa Cruz County. Each month, our Public Programs Manager Marisa Gomez will share the stories of a specific Santa Cruz habitat as we develop our skills as naturalists.

This series will feature a presentation as well as an interactive session and is in partnership with Santa Cruz Public Libraries. Come prepared to share and to learn alongside naturalists deep in their journey and just starting out.


Watch other Naturalist Nights

12/14 Member Meet-Up: Tide Pool Walk


Monday, December 14, 2020 | 3 p.m.
Member Exclusive | Register

Museum Members are invited to join us for our first Member Meet-Up exploring the intertidal zone. Not yet a Member? Join today!

December’s New Moon brings with it excellent low tides, perfect for exploring the intertidal zone and its many fascinating creatures. Your guides for this excursion are Public Programs Manager Marisa Gomez and Visitor Services Manager Liz Broughton, who will also be collecting specimens for our intertidal touch pool exhibit. Please review the following details prior to registering:


  • Wear a mask at all times
  • If you feel sick, stay home
  • Maintain at least six feet of distance from others
  • We are limiting the number of Members who can join us to 12 individuals
  • We have chosen a weekday to limit the likelihood of large crowds 


  • Footwear is important! Make sure that your shoes have good traction for walking on slippery rocks, but they should also be shoes that you don’t mind getting wet.
  • Tidepooling comes with inherent risks, and it is with this in mind that we will cancel in the event of rain (like drizzle is okay). If we do decide to cancel we will notify you by email.

Become a Member

Collections Close-Up: Tide Pools and Touch

Take the plunge into the interactive world of our intertidal touch pool exhibit, which has provided visitors with an intimate look at the interior world of the sea outside our doors for decades.

Museum staff explore the history of these hands-on exhibits, from beachside Victorian tubs to today’s collecting permits. We further investigate the care of these seaworthy collections, including the practical challenges of creating intertidal conditions, and their special capacity to connect people to nature.


About the series: Zoom into the stories, secrets, and science of our collections during monthly webinars with Collections Manager Kathleen Aston. This live event is an extension of our monthly Collections Close-Up blog, with added insights and intrigue. Members are invited to participate in this program before it is made available to the general public as well as ask questions directly of Kathleen.

Not yet a Member? Join today!

Fire and Mud: Why Fires Cause Debris Flows in California with Noah Finnegan

Geomorphologist Noah Finnegan provides an overview of the science linking wildfires and debris flows in California, including lessons learned from the 2009 Lockheed Fire in the Santa Cruz mountains. Particular emphasis is paid to how residents impacted by the CZU Lightning Complex can navigate resources to better understand their debris-flow risks.


Below are resources referred to in the presentation and major take-aways from Noah Finnegan:

About the Speaker

Noah Finnegan is a professor in Earth and Planetary Sciences at UC Santa Cruz. Noah’s research and teaching are focused on processes of erosion and sediment transport on hill slopes and in river channels.

Rockin’ Pop-Up: Ice Ages

 Join the Geology Gents as they explore how Earth freezes over! Sure, the weather is getting cooler in Santa Cruz as we head into winter, but far cooler temperatures have prevailed on Earth during “ice age” climates. In this Rockin’ Pop-Up the Gents dive into the history of Earth’s ice ages. Some ice ages may have covered the entire planet with ice, while other periods are punctuated by cold “glacial” ice ages and warm “interglacial” periods — which is what our Earth is currently undergoing.

About the Series: Join the Geology Gents, Gavin and Graham, for monthly conversations about rocks live on Facebook. Each month we’ll explore a different geologic topic, from Santa Cruz formations to tips for being a more effective rockhound. Graham Edwards and Gavin Piccione are PhD candidates in geochronology with the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at UC Santa Cruz.

Submit your questions ahead of time by emailing events@santacruzmuseum.org and feel free to include pictures of rocks you’d like identified! Pro-tip: the better the picture, the better the ID.

Watch Past Pop-Ups
Read our blog Rock Record

Rock Record: Santa Cruz Natural History in the Palm of your Hand

By Gavin Piccione and Graham Edwards

Even the smallest and most seemingly ordinary rock tells a story about the processes that have shaped the area in which it is found. From this point of view, beaches are a massive archive of the geologic history of a landscape that contains tiny samples of all the rocks that make up the surrounding area.

In this installment of Rock Record, the Geology Gents (Graham and Gavin) spend a day at the beach exploring the natural history of Santa Cruz looking only at the sand and rocks that fit in the palm of their hand.

Join the “conversation” below, as the Geology Gents chat about what they see when they look at the sand.

Building Beaches through Erosion and Transport

Graham: For all of the attention that beaches get as beautiful places to go lay in the Sun, they really are interesting geologically.

Gavin: We usually think of beaches as a geomorphic landscape: a product of the movement of wind and water and how it shapes and transports geologic material. We don’t usually talk about them as geologic.

Graham: We talk about sea cliff erosion and longshore currents that move sands from these cliffs, as well as nearby rivers and streams. The longshore currents carry their sediment load along the coastlines, and pile them up in certain “low-energy” places, that we call beaches.

Gavin: Ah, yes, I remember we spent some time chatting about this in one of our Rockin’ Pop-ups about Coastal Geology.

A Far-Reaching Collection of Rocks

Graham: But for all our talk of beaches as products of weathering (the breakdown of geologic material) and erosion (the transport of geologic material from one place to another), are they not, my friend, still rocks and something of lithologic interest?

Gavin: Lithology: the study of the characteristics of different rocks and rock types. Well, this sand is made up of rocks, and if we can identify the rock types and note their other properties, then we might be able to determine some interesting things about the geologic origins, or provenance, of these sands, as we often do with larger rocks.

Graham: Let’s take a handful then and look more closely at these sand grains.

Gavin: The sand grains are mostly round. Many are clear and glassy looking, some with a smoky dark grey color. We are familiar with this mineral of course. Quartz!

Graham: Some are blocky looking and cream-white to pinkish in color. Another favorite! Feldspar!

Gavin: Those light-colored feldspars and quartz make up most of the sand, but there are a few other darker minerals. Dark flaky sheets of biotite, black grains of other mafic minerals like amphibole or pyroxene, and some greenish looking minerals – these could be pieces of serpentinite (a Central Coast favorite!) or glauconite (fossilized ocean muck).

Graham: You know, the relative abundances of these minerals really tell you something about how certain rock and mineral types survive the weathering and erosion process. The feldspar and the quartz, especially, are relatively rugged minerals that resist being broken down by the chemical actions of water and the mechanical actions of tumbling around in rivers and waves. But the greenish and darker minerals, which are less resilient to weathering, are very rare. Most of them have been crushed or dissolved to far smaller sizes and have been swept out to sea.

Gavin: So a lot of this is geomorphology? This crushing and grinding of sediments down as they tumble through rivers and waves crash over them along the coast?

Graham: Without question, the erosive forces that shape beaches matter a great deal. If many of these rocks come from the Santa Cruz mountains, they have travelled a great distance and been worn down along the way. Their small size and rounded, almost smooth shapes speak to this long journey.

Gavin: And these pebbles? They are much larger and have sharper angles. There are pieces of mudstone, limestone, and fine and coarse sandstones. Common rocks found along the coast here. Likely these came from sea cliffs nearby that were worn by waves. Since these have not had to travel so far, they have not been weathered quite as much.

Graham: Yes, only the closest rocks can survive in pebble form. 

A Hint at the Tectonic History of California

Gavin: And yet, there is one pebble type here that is not familiar from our coastal outcrops: these granite pebbles. Where could these come from?

Graham: Well, granite, made up mostly of quartz and feldspar with large interlocking mineral crystals, is particularly durable when it comes to weathering. Perhaps it has survived a longer journey than the other pebbles.

Gavin: But from where? These granites remind me of the granite of the Sierra Nevada.

Graham: That must be granite from the Salinian Block! Carried up from the region of today’s southern California by the San Andreas fault. These granites formed along with the rocks of today’s Sierra Nevada over 100 million years ago in huge magma chambers. Over the last 30 million years, the San Andreas fault has carried the Salinian block up to the northwest, pulling rocks from the southern extents of the Sierra Nevada along with it. 

Gavin: Ahh, and so the Santa Cruz mountains are full of this granite! So that’s where all this quartz and feldspar are coming from?

Graham: That’s right! The “basement” rocks of the Santa Cruz mountains are these Salinian Block granites overlain by sedimentary rocks and metamorphic rocks of the last 30 million years or so. Quartz and feldspar sands come mostly from the granites, though some may be recycled from sandstones.

Gavin: How efficient, that sands from ancient beaches are weathered out of sandstones and returned to beaches today.

Graham: And bits of serpentinite and mafic minerals are also weathered out of other rock types and incorporated into the sands.

Gavin: So the sands at these beaches are not just the result of wind, rivers, and waves. They’re the whole of the Santa Cruz mountains and even nearby coastal cliffs, ground to fine grains and mixed well.

Graham: When we take a trip to the beach and sit in the sand, we really do find ourselves in the rocks of the Santa Cruz mountains. And while it’s a little bit harder to see and recognize each individual rock, when you look closely you can see each little bit of it.

Rock Record is a monthly blog featuring musings on the mineral world from Gavin Piccione and Graham Edwards.

Graham Edwards and Gavin Piccione are PhD candidates in geochronology with the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at UC Santa Cruz. They also host our monthly Rockin’ Pop-Ups as “The Geology Gents”.

On the Rocks: Pumpkin Pie Tai

Pumpkin pie tai cocktail in a glass

This recipe is part of our series On the Rocks: Exploring Science and Nature through Curated Cocktails.

Autumn is a season of transitions. Darkness noticeably overtakes light more rapidly everyday and months of drought along the Central Coast of California are dampened by the first rains of the season.

There is also a last minute abundance of activity in preparation for shorter, wetter days. Manzanita berries, tan oak acorns, and pine seeds are accompanied by a flurry of wildlife in active pursuit of additions to caches and fat reserves. Buffleheads and goldeneyes return to the river, while the terns and shearwaters leave the Bay. The bigleaf maple becomes a cloud of gold and the conifers remain ever green.

While spring reminds us of rejuvenation, fall recalls the dormancy of nature. Yet in the darkness, the promises of spring ruminate. Seeds that dropped days and months ago rest, wait, and are protected by the soil. As the sun retreats and the fruits fall and the collectors gather their winter rations, each minute of daylight is more precious than the last.

In a spirit of gratitude we offer the following recipe in celebration of abundance, even as the world around us grows darker. So gather up your fall gourds, your squash, your pumpkins. Stew the flesh, plant the seeds, and save a little for this tasty treat.


Pumpkin Seed Simple Syrup:

  • ½ cup of pumpkin seeds
  • 1 cup of water
  • 1 cup of sugar

Pumpkin Pie Tai:

  • ¾ oz pumpkin seed simple syrup
  • 2 oz dark rum
  • ¼ oz allspice dram (or just add some ground allspice)
  • ¾ oz lime
  • 3 tbsp pumpkin puree
  • 1 cup ice


To make the Pumpkin Seed Simple Syrup:

  1. Gather seeds from your chosen squash, gourd, or pumpkin (at least ½ cup)
  2. Rinse and dry the seeds
  3. Remove seeds from shells by trimming the edges of the shells with scissors and popping out the seed from within (optional, and interesting!)
  4. Grind ½ cup of seeds in a blender until a powdery consistency
  5. Add 1 cup of water and 1 cup of sugar to blender and mix until smooth
  6. Strain through a coffee filter into a jar. Note: This can take awhile! Just let it sit and do it’s thing. You can also use cheesecloth.
  7. Good for a few weeks in the refrigerator

To make the Pumpkin Pie Tai:

  1. Combine all ingredients
  2. Blend until smooth
  3. Serve over ice
  4. Garnish with your favorite fall spice

Post by Marisa Gomez

11/30-12/11 Member Exclusive: Holiday Shopping by Appointment

Banner advertising member only holiday shopping

November 30 – December 11
Mondays – Thursdays | 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.
| 30 minute appointments*

Museum Members are invited to schedule exclusive 30 minute appointments to browse and shop in the Museum’s onsite Store. Get ahead in your holiday shopping and find the perfect gift for the naturalists in your life. The Museum store features a wide array of unique books, field guides, gifts, toys, and souvenirs for nature-enthusiasts of all ages. Every purchase in the Museum Store supports our mission, programs, and exhibits.

To Schedule: Contact liz@santacruzmuseum.org or call 831-420-6115x10

*Appointments limited to household groups, max of 5 people.

Looking to make another arrangement or would like gift suggestions? Just ask and we’ll be happy to help! You can also browse a selection of our merchandise in our Online Museum Store.

Not yet a Member? Join today for as little as $15/year.