Citizen scientists light way at coastal tidepools

Surveying helps monitor population, diseases

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image-reef at dark
Volunteers working with the California Academy of Science have been monitoring tidepools near Pillar Point for years. They will be back on Tuesday evening. Photo courtesy Katherine Raspet

On a brisk late October evening, several volunteers and employees of the California Academy of Sciences gathered during the low tide at Pillar Point. Sea stars, slugs and anemones were exposed as the tide drained out.

With the sun going down, the surveyors continued to work, using ultraviolet lights to document the fluorescent species. 

California Academy’s Citizen Science Program has been monitoring Pillar Point for the past eight years. Co-directors Alison Young and Rebecca Johnson explained that, due to the reef’s large size, which goes up to the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, Pillar Point has some of the most well documented and biodiverse intertidal zones in the state. They have another survey planned on the evening of Nov. 26. 

From detecting diseases to flagging changes in species ranges, these kinds of monitoring teams are often the first line of defense when it comes to determining significant intertidal changes in marine ecosystems. For example, the sea star wasting disease devastated populations some years ago, and now the team has observed some species are rebounding. 

In 2014, California Academy acquired, a mobile application that blurs the line between social media platform and collaborative

database. It effectively encapsulates the goal of the Citizen Science Program, to get scientists and nonscientists alike on the same page. In the murky tidepools, the surveyors used that technology to track their observations. 

“When we first started this work, there wasn’t a species list for what’s found at Pillar Point,” Johnson said. 

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Photo courtesy Donna Pomeroy

The crowdsourced data includes thousands of species from millions of contributors across the globe. The technology uses a point-and-shoot photo option to give the user a suggestion on the specific species. Once uploaded, the community on iNaturalist, which includes professionals, can correct and fact-check the observation. 

“You’re also contributing to this giant database of when and where things are around the world,” Young explained. “For us, the whole reason we run our Citizen Science Program is basically to give people a reason to make and share biodiversity observations.”

Space is limited for the group’s session on Nov. 26, and is open to a select few volunteers. But the co-directors encourage anyone interested to try documenting intertidal zones. There’s a whole lot of real estate to work with. 

To learn more about the Citizen Science Program and get involved, check out the website at

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