Trained naturalists teach beach-goers about tides and estuaries

“A naturalist is a person who is in love with a place,” said Joe Hiss, a beach naturalist with the South Sound Estuary Association.

Hiss, a retired fish and wildlife biologist, is one of 25 volunteers sharing their knowledge on five local beaches this summer.

“We have anywhere from two to five naturalists on the beach, on duty for about three to four hours,” Hiss said. “We just rove along the beach and greet people and they ask questions and we give the answers as best we can.”

Last week he spent an afternoon at Priest Point Park with grade-school students Landon and Holden Hamblin. The boys and their father, Derek Hamblin, walked along the shore, sinking knee deep in mud, searching for crabs and other sea life to present to Hiss in exchange for facts about the creatures.

“We saw a fish that was pregnant but it never laid the eggs,” Landon said.

The naturalists cover the Priest Point, Tolmie, Frye Cove, Burfoot and West Bay beaches.

“I would say Priest Point Park has the least variety of species and the other three have things that I have only seen there and nowhere else,” Hiss said, “I think that you’ll see a lot more variety in the creatures at either Frye Cove, Burfoot or Tolmie, each one has their specialties.”

Developing the relationship between the South Sound and its community is the primary aim for the naturalists, according to Wendy Eklund, the program’s manager.

“We explore the amazing life at the beaches and estuaries, and learn how we are connected and can keep the South Sound clean and healthy,” Eklund said.

The program is funded in part by the Russell Family Foundation, and has been active since 2010, according to Eklund. The naturalists go through 18 hours of training in the spring. Most are current or retired biologists or environmental specialists.

Hiss found work in South Sound 35 years ago, and he said the more he learned the more he fell in love with the region. After his retirement six years ago, he knew he wanted to volunteer to continue teaching people about their natural world.

“The basic take-home message is, this is yours, and it’s yours to keep the waters clean and protect the critters that live in it,” he said. “Get to know what’s living here in your little world.”