First Contact: Alien-like Immortals Discovered at Hopewell Rocks

Millions of people from all over the world have come to explore the sea stacks at Hopewell Cape.  In the Bay of Fundy, the highest tides on Earth create exceptional landscapes, and tidal erosion makes this Amazing Place one of the most unique in the UNESCO-designated Fundy Biosphere Region.  The formations at the top of the beach draw much focus, while little attention is paid to the strange creatures that live along the low tide limits.

Sea Anemone. Photo credit: Kevin Snair

Recently, Kevin Snair, the supervisor of interpretive services at the Hopewell Rocks and professional photographer, decided to start surveying the most extreme limits of the intertidal zone.  Kevin explains, “Working at the Hopewell Rocks has given me a big responsibility as a knowledge keeper.  When visitors arrive my job is to answer their questions, and that drives me to keep learning more about this place."

Intertidal Explorer Portrait. Photo credit: Craig Norris

What Kevin found next to the chocolate coloured, sediment-loaded water, were very alien-like life forms that were not expected this far up the Bay of Fundy.  For years Kevin has been collecting historic photographs of the sea stacks to compare with his own to track erosion.  "If I had a time machine, I'd go back here," he says, "Five hundred years ago it would still be recognisable, but 1000 or 1500 years ago, it would be a different Hopewell Rocks."  He recognises how much this place changes over time and he is well aware that the rocky bumps further down the beach are actually old stumps from sea stacks long ago destroyed by the tide.  It is those very same “stumps” that provide habitat for all the sea life.

Mother Inlaw. Photo credit: Craig Norris

One of the primary reasons the organisms he discovered were able to remain largely undetected for so long is the habitat they prefer at the lowest intertidal zone.  Only during spring tides, when the moon and the sun are aligned, do their gravitational forces combine to create the largest tidal range.  This is when the tide recedes far enough to expose these mysterious creatures, but even then, they are only uncovered for 15 to 20 minutes.  For Kevin to explore the lowest intertidal zone at Hopewell, he had to know the tidal cycles very well.  "The clock on my wall at home is actually a tide clock," he remarks.  "Most people don't understand that the moon's gravity is the primary driver of the tides, so the trick is to get to know the patterns of the moon and then you automatically know when the tide will reach its spring range of 14 meters (46 feet)," Kevin explains.

Sea Stack Stumps. Photo credit: Kevin Snair

A typical seaweed community covers the old sea stack stumps along most of the beach.  Winkles, whelks, and limpets are some of the creatures Kevin often finds within the knotted wrack and bladder wrack.  It is below this zone where stuff gets really weird.  “Earlier this season I took a group down to do the first ever survey, and that's when we found three species of sea anemones,” reveals Kevin.  “We found red anemones, silver spotted anemones and painted anemones,” he says with a grin.  These species are found elsewhere in the bay, so they aren’t unique, but finding these little gems in the muddy upper bay is a surprise.

Sea Floor Explorer. Photo credit: Craig Norris

Sea anemones are relatives of corals and jellyfish, which fasten themselves to rocks using an adhesive foot.  They have venomous tentacles that can fold inside during low tide and in an extraordinary twist, they don’t seem to age.  As long as they are not eaten, poisoned or starved, they could be immortal.  Exposed only on a few of the very lowest tides each month, they usually stay safe and hidden from sight; except for one thing.   When Kevin took us out, we photographed an interestingly patterned piece of sediment on an anemone.  "Once we looked closer, we realised it had legs, eight of them!" exclaims Kevin.  It turned out to be an anemone sea spider feeding on the anemone.  "When we started reviewing other photos on a large computer screen, we found more and more sea spiders camouflaged in the mud around the anemones; they’ve probably been here all along,” says Kevin.

Sea Floor Explorer. Photo credit: Craig Norris

Given the chocolate coloured water, it is tough to tell how much further the rock platform extends.  “It might go on for a few meters or a couple hundred before it is buried in mud, but one thing is for sure, there are probably a lot more of these guys beyond the low tide mark,” states Kevin.  Often sea anemones take algae into their bodies to gain energy from photosynthesis in exchange for protecting the algae.  “It is hard to imagine that much light could reach them in this water”, Kevin suggests.  “We do know that a lot of fish like flounders, cod, gasperaux, sturgeon, striped bass, sculpin, dogfish, skates and some others live in these muddy waters too.  There really is a diverse range of life at the Hopewell Rocks."

Translucent Sea Anemone. Photo credit: Kevin Snair

While sea anemones can grow quite large in some environments, that isn’t the case here.  “They are really hard to find; kind of like looking for coins scattered over a large muddy beach, other times they hang upside down from rocks” Kevin warns.  "But you should go out with someone who knows what to look for and get down to the water's edge to experience the full range of the tide and hopefully see some special wildlife.  Be careful where you step, though!"

Sea Spider. Photo credit: Kevin Snair

Since there are only two spring tides a month, one on the full moon and one on the new moon, that limits the number of opportunities to see the lowest part of the beach uncovered.  Kevin explains, "During each moon, you have several days that might have a low enough tide to expose the sea anemone garden.  With the short window during the slack low tide, there likely isn't more than six total hours a month of exposure.”  That means when you see the full moon or a new moon near the horizon during summer, the sea anemones could be out of the water.

Silver Spotted Anemone. Photo credit: Kevin Snair

Despite a large number of people that have been visiting the Hopewell Rocks for centuries, it is not surprising the sea anemones were unknown until Kevin's discovery.  Oral history tells us that Mi'kmaq people visited the Hopewell Rocks each fall during harvest for feasting, dancing, singing and spiritual ceremonies.  Perhaps they had a greater awareness of the life at the intertidal extremes.  They certainly would’ve visited a different Hopewell Rocks many hundreds and even thousands of years ago.  The formations, like the recently crumbled “Elephant Rock” wouldn’t have been formed that long ago.  If it had, it certainly wouldn’t have been referred to as the largest African mammal.  If we could know about the Mi’kmaq view of the long lost rock formations back then, we would likely learn as much about them as today’s names say about our culture in the 21st century; E.T. Rock certainly comes to mind in the age of space travel.

Hanging Anemone. Photo credit: Kevin Snair

In our area of the world, along the Bay of Fundy, we have many opportunities to experience unique places like the Hopewell Rocks.  The Amazing Places Challenge is encouraging people to get out and visit all 50 Amazing Places in the Fundy Biosphere Region to celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday.  What better way to celebrate than to spend time on the land visiting the very “Canadian” Amazing Places.

This article is the first of seven in the Amazing Places Challenge series.


Financed by The Government of Canada


Big Tires and Big Tides at Waterside Beach

If the water were about ten degrees warmer, Waterside Beach would be over-run with people. Fortunately, the cool Bay of Fundy water has kept this place relatively undiscovered. With about 400 hectares of sea floor exposed during low tide, Waterside Beach, Red Head Cliffs and Dennis Beach combine to form the largest non-mudflat tidelands on the Bay of Fundy. Too much to see in one low tide by foot.

Zoe bikes by the tide sculpted, Redhead. Photo credit: Craig Norris

The newest and most fun way to cross this mega-tidal landscape is by fat-bike, and that is what Zoe Levesque and her friends did one summer evening. Zoe should be a fat-bike salesperson as she loves telling people how cool they are. "I feel like a kid driving a monster truck when I'm riding a fat-bike," she remarks, "They are so easy and comfortable to ride, not intimidating, and the big, low-pressure tires will roll over almost any surface.”

Zoe (right) and her friend Roxy (left) roll over the sand at Waterside beach. Photo credit: Craig Norris

During the most extreme low spring tides, the beach at Waterside will extend nearly a kilometre from the shoreline, exposing a soft sandy plane etched with ripples by the ebbing tide. As the water level falls, the bedrock shore-platform becomes accessible to the west, allowing you to reach the point of Red Head. Here barnacle fields, intertidal pools, wave-sculpted rocks, resting seaweed forests and soaring, red cliffs offer an alternative tideland. Beyond that, Dennis beach is strewn with the wave sorted cobbles, sands and silts washed from the glacial bluffs looming over the beach berms. Zoe had a mind-blowing experience at each type of sea floor, but she asserts, “The red rocks at Red Head are the most fascinating, it's like being on Mars and reminds me of the Hopewell Rocks."

Fat-bikers bike on cobbles below the cliffs at Red Head. Photo credit: Craig Norris

The coastline of this area is underlain by soft, red, Triassic sandstones and conglomerates with the cathedral-like cliffs at Redhead offering the best exposure of these 230 million-year-old rocks. Formed during the evolution of the early dinosaurs, these cliffs are now being carved down into a large wave-cut bedrock platform with the perfect relief for fat-biking.

Zoe explores the bedrock platform. Photo credit: Craig Norris

Cycling by high beach dunes, crossing swift creek channels, dropping off steep-sided barrier bars, racing across sand planes, powering over boulders, hustling down platform transitions, rolling across cobble berms, and skirting wave-sculpted cliff bases are some of the highlights Zoe and her fat biking friends have come to this place to find. "Fat-bikes pump up your confidence to ride all these tidal features, but what is really different about biking the ocean floor is that you make your own trail and you decide what it goes over," explains Zoe, "Just make sure your trail stays off the sea life."

Craig Harper circles the soft, undercut red Triassic rocks. Photo credit: Craig Norris

The intertidal zone is where fat-bikes were meant to take riders, and this is the unique experience that Zoe can't get on any other type of bike. The world's highest tides provide ocean floor access that makes the Bay of Fundy a fat-biker's paradise. Despite the self-propelled power these bikes give their riders, Zoe warns, “Don’t rely on anyone, each person should be knowledgeable about the tides because you can get trapped against the cliffs. It's not a good place to be on an incoming tide."

Riding the Red Head Platform at sunset. Photo credit: Craig Norris

At Amazing Places like this, Zoe exclaims, “A perma-smile is guaranteed!” The Amazing Places Challenge is encouraging people to get out and visit all 50 Amazing Places in the Fundy Biosphere Region to celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday. What better way to celebrate than to spend time on the land visiting the very “Canadian” Amazing Places.

This article is the second of seven in the Amazing Places Challenge series. 

Financed by The Government of Canada

Expect the Unexpected at Martin Head

For anyone who has been able to reach the wilderness of Martin Head, you will know that many people experience it by ATV. There are other ways to gain a more intimate connection to this Amazing Place, but perhaps none as profound as paddling by kayak. This story takes place on a special evening, during a simultaneous sunset, a rising full moon, a spring low tide, and a dominating high pressure, clear, windless sky.

Gravel bar at low tide in Martin Head. Photo credit: Craig Norris

In this moment of calm James Little has brought his friends out to kayak around Martin Head during slack tide. The timing was perfect as the often turbulent waters off the point had settled to a near glassy state, as if a position of perfect balance had been reached between the opposing gravitational forces of the sinking sun and ascending moon.

James Little paddles by Martin Head. Photo credit: Craig Norris

Normally the bay is not this serene, and James has challenges to contend with. “It’s not so much the tides, but the currents they can create,” asserts James, “ I find on most sections of the bay I’m more concerned with the wind, but if you take a little time to plan your trip, you can make the currents work for you.” Knowledge and experience are necessities; otherwise, James suggests, "Go with a group that has experience or get a guide, and be sure to have an understanding of the conditions that can exist in the area you are going to paddle.”

James (background) and his group after sunset at Martin Head. Photo credit: Craig Norris
Paddling by Martin Head with the Fundy Escarpment in the distance. Photo credit: Craig Norris

A long tombolo beach reaches out to Martin Head, tying the island to the mainland. This beach is blasted by powerful storm waves travelling up the bay, and recent storm history can be read in the storm berms pounded into the beach. The durable and sharp headland bends waves and the tidal current around itself, often producing confused waters which are difficult to paddle. In days gone by a proud lighthouse stood atop the headland to warn ships to stay away from its dangerous rocks, which are often covered by thick fog. Luckily today we are experiencing the gentle and inviting temperament of Martin Head. This headland marks the entrance to a sheltered tidal marsh wetland, a rugged highland river valley, extensive cobble beaches, high cliffs and coastal hardwood forests; all the characteristics of an epic park.

Martin Head marks the entrance to Quiddy River Estuary. Photo credit: Craig Norris

Although we were kayaking Martin Head to witness the astronomical transition, the Bay of Fundy usually has surprises in store. “The one thing you can be sure of on the bay is no two trips will ever be the same,” states James with certainty, “And to always expect the unexpected.” He often has close encounters with seals, porpoise, whales, and even had one close call with a large, curious shark.  He says, “Travelling slow and quite allows you time to see not only big wildlife, but the different types of rock that make up the massive cliffs, sea grasses and lichens, even barnacles on a weir post, or an urchin moving over some coralline algae.”   The experience of the bay from a kayak offers a different set of sights and sounds such as, “Listening to the swell smuck up against the cliffs, the beach rock resettling after a wave, or maybe the surface water dripping from a high cliff,” explains James.  “It might not be everybody’s thing, but it’s mine. It’s the one thing that every time I go, I get more hooked!”

Passing by the rugged Martin Head. Photo credit: Craig Norris
The rise of the full moon marks the coming rise of the tide. Photo credit: Craig Norris

“As a kayaker, I hold the entire bay as a special place, including Martin Head. It's definitely an Amazing Place, whether you’re a kayaker, a hiker, or just out for a picnic,” James concludes. The Amazing Places Challenge is encouraging people to get out and visit all 50 Amazing Places in the Fundy Biosphere Region to celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday. What better way to celebrate than to spend time on the land visiting the very “Canadian” Amazing Places.

This article is the fourth of seven in the Amazing Places Challenge series.


Financed by The Government of Canada

Sunrise Scramble: Chasing the Tide at Cape Enrage Reef

Cape Enrage and its lighthouse stand like sentinels overlooking Chignecto Bay in the upper Bay of Fundy. The bottleneck of water and the rush of wind pushing through the passage at Cape Enrage has, in part, given this place its name. The other characteristic lending serious support to the name is the ragged reef extending nearly three-quarters of a kilometre into the bay. Today we've come with Kevin Snair to again chase the tide to its lowest reaches, heading out-to-sea during the full moon spring range.

The Cape Enrage Reef on a spring low tide. Photo credit: Kevin Snair

To Kevin, Cape Enrage is much different then Hopewell Rocks where he works as an interpretation supervisor, but maybe not in the way you’d think. Hopewell is known for its sea stacks while Cape Enrage is known for its lighthouse, cliffs and the reef, but Kevin says, "Cape Enrage is so much more colourful, the water doesn't have the heavy sediment that gives Hopewell its monotone chocolate brown appearance." This is an important observation as it influences the sea life here to a significant degree.

Kevin peers into an ephemeral tidal pool at Cape Enrage. Photo credit: Craig Norris

Due to the strong current in the bay, sediment has been transported past Cape Enrage and dumped off where the water calms. This current and the reef were the banes of sea captains during the age of sail. "Although sailors in those days were very in tune with the environment and knew the tides well, this reef must have seemed like a long jaw of sharp teeth waiting to shatter their sailboats into toothpicks,” imagines Kevin.

The ragged reef that has wrecked many sailing ships. Photo credit: Craig Norris

Following the spine-like reef out on a low tide, there is plenty of time to explore over 25 acres of “luxuriant” seaweed beds, and below that, millions of barnacles cemented to the rocks grazed by hungry hordes of marauding dog whelks. Only occasionally exposed on the lowest tides for a short time are the dark green and purple beds of Irish moss and dulse; two species commonly used as food.

Dog whelks versus barnacles. Photo credit: Craig Norris

Kevin is not only here to explore the ecosystem but to also experience the shifting of the tide in an area of the bay with some of the fastest water flow. Slack water doesn’t last long, the ebb tide quickly turns to a flood tide, and water levels begin to rise. Within minutes the tidal streams start to break the connections of the reef islands from the mainland. The water level builds on one side of the reef and spills through the rocks, breaking the silence as you hear many tidal streams together in an escalating sonic rush of current. This is a place you don’t want to lose track of time or let your mind wonder as you watch the scene. This far out into the bay you feel surrounded by water and extremely vulnerable. "Once the tide has turned, you feel a sense of urgency, like the bay doesn't want you there anymore," explains Kevin, "Your window is closing, and you must pay attention, or you can become trapped."

Kevin examines the lowest intertidal zone. Photo credit: Craig Norris
Slack tide at the tip of the Cape Enrage Reef. Photo credit: Kevin Snair

Sometimes going to the extremes is the best way to gain a new perspective on the Bay of Fundy. The Amazing Places Challenge is encouraging people to get out and visit all 50 Amazing Places in the Fundy Biosphere Region to celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday. What better way to celebrate than to spend time on the land visiting the very “Canadian” Amazing Places.

This article is the third of seven in the Amazing Places Challenge series.

Financed by The Government of Canada

Mud Monster - Riding the Tantramar Marshes

Most people find the muddy upper Bay of Fundy less appealing than the rocky or sandy areas of the bay.  Mud, in general, is disapproved of from the time you learn how to walk, so the mudflats and silty channels of the upper bay are not well regarded.  We are looking to change that, which is why we enlisted Mount Allison University student Taylor Crosby and some friends to visit the mud at the best possible time and trade some stories about it.

Muddy stream channel and old wharf on the LaPlanche River. Photo credit: Craig Norris 

We biked out late on a fall afternoon, across the Aulac dykes, Taylor explains, “As long as it is not too windy, the dykes are a great way to experience the expansive Tantramar dyke lands, and they take you right up to the coastline." Our destination was the Amazing Place on the dyke near Fort Beausejour, where we can gaze directly down the axis of the bay.  In the Maritimes, wide open spaces like this are the only way to get a little taste of the big prairie sky.  This is why we have come, to take in an epic open sky sunset during low tide over the mud of the empty Cumberland Basin.

Sunset on the Aulac River. Photo credit: Craig Norris

The last rays of sunshine beaming through the fields and marsh grasses are a glorious sight, but Taylor is much more taken by the mud.  "It is wet, shiny, covered in drainage patterns, unusual topography and it reflects the sky’s light back in so many colours, but it is more than that,” she says, “the smell of the salt marsh, the mud and clay, it is so cool, such a beautiful scene.”   The full spectrum of light raining down on the wet mud and cord grasses makes the scene absolutely hypnotic with its fully saturated palate of colours.

Moments after sunset from the dyke overlooking an empty Cumberland Basin. Photo credit: Craig Norris
Muddy stream channel and old wharf on the LaPlanche River. Photo credit: Craig Norris

While taking in the view, I ask Taylor if she has ever been mud sliding.  She has a defensive response, "Don't knock it until you try it!"  Taylor is a person who loved her mud sliding experience, "You can slide all the way down to the water, just don't stand in one place too long and don't go in the water too deep," she warns.  Besides all the fun, Taylor says it is a workout climbing back up the mud, and it is a challenge to get clean.  "You hope for a nearby generous person who'll lend you their hose; otherwise it turns into mud-monsters marching home through the streets,” she cautions.

Taylor and Anna after mud sliding. Photo credit: Sylvan Hamburger

Standing on the edge of the dyke lands listening to Taylor’s mud-sliding story, there seems like no better time to discuss the 7000 years of sea level rise it took the Bay of Fundy to build these mudflats and marshlands.  According to cores drilled in the marshes, this outer dyke location sits on 35 meters of mud layers; enough to completely bury a ten story building.  We feel like tiny specks on this landscape, standing here for a short flash in time.  Several important portage routes came through the Tantramar Marshes, and it is interesting to think about how different this landscape would have been as the Mi'kmaq watched similar sunsets from their campsites here hundreds or even thousands of years ago.

Taylor soaks in the last moments of the day. Photo credit: Craig Norris

While day changed to night, the full moon rose behind us to light our way back.  “Biking under a full moon on the dykes is beautiful in a different way, there is no light pollution out here, the air is cool, and the reflections have turned to shadows,” Taylor describes, “And the sea floor is such a weird place under the moonlight."

The Edge of the Tanramar Marshes at low tide under the full moon. Photo credit: Craig Norris

The Bay of Fundy has many hidden opportunities to experience strange and exhilarating landscapes.  The Amazing Places Challenge is encouraging people to get out and visit all 50 Amazing Places in the Fundy Biosphere Region to celebrate Canada's 150th birthday.

This article is the fifth of seven in the Amazing Places Challenge series. 

Financed by The Government of Canada


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