There’s a song in the sea for those who listen, and messages in the sand for those with far reaching eyes.


By Dr. Gloria Snively and Doug Wonnacott

The morning silently creeps in upon the gray, green waves. Smooth flat rocks that tumbled together for a thousand years moan and groan against the shore. The pale sea is without character of its own — it reflects the sky, follow the moon, and is driven by the wind. On the rocks high above the tide land, the gulls preen their feathers and wait for the tide to drop

Eventually the unmerciful tide ebbs, exposing soggy, wet seaweed covered rocks. The moaning cobbles crowding the beach are littered with the debris of life. Along the tide land that marks the ebbing and flowing of the tide, death walks hugely and in many forms. Among the debris are empty snail shells, torn pieces of golden sponge, tattered seaweed holdfasts, decaying crab molts, and nude hermit crabs fumbling for a new home. The tangled masses of up-rooted seaweeds: browns, greens, reds and purples lie strewn like shredded confetti. Shore crabs scramble sideways to hide under rocks, starfish hang with stretched tube feet from boulders, and barnacles withdraw into cone-shaped shell houses. An octopus with glaring yellow eyes lies stranded in a shallow pool of water with its long suction-cup covered arms thrashing in vain to return the victim to the mother sea.

The gulls that earlier sat half asleep on the rocks noisily pick and probe at crabs, worms and fish along the tide line using their long sharp bills. Opportunists, they squabble and fight and harass one another to regurgitate their finds. The hungry gulls scavenge over the wreckage of the beach to clean it of whatever they can find; the living, the dead and the dying. The vulnerable sea creatures cry soundlessly for life — and nothing screams but the gulls.

During such times, on the ebb of tide, I have observed another swarm of vulturine activity. Upon the morn’s fog-blanketed shore, electric flashlights bob along like fireflies to join the gulls. This is the sign of the clam diggers. They stumb‑le along in the fog, over-turning cobbles, digging mercilessly with long handled forks and shovels, and leaving piles of cobbles beside gaping holes in the sand. Tens of hundreds have passed by me, many leading wide-eyed children with wooden spades and plastic pails. Butter clams, horse clams and littlenecks are gathered into overflowing buckets, the smallest and the largest tossed aside. Mothers and children gather into pails brightly colored starfish. They collect bags of beautifully ornamented living shells whose occupants will be carted home and dried in the sun, boiled alive for their shells, or left to suffocate in buckets overnight. Eventually, the unsleeping tide follows the moon and drives both gulls and humans from the tide land.

On one such occasion, I carefully picked my way along a slippery boulder strewn beach. Ahead of me the humans with long wooden spades amused themselves by smashing barnacles with rocks. I hastened through the seaweed jungle, past the slippery cobble stones, to the barnacle bed above the high tide line.

“Don’t harm the barnacles,” I ventured breathlessly. “Please leave them alone.”

The humans pretended not to hear, and continued smashing the barnacle cities.

The barnacles are alive,” I pleaded.

“What?” replied the surprised humans. “Barnacles aren’t alive.”

“The barnacles are very much alive. They simply retreat into their shell houses when the tide is out.”

“You’re crazy,” laughed the humans.

“But you mustn’t kills the barnacles,” I persisted. “They follow the rise and fall of the tide and the revolutions of the moon.”

“Who cares?” came the angry rebuff. “What does it matter, there are millions of these things everywhere.”

And they continued smashing the barnacle cities, prying loose the mussel beds with those long wooden spades, and filling their pockets with beautiful living shells.

I turned and slowly began the treacherous journey back along the slippery beach. Who invented those spades of wood? Who was it that cut them from a tree? High overhead a snow-white gull circled the bay, a large blue mussel dangling from its bill. The gull let the mussel drop to smash the shell open on the hard cobbles, exposing the orange colored flesh. Instantly, the other gulls filled the air with their chorus of frenzied screams. Void of pity, I watched that snow white gull swoop down, rip the soft orange flesh from the mussel shell, and hurriedly fly away.

The tide rises, the tide falls. The mother sea follows the moon. The mob of cobbles crawled the shore; rubbing shoulders — shifting, grinding and moaning their way through centuries. I stroll along the tide line and ponder the many moods of the mother sea; wondering why she moans ever more. “We are not dumb,” whisper the cobbles. “We will be the last ones.”


Song of the Barnacles

I venture to say, though a teacher myself, that I have learned little of consequence from books or from any other extra paraphernalia that we associate with formal education. What I have learned that has meaning or significance in life comes not from books, but from an endless journey along a surf-swept shore.

If there is any truth to what I say, it began for me on the protected rocky shores of Ucluelet, a little village on the exposed western coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. As an elementary teacher, that memorable trip to the sea beach with a class of wide-eyed youngsters was among the first of many such adventures to unknown shores.

It was one of those magnificent sunny days in June, the kind that we on the west coast appreciate deeply after the cold grey days of a long winter. The trip to the beach was a fifteen-minute hike along a wooded trail from the local school.. On the outer shore the view was spectacular. The roaring sea rhythmically sent booming white waves crashing upon the rocky reef. But in the cove, protected by the reef and the bay, the wave action was less fierce. Sleeping haystack rocks and needle-shaped basalt boulders crowded the graceful curvature of the bay.

On the shore, the tide was going out, leaving glistening seaweed covered rocks and glassy blue pools of water in holes and crevices. Various belts of life appeared on the rock faces in colored layers, one above the other. Bare rock at the top, then a stained layer of black lichens, a wide band of gray-white barnacle cities, a bed of blue mussels, then bright green sea lettuce, a layer of luxuriant brown kelp, then graceful pale, pink coralline seaweed at the low tide line. Attached to rocks, among the protective curtains of seaweeds, and in the tide pools lived hoards of rocky shore animals.

Many so exquisitely colored and of such fantastic shapes they seemed unreal — orange starfish, purple urchins, giant green anemones, richly ornamented snails and variously decorated crabs.

As we explored the shore, I could hardly keep pace with the activities of the children. Nor could I answer their incessant questions: What’s inside a barnacle? How does the starfish eat the mussel? Why do crabs crawl sideways? Why is the ocean blue? What’s that called? Is that a plant or an animal? Those children, who asked me so many questions, never seemed to hear the ones I asked them. Nonetheless, I did the best I could — carted tons of field guides down to the beach, hauled out microscopes, and had them describe, measure, sort, map and sketch everything in sight.

Several days later, around mid-day, we returned to that very same beach. The intense noon-day sun cast drying rays upon every living creature along the shore. And we humans were no exception. Hot and sticky from our journey and having to wait for the noontide to drop, we sought protection in the shade of those high basalt pillars. We settled down to a bag-lunch of bologna sandwiches and apples and — being full and tired — decided to nap while waiting for the tide to go out. Like the nearby gulls lazily preening their features, we waited patiently for the sea to allow us entry into the tide lands.

It was one of those rare moments in teaching when every child was quiet, every body still. Thus, you can imagine our surprise at being awakened by the sound of gently resonating voices.

They whispered “sssssssh…” Carried by the wind, those tiny, tiny voices grew and grew into a soft, melodious symphony.

One by one, astonished children and a very unbelieving adult rose, and with eyes and ears staring out of our heads, we began searching for the source. Where did those mysterious little voices ring from? We looked all around where we stood, then searched the boulder canyons, but to our great disappointment, we could not find a single clue. All the while those tiny melodic voices continued echoing with magnificent simplicity throughout the canyon walls.

Suddenly, from behind a giant boulder, a very excited Scott shouted, “It’s the barnacles! It’s the barnacles singing!”

“Awe… come on. How could the barnacles sing?” quipped the skeptical Mark. “They don’t even move.”

“But listen!” persisted Scott. “Listen to them sing!”

So we put our ears to the barnacle cities and what do you think…?

We clearly heard the barnacles sing.

Imagine…barnacles singing! It was the most remarkable sound I believe I have ever heard.

“What makes the barnacles sing?” asked one child.

Crystal Cove Conservancy

“What do you think they’re saying?”  added anotherOur curiosities aroused, we instantly set about the find the answers. With intense concentration, we observed those barnacle cities for the rest of the day. Watched the six-cover plates move as the animal inside sealed its shell house shut. “Sssssh.” Watched the seawater evaporate over the boulders and over every living surface. Listened intently as the barnacle song swelled to a crescendo, then just as magically as the seawater vanished, listened as the music faded to silence. Later that day, when the tide returned, we watched those barnacle cities spring to life. Quick as a wink, when the stony cone-shaped barnacle cities spring to life. Quick as a wink, when the stony cone-shaped barnacles were submerged, the barnacles thrust their six long feather legs, like a fisherman’s net, in and out, in and out. We watched those industrious little barnacles sweep the water for microscopic food and kick it down into their mouths. You can be sure we were an exhausted, but jolly band that tripped back to Ucluelet late that afternoon. But we had whistled and sung to the moon and stars, and vowed to remember that lesson.

That lesson was the loveliest and the saddest I have yet learned along an unknown shore. How many times had I walked along a seashore and never noticed the barnacles, never pondered or questioned them at all? But I have drawn this true story to your attention, so that should you venture along a rocky shore and come upon the barnacle cities, do not hurry on. Wait for a time, exactly at the ebb of tide. And be very quiet and still. Then, should the sun be burning bright, you will hear the barnacles sing.


At the time of publishing, Gloria Snively was a professor emeritus at the University of Victoria in Victoria BC. Doug Wonnocott was a principal at Quadra Island Elementary School in Quadra Island BC. This article originally appeared in Current, the publication of the National Marine Educators Association


Activities related to this article

The purpose of the following activities is to encourage the reader to interact with the article through the language arts (reading, writing, listening and speaking); and through field trip experiences; and to use the knowledge, concepts and attitudes developed through the activities to compare the article with the real world of the barnacle. Above all else, the activities are designed to keep bringing the reader back to the article, to not only gain knowledge, concepts, and positive attitudes; but to experience the author’s style and message.

Some Thoughts About the Language Arts Activities:
1. Be selective in choosing the activities. Decide what you want the reader to gain from the literature. Don’t overdo the activities and don’t hesitate to adjust them to meet your needs.
2. Consider using cooperative learning techniques, including the use of heterogeneous groups (3-5 members). The use of these groups encourages discussion, sharing of skills, peer-to-peer tutoring and expansion of ideas.
3. If you are using the article as motivation for a science-oriented theme, don’t leave it after one reading. Bring the readers back to the text, especially after they have gained new knowledge, concepts and attitudes.

Pre-Reading Activities
1. In order to evaluate the student’s knowledge, do a pre- and post-reading cluster. Before reading the article have the students cluster (brainstorm) all they know about barnacles. Following the teaching of the unit, have the students do another cluster. Compare the pre- and post-results.
2. To encourage the sharing of prior knowledge and to encourage the making of predictions about the meaning of what is to be read, use an anticipation guide. An anticipation guide helps guide the students in acquiring the major concepts to be learned in the article. It activities background knowledge prior to reading and provides useful, diagnostic information for the teacher. Also, it provides students with a purpose for reading the text, provokes thoughtful discussion, and serves as a useful tool for refocusing on the major concepts of the article. Keep the following guidelines in mind when constructing and using an anticipation guide:

      • a. Identify the major concepts to be learned.
        b. Decide how many concepts support or challenge the student’s beliefs.
        c. Create 5-10 statements. Write them well and somewhat conentiously.
        d. Arrange the statements in an appropriate order.
        e. Present the guide to the students before introducing the article.
        f. Students fill in individually, agree or disagree, a reaction to each statement.
        g. Students defend their reactions in discussion. Teacher leads the discussion, but does not volunteer a personal opinion.
        h. After reading the article, students react to statements from the author’s point of view.
        i. Discuss differences in reaction.
        j. Writing: choose one statement and then prove the author’s point.

    You                     Author
    (agree/can’t decide/disagree)
    • Barnacles are living animals.
    ª Barnacles are very delicate creatures and may be easily damaged.
    • Barnacles are important members of a seashore community.
    • Clam diggers should not be allowed to take as many clams as they want.
    • Barnacles sing.

    3. Use guided imagery to help develop the setting of the article prior to the reading. Through imagery the teacher can take the students on an “imaginary trip” to the beach. By generating discussion about colors, sounds, textures, sights, patterns, feelings, etc., the teacher can help the students connect when they “see” to what they will read.

    Reading and Writing Activities
    4. Consider orally reading the article to the students, especially Part 1. Help to set the mood and the flow of the language — then allow the students to read the rest.
    5. Encourage the students to identify their favorite passages and to orally read to each other in pairs or small group. By practicing reading passages over and over again until fluent within these groups, weaker students may improve their reading comprehension.
    6. From the article, have the students identify those factors that help the barnacles survive in its environment. Once they have their lists, allow the students to refer to additional learning resources to confirm their lists and to add to them.
    7. Again, use the guided imagery strategy to help the students write a piece from the point of view of the barnacle. The piece may focus on one aspect of the life of the barnacle — feeding, survival, the effect of human intervention, etc., and should be creative, while conveying factual information. Students may share these pieces in small group.
    8. Write a true story telling about life at the seashore: what barnacles eat, what they do at high tide and at low tide (or when covered or uncovered with seawater), how they protect themselves from predators, how they keep from drying out when the tide goes out to sea.
    9. From the article, have the students identify the author’s writing style and message. For example, in small groups discuss the statement “That lesson was the loveliest and the saddest I haveyet learned along an unknown shore.”
    10. Have students complete each of these ideas with material growing out of the article and discussion. This article made me wish that…, realize that…, describe that…, wonder about…, see that…, believe that…, feel that…, and hope that… (Good for small cooperative groups to generate discussion and expand on ideas.
    11. Design a poster which celebrates our caring for all life on this watery planet, and inspires action, leading to the healing of our planet and ourselves. For example, a poster might encourage “prevention of cruelty to barnacles.”

    Field Trip Activities
    For students to understand the concept of preservation at the seashore, they must have understanding, at least in part, of the related concepts of habitat, tidal cycle, desiccation, predator-prey, protection, interdependence and survival. The best way of attempting to sensitize children to such complex abstract concepts is through field trip experiences. For example, you can lead the students to understand why barnacles should be protected by observing how barnacles survive at the seashore.

    Have the students separate and find a comfortable sitting position as close to the “barnacle cities” as possible. Have them close their eyes and be very quiest and still. Tell them to concentrate on hearing and identifying the sounds around them.

    Then, have fun watching live acorn barnacles under water. Find a small rock covered with barnacles and drop it into a jar of seawater. What happens? What kid of food does the barnacle eat? How does the barnacle get its food? Draw a picture of a barnacle out of seawater. Draw a picture of a barnacle under seawater.
    After the field trip, compare the article to the reality of the field trip. Have students identify those aspects of the article that are true for the environment being studied. Include specific aspects that could be added to the article given the specific environment.

  • —G.S and D.W.