North Island Explorer: Guide to North Vancouver Island















 A seal, a sea cucumber, and a sea urchin at Shelter Point Reef.

The reef at Shelter Point: From left to right, a seal, a sea cucumber, and a sea urchin.























The Reef at Shelter Point contains an incredible variety of marine life that is hard to find at other beaches in the area making it an ideal place to take your children to teach them about the marine life of the Pacific Northwest.



Access to the Shelter Point Reef is on the Old Island Highway between the Jubilee Road Turnoff for the Inland Island Highway (New Island Highway) and York Road. You can park your car along the highway next to the bay and then it is a short walk to the reef. There is also access for one or two cars at the end of Heard Road. It is important to get there on an outgoing tide and preferably on a tide that is less than 5 feet.  Check your tide guides with Campbell River as a reference. Bring rain boots if you have them or footwear that you don’t mind getting wet.


What makes this reef unique is the incredible diversity of life. There are distinct zones on the reef that each support a different array of marine life. The first zone is the high intertidal zone. Here you find things that are quite common on other beaches, but are perhaps more abundant here: oysters, whelks, snails, and green and purple shore crabs.


However, it is when you enter into the barnacle and mussel zone that things start to get interesting. If you look in crevices and on the underside of large boulders, you should start to find the occasional chiton, which is an 8-shelled mollusc. On a typical walk through the reef, you may run into four or more different species. I regularly encounter the leathery Black Katy Chitons, bristling Mossy Chitons, Hairy Mopalia, and the colourful Lined Chitons.


This zone is host to several species of mussels and barnacles, which would probably continue further down the reef if it weren’t for the predators that lay in wait for them in the low tide zones: the sea stars. Again, Shelter Point offers a chance to glimpse many species of starfish beyond the Ochre Sea Star usually encountered at other beaches. Of course, the Ochre Sea Star is also abundant here, feeding on mussels, barnacles, and just about anything else. You often find them in great aggregations under the boulders, hiding from the sun. But there are also the garlicky smelling Leather Stars and the voracious, swift moving Sunflower Stars. And if you are lucky, you might cross paths with the Six-rayed Starfish.


The Six-rayed starfish is an oddity because of its extra arm. Sea stars belong to a group of marine organisms called echinoderms. A defining characteristic of echinoderms is their 5-sided radial symmetry, which the Six-rayed sea star clearly does not have. Sunflower Stars have varying numbers of arms too, but most commonly they have 20 which is at least a multiple of 5. Other echinoderms that exhibit this symmetry are sea urchins, sand dollars, and sea cucumbers. Echinoderms present you with a chance to teach your kids to observe, watch for patterns, and make connections. To illustrate this 5-sided radial symmetry, you should have no problem finding a Red Sea Cucumber at Shelter Point. Have your children pick up a cucumber and count its rows of tube feet. Similarly, the flower at the heart of a sand dollar (only rarely found at Shelter Point) has five petals. And the empty shells of sea urchins with their spines removed exhibit five radial bands. This symmetry is a characteristic that connects these ‘spiny skinned’ animals.


On the south side of the reef below the mussel and barnacle zone, there is a stretch of many small boulders lying overtop of shale. These boulders are host to a myriad of crabs and other organisms. On closer inspection, you’ll find several species beyond your common shore crabs from farther up the beach. There are flat and fragile Porcelain Crabs, an oddity among crabs because of their 8 legs (six legs and two claws). Most crabs are decapods, meaning they have ten legs (8 legs plus two claws). Often, under the same rock you'll also find the steadfast Black-clawed Crabs, and the strong pinching Red Rock Crabs. And crawling over the seaweed, there are the always-aggressive Kelp Crabs. Each boulder usually contains one or two beach eels (pricklebacks and blennies) along with a dozen or so crabs. There are also tubeworms, sea cucumbers, snails, and hermit crabs. The south side of the reef also offers a good view to the seals that sun themselves on the boulders just off of the reef. Shelter Point is home to an established seal colony that stays there year round.


Finally, at the very eastern edges of the reef, only exposed at low tide are the seaweeds and sea grasses attached to the weathered out reef. There is not nearly as much scuttling around out here, but the things you do find are a delight. This is the region where you’ll find Daisy Brittle Stars, Green Sea Urchins, and, if you are lucky, Sea Lemons.


 Back to Main