Four people walking along sandstone shelving at the ocean's edge.

Life at the edges

The foreshore and surrounding Salish Sea are environmentally rich and critical ecosystems. GaLTT’s mandate has always focused on land, but we support the work of Gabriola Island Shore Keepers Association (GISKA) to steward our foreshore. They have several ongoing projects— why not volunteer to help them with

  • Eelgrass mapping and protection
  • Mapping forage fish spawning habitat
  • Supporting herring populations
  • Beach clean-ups
  • Marine debris clean-up
  • Removal of creosote pilings
  • Education about soft shore methods for ecological restoration.

Like our land, our shores are under threat from human activity. Deliberate and accidental changes to shoreline profiles can alter marine ecosystems and inappropriately placed docks and moorage can damage important habitats. Debris litters our beaches and harms wildlife, and derelict boats threaten the health of nearby waters. Spills, ocean dumping, and just plain careless littering can disastrously affect the foreshore’s ecological health.

The extreme mid-day heat in June 2021, which coincided with very low tides, killed great expanses of exposed shellfish like mussels and barnacles. It was a terrible reminder of the disastrous effects of rapid climate change.

Sea anemone under water
Oystercatchers foraging in the shallows at Brickyard Beach.
Looking out to sea from top of cliffs. Photos shows section of cliff with freighters and log boom in the distance.

Intertidal species

The intertidal zones hold a wide range of species. All around our island, you may see eagles, ravens and crows, kingfishers, several types of gull, cormorants, oyster catchers, sandpipers, winter-breeding ducks, and geese. Blue heron stand to patiently fish in the shallows. Mink, raccoons, and otters also forage from this foreshore dinner plate.

Clam beds such as those in False Narrows, have a great variety of shellfish, including several types of clams, native and introduced oysters, cockles, mussels, and moon snails. They continue to have great cultural significance to the Snuneymuxw and other local First Nations.

Cliffs are categorized as sensitive ecosystems on Gabriola, providing nesting habitat for many shore birds such as cormorants and kingfishers, as well as small mammals and reptiles.

Sea lions haul out on log booms under our cliffs, and seals rest on the reefs.

Concrete marker indicating Snuneymuxw First Nation clam beds.

Marker indicating Snuneymuxw clam beds at False Narrows

Sandy beaches and forage fish

Sandy beaches are not just for sandcastles—they provide spawning ground for intertidal species. Forage fish habitat has been confirmed by GISKA at four Gabriola beaches: Sandwell Park, El Verano, Pilot Bay (one of the Twin Beaches in Gabriola Sands Park) and at Ruby Bay. Ruby Bay is on the northwest side of the isthmus between Silva Bay and Dragons Keep.

For details on the beaches around Gabriola where forage fish spawning has been confirmed, see

BOTTOM RIGHT: Every so often you might find a Pacific sandlance washed up on a sandy beach. These little burrowing fish are highly important in the ocean’s food chain.

Person with binoculars sitting on a rock looking out over sandy beach to distant island
Small dead fish on sand. Fish is a sandlance
Bed of eelgrass in shallow water.
Great blue heron standing in eelgrass at edge of ocean

Photo: Susan T Cook

Eelgrass “meadows”

GISKA is mapping Gabriola’s eelgrass beds in intertidal and subtidal areas. These beds soften the impact of waves and currents, preventing coastal erosion and providing a calm space where organic matter and sediments are deposited

Eelgrass is not a seaweed—it is a perennial flowering plant, which can spread by vegetative growth and by seed germination. In the Pacific Northwest, growth is mostly vegetative and there are two species:

  • Zostera marina (the native species) which grows in the lower ranges of the intertidal zone where water is deeper. This type of eelgrass has been found in Taylor Bay, in False Narrows and Descanso Bay, and at Spring Beach.
  • Zostera japonica (Japanese “dwarf” eelgrass) is a naturalized exotic species, inhabiting higher areas of the intertidal zone, where water is shallower, such as in Taylor Bay at Twin Beaches.

Eelgrass provides food, shelter and protection from predators for many juvenile fish and shellfish in a diverse and productive ecosystem. The beds provide essential food for resident and migratory waterfowl as well as marine organisms such as snails and sea urchins. Diatoms and algae grow on the eelgrass leaves. Eelgrass dies off in the winter and regrows each spring and summer, so its detritus also provides habitat and food for foreshore creatures

Kelp forests

Kelp beds a little further out from shore also provide essential habitat for many species. Kelps, which are giant algae, are foundational species, providing underwater “forests” that are very productive ecosystems. The area near Gabriola’s lighthouse is a rich feeding ground for seal, sea lions and whales.

Elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest, kelp forests support the richly complex interdependence of sea otters, kelp, and sea urchins. The sea otters are slowly being restored to the outer coast following their decimation by the fur trade. Many species such as abalone depend upon kelp forests for their survival.

Here on Gabriola’s shores there are no sea otters but river otters abound, just as happy in the salt water. They often nest in rocky crevices at the top of the beach (or, if you’re unlucky, under your deck or even in your boat—a smelly experience).

Looking down on a kelp forest in the ocean. You can clearly see the long bullwhip shapes from the bulbs with streamers at the top.
Two young otters in a kelp bed.

Enjoying Gabriola’s foreshore

Gabriolans can access a great variety of foreshore. Sandwell Provincial Park has both pebble and low-tide sandy foreshore, and you can view a significant salt marsh (very unusual habitat on the Gulf Islands) adjacent to the park, on private land. Drumbeg Provincial Park has both sandstone and pebbly beaches. The isthmus at Gabriola Sands (Twin Beaches) has extensive sandy foreshores with eelgrass beds in both Taylor Bay and Pilot Bay. A significant bed of live sand dollars protrudes from the sand at very low tide in Taylor Bay. The sandstone headland between Pilot Bay and Taylor Bay has interesting rock formations and tidal pools.

The forested campsite in Descanso Bay Regional Park is adjacent to sandstone beaches and rock ledges, with sandy coves at low tide. Several Whalebone Drive community parks have great viewpoints above wild, pebbly Whalebone Beach (a rockhound’s paradise!) along the Georgia Strait. The long beach can be accessed from Joyce Lockwood Park. The gravel beaches and low-tide clam-bed flats of fiercely tidal False Narrows lie between Gabriola and Mudge Islands. Significant numbers of blue heron fish in the shallows at low tide and winter breeding ducks abound. It’s an easy mid-to-low-tide beach-walk linking Brickyard Beach, the El Verano boat ramp, and the cemetery trail near Clamshell Drive and South Road. Ron Holmes’ Life on the Narrows video talks about many of the species here.


The Gabriola Museum sells a colourful, illustrated guidebook to five of Gabriola’s beaches. The book is supported in the museum by an exhibit showcasing a marine life beach diorama.