Join me in the cold, dark, life-sustaining NE Pacific Ocean to discover the great beauty, mystery and fragility hidden there.

Who Goes There? Dizzying tracks in the sand.

Let me take you on a little mystery that filled me with big wonder, inspiration and happiness.

It goes back to July of 2017 when I was naturalist around Haida Gwaii with Maple Leaf Adventures.

Let’s make it a photo essay.

To set the stage, here’s the boat and the crew.

Crew from left to right: Mate -Lynsey Rebbetoy, Deckhand -Terese Ayre, Naturalist -You-Know-Who, Captain- Ashley Stokes, Chef -Yasmin Ashi.

You’ll note that the beautiful, historic sailing ship was operated by an all female crew on this trip. Important to note? Yes, but let me not digress.

Here’s the beach at Woodruff Bay near Cape St. James.

The discovery was made by the child I was so glad was on the trip.

Meet Kay from Germany.

Like any smart, curious and observant young person would, she asked what had made the crazy, convoluted patterns in the sand.

Here’s a closer look . . .

. . . and an even closer look.

I didn’t know what species had made those remarkable, dizzying tracks. But, the best things had come together – a mystery, a child, and the chance to discover the answer together.

We struck out to solve the mystery and found lots of little clam shells near the tracks.

We looked more closely at the tracks.

And found the tiny clams IN the tracks.

And then we noted what they were doing. They were licking the sand!

We had found the animal that was making the tracks and concluded the tiny clams must be feeding on organic material in this way. It is known as “deposit feeding” whereby the bivalves use their inhalant siphons to sweep the sand for detritus and microbes = snacks.

We were in awe at thinking of how much sand they must process to leave such long individual tracks and that they must be doing this quite quickly.

Upon returning to the ship, I was able to use the resources there to determine that the tiny clam was some species a “Tellin”.

However, it took my emailing my mollusc expert friends to have the species of Tellin confirmed.

Naturalist supreme, Bill Merilees, let me know I had “met British Columbia’s most beautiful clam Tellina nuculoides, the Salmon Tellin.” He also shared the results of his work to study their growth rings (imagine the dedication needed to count the growth rings of a large sample of tiny clams.) Bill’s research suggests Salmon Tellins can live to age 11 or 12.

Armed with their species name, I was able to find out a bit more.Their maximum size is 2 cm and their range is from southern Alaska to northern California. I presume the “salmon” in their common name refers to their beautiful colour.

I became even more awe-inspired to learn that research supports that bivalves like Tellins select particles based on physical and/or chemical properties that are poorly understood! (Source:

Imagine THAT while you watch my blurry video of the Salmon Tellins licking the sand.

To conclude, I will resist all the puns I could be using to be “tellin” it like it is. (Oops, clearly I am not entirely successful in resisting.)

Rather, I will share the quote with which mollusc expert Rick Harbo responded when I asked him about the species and their tracks.

He reflected on the tracks made by mollusc species who feed in this way with the words of Gandalf from Lord of the Rings  . . .

“All who wander are not lost”.


The happiness that comes with connection to nature and making discoveries – Kay with a boa of “Feather Boa Kelp” that had washed onto the beach. Be on the lookout for Salmon Tellins on a fine sand beach from Alaska to California. Note that other mollusc species (and worms, some sea slugs, etc) also leave tracks in the sand. More on other trail-blazing species in the future. 

20 Responses to “Who Goes There? Dizzying tracks in the sand.”

  1. Wendy coderre

    Well Jackie you and Kay have solved a mystery for me too! As a kid saw these and never new what they were. At the time we added to them with a stick to make pictures. LOL! TC ❤

  2. Beth Stewart

    This is an absolutely amazing story. In all my years of searching the beaches,
    I don’t think I have seen Salmon Tellins – or else I’ve missed them! Thanks for this
    very great information.

  3. Stevi Kittleson

    What a pleasure to have the mystery of the sand calligraphy both explained and enhanced by this article…will have to read up a bit and see if the writing on our beaches have the same ‘authors’. Thanks again.

  4. Barbara Dobree

    Thanks for this Jackie. Amazing that I’ve not seen these either. Born and raised on the coast with a home on Van. Island and Haida Gwaii. Now I’ll be looking on every sand beach.
    Bill Merrilees is a fabulous resource too. He’s been out to Mitlenatch Island Provincial Park to help us with some of the citizen science projects we have underway. So much history from his time on this island.
    If you ever have a week free, I think you would enjoy participating in our programs. We’d have to make sure it was a week when the intertidal studies needed to be done. Or there are lots of other choices! We’ve had lots of humpbacks showing up the last couple of years.
    We work as volunteers with the Parks Dept. Operating 6 months of the year to have stewards on the island from Sunday to Sunday each week from Mar. 31st to mid Sept. Water taxi from Campbell River. If you’re interested, get in touch:
    Missed your regular postings!

  5. dobree2012

    Hi Jackie, Thanks for this. Having been born and raised on Vancouver Island with a home there and on Haida Gwaii, I don’t ever remember seeing these Tellin. Or if I did they didn’t register.
    Just thinking that you might be interested in spending a week with us on Mitlenatch Island. We are a group of volunteer stewards who look after the island a week at a time for 6 months of the year from March 31st to mid Sept. in conjunction with B.C. Parks. We have many citizen science projects under way, some with the help of Bill Merilees who has a lot of history on Mitlenatch. If you came we’d have to make sure it was a week that we are scheduled to do an Intertidal Survey, or not.

    We stay on the island from Sunday to Sunday with departure by water taxi from Campbell River. You would be a great fit! We’ve seen a lot of humpbacks in the last couple of years.

    If you are interested, get in touch with me. If not this year, another. No commitment for anything than other one week.


    Barb Dobree

  6. Shiela Legg

    Very cool! Thanks Jackie! And I really like the “sand calligraphy” description!

  7. Kay Garbe

    Hi Jackie,
    thank you very much for your explanations about the salmon tellins. It was such a great adventure and also a big fun to research with you there.😀🤣

  8. Lynn

    Jackie, It is such a pleasure to read your blog. This is a lovely story. And young people like Kay give me hope for our planets future!
    Please keep writing!

  9. christywilson

    thanks so much for tellin’ us about these incredible creatures! love all the research and expert testimony included! especially the all who wander quote from Rick and the great close up photos of the clams in the sand!!!! i want to find these little treasures now too (all those sand track that I usually attribute to worms or screw snails….wonder if some of these clams were mixed in too!!)….love their erratic (but strategic!) trails! art for sure!!!

  10. Kay Garbe

    Hello Jackie,
    Thank you very much for your great explanation and the beautiful photo story!
    It was such an exciting adventure and so much fun to do research with you there. 😃🤣

  11. melharte

    Yes, thanks so much for the footage, even if blurry. [Have you tried an iphone/ipad video for a better view?] I’ve been seeing them in the drift at McClure’s Beach, Point Reyes Natl Seashore, CA, but never have seen the sand tracks — I suspect the beach slope is too steep, and the sand gets too warm for them to live close to the upper intertidal. But I’ll keep a lookout.
    Because it is blurry, wanted to ask a question: it appears in the video that the foot is forcing the clam forward, and one can’t see the actual siphons probing for organics, but I’m presuming that’s what is happening. But why would they expose themselves to do so? BTW, do you know whether these nearshore tellins survived the great heatwaves in 2020-2021? thanks again!

    • The Marine Detective

      Note that this is a very remote location on SE Haida Gwaii only accessible by boat that I have not had the opportunity to see again since 2017. My assumption is the same re. feeding.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s