Nature of the Spit

In 1966, when Daisy Lee Bitter, then a middle school science teacher in Anchorage, first brought a school group down to Homer for a daylong marine science field trip on the Spit, the group came by chartered DC-3 twin-prop airplane.

Bitter was eager to show her students the incredible diversity of marine invertebrates you could find along the Spit, a place she had by then been visiting for about a decade. 

Through bake sales, car washes and a $5 payment from each student’s family, Bitter and her students had managed to raise the funds for the plane. From the airport, the school group hiked out to the beach behind where the barge basin now sits to explore moon snails and their egg masses shaped like collars of sand, octopus denning under rocks, ridged whelks and their towers of eggs up to four inches tall, and a rainbow of sea stars, shellfish and crabs revealed during a minus tide. 

When Bitter’s relationship with the Spit’s natural world began in 1954, on her first trip down to Homer with her husband Conrad, the ribbon of land that stuck out into Kachemak Bay was a very different place. 

It was quieter, of course, aside from a clump of development near the tip of the Spit composed 

of two canneries and a small oil terminal as well as a few scattered private houses and cabins. 

The Spit was also higher and wider then, in those years before the 1964 Earthquake, much of it covered in grasses, and with a stand of about 100 spruce trees and a meadow wide enough for ball games at Green Timbers on the east side of the Spit. Horses grazed year-round on the Spit, and Bitter would harvest from a secret patch of shaggy mane mushrooms each summer. 

Today, aside from being one of the most active hubs of maritime business and visitor activity in Homer, the Spit remains a great spot to explore the natural world. The Spit offers many different ecosystems — sandy and rocky beaches, rocky and grassy intertidal zones, and the subtidal world beneath the harbor docks. 

And all of these habitats are easily accessible and offer a different array of interesting flora and fauna. 

The Spit can be a great spot to look for marine mammals. The Kachemak Bay Research Reserve’s Fishing Educator and Naturalist Carmen Field has advice for spotting a whale off the Spit: stay in one place and look carefully for a long time. Keep watch especially at feeding frenzies of birds at the water’s surface. Here kittiwakes and gulls, as well as marine mammals, make meals out of sand lance and other small fish as well as krill. According to Field, minke whales are the species most commonly seen off the Spit. 

Scan also for dark gray harbor porpoises surfacing alone or in a small group. More commonly, you’ll find sea otters off the tip of the Spit and on the outside of the Spit, feeding on crabs and clams, swimming, resting, and cleaning themselves in order to keep their fur in tip top condition. It is the sea otter’s fur—rather than blubber as is the case with many other marine mammals—that insulates it from the cold-enough-to-kill water.

Although the summer doesn’t provide the dazzling array of bird species on the Spit that can be observed during the spring and fall migrations, there is still a lot to see—and not just the conspicuous bald eagle. Look for a dark “race” of song sparrow (likely one of the darkest in North America) around the Homer harbor and in rocky areas on the Spit; they’re one of Homer’s year-round residents. Watch common murres — especially in the evening — fly out to feed in deep water from the inner bay. They are tidily decked out in black and white plumage and often travel in neat lines above the water.

From the tip of the Spit, scan the water with binoculars for tufted and horned puffins. Check out the differences between the gulls (various species can be found here) and the daintier black-legged kittiwakes, which have black legs and slender, black-tipped wings. If you’re lucky, you could catch site of a bird of prey, such as a northern harrier or merlin, cruising over the Spit’s grassy dunes for the next meal.

The most interesting intertidal explorations on the Spit can be found during minus tides between the barge basin and harbor. Extreme low tides reveal acres of seafloor like a skirt splayed around the Spit. Burrowing anemones, hermit crabs, sea stars, butter and steamer clams, gunnel fish, sculpin, sea urchin and many other colorful and interesting species turn these beaches into a dazzling cosmos. Minus tides reveal scores of sea stars on the beach and dock structures at the tip of the Spit as well.

The grassy berms near Louie’s Lagoon and toward the base of the Spit from Mariner Park provide interesting exploration at any tide. Carmen Field describes these areas as landscapes that “give people a feel of what it would be like to be on an outer coast or an island off the coast of Alaska.” Here, blue-green rye grass grows between driftwood sculpted by the elements. The Spit’s workaday hubbub can seem far away. 

Foremost, the Spit offers a lesson in environmental change. Common eiders — elegant sea ducks, and the largest duck in the northern hemisphere — once nested among the driftwood and grasses along the Spit. By the early 1980s, these birds were in decline in the area, possibly as a result of the disappearance of their primary food, which included shrimp and small Dungeness crab. 

Until about 15 years ago, beluga whales used to visit Mud Bay at the base of the Spit each summer and fall. 

Daisy Lee Bitter laments the changes that have taken place in the intertidal areas off the Spit. 

“The difference between what I saw 61 years ago and what I see today is vast,” she says.

She cites the paucity of cockles and other shellfish due, she says, to over-harvesting. These are, no doubt, just a few conspicuous changes that are among many less obvious ones that have transformed the Spit over the years and continue to shape its natural world.