In a year of turmoil in the human world, the colour and diversity of the Cornish rock pools have revived my spirits on every visit. While there’s much to be done about plastic waste, discarded fishing gear, pollution and other threats to our marine wildlife, the end of the year feels a good time to reflect on the positives.
So, here are a few of my rockpool highlights from 2016… (and a scroll down for a video of a chough!)
Flat periwinkles are so common on the shore that I’m guilty of overlooking them. Taking a morning to watch them was a revelation. They’re colourful, industrious and surprisingly engaging. They’re well worth a look, especially on stormy winter days when the lower shore isn’t accessible.
On the first big tides of the year, I explored a new section of the rocky shore near Looe and found an amazing gully teeming with life. Among the cowries, sea squirts, sea slugs and crabs, I came across this gorgeous little hermit crab with one huge white-gloved claw, the Anapagurus hyndmanni.
In March the rock pools were bursting into life. Baby cat sharks were hatching in front of my eyes and other fish were busy laying their eggs. Among the rocks I spotted this Galathea strigosa squat lobster – a rare sight on my local beach. This one was only a few centimetres long, but its colours were fabulous.
In April I visited one of my favourite childhood beaches, Porth Mear near Porthcothan, with a group of North Devon naturalists. We recorded sea spiders, unusual crabs and had the most northerly sighting (at that time) of the St Piran’s Hermit crab, which has made a comeback around Cornwall in 2016. Best of all, we found a pool full of Scarlet and gold cup corals. These corals were way too small for my old camera to capture but this time I was better prepared.
The water was warming up nicely in May and little eyes were starting to look back at me from the fish eggs clustered under the rocks. Sea slugs were also making their way onto the shore and, as always, blowing me away with their colours. This yellow-clubbed sea slug (Limacia clavigera) was exploring the seaweed in West Looe and was a big hit with the children on our shore survey.
Under a shining sun, June was a fabulous month for rockpooling. What grabbed my attention most were the fish eggs. To the naked eye there’s not much to see, but with some help from my camera, I was looking into the fully-formed eyes of baby clingfish and seeing their spotted tails wrapped around their noses. In this photo there was even one recently-hatched baby among the crowd.
At the beginning of July, the Bioblitz at Lundy Bay saw perfect conditions, with a tompot blenny, moon jellyfish and even a slow worm among the beach finds. The high point for me was holding this tiny baby turbot – a flatfish – which had been found using nets in the sandy shallows.
During the school holidays, the more accessible sandy beaches are packed, but there’s often plenty of space on the rocky shore. I took Junior and his friends out to explore. On this day we saw jewel anemones, a stalked jellyfish and a butterfish, but our highlight was this bootlace worm. According to the Guinness Book of Records, it’s the world’s longest animal – this was just part of the one we found.
I joined a Shoresearch survey at Hannafore in early September and, as always, there was lots to see. Although they’re not uncommon on the shore, the pipefish are special creatures. They are close relatives of the seahorses. This male is carrying eggs in a special groove down his belly.
In October I took a little ‘school trip’ to see our Celtic cousins in Brittany. I soon discovered that the ‘St Piran’s Crab’, which has reappeared in Cornwall this year after decades of absence, is the common species on the Breton shores. They’re so new to our shores that the only ones we see are tiny. The full-grown specimens were much easier to photograph – showing their equal-sized claws and white-spotted eyes.
In the last couple of months of the year I spent most of my time looking for stalked jellyfish in the pools, but I couldn’t help but be distracted by the sunshine falling on this strawberry anemone.
Stalked jellyfish are relatively easy to see this time of year, when the seaweed has died back, but only if the conditions are calm and clear. During several calm days of spring tides this December I recorded dozens of these little gems in the rock pools. When the land is looking bare and brown in winter, there’s still no shortage of colour in the rock pools.
I closed my year with a walk on my home beach of Mawgan Porth. As I watched sand gobies skidding away under a rock, an unmistakeable cry made me look up. On the clifftop just metres away, a solitary chough was feeding, plunging its scarlet deep into the turf. These birds were considered extinct here when I was a child on this beach, but now I’m able to show my son his first chough in the place I grew up.
We came across a chough again at sunset and my other half took this video.
What better sign could there be? 2017 will bring challenges for wildlife, but as long as there are enough people who take action, positive change is possible.