Nights out tend to become a distant memory when you’re a parent. For the most part I don’t miss them. I have, however, been looking forward to Junior being old enough to join me for night time rock pooling. Towards the end of last year, we tried it for the first time and, although the conditions weren’t ideal, he’s been asking to go again ever since.
The best low tides always happen around the middle of the day, and the middle of the night, but we compromise for this first family expedition of the year, choosing a reasonable low tide at around 10.30pm. The warm, calm weather provides good opportunities for seeing nocturnal activity and tonight I’m trying out my ultraviolet (UV) torch.
It doesn’t disappoint.
I’ve always known that certain species glow under UV light, but I had no idea how much. We’ve barely taken ten paces out across the rocks when we see our first snakelocks anemone, shining from the darkness like an eerie green beacon. The colour is wonderfully alien.
This fluorescence is caused by certain proteins within the animals that take in light of one colour and emit it as another. Some deeper water species can use these properties to appear red, even though red light is filtered out as it passes through the water, meaning the only light available to underwater creatures is UV or blue.
It’s not clear why snakelocks anemones and other sea creatures might want to fluoresce in this way. It seems there may be some benefit in it for their symbiotic algae or it might give them sun protection. It may just be a by-product of a protein that’s useful in other ways. Whatever the reasons, it produces an incredible glow. Junior is already talking of coming back at Halloween.
It’s not just the anemones that take our breath away. If you’re used to rock pooling in daylight when most animals are hiding away under rocks and seaweed, the sheer level of activity in after dark takes you by surprise.
A scratching, crackling sound stops us in our tracks. It’s coming from the rocks. I lift the seaweed to show Junior a group of limpets. Some are feeding, their strong radulas scouring seaweed off the rock and chipping bits of rock. Others are setting into their home scars, grinding their shells into their grooves to create a perfect fit. Close-up, their activities make a surprising amount of noise.
Most rockpool animals are largely nocturnal. Pools that seem empty in daytime become bustling cities of activity. We watch hermit crabs milling around in large numbers, crabs marauding through the pool and across the rocks, fish floating in plain sight. Prawns come towards the light and watch us before shooting away backwards.
Other Half spots a small species of spider crab (Macropodia sp.) decorated with long fronds of seaweed edging sideways across the pool. It’s moving too fast to take a clear photo in the poor light. The blurring makes it look even more alien.
A scorpion fish lies still on the sand, watching out for prey.
One surprise is the stunning colours of the seaweeds under the UV light. Some of the dark red seaweeds take on a far more intense, bright colour, glowing red, pink and orange. Where the top shells have worn spires, their tips glow pink.
After an hour, tiredness and cold begin to set in. We switch off our torches and take a moment to gaze at the stars before we head home to bed. Junior is already asking if we can come again the next night, and the next.
It looks like I’ll be having a few more nights out this summer.