Who Needs Mythical Beasts? Rocket Jellies, Snakelocks Anemones and a Dragonet

When my son was younger he thought he saw a kraken. I returned from releasing a crab after an event for the local Cub pack to find him and a friend staring out over the sea, shading their eyes to better spot tentacle tips or unusual splashes among the waves. They were quite sure it was out there.

I watched with them for a long time, until the tide was lapping at our boots, because you never know what might be in the sea. A giant squid would be unusual, but our oceans are full of things that are so weird we are only just beginning to understand them. We sometimes see seals, dolphins and fish feeding frenzies, so why not a kraken?

Since then, my son has grown up a lot and is less sure that there are krakens in Looe. We no longer spend much time hiding in the woods looking for dragons or watching the waves for sea serpents. Junior still loves mythology, Cornish and otherwise, but knows that the real world has as much strangeness as fiction.

We are two minutes into this week’s rock pool expedition when he calls to me urgently to look at a thing he’s found.

Junior at work!

“I think it’s a hydroid medusa,” he says, because there’s not much he doesn’t recognize these days. “Quick, it’s going to get away.”

I grab a pot and wade over to where he is pointing. Staring into the tangle of colourful seaweeds, at first I see nothing.

A flicker of movement has me scooping up the water and when I look in my pot there is a tiny creature zipping from side to side, throwing itself against the edges of the pot like a trapped Trogglehumper. Of course, this creature is not a Roald Dahl creation, but an actual, fabulous marine animal. My books call it a ‘root arm jelly’, although Junior and I know it by a different name.

Whoosh! A rocket jelly. (Cladonema radiatum – aka the root arm jelly).

“Rocket jelly!” we shriek in delight.

With great care, we transfer the jelly into the lid of the pot to see it better.

The underside of the hydroid medusa (Cladonema radiatum – the root arm jelly)

The main part of its body, measuring less than a centimetre, is a perfectly transparent dome, through which we can see its rocket shaped internal parts. Pointing downwards, a mouth fringed with ball-shaped structures is feeling about, moving left and right.

The jelly’s transparent body with dark eyespots around the edge. Root arm jelly (Cladonema radiatum).

At the base of the medusa’s dome there are several dark eyespots. Spreading out at around them, like the fire below a rocket, are the most incredible red tentacles. They are branched, curled and almost feathery. As we watch they expand and contract, feel and reach.

Every time I focus on the medusa, it fires itself off in a new direction. Zooming from one side of the petri dish to another in an instant.

I have never seen a medusa with such expanded tentacles before, but I am sure this is the same species of ‘rocket jelly’ we have seen before (Cladonema radiatum).

Those little tentacles pack a strong sting for their size; it is an efficient little predator. I always find it hard to comprehend is that this free-swimming, speedy jelly is the reproductive stage of a colonial hydroid: an organism which lives attached to rocks or seaweed and doesn’t move from the spot.

Obelia geniculata - a hydroid known as 'sea fir'.
Hydroids like this sea fir, Obelia geniculata, live attached to seaweeds.

While Junior takes photos of the rocket jelly, I notice a young fish glide over the sand, stopping near my feet. It has mottled markings in blue, orange and brown, which look colourful and yet provide the fish with an ideal camouflage among the sand, pebbles and shell fragments. Its eyes are mounted high on its head, giving it a wide field of vision. This is the wonderfully-named dragonet.

Dragonet lying still on the sand. Despite the lovely colours, it is perfectly camouflaged.

These captivating fish have a distinctive way of swimming in short bursts across the seafloor and they have an exceptionally long first dorsal fin. Male dragonets raise this sail-like fin as part of a mating dance, which I would love to see some day! It is perhaps this display, somehow reminiscent of a frill-neck lizard opening its collar, that gives these fish their fabulous name.

Dragonet saying hello to my camera!

The dragonet comes unusually close to my camera before scudding away over the sand, becoming invisible every time it stops.

I take some photos of another striking animal with a mythical name, which seems to abound in this pool: the snakelocks anemone. Just like the Medusa of Roman mythology, this anemone has long, green moving ‘hair’. Instead of being made of snakes, though, the anemone’s locks are its stinging tentacles. They are pretty but deadly, especially if you are a small animal, or even quite a big one. We’ve often seen crab legs hanging out the mouths of these large anemones.

Snakelocks anemones in the rock pool.

Some snakelocks anemones are neon green with purple tips, while others are a muted beige colour. Out of the water, they are a sorry squidgy mess of jelly but in the pools their tentacles move and flow, sometimes with the current, sometimes reaching and grabbing for prey they have sensed.

Snakelocks anemone – some are green and some are beige.

The chug of a boat makes us look up. Unusually for this area, there is a dive boat close to the rocks. Two-by-two, people in Scuba gear pop up on the surface and clamber aboard. I wonder what they have seen and whether they have noticed the tiny rocket jellies, lurking dragonets or even the medusa-haired snakelocks anemones.

Dive boat close in to shore.

Perhaps the divers have seen the kraken as they’ve explored the sea just beyond our reach. Even if they have, we don’t feel we have missed out by being confined to the land. The rock pools are full of truly magical beasts. You just have to look.

Snakelocks tentacles waving in the current.

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