On a summer’s day when the sea and the sky are a matching blue and the whole world sparkles, there’s nothing as inviting as donning a snorkel and taking a swim across the bay. This summer, for the first time, Junior joined me in my forays over the rocky reefs.
While he built up experience, we floated shoulder to shoulder and sculled our way over the waving seaweed to the deeper gullies.
On our third snorkel outing, I was enjoying the sun on my back and the gentle roll of the waves when Junior screamed down his snorkel. I grabbed his arm in case he was hurt, but he was frantically pointing and making the “fish’”sign with his hand. He had just seen his first ballan wrasse.
The fish was a full-sized adult, maybe 40 or 50cm long with a thick body and a criss-cross patterns of lines interspersed with pale blue spots. An impressive fish. Undeterred by Junior’s shriek of excitement, it carried on its slow, hovering path through the kelp-lined gully for a while before darting away as we neared.
On the same venture, we spotted barnacles feeding with their feathery legs, shore crabs strolling along the sea floor, a shanny surveying its territory from the top of a rock and great glistening shoals of sand eels rolling by. On other days, we came across groups of corkwing wrasse with pouting lips and turquoise-striped faces, spider crabs lurching through the kelp, and tangled snakelocks anemones spreading their green tentacles.
Nearby, crowds of tourists paddled and swam, oblivious to the beauty below them (or the pinching claws and stinging tentacles near their feet).
This summer has seen waves of jellyfish drifting through, from comb jellies to the harmless moon jelly, the less harmless blue and compass jellies and the enormous barrel jellies. Some days the sea was thick with jellyfish, but this didn’t stop Junior from mastering the art of catching waves on his bodyboard or wiping out headfirst into the blue-jelly-soup. He swam for the shore in a hurry on one of our snorkel safaris though, when a compass jelly brushed over my face and stung my back.
I have almost no photos of our snorkelling expeditions this year. Next year, when Junior is more confident, I’ll be able to carry a camera, but this season we just revelled in the perfect days and soaked up the sun . As we knew it would, the summer ended abruptly, dissipating like a mirage from one day to the next and the water is no longer so inviting.
For now, we are hanging up our snorkels and returning to the rock pools, exchanging beach shoes for wellies as the autumn chill moves in, but there is everything to look forward to. A week of Shoresearch surveys starts tomorrow in Looe, which is guaranteed to bring new finds and lots of species records for Cornwall Wildlife Trust.
The empty beaches make this a wonderful time of year to explore the rock pools and before we know it, the first of the autumn storms will blast in, washing who knows what onto our shores. Watch this space!
Between the snorkel trips, I did squeeze in some rock pooling. Here are some of my favourite photos from the summer.
Although no beach in Cornwall is a complete secret, there is no shortage of inaccessible bays, without car parks, cafes and many of these are perfect for rock pooling. The extra effort of walking (in my case sliding) down a steep field and hauling back up it at the end of the day pays off. This secret beach, one of several between Falmouth and the Helford river is a complete gem, just as diverse as I remember it.
Cornish Rock Pools Junior’s friends who appeared on Countryfile with us have joined us today. Unlike Portreath, the north coast beach we filmed at, it’s incredibly easy to find creatures on this sheltered shore.
Our first discovery is that a population of St Piran’s hermit crabs has established here, probably new since my last visit several years back. I spot the tell-tale red antennae poking out of a shell.
We haven’t gone far before we come across a lovely long pool with plenty of loose boulders to provide protection to sea creatures. As I turn a rock, Junior spots a large fish that shoots out and noses into a clump of seaweed at the edge of the pool to hide. I put Other Half on the case. He skillfully coaxes it into a corner of the pool in the hope it will swim into his big bucket, which it obligingly does.
The underside of the rock I’ve turned is crowded with life. There are colourful patches of sponges and sea squirts. A clutch of yellow eggs coats part of the surface.
These are clingfish eggs and the parent will be nearby. Within them, the babies are developing fast. A pair of eyes gazes out of each egg and the tails, wrapped tightly round the little heads are visible too. Something close by catches my attention, a colourful slug.
The slug’s long, yellow-tipped cerata sway like hair in the current, giving it a puffed-up appearance. It’s an attractive animal, a pale blue colour when it catches the light. This slug, Calma glaucoides, specialises in eating fish eggs, and especially likes those of the clingfish.
Meanwhile, Other Half and Junior are excited about the fish in their bucket. Junior reckons it’s a giant goby and I think he may be right. I try to pick it up to try to confirm the species by taking a look at the fin under its belly, but the fish is very lively.
Junior deploys his best trout tickling skills to persuade the fish to lie still in his hands, which it eventually more or less does. The sucker-fin underneath has a thick, pointed lobe at the front.
The fish has the small eyes and the salt-and-pepper colouring typical of a giant goby and lacks the yellow band on the top of the first dorsal fin which identified the more common rock goby. Its fins are tipped with grey instead. This fish is highly protected and it’s important not to disturb or trap them without a licence, so, Junior carefully lowers the bucket into the pool allowing his goby friend to swim straight back to its favourite hiding place.
Other finds come in so fast, it’s hard to keep up with them. We come close to catching a huge mystery fish, which thrashes through the seaweed but escapes without being seen. I find a small yellow slug which I initially assume is Jorunna tomentosa, which I often see on the shore. It’s only when I look at the photos at home that I realise my mistake. This slug has lumpy protrusions all over its body that have a sandy, almost warty appearance.
I’ve never seen anything like it, the reason being that this slug has only rarely been recorded in the UK. Doris ocelligera tends to occur further south but seems to be becoming more established in the south of the UK and northern France, with several records coming in over the last few weeks. An exciting find and one I’ll have to look out for more carefully in future.
Thanks go to David Fenwick of Aphotomarine for confirming this slug’s identity.
One of Louis’s friends finds this fabulous spider crab.
It’s a female which has decorated herself in so much seaweed that, unless she moves, it’s impossible to tell she’s not just another rock. We have a good look at her amazing stalked eyes and spiny shell before returning her safely into the seaweed.
The children’s mums aren’t to be outdone. They get stuck in and bring me all sorts of lovely things. This Ophiothrix fragilis common brittle star has a wonderful bright orange centre.
Another mum finds brilliant yellow Berthella plumula slugs, paired together under a stone ready to spawn.
This white-ruffed sea slug (Aeolidella alderi) was another lovely find.
The rocks of the lower shore are covered in all sorts of colourful wildlife. Ciona intestinalis sea squirts tipped with bright yellow rings, blue star ascidian sea squirts and lots of variegated scallops decked out in marbled patterns of brilliant orange and pink.
One variegated scallop opens its shell and swims away in jerking side to side movements, like a leaf falling from a tree.
Before we know it, the tide is pushing in and we slip and slide our way across the seaweed-covered rocks back to the sand. The time between the tides is short, just enough to give us a glimpse into this extraordinary marine community before the sea rolls in to cover everything once more. We sit and watch oystercatchers, herons and even a pair of swans fly across the sea, while the children set off into the distance with a metal detector, onto new adventures already.
Visiting a beach like this is an extraordinary privilege. We make sure to leave everything unharmed, to pick up any litter we see and to leave nothing behind. I’m already looking forward to my next visit.
The sun breaks through the cloud as the first children arrive. It’s a perfect day for a Wildlife Watch expedition and although I don’t know the beach at Coverack well, a quick paddle in the rippling shallows has already yielded sand eels, an attractive pink thin tellin shell and plenty of shore crabs so it’s shaping up well.
I always look forward to meeting my Wildlife Watch groups and this one doesn’t disappoint. My assistant, Vicky, does a fabulous job of welcoming everyone and helping set up and the children are enthusiastic and curious, raring to get stuck in. It’s especially good to see how well the kids care for the animals, making sure they have enough water in their tubs, replacing any stones and seaweed they move and not detaching animals that might get damaged like anemones and limpets.
One lad is particularly adventurous and knowledgeable, so we have fun investigating a gully between two huge rocks. We find the inner face of one rock is covered in a massive sheet of breadcrumb sponge and there are especially large strawberry anemones in the pool beneath. My new friend stays there trying to catch an elusive fish while I help others identify creatures.
Soon, the finds are coming in to our makeshift shore laboratory. Glittering sand eels, a feisty velvet swimming crab with devilish red eyes, a whole troop of hermit crabs and colourful brittle stars which we watch walking on their long arms.
My new friend comes over with a shore crab. He’s learned that they keep their eggs under their tails and is excited to find one he thinks is in berry. He seems disappointed when I reveal that, although she has something under there, it’s not eggs. But this is something far more exciting. It’s a parasitic barnacle, Sacculina carcini, which I’ve been searching for and never seen. The yellow mass under the crab’s tail is the barnacle’s fruiting body, the barnacle’s eggs – not the crab’s.
Unfortunately for the crab, once it is infected it can no longer moult and grow or lay eggs. The barnacle will take a lot of energy from the crab as it spreads through its body. It can even trick male crabs into behaving like females to ensure that they will successfully release the barnacle’s young when the eggs are ready to hatch. It’s amazing to see, even if it’s not good news for the crab.
As always, I get more than a little distracted doing my own rock pooling. I can’t help myself. I briefly feel guilty that I’m not available enough to the children while I’m crawling about among the slippery boulders, but then I spot a miniscule thing moving on the rock and it has my entire attention.
The thing looks like a tiny lobster. I scramble to grab a suitable pot and when I look back at the rock I can’t see it any more. I stare at the area where I saw it but it’s just not there. I look all around the surface of the rock in vain, gently tip a little sea water down it to see if anything moves but I’m scared I might wash it off accidentally.
When I finally relocate my mini crustacean, it is nearly at the edge. With a lot of care and determination, I succeed in catching it in my pot. It’s only about 5mm long, but seems to be a tiny squat lobster, the smallest I’ve ever seen.
Back at the trays, we all gather round to take a close look at all the animals and learn about their lives and strange habits. We have a fabulous diversity of creatures to watch before they’re returned to the shore.
I slip my baby squat lobster into a petri dish to take some photos. It looks a bit strange, as though something has got caught on its back legs. When I look a couple of minutes later, the thing that’s stuck to it has grown. It’s hard to see as the whole animal is only a few millimetres long, but when the ‘thing’ comes away I’m in no doubt. The squat lobster is growing and has just shed its old skin.
The old carapace is an exact replica of the animal, only colourless and transparent. As the new, soft shell of the squat lobster begins to harden it seems to grow before our eyes.
It’s something I’ve never seen before. It’s what’s so special about events like this. Even though I’m here to help others learn and see new things, I’ve seen something new myself.
A day at Kynance Cove on the Lizard Peninsula has become a fixture in the Cornish Rock Pools calendar. The smooth, serpentine cliffs don’t create many hiding places for marine life, but Junior loves the geology and caves. There are always creatures to see too if you look carefully enough, so I take the opportunity to relax in the sun, staring at fish through the clear water.
The funny thing is that, while I stare in, the fish stare back, creeping closer up the sides, over pink encrusting algae and through fronds of the Corallina seaweed to secure a better view. Bold young shannies, prop themselves up on their two-pronged pectoral fins, swivelling their colourful clown eyes to observe me.
In the far corner of the pool, a Montagu’s blenny pops up to say hello. It’s easily recognisable by its pronged head tentacle, which looks like a tiny Christmas tree.
The surrounding rocks are covered in barnacles, which suits these fish well. The Montagu’s blenny likes nothing better than to nibble the feeding legs off barnacles.
I soon start to doubt that this fish is just curious. Unlike the shannies, which are just juveniles, this Montagu’s blenny is full size and sports a fine pattern of turquoise spots on his body. It is the male blenny’s job to guard the eggs, and this fish is taking no prisoners.
He seems determined to chase me out of his territory, repeatedly headbutting my camera. He may only be 7cm long, but I have a feeling that if I put a finger in the water he won’t hesitate to take me on with his sharp little teeth.
The hard rock becomes uncomfortable to lie on after a while, digging into my legs, but I try not to change position. The fish will scatter if I make any sudden movement or noise. Half a dozen shannies are darting around the bottom of the pool, while others are basking in shallow grooves at the edge. The Montagu’s blenny doesn’t take his eye off my camera.
I watch him until the tide turns and the waves begin to sweep in. This may not be the most diverse rock pooling beach, but the fish are a joy to watch and it’s a wonderful spot to while away a sunny morning before enjoying a pasty in the café. Summer starts here!
I should be at home, cracking on with some work, but I’ve heard there are comb jellies about and I could do with some photos for my jellyfish course for ERCCIS.
I cut through overgrown vegetation, down the cliff path to a favourite cove. In the ten minutes it’s taken me to walk here, the grey clouds have lifted and the sea’s looking good enough to dive into.
My progress through the rocky gully is slow. The warm weather has brought an explosion of slippery sea lettuce which blocks my view of my feet as they feel for underwater rocks. Tangles of pink spaghetti, the eggs of sea hares, are wrapped around many of the green fronds and a close inspection reveals that dozens of stalked jellyfish (Haliclystus octoradiatus) have already made their homes here.
As I move into deeper water, something catches my eye, floating below the surface. It’s so transparent it’s barely there, but it shimmers intermittently. With some difficulty, the current swishing the jelly back and forth, I scoop it up and carry it in cupped hands to a sheltered overhang. For a moment I think I’ve dropped it, then it swims out.
I’m treated to a fabulous display of iridescence as the comb jelly beats its tiny combs, sending a trail of light and colour up the lines on its tiny body.
Between the current washing into the pool and the jelly’s own surprisingly speedy swimming efforts, it slips away each time I come close to getting it under the camera. To add to the fun, my camera can’t see it. I take a whole series of photos of nothing. The perfect transparency of the animal means I can only focus on the seaweed below.
When another comb jelly washes into the pool, I’m sure there will be lots more opportunities to attempt photos. Stepping out into the open water, I take some time to accustom my eyes, staring past the surface reflection into the water. Soon, I notice comb jellies everywhere.
There are dozens, hundreds even, and some are large enough to fill the palm of my hand. Even the large jellies pose a challenge to my camera, but amongst the many seaweed shots, I start to take a few that show off the jellies’ light display.
While most are the large species, Beroe cucumis, with their characteristic sack shape, there are a few smaller ones amongst them. These are sea gooseberries, Pleurobrachia pileus. They are barely a couple of centimetres long, spherical, with two trailing tentacles.
Despite their tiny size, they are just as mesmerising as the B. Cucumis, the lines down their sides flickering every colour of the rainbow.
Among all the comb jellies I spot an even smaller interloper, a hydroid medusa. Hydroids are related to jellyfish, but their adult form usually lives attached to seaweeds, stones or shells. This minute creature is a baby hydroid, looking very much like a jellyfish as it actively swims past, beating its bell fringed with short tentacles.
The pattern of the cross on top of it and the fringe of dark spots around the edge of the bell suggest that it is a young Clytia hemispherica.
The glare of sunlight on my screen combined with the transparency of all the animals I’m trying to photograph make it impossible to tell how I am doing. I give up taking photos and simply enjoy the spectacle until the tide calls time and forces me back up the beach.
Comb jellies are supposed to phosphoresce, which would be amazing to see. I’m wondering if I can sneak in a little night time rockpooling this weekend. Although the jellies are here in huge numbers today, they may disappear as quickly as they arrived. I should be working, but some things are just too exciting.
The sun shone, which is always a good start, and I couldn’t have asked for a more enthusiastic group. After the morning’s presentation and a lot of work on topshell identification, we enjoyed a perfect picnic on Gyllingvase beach, taking care to protect our sandwiches from the herring gulls, before setting out to explore the rocks.
I was showing some of the group the different topshells, winkles and other shells found near the top of the shore, when someone found a coil of eggs under a stone. It was a perfect start – the eggs of a great grey sea slug (Aeolidia filomenae). We looked all around the area and couldn’t see the slug that had laid them, but it was probably still close by.
Inspired by our early success, we carried on down the shore and one of the group found some codium seaweed. Remembering that I’d mentioned that the photosynthesising sea slug, Elysia viridis, is often found on this seaweed, she called me over.
The lump on the codium she’d hoped might be a slug was seaweed, but we examined the codium some more and soon found two photosynthesising slugs on it. The shout of, ‘Slug’, went up so that everyone could gather to take a look.
Gyllingvase has all sorts of seaweeds, lots of pools and steep rocky overhangs, which makes it a perfect habitat for snails. We found the egg capsules of the netted dog whelk and the European sting winkle among many other things.
‘Slug!’ The shout went up again, this time for a big brown sea hare (Aplysia punctata) and before long we’d seen several of them. They love the sea lettuce and other seaweeds that are growing rapidly in the pools this time of year. They were congregating all over the beach to lay their pink spaghetti egg strings on the seaweed.
We had another shout, that turned out to be this beautiful candy-striped flatworm. It’s not a mollusc of course, but was still a great find.
It was clear there were plenty of creatures to be found and the entire group took the search seriously, crawling on the rocks, staring into pools, lifting seaweed and bringing all sorts of finds to me.
In a kelp-strewn gully at the edge of the sea, we found more snail eggs of various sorts and some live sting winkles. A sea lemon was sheltering in a small hole in the rock, our fourth sea slug species of the day.
We put it in a pot of water to watch its rhinophores emerge from its head and its gill feathers unfurl on its back.
By now the tide was starting to turn, so I placed the sea lemon back on its rock and hurried to take a look down another promising gully. There were some anemones about, the favourite food of the great grey sea slug whose eggs we’d seen at the beginning, so I hoped I might find one hanging about there somewhere.
After a few minutes of examining an overhang and taking a look under stones I’d drawn a blank and stopped to take a look at some finds people had brought to me. I was about to haul myself back up the rocks when I spotted a long stone that was half-wedged against the rounded overhang at the back of the pool. It looked like a sluggy sort of stone, one that wouldn’t move easily and might have all sorts of sponges, squirts and other things slugs like to eat growing on or near it.
As soon as I turned the stone, I could see the colourful cerrata of a little slug. It most definitely wasn’t a great grey sea slug with its bright reds and blues. I screamed, ‘Slug!’ loudly enough for most of Falmouth to hear and fumbled with a petri dish, scared I might drop the slug in the water and lose it.
The great thing about teaching a workshop is that everyone there is just as excited by marine creatures as me, and this one, a Facelina auriculata, is one of the most beautiful slugs I’ve seen on the shore. It caused a lot of excitement and photo taking.
After returning the Facelina auriculata, which we nicknamed ‘the patriotic slug’ due to its red, white and blue colours, I turned my attention to a deep pool to look at some rainbow wrack. Lovely though the turquoise iridescence of rainbow wrack is, it wasn’t the seaweed itself that interested me, but the colony of various hydroids growing on it. These colonial animals are relatives of the jellyfish and anemones and are a favourite food of many sea slugs.
I was hoping to find a Eubranchus farrani, a colourful slug with fat cerrata and orange markings on its body, which loves to eat hydroids. I soon spotted a tiny slug, but it was something different. It was so small I could barely see it, but in the petri dish when it came out fully I could see under my camera’s magnification that it was a Polycera quadrilineata, a pretty white slug with yellow markings and yellow-tipped tentacles.
It was hard to see much with the naked eye, but we all had hand lenses and cameras to get a close look.
By this time the tide was rushing in. A last foray along a higher gully produced a cowrie shell and a perfectly orange common starfish, which isn’t a mollusc but made us happy nonetheless.
By the end of the day we’d seen five species of sea slug, the egg spiral of the great grey sea slug and all sorts of snails. It was the kind of fantastic result that comes from lots of dedicated people searching and a good dose of luck.
I can only hope that my run of workshop luck holds for my jellyfish course later in the year. Who knows what might turn up?
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