Full Moon in the Cornish Rock Pools

Ever since we discovered gem anemones in the pools at Plaidy last week, Junior has been planning a night-time trip to see them fluorescing under ultraviolet light. Lots of anemones glow in UV due to special proteins they contain that absorb the ultraviolet light before re-transmitting it at a longer, visible wavelength.

Snakelocks anemones are well-known in rockpooling circles for glowing a vivid, eerie green in UV and we have seen those many times, but we’re intrigued to see if gem anemones are as spectacular by night as they are by day.

Gem anemone by day
Gem anemone by day

Other-Half joins our after-dark ramble. We wrap up and walk through the deserted lanes. In the light of the rising full moon, there’s no need for torches. The stars have been out for a while already and the Eddystone lighthouse is flashing away at the horizon.

It took us quite a while to spot the gem anemones by daylight. Despite their pretty colours, they are tiny and well camouflaged among the pink encrusting seaweed that lines the pools.

We cross the sand and the heap of seaweed that the tide has brought in to the far rocks and take our UV torch out. Junior scans it over the pool and within seconds we’ve found them. They seem to light up in patterns of green and orange.

Under UV the gem anemones are easy to spot
Under UV the gem anemones are easy to spot

We kneel down and look closely at the starburst of orange that radiates out from the turquoise and pink mouth at the anemone’s centre. The green fringes to the tentacles that are sometimes visible by day are unmissable now.

Gem anemone under UV light
Gem anemone under UV light

Junior is keen to look at the sponges and seaweeds to see what they do under UV and leads me on a precarious climb towards an overhang he knows. The rocks here glow insanely orange and though it’s hard to tell what is causing this effect in the dark, it feels like either a dense red seaweed or a sponge.

Junior's orange-glowing sponge or seaweed
Junior’s orange-glowing sponge or seaweed

As we scramble over the rocks, we find more fluorescing plants and animals. A brown seaweed glows green, possibly due to micro-algae that is growing on its fronds.

Brown seaweed glowing green in places - presumably coated in a microalgae
Brown seaweed glowing green in places – presumably coated in a microalgae

Grey topshells are easy to spot because the tip of their shell glows pink.

Grey topshell in UV light
Grey topshell in UV light

We are intrigued by thin bright-blue streaks among the seaweed. It takes a while for us to realise that these are man-made threads. They feel coarse and may well be fibres from a fishing net. Many seaweeds on the shore are so tangled in them that it is almost impossible to clear the plastic fibres without damaging the seaweed.

One of many plastic fibres found tangled in the seaweed
One of many plastic fibres we find tangled in the seaweed

In a shallow, rocky pool lined with sediment more anemones are glowing. These look nothing like the gem, snakelocks or daisy anemones I’ve seen so far.

Another anemone species that fluoresces - Sagartia troglodytes.
Another anemone species that fluoresces – Sagartia troglodytes.

I turn my normal torch on them to see what species they are and I can’t see them at all. By switching back between UV and normal light I manage to pinpoint them. They are at least as small as the gem anemone, but are flecked with a marble of brown, white and orange that blends perfectly into the sand and rock around them.

Under the camera I can make out dark ‘B’ shaped markings at the base of the tentacles and realise this is Sagartia troglodytes. I don’t remember seeing this anemone before, probably because it would be almost impossible to spot in daylight.

The same Sagartia troglodytes anemone under normal torchlight is much harder to see among the sediment.
The same Sagartia troglodytes anemone under normal torchlight is much harder to see among the sediment.

I touch one of the anemones gently with a finger and it retracts in a puff of sediment, disappearing without trace.

I take photos while Junior and Other Half climb onto a high rock to watch the stars. On nights like this it is hard to tell whether the sea or the sky is shining more brightly. With a last sweep of the torch over the glowing anemones we turn away and head home for hot drinks.

Gem anemone under UV
Gem anemone under UV
This daisy anemone glowed red under UV but was a dull brown under normal light.
This daisy anemone glows red under UV but is a dull brown under normal light.
Anemones weren't the only animals out in the moonlight - this green shore crab glowed blue under the UV torch.
Anemones aren’t the only animals out in the moonlight – this green shore crab glows blue under the UV torch.

Beachcombing at Mawgan Porth

 

The tide isn’t always out far enough to go rock pooling, but on a windswept north coast beach like Mawgan Porth there’s always something interesting washed up on the tideline. Junior and I wander through the dunes to the soft sand of the upper shore just after the tide has turned with a plan to look for shark and ray egg cases (mermaid’s purses). We often take them home to soak so that we can check the species and record our finds on the Shark Trust’s Great Eggcase Hunt website.

We found lots of egg cases on our last hunt - mostly from spotted rays
We found lots of egg cases on our last hunt – mostly from spotted rays

We both see it at the same time. A greenish lump is shifting at the edge of the retreating sea, being nudged in and out by surging waves. From a distance it could be a stranded animal, but we quickly decide it’s a net and run towards it for a better look.

Currents run fast across the bay and can easily catch you unaware, so I leave Junior behind while I attempt to drag the net clear of the waves. It’s several metres wide and is weighed down with water and sand. With an eye on the sea, I stagger backwards a few centimetres with each heave until the net is clear of the waves.

While I catch my breath, we examine the net close-up. Much of it is encrusted with seaweeds and hydroids. It looks as though it has been in the sea for some while. Attached to one of the intersections is a stony lump like a tooth. This is the ‘skeleton’ of a Devonshire cup coral.

Devonshire cup coral 'skeleton'
Devonshire cup coral ‘skeleton’

I’m thinking about how to detach the coral without breaking it when I spot a couple walking across the beach towards us. They look like able recruits, so I ask if they might be able to help. The four of us grab the net between us and tug it behind us, army fitness-test style. We take a few breaks along the way, take a small detour to avoid a stranded barrel jellyfish because it doesn’t feel right to run it over. We’re all getting unseasonably warm, but we don’t give up. As we near the top of the beach another woman joins us for the last push to the rubbish collection point.

I take a few minutes to look over the net and find several more cup coral ‘skeletons’. Without a knife it’s not easy to remove them but I manage to prise a few off to show my net-hauling team. To my delight one cup coral has a bump on the side of it. This is an Adna anglica barnacle which only grows on cup corals.

Adna anglica barnacle on the side of the cup coral 'skeleton'
Adna anglica barnacle on the side of the cup coral ‘skeleton’

We walk back along the strandline, picking up lots of stray pieces of netting. The plastic fibres are everywhere, breaking into smaller pieces that will stay in the sea for an incredibly long time if they aren’t removed.

There are a couple of lesser spotted catshark eggcases among the seaweed and a ‘by the wind sailor’ hydroid. Then I give such a squeal of excitement that an old couple walking near us turn to stare. When I pick up a transparent piece of jelly that looks like plastic, they turn away again.

The creature fits neatly in the palm of my hand and glistens in the light and feels solid, even though it is entirely transparent. We turn it back and forth, looking through both ends of its tubular, barrel-shaped body. It’s no longer alive, but this is definitely my first salp.

Salp - still covered in sand from the tideline
Salp – still covered in sand from the tideline

Salps are tunicates, relatives of the sea squirts we find attached to rocks on the shore. They swim actively by contracting their bodies and some salps join together to form long chains. There is a species of amphipod (an animal like a sand-hopper) that is often found sheltering inside them, but this one is empty.

Junior names the salp Cecil. At home he rinses it in water before we take photographs of it. He then prepares a jar of salt water to place it in.

The salp is hollow through its middle
The salp is hollow through its middle

As soon as Cecil is in the water ‘he’ becomes near-invisible. This salp would be perfectly camouflaged in the sea, hiding in plain sight from predators.

At the end of our morning’s endeavours we have a remarkable collection of curiosities set out on the dining table. We have also left the beach cleaner than we found it. A perfect day’s beachcombing.

Huge thanks go to our team of net pullers from St Austell and Milton Keynes!

Some of our morning's beachcombing collection from Mawgan Porth: cup coral 'skeletons', a dried out 'by the wind sailor' and a branching hydoid.
Some of our morning’s beachcombing collection from Mawgan Porth: cup coral ‘skeletons’, a dried out ‘by the wind sailor’ and a branching hydoid.

Gem anemone hunt

We weren’t really rock pooling, just going for a walk to the beach, or so we said. Junior packed his hammer and chisel in case there were fossils and I packed my camera, because you never know.

On my last wander at our local beach I had hoped to find some gem anemones to photograph, but didn’t succeed. It was worth another look for these tiny creatures, which have stripy tentacles and bright colours around their mouths when they are open, but at low tide most of them are retracted into white-striped blobs.

When retracted gem anemones look rather like an urchin test with a warty surface and white stripes down their sides.
When retracted ,gem anemones look rather like an urchin test with a warty surface and white stripes down their sides.

I left the sounds of hammering and splitting rocks behind me at the edge of the shore, where Junior was happily amusing himself on a fossil hunt, and headed towards an unseasonably glassy sea, pausing to look for anemones in the small pools on the way.

At the water’s edge, I reached a large pool too deep for gem anemones, but in the middle of the pool a submerged boulder was covered in Irish moss seaweed, providing the perfect habitat for stalked jellyfish. I looked so closely among the tangles of weed, hunting for tiny jellies, that I almost missed the huge stalked jellyfish right under my nose.

Haliclystus octoradiatus stalked jelly near Looe, Cornwall
Haliclystus octoradiatus stalked jelly near Looe, Cornwall

This was an unusually large Haliclystus octoradiatus stalked jellyfish, easily distinguished from the other species we see in Cornwall by the presence of blob-shaped primary tentacles in between its arms.

Most stalked jellyfish of this species have just one primary tentacle blob between each pair of arms, but this one had far more blobs than usual. The jelly can use these primary tentacles as anchors to grip onto the seaweed if it chooses to move, using a looping, cartwheeling motion.

I've sometimes seen a stalked jelly with one extra primary tentacle blob between its arms, but this one had lots of extras.
I’ve sometimes seen a stalked jelly with one extra primary tentacle blob between its arms, but this one had lots of extras.

In another nearby pool I spotted this colourful Calvadosia cruxmelitensis stalked jellyfish, well decorated with white nematocysts, which are its stinging cells.

Calvadosia cruxmelitensis stalked jellyfish
Calvadosia cruxmelitensis stalked jellyfish

Junior joined me at this point, wanting to show me a blenny he’d found. We scrambled nearly to the top of a high rocky outcrop in which some small pools had formed. There was no sign of his little fish, and there were no gem anemones, but there was this daisy anemone.

Daisy anemones have many layered tentacles, like daisy petals and come in all sorts of colours.
Daisy anemones have many layered tentacles, like daisy petals and come in all sorts of colours.

We carried on our expedition through a gap in the rocks to the adjoining beach where clear, shallow pools lined with pink encrusting seaweed nestled under a towering overhang carved out by the sea into the shape of a breaking wave.

Strawberry anemone
Strawberry anemone

These pools were full of anemones too and we stopped to take photos of clusters of snakelocks anemones and a rather flattened-looking strawberry anemone before I noticed the first gem anemone. It was closed up, forming a diminutive pink blob that blended perfectly into the colours of the pool. Close to it was another.

As we moved among the chain of pools we found dozens, but not a single one was open. Junior stared determinedly into every cranny, excited that the pools he had found were proving so interesting.

“There are some open anemones here,” he called out, “maybe Dahlia anemones? What do gem anemones look like when they’re open?”

I knelt on the rock beside him. At the far edge of the pool, tucked under a small ledge, I could see the white stripes of the gem anemone tentacles. Much cheering and hugging ensued.

The open gem anemones Junior found near Looe
The open gem anemones Junior found near Looe

Soon I was able to show Junior my up-close photos of the anemones so he could see why I was so obsessed with finding them. Each one had a vivid, almost fluorescent green mouth tinged with bright pink spots at its corners. The anemone’s mouths were framed in deep red and grey rays that stretched to the base of the zebra striped tentacles, some of which had flashes of green at their bases.

The mouth of the gem anemone
The mouth of the gem anemone

Truly one of our most spectacular anemones, people rarely notice the gem anemone because it is only a few centimetres across even when fully grown.

Gem anemone near Looe, Cornwall
Gem anemone near Looe, Cornwall

Junior is already planning a night time return to these pools to investigate whether these anemones will glow under the light of our ultra-violet torch. Watch this space!

Gem anemone -winter colour in the Cornish rock pools
Gem anemone -winter colour in the Cornish rock pools

Festive Rock Pooling

Tis the season for overspending, overindulgence and over-exhaustion, so what better way to recharge the batteries than some fresh air and rock pool exploration? It’s a family tradition for us this time of year to head in the opposite direction from the shops and to take a breather on the beach.

Christmas cards don’t often depict the traditional Cornish winter weather for good reason. Between the fog and the persistent mizzle, we have to imagine the view through the valley to the beach. Even when we arrive on the shore, we can barely make out the sea, although we can hear it crashing over the rocks and surging up the gullies.

Waves breaking out of the mist at Porth Mear
Waves breaking out of the mist at Porth Mear

The lower shore might be unsafe, but there’s no shortage of colour and variety in the sheltered pools. The rain kindly stops for long enough to let us enjoy our potter through the pools and we have the beach to ourselves.

Other Half finds a large common hermit crab, Pagurus bernhardus, tapping at a shell and we wonder if the crab’s about to move house. Looking closely, the shell it’s interested in is smaller than its own shell and when I look inside there are legs in there. Most likely our hermit is carrying a female around with her until she moults, hoping to mate with her when she does.

Hermit crab holding on to his mate at Porth Mear
Hermit crab holding on to his mate at Porth Mear

The rock pool wildlife couldn’t care less that it’s Christmas, but the bright anemones can’t help but look festive and are all the easier to see now that the seaweeds have died back for the winter.

Snakelocks anemone
Snakelocks anemone
Beadlet anemones at Porth Mear
Beadlet anemones at Porth Mear

Stalked jellyfish are also easier to see on the remaining short crops of Irish moss and red seaweeds in the pools. In a short stretch I find Haliclystus octoradiatus and a beautiful red Calvadosia campanulata stalked jelly.

Haliclystus octoradiatus stalked jellyfish at Porth Mear
Haliclystus octoradiatus stalked jellyfish at Porth Mear
Calvadosia campanulata stalked jelly
Calvadosia campanulata stalked jelly

Another jelly blob catches my eye, just a minute red speck among the seaweed. It seems to be moving, so I focus in with my camera to reveal a baby sea hare grazing its way across a tuft of seaweed. Its red sides seem to be snow-speckled with white and its black-fringed parapodia look like a tiny chimney pot.

Baby sea hare, Aplysia punctata.
Baby sea hare, Aplysia punctata.

In a few months’ time, if it survives the winter, this slug will swell and grow into a fat brown lump many times this size, feeding on the spring growth of seaweed.

Zipping across a shallow pool, a fish smaller than my little finger heads for the shelter of a low rocky ridge where it lies still, relying on its camouflage. The young shanny obligingly sits still for a couple of photos.

A young shanny (Common blenny)
A young shanny (Common blenny)

Soft rain begins to blow into my face as I work my way back over the slippery rocks to rejoin Other Half and Junior, who are entertaining themselves with the noble sport of throwing stones at other stones.

No Christmas stress for us... with the beach to ourselves and an endless supply of stones to throw.
No Christmas stress for us… with the beach to ourselves and an endless supply of stones to throw.

With our wallets intact and our appetites renewed, we’re ready for the feasting to begin.

Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas. Here’s to more rock pooling adventures in 2019!

A Christmas cushion star!
A Christmas cushion star!

 

From Cornwall to Cornouailles – a dabble in the Breton rock pools

Once the busy summer season of rock pooling events is over, we like to jump on the ferry and get away for a few weeks. We have friends to visit and lots to do, but somehow we always end up on the beach. It’s fascinating to discover the difference it makes to be a few hundred kilometres further south.

Although there are plenty of familiar species here, there are some that are around their northern limit here in Brittany, but might put in appearance in Cornwall one day, especially as the seas warm up.

On a sheltered shore in the lee of the Quiberon peninsula, the beach where our friend Mylene spent her childhood holidays, I find a Pachygrapsus marmoratus crab, a species I saw nearby last year when I didn’t have my camera.

Pachygrapsus marmoratus crab
Pachygrapsus marmoratus crab

The rippled pattern on its carapace and the wide flat edge between its eyes make it unlike any of our native crabs. Originally found further south on the Atlantic coast, it has been working its way northwards in recent years and seems to be firmly established in Brittany now.

The three teeth along each side of the carapace distinguish this species from other rock crabs
The three teeth along each side of the carapace distinguish this species from other rock crabs

Something I didn’t notice last year is how fabulously green its knee joints are, matching its emerald eyes. It’s not afraid to use those leg-joints, scuttling away at high speed at every opportunity to hide among the dense aggregations of the invasive Pacific oyster. I nearly lose it several times before it decides to settle in the corner of a pool, allowing me photograph those hairy legs and green knees.

The fabulous green knees of Pachygrapsus marmoratus!
The wonderful green knees of Pachygrapsus marmoratus!

Junior calls out that he’s found a slug. He thinks. He’s not sure. There are so many living blobs on the shore that it can be hard to tell.

The blob is a plump yellow thing, perhaps four or five centimetres long and from the speed it’s crawling across the rock, it is most definitely a slug. Initially, I assume it’s a sea lemon, but it doesn’t quite look right. It has a more squidgy, unicoloured look and instead of the citrussy bumps of the sea lemon’s skin, this slug has rounded protrusions of varying sizes all over its back. I can’t place it so we call it a ‘Doris might be a sea lemon, species’ and I take plenty of photos to help identify it for sure later.

Doris verrucosa - the 'warty Doris' - exploring a bed of Pacific oysters
Doris verrucosa – the ‘warty Doris’ – exploring a bed of Pacific oysters

It’s over a month after we return from holiday that I remember the photos and transfer them to my computer. On screen it’s obvious that this Doris slug looks nothing like any sea lemon I’ve ever seen. With the help of some extremely geeky books, websites and a forum of fellow nudibranch aficionados, I manage to confirm that it is a Doris verrucosa. The “warty Doris”… not the most charming name, but Junior is rightly thrilled that he found it. This isn’t a species we’ve ever seen in the UK.

Each rhinophore on the slug's head is framed by two pairs of prominent protrusions and the gills are framed by a crown of tall protrusions.
Each rhinophore on the slug’s head is framed by two pairs of prominent protrusions and the gills are framed by a crown of tall protrusions.

We revisit a beach that is the polar opposite of the sheltered shore of Quiberon. Ste Anne de Palud is a west-facing windswept expanse of muddy sand framed by a north-facing rocky headland and pools, which provide an incredible habitat for all sorts of clam shells and colourful anemones as well as a perfect set of conditions for the honeycomb reef worm, which builds its huge beehive-like structures all around the rocks.

A honeycomb worm reef overhanging a pool at Ste Anne la Palud, Brittany
A honeycomb worm reef overhanging a pool at Ste Anne la Palud, Brittany

The anemones are fabulous, but so well tucked under steep overhangs of rock or so well buried in sediment that they are tricky to see, let alone identify.

Sagartia elegans anemone, Ste Anne la Palud
Sagartia elegans anemone, Ste Anne la Palud
Strawberry amemone showing its blue beadlet fighting tentacles
Strawberry amemone showing its blue beadlet fighting tentacles
Another colour variation of Sagartia elegans
Another colour variation of Sagartia elegans

Junior is digging holes in the sand and discovers just how packed with life the sand is as he uncovers dozens of thin tellin shells, which burrow their way back down as he watches. The tideline is strewn with evidence of the diversity of life beneath our feet, with spiny cockles, sea potato urchins, the delicate tubes of the worm Pectinaria belgica and necklace shells.

Spiny cockles and their relatives are common here
Spiny cockles and their relatives are common here
Pectinaria belgica worm tube
Pectinaria belgica worm tube
Necklace shell. Euspina catena
Necklace shell. Euspina catena

There’s a good chance that some of the less familiar animals we’ve seen will show up on the Cornish coast at some point. The St Piran’s hermit crab has already successfully made the crossing and I saw them first here.

A trip to Brittany feels like the perfect way to familiarise myself with creatures that I might need to identify in future. It’s also a good excuse to eat lots of pancakes and put my feet up. Both make me happy!

The vast, rich sands of Ste Anne la Palud
The vast, rich sands of Ste Anne la Palud
A juvenile sea hare
A juvenile sea hare

Dolphins and discoveries

There’s no more auspicious start to an afternoon’s rock pooling than a dolphin display while you’re munching your pasty.

Jan from Coastwise North Devon, Junior and I were treated to an incredible leaping, spinning pod of dolphins at the start of our last Looe rockpooling foray, which could only be a good sign.

We were far too busy watching the dolphins to take any good photos - but some distant fins here just to prove there really were dolphins.
I was too busy watching the dolphins to take any good photos, but here are some distant fins.

Following a busy summer season, it was magical to have the beach to ourselves. Despite a keen wind that made it difficult to see into the more exposed pools, the sheltered gullies were full of colour.

Every colour variant of the beadlet anemone was on display in one short stretch of pools. These common anemones are often red, but here they showed off their full traffic-light range of shades. Some splayed open a shower of bright tentacles, while others were retracted, showing nothing but the distinctive blue circle at the base of their columns.

A rather green beadlet anemone with blue markings around its base and on its mouth.
A rather green beadlet anemone with blue markings around its base and on its mouth.
A closed-up orange beadlet anemone
A closed-up orange beadlet anemone

Junior’s sharp young eyes were focused on the task and he brought us several isopods to identify. These minute woodlouse-type creatures swam around our pot-lids at high speed while we tried to photograph their tails. All of them had two prongs on their backs, so were male Dynamene bidentata.

One of Junior's isopods - a Dynamene bidentata
One of Junior’s isopods – a Dynamene bidentata

We used our cameras to focus in on the blob-like bodies of the Ascidia mentula sea squirts, which we found attached to several rocks. From a distance, they have a pink tinge. Close-up, they seem to be gearing up for fireworks night, with bursting patterns of red sparks along their sides.

Pink fireworks - patterning on an Ascidia mentula sea squirt.
Pink fireworks – patterning on an Ascidia mentula sea squirt.

Lurking inside the sediment-filled layers of a fractured rock, was a colony of Thalassema thalassema spoon worms. These wonderfully alien creatures have plump pink bodies like an overfed grubs, with an extendible, frilled proboscis.

One of many contenders for the 'strangest animal in the rock pools' award - the echurian worm Thalassema thalassema
One of many contenders for the ‘strangest animal in the rock pools’ award – the echiuran worm Thalassema thalassema

Unlike many other marine worms that speed around on bristly legs or swim with paddles, Thalassema thalassema seems to have no efficient means of locomotion.  Instead, it rolls contentedly in the muddy sand, feeding on detritus.

These worms alarm me with their indolence. I always suspect that, like most vulnerable-seeming marine animals, they must have some secret defence. Many worms have a impressive set of biting jaws, but despite my wariness this species is safe to handle. I think.

Among the dense carpet of animal colonies, among them sponges, sea squirts, bryozoans and hydroids, we found a smart small species of spider crab, probably Macropodia sp. It was perfectly camouflaged to hide among the seaweeds.

A perfectly decorated small spider crab (Macropodia sp.) at Hannafore
A perfectly decorated small spider crab (Macropodia sp.) at Hannafore

Further out in the lagoon, near a seagrass bed, we found several egg cases of the greater spotted catshark, Scyliorhinus stellaris. In some we could see the fresh yolk, in others the baby was forming while some were already hatched and thickly encrusted with life.

A fresh Greater spotted catshark (Scyliorhinus stellaris) egg case showing the yolk.
A fresh Greater spotted catshark (Scyliorhinus stellaris) egg case showing the yolk.

By the time we reached the rocky outcrop at the far side of the lagoon, the tide was at its lowest and we could only stay a few minutes.

Inevitably, the finds rolled in just as the tide was turning. Junior was delighted with the yellow colour of this common brittle star, Ophiothrix fragilis, which is more usually pink in colour when we see it further up the shore.

Junior's yellow brittle star
Junior’s yellow brittle star

Under one stone was a faint lattice pattern marking the spot where, earlier in the season, a clutch of clingfish eggs had been attached. Although they seemed to be long-since hatched, the site was still being watched by what was probably an anxious parent.

Cornish clingfish - Lepadogaster purpurea, Looe.
Cornish clingfish – Lepadogaster purpurea, Looe.

A speck of blue on the rock concealed a good cause for any clingfish parent to be concerned: a Calma glaucoides sea slug. Despite the elegance of its long blue cerrata, flashing their golden tips as they waved in the water, this slug could well have destroyed the entire brood of eggs, which are its food.

Calma glaucoides - a sea slug (nudibranch) that feeds on clingfish eggs.
Calma glaucoides – a sea slug (nudibranch) that feeds on clingfish eggs.

We could easily have knelt around the pool for longer, wondering at this tiny creature, but a change in the wind and a stirring of the kelp out towards the island meant that the race was on.

We sploshed and slid our way back over hidden rocks and through tangled weed that grabbed at our ankles, watching the flow of water growing by the second as the powerful tide raced in. Behind us, the water was working fast to submerge the slugs, shark eggs, anemones and brittle stars, closing the door on the watery world.

We made it back without over-topping our wellies; wishing, as always, that there was a little more time between the tides.

On the way to the shore we found this vivid green prawn with a huge left claw - at first we thought it might be a snapping prawn, but it turned out to be an unusual colour variant of the more familiar hooded shrimp.
On the way off the beachwe found this vivid green prawn with a huge left claw – an unusual colour variant of the more familiar hooded shrimp.

 

A summer of snorkels, jellyfish and wrasse

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.

Juvenile ballan wrasse can be bright green like this one, but they grow up to around 50cm long when they're mature.
Juvenile ballan wrasse can be bright green like this one, but they grow up to around 50cm long when they’re mature.

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.

Snakelocks anemone
Snakelocks anemone

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.

Compass jellies have striking markings and also pack a nettle-like sting
Compass jellies have striking markings and also pack a nettle-like sting

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.

Xantho hydrophilus crab
Xantho hydrophilus crab
Candy striped flatworm grazing on bryozoans in Looe
Candy striped flatworm grazing on bryozoans in Looe
A variegated scallop with irridescent shining eyes
A variegated scallop with irridescent shining eyes
A green shore urchin with its tentacle feet extended
A green shore urchin with its tentacle feet extended
Doris ocelligera sea slug - I recorded these for the first time a couple of months ago and have found them regularly in the same spot this summer.
Doris ocelligera sea slug – I recorded these for the first time a couple of months ago and have found them regularly in the same spot this summer.
St Piran's hermit crab - now a common find on all our local beaches.
St Piran’s hermit crab – now a common find on all our local beaches.

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