Spring tides and slightly more spring-like weather might finally coincide this weekend, so I’m preparing for a big weekend of rock pooling. If all goes to plan, I’ll be reporting back next week. In the meantime, I’m readying my waterproofs, planning which beach I’ll go to according to the wind direction and sorting out my photos from the last month. And of course, I’ll be at the Looe Marine Conservation Group Rock Pool Ramble on Monday at Hannafore beach, so maybe I’ll see you there?
One beach I’m hoping to visit on Saturday is Millendreath. This sheltered south coast beach has an interesting geological history. Somewhere under the sand is a submerged ancient forest. Whether the nutrients come from there, drift along from the Looe river, or both, this beach has a unique fauna and is always full of surprises.
In the past I’ve found masked crabs, weever fish and unusual swimming crabs here. On my visit last week, it was all about the sea slugs and cucumbers.
In the chilly breeze it felt less than spring-like, but these things seem not to bother the rock pool creatures. Sea lemons, a type of sea slug with a big circle of feathery gills on their back and pocked citrus-like skin, were everywhere.
And so was their spawn.
A species that seems to love the conditions here is the brown sea cucumber, Aslia lefevrei, which likes to hide away in holes in the rock with just its retracted tentacles sticking out. When these are fully extended they have a frilly, carrot-top appearance, but at low tide all we see is a yellow and brown blob.
Among the seaweed at the edge of the shore, I spotted a fleck of orange. Old seaweeds often turn bright colours as they die back, but this fleck wasn’t attached to anything. After fumbling about in the cold water for as long as I could bear, I managed to scoop the fleck up and tip it into a petri dish.
Much of my time on the shore is spent staring at things, wondering if they’re animals or just tricks of the imagination. Often they’re nothing, but this one was definitely a something.
As it settled in the water, the blob began to unfurl and then to secure itself to the dish. It was definitely a sea slug, although still quite hard to see as you can tell from its size compared to the 20p piece.
The chunky cerrata on its back and the orange on its body were typical of the species, a Eubranchus farrani. By far the smallest one I’ve ever seen.
Conditions were too cold to spend any longer with my hands in the water, so I retreated to the upper shore to look for anemones with Junior and to let him dig around the stream. Perhaps one day he’ll dig down to the submerged forest?
Even on uninviting, cold days, there are always things to find. Millendreath never fails to surprise me. Who knows what will turn up this weekend? Conditions should be easier, but I’m taking no chances. Other half got a big thermos flask for his birthday and I’ll be filling it with hot chocolate before we go out!
I wasn’t supposed to be rock pooling at all. It was Other Half’s birthday and we were joining my parents for a walk and lunch to also celebrate my dad’s birthday from the day before. To add to the celebration list, my parents were in the middle of their golden wedding anniversary break at the beautiful Meudon Hotel near the Helford river.
I did well at first, catching up on my parents’ late-night dash across the county to reach the hotel before the snow arrived, while we wandered in the gardens. We stared into the lush ponds and spotted a couple of newts and lots of tadpoles (because it was a family event, nothing like rock pooling).
As we wound our way down the valley we could see the remnants of the snow nestling among the fronds of the tree ferns. We could also see something else glinting in the distance. The sea.
Junior and I picked up the pace. We both knew there was a beach at the end of the path. He was clutching his spade ready for action and I had my camera in my pocket, just in case you understand…
While I was talking to Mum on the beach, we happened to drift ever-closer to the rock pools and, well… I couldn’t help myself!
At Bream Cove, like other beaches in this area, the folds and channels in the rocks create lovely gullies and pools. There was no shortage of wildlife to be found on the overhangs and in the sand at the base of the pools.
Each time we approached a new pool a flicker of movement caught my eye. At first I assumed it to be prawns or perhaps small blennies scooting out of sight, then I spotted the tubes.
The Acromegalomma vesiculosum fanworms that build these constructions to camouflage and protect themselves are extremely hard to photograph. On the end of each long feathery arm of their fan, they have a dark eyespot. As soon as they sense a change in the light, they retract back into their tubes at lightning speed.
I treated mum to a Cornish Rock Pools comedy spectacle as I crawled about on the rocks attempting to approach them from all different angles. No matter what I tried, the fan worms nearly always retracted before I could get close enough to focus and then stayed stubbornly inside their tubes.
This beach has a wonderful collection of anemones; the whole area is great for them. In a single pool I found snakelocks anemones, beadlet anemones, a dahlia anemone and a daisy anemone. Like the fanworms, the daisy anemones do a quick disappearing trick when disturbed.
My favourite find of the day was this Harbour crab. All the books tell me it’s a common species, but this was the first one I have ever seen.
Like other swimming crabs they have flattened back legs, which act as paddles. In this crab the paddles are a bright blue or purple. Best of all were the eyes, which bulged out like yellow lamps. As I watched the crab demonstrated how it could swivel each eye separately in all directions . A great party trick.
Nearby, Other Half (who had wisely decided the only way to get my attention on his birthday was to join me in the rock pools) found this mystery blob. It was around 10cm long and seemingly attached to the seaweed.
It looked vaguely familiar but I didn’t have a clue why. The only white jelly-like blob as big as this that I could think of was squid eggs, which normally come in big clusters, but it looked all wrong.
With the miracle of modern technology, I soon had the answer. The amazing Seasearch Identifications Group on Facebook are poised at their keyboards any time of day of night, ready to identify anything that’s found, no matter how obscure.
Within minutes of posting, I had the answer. Mystery blob was a syphon from a large bivalve mollusc, probably a razor clam or otter shell.
Quite what it was doing tangled in seaweed halfway up a rock, I’ll never know, but as soon as I saw the answer I knew why it had looked so familiar. Huge thanks to David Fenwick who runs the brilliant Aphotomarine species identification site, which is also well worth a visit any time you’re struggling to identify something.
Another great little crustacean find was this St Piran’s Crab.
The tide was falling beautifully and I could see more pools emerging. I had to accept, though, that if I wanted my family to ever speak to me again, I’d better tear myself away from the rock pools for the birthday lunch.
Bream Cove, like so many others on this wonderful stretch of coastline between Falmouth and the Helford, is firmly on my return visit list. There aren’t any facilities at the beach, but you can always pop up to the Meudon Hotel for a luxury cream tea!
I’ll leave you with a few more photos from my sneaky rockpooling excursion.
I’m not sure who cancelled spring, but I’m not impressed. Yet again, the spring tides are accompanied by ear-numbing winds and a flurry of snow. Just the thought of plunging my hands into the pools makes my fingers ache, and yet, like the fool I am, I wade into the pools to see what’s there.
Due to my reluctance to leave my warm house, it’s half-past low tide by the time I hit the beach. The easterly winds are dashing the waves against the rocks and the gully I’d hoped to explore is well and truly submerged. All that’s left is an average-looking pool.
I’m tempted to give up and go home, but I’m always telling people that there’s something in every pool. That you just need to go slowly and look closely. I set myself a 15 minute challenge to find as many species as I can.
One of my first discoveries is this wonderful mutant cushion star. According to the books, these have five arms. Clearly this one hasn’t read the books. At some point it has lost one or more of its arms and in an incredible feat of regeneration it has sprouted an excess of new ones.
In fact, this cushion star has put so much energy into sprouting arms that it now has a total of seven arms. I do sometimes see another species, the Seven-armed starfish, but they are bright orange and have longer arms so I’m not fooled. It’s a nice try though.
There are lots of molluscs including several colourful painted topshells.
Nearby, a colony of dog whelks huddles in a crack in the rock, around their yellow egg capsules.
It’s hard to see through the wind-rippled water into the tangled seaweed below, but this Calvadosia campanulata stalked jellyfish catches my eye. Its bright-white stinging cells stand out among the pink and red seaweed fronds.
There are several more stalked jellies, including this Haliclystus octoradiatus. This species has a blob between each pair of arms, which acts as a sucker (‘primary tentacle’) allowing the jelly to flip upside down and cartwheel along the seaweed. This one seems to have two suckers between some of its arms. It also has an extra arm (nine arms instead of 8).
I start to wonder if this pool is going to be full of mutants with extra arms and tentacles.
The waves are breaking over the rocks and splashing over my back and the water level is rising precariously close to the top of my wellies. I take a few more quick photos of some wriggling worms, strawberry anemones and a banded chink shell just a few millimetres long.
As I leave the pool, I find a Saddle oyster shell. These small oysters attach to the underside of rocks and have round hole in the upper valve.
It may be a grey day, but the inside of the shell is coated in the most brilliant mother-of-pearl, shining with every colour of the rainbow. I’ll take it as a sign that spring’s on its way.
There’s no better way to explore the shore than with a group of experienced rock poolers. During this month’s big spring tides, I was privileged to join a small, dedicated team to survey Hannafore Beach in Looe. Best of all, David Fenwick who runs the brilliant Aphotomarine website brought along his newly-converted marine laboratory camper van for a test run.
A few weeks on and I’m still downing hot chocolate to recover from the cold (any excuse!), but this was a priceless opportunity to expand my knowledge and encounter new species. Over the week we recorded over 230 species, some of which I never knew existed and I finally found my first Snake pipefish.
Day one got off to an inauspicious start. David’s marine lab van broke down on its way to the beach, meaning he missed the best of the tide that day. Those of us who did make it had to leap back into our cars to take refuge from the hail before we’d even got our boots on. Despite the wind chill, we were soon in full swing. Incredibly, the pools were full of signs of spring.
Scorpion fish lay their clusters of yellow glitter-ball shaped eggs earlier than most other species. In some, the baby fish were already taking shape and hundreds of eyes gazed into my camera lens.
Along the grooved bellies of some of the worm pipefish, there were also lines of eggs. Like seahorses, it is the male pipefish that carries the eggs until they hatch.
It’s hard to think of slugs as migratory animals, but several sea slug species have made their annual journey onto the shore to breed. We saw lots of the rarely-recorded slug Aeolidella alderi. My friend Jan from Coastwise North Devon found one that had been chomping on a dark anemone. The colour had passed into the cerrata on its back so that instead of the normal bright white, this one looked almost red.
Another had distinct yellow tips to its antenna and cerrata. This species always has a ring of short white cerrata below the head, making them look like they’re wearing a white ruff.
Nearby, a relative of Aeolidella alderi, the more common ‘Great grey sea slug’ (Aeolidia sp. probably filomenae) is feasting on an anemone. This hungry slug isn’t holding back and has dived headfirst into its feast.
Yellow-clubbed sea slugs (Limacia clavigera) were also out looking for mates. They’re not easy to spot when the tide’s out, as they look like minute splodges of white jelly on the rocks. Once in the water, they are transformed, with spiral rhinophores sprouting from their heads and robust yellow-tipped cerrata sticking out from their heads and bodies.
When, towards the end of day 2, I glimpsed a shape gliding through the seaweed my heart leapt. I’ve been looking out for this fish for years to no avail, but this one was hovering above my foot. Snake pipefish, like other pipefish, freezes and relies on its fabulous camouflage to escape predators.
I was able to reach into the water and lift it out for a quick photo. It wasn’t slippery to hold, but it wound its body around my arm so I had to overcome the powerful urge to squeal and drop it.
Snake pipefish can grow to 60cm and have pale vertical lines down their bodies so are easily recognised. They like to live among sea grass beds so are not commonly seen on the shore.
Inevitably, other fish were more evasive. David saw a Conger eel among the kelp, but it slipped away.
Among many amazing and less-common species, David Fenwick showed me this rare prawn, Caridion steveni, which appeared to have an especially short, blunt ‘nose’ (rostrum) compared to some other species. Its bright red pigmentation helps it blend in to the seaweeds.
Among the weeds on the rocks, tiny spider crabs were everywhere, only visible when they moved their spindly legs. Even when I take close-up photos it can be hard to make out the shape of the crabs.
Junior spotted a crab with an even more amazing disguise. We were looking under a boulder when he gasped and pointed at a seaweed-covered stone.
‘It’s a crab, I saw it move,’ he whispered, as though it might hear him and realise the game was up.
Whichever way I looked at the stone that Junior was waving his finger at, it still looked inanimate. It was only when I picked it up that I felt the sharp spines of the Common spider crab (Maja bracchydactyla) lurking below the seaweed camouflage. We turned it over to see the crab’s legs neatly tucked under its carapace. Junior delighted in placing the ‘stone’ back in the water to watch it sprout legs and scuttle away into the safety of the seaweed.
On day one I reached, or frankly surpassed, my cold tolerance limit. By the end of the week I was only able to function by keeping my hands thrust deep inside my scarf to warm them against my neck. I must have ressembled a trussed chicken, but there was no point caring. As always, the rewards outstripped the pain.
Next weekend we’re expecting some huge spring tides in Cornwall, and yet more freezing winds, so you know where I’ll be.
Even my family look at me strangely when I suggest rock pooling in this weather. The Met Office reckons it’s going to turn out fine, but the wind is flinging water straight into our faces and the beach is deserted. We huddle down on some damp rocks and rush to eat our pasties before the rain turns the pastry soggy.
“I wonder if people realise what you go through to put pretty pictures on your blog?” Other Half says.
I nod, watching the waves crashing onto the shore and thinking that it’s worse than that. In these conditions I’m unlikely to find much, let alone manage pretty pictures.
Fortunately, I’m wrong.
After a quarter of an hour of staring into holes in the rock, taking lots of rain-blurred photos and a few passable ones of common crab and barnacles species, I’ve established that my waterproofs are anything but waterproof. If it’s possible, the rain is getting heavier.
Cornish Rock Pools Junior and his dad have wandered off and are probably reaching their tolerance limit. I find a stalked jellyfish and think that’s likely to be the most exciting find of the day.
I lift the edge of one last stone. There are some thick yellow sponges and the rock is crusted over with bryozoans. Broad-clawed porcelain crabs are scuttling along and there are little banded chink shells. On the far side is a spot, maybe half a centimetre across. It’s hard to make it out, but it has a blue-ish tinge and a lined appearance, like an anemone out of the water.
I think it’s a sea slug, but it’s far too delicate to pick off the rock and even if I do there’s nowhere to put it. I need to see it in water otherwise it’s just a blob of jelly. There’s no chance of that here at the base of the gully where the waves are pounding in, so I heave the boulder up the shore and lower the side with the slug into the nearest pool.
Shelter’s hard to come by. The surface of the pool distorts with every gust of wind and the rain goes up the back of my coat and into my ears as I lean over to hold the rock in position. Straight away, I know this is definitely a sea slug. In the water, its cerata pop up all over its back and long tentacles and rhinophores unfurl around its head.
This is the sort of colourful, beautiful slug that I’m always hoping to find and only rarely do. Under the camera it has striking red lines and markings up its cerata, white stripes down its head and an iridescent blue sheen that changes as it moves.
This is a new slug to me and I can’t wait to look it up when I get home to check the exact species. In the meantime, I take as many photos as I can before hauling the rock back to the same spot where I found it. That done, I rush up the beach to tell my Other Half, Cornish Rock Pools Junior and everyone else I see that day about how amazing my sea slug was.
Thanks to my pile of identification books and the quick responses of the hugely knowledgeable members of the NE Atlantic Nudibranchs forum on Facebook, I soon have it confirmed as Facelina auriculata (previously known as Facelina coronata).
This slug is found around many coasts of the UK, and is meant to feed on hydroids, although I didn’t see many in the vicinity of this one. I’m very lucky to find it intertidally on such an average tide.
If you think rock pooling isn’t a normal sort of thing to do in January, I can understand that. You’re probably right and I think my family would agree with you, but you never know what’s going to turn up next in the Cornish Rock Pools.
Sometimes it’s worth braving the horizontal rain just in case.
Happy New Year everyone! Having started 2018 in bed with flu, I’m hoping this year’s going to improve as it goes along. The sun’s shining and there are some good tides later in the week, so I’m feeling hopeful.
In the meantime, I’m cheering myself up looking back at some of the incredible creatures I met in the Cornish rock pools last year.
I hope you enjoy last year’s highlights and I’m looking forward to seeing what 2018 brings.
It’s the shortest day of the year, but there’s no shortage of colour and life in the rock pools here in Looe.
I try out a pool I’ve not explored before and am blown away by the variety of animals going about their day, searching for food and shelter.
Easily my favourite find of the day is this European three-spot cowrie. Although they’re not uncommon here on the south-east coast of Cornwall, at low tide they’re usually retracted in their shells or abseiling from the rocks on a mucous thread.
To find one fully extended out of its shell, its orange syphon probing the weeds and its leopard-print mantle curled around its shell, is fabulous. I’ve always loved finding these shells washed up on the beach, but the live animal is incredibly colourful. It looks far too tropical for our cold waters.
It’s not a great low tide but this large, shallow pool is ideal for all sorts of creatures.
Everywhere I look, there are more animals going about their business. Hermit crabs scurry past me and a fish takes shelter under my welly.
From now on, the days will get longer, and before long the sea slugs and fish will begin to move in to the shore to spawn. It seems some can’t wait for spring – even today I find a pair of Berthella plumula sea slugs under a stone!
If you’re in Cornwall this Christmas, take a look at the rock pools. You won’t be disappointed.
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