Summer arrives early in Cornwall, with festivals around the county singing in the new season on the first of May every year. Except, this year the Padstow Obby Osses have stayed in their stables, the Calstock Giant hasn’t set sail down the Tamar to re-join his love, and there has been none of the usual dancing through the streets of Helston.
Oblivious to all of this, the natural world is carrying on. Swifts are screaming past the window, the herring gulls are nestled on their mossy rooftop nests and in rockpools everywhere, there will be tangles of new-growing seaweed, father fish guarding their eggs and all manner of colourful creatures going about their usual business.
Scroll through the gallery below for a glimpse of what will be happening right now beneath the waves in rock pools around Cornwall. And if you’d like to find out more about our amazing marine life, explore my blog, or take a look at the fantastic video workshops that Cornwall Wildlife Trust has been busy creating. Happy virtual rockpooling!
There’s no collective noun, as far as I am aware, for a group of rock poolers, but if there was it would refer to bottoms in the air as that’s our standard position – head down, bottom up, searching for marine life. On the best tides it’s not unusual to find other rock pool fanatics on my local shore, drawn by the promise of rarely accessible habitats. So, during the spring tides of early March, I found myself in the company of the bottoms-up brigade at Hannafore, exploring one of our favourite shores.
Junior and his friends were with me, enjoying one of the endless field trips that usually make up our home educating life. Around us, life was churning along as usual despite the first Coronavirus cases being recorded in Cornwall a day or two before. With so many of good friends living elsewhere in Europe, we were only too aware of how quickly the situation might deteriorate, but while we were already starting to avoid indoor events and gatherings as far as we could, the open shore felt as good a place to be as any.
While the kids were building stone citadels and warring rocky villages at the top of the beach, I gave them vague instructions to come and find me soon and set off down the shore, following the receding tide over slippery rocks and frothing seaweed. I was joined by a friend from north Devon making a special guest appearance at Hannafore.
Among the boulders we discovered a tiny Montagu’s sea snail; a small tadpole-like fish with tiny eyes that tends to curl its tail round its head, looking more like a sleeping cat to me than a snail. These fish were soon turning up everywhere, with more than half-a dozen down a single gully.
Further along, a topknot flatfish was clinging to the rock with its sucker-fin, so perfectly blended with the colours of the stones and weed that only its fluttering gills and swivelling eyes gave it away.
A head popped up from a neighbouring gully, another marine biologist friend from the Marine Biological Association (MBA) was busy exploring, and across the lagoon, other friends from Bude Marine Group were approaching. Junior and his friends also abandoned their construction works and set out to explore the exposed reef armed with cameras to capture their adventures.
Despite a brisk, cold wind that was welding my fingers to my camera, the excitement of the finds stopped me from worrying about anything except what was in front of me. Sea slugs, quirky hydroids, and beautiful clingfish kept me occupied and there was still a little time before the tide would turn.
The egg cases of the larger of our two catshark species were plentiful on the rainbow wrack and a shout from my MBA friend brought the children running back – a newly-hatched baby Greater spotted catshark (Scyliorhinus stellaris).
Time always feels desperately short to explore this fabulous environment, but every second is full of wonder. Finding a hairy hermit crab made my day, if it wasn’t already made by just being there with so many fantastic and knowledgeable people.
The hairy hermit crab isn’t a common find on our local shores and this particular crab was exceptionally co-operative, emerging from its hiding place without hesitation which meant I could take photos and video of its incredibly hairy claws, its pale blue eyes and its stunning violet antennae.
Like all children, my son is doing his best to adapt to keeping in touch with friends and family from a distance and my other half is working from home. Some friends have been desperately ill and others still are putting their lives on the line every day as nurses and critical workers. Writing has felt pointless at times, impossible at other time and yet it seems important to share the beautiful things, because these will return.
The happy moments shared with my bottoms-up brigade of rock poolers, the exploration and the freedom may just be a memory at the moment, but I am reassured to know that life carries out there beneath the waves as it will here above. The wild creatures that make me catch my breath will still be there when all this is over. Friendships remain and my little community is showing strength, compassion and ingenuity to make sure we carry each other through.
Stay safe and watch this space for more colourful creatures to brighten your days, whatever they may bring.
In these strange and frightening times, I could not be more proud of the strength and courage I am seeing in my friends and the local community. Our world has changed, seemingly overnight, yet in Cornwall, as elsewhere, people are meeting the challenges head-on.
While many people are risking their lives every day to look after others and deliver vital services, I can do little to help except support elderly neighbours and avoid contact. However, as long as a daily family walk from our home to our local shore is safe and permitted, I hope that I can lift someone’s mood by sharing what we see.
It feels like a dream to step into nature, to experience how life carries on in all its colour, beauty and chaos when human lives are narrowing to the confines of four walls. The clear blue skies, arriving at last after months of storms, open out the horizon and lighten the sea, while the glittering reflection of the sun shines out of every pool.
New seaweeds are suddenly sprouting, reaching up through the clear water, among dense tufts of the pink coral weed that lines these pools all through the year. A little shanny watches me from its hiding place deep in the water, cradled by rocks on either side.
As I try to photograph the fish’s bright clown-eyes, Junior spots another creature clinging to the weed. We kneel at the edge of the water, our heads touching as he points it out. His find is a slender woodlouse-like creature speckled with white spots, an isopod crustacean called Idotea balthica.
In a dark gully cut between the rocks by the water that rushes out between the tides, I see a flash of colour. For days now, I have been capturing images of spring flowers, breaking waves and open seascapes to send to a dear friend on lockdown with her partner and cat in her flat in Bergamo, Italy. As soon as I see this strawberry anemone, I know she will love it.
It is one of the few unexpected positive effects of the enforced confinement that we are finding time to reach out and renew friendships. Now, she and I are sharing videos and inspiration daily, carrying each other through. She has turned her substantial abilities to creating stories and artwork to reassure those struggling with fear.
Among other things, she has shared heartwarming images of paintings and balcony decorations depicting rainbows, the symbol of hope. The slogan of the community in Italy has become ‘Andrà tutto bene!” – Everything will be all right.
The tide is turning and the anemone sways with the current, disappearing under seaweed and re-emerging again, in constant motion that makes photography difficult. I balance myself on a rock to stop the waves flooding my wellies and wait for an instant of stillness. The slant of the sun’s rays through the water makes the camera screen white-out. I take some snaps and hope for the best.
I check my images when I get home and the strawberry anemone has come out as I hoped, its warm colour and flower-like tentacles are as lovely as I remember.
It is only when I download the images onto my larger laptop screen that I notice the rainbows playing on the pink paint weed under the anemone. Rainbows of hope for my friend in Italy and for all those facing horrors and hardships. Rainbows for all of us wondering where this will end.
All will be well.
In the coming weeks and months, I hope to bring you more beauty from the Cornish rock pools. Even if we become completely locked down, I have a treasure trove of photos to go through so watch this space.
After weeks of storms, the Looe Marine Conservation Group was hoping for a break in the weather for their half-term family rock pool ramble. Unfortunately the Cornish weather had other plans. With gusty winds delivering pulses of the sort of ‘light’ rain that soaks you in seconds, LMCG did the sensible thing and cancelled.
Meanwhile back at Cornish Rock Pools HQ, Junior already had several jumpers, three sets of socks and full waterproofs on and was ready to set off. Some of his friends were also set to join us on Hannafore beach. So, we ignored the cancellation, put our hoods up and set off.
Scooping up another hardy family on our way down the shore, we picked our way down to some gullies sheltered from the wind by large rocks.
“A fish,” Junior shouted. “I don’t know what it is. It looks like a tadpole.”
I made my way over to where the children were gathered.
“I think it might be a clingfish,” Junior explained.
The small dark blob was certainly suckering onto a stone. It was lying very still with its tapering tail curled around its wide head, hoping that it was well enough camouflaged that we couldn’t see it.
Bizarrely, this little fish is known as a Montagu’s sea snail. It has tiny eyes compared to the size of its head and with its fins tucked tight to its body, it does look rather like a tadpole. Under its belly, the fins have evolved to create a sucker that it can use to hold onto rocks, making it ideally suited to life around the shore.
Montagu’s sea snails vary enormously in their patterning but have an unmistakeable shape.
In a nearby rock pool I found a group of young Xantho pilipes crabs sheltering under a boulder. These crabs have dense hairs around their back legs and thick-set claws, but their colour varies a lot. This one caught my eye as it was especially beautiful.
Most of the dead-looking crabs we find on the beach are empty moults, left behind by a crab that has grown out of its shell. I could tell straight away that this one had not been so lucky.
Netted dog whelks are the vultures of the rocky shore. Equipped with long siphons that look like vacuum cleaner attachments, they spend their lives sifting through the sand and hoovering up any dead creatures. When something large like a crab dies, they can scent the food and quickly home in.
Unpleasant though it looks, scavengers play a vital role in any ecosystem, quickly and efficiently breaking down decaying matter. The children had a fascinating time watching the netted dog whelks at work. They wre moving surprisingly quickly, spinning their shells from side to side as they edged into spaces and were clearly competing to get at the best bits of food.
Before long the children had made lots of other finds. Among the tubs were several hermit crabs that had been given names. Junior adopted a lugworm that he found under a large stone and spent a long time watching and trying to photograph it. These worms make burrows in the sand and have a wide circular mouth that gapes open to swallow sediment, from which they filter out their food.
The rain had died down over the course of the morning and no-one was rushing to leave. So, after we had carefully said goodbye to all of the animals that the children had been caring for in their tubs, we took a last look around between the rocks.
As always there were plenty of treasures to be found and before long, the tide was turning and lunch was calling.
If my blog posts have seemed a bit thin on the ground the last few months, it’s fair to put the blame on Atiyah, Brendan, Ciara and Dennis.
Even on the good days the lighting and conditions have been less than ideal so, to make the best of a mediocre tide, I enlisted the help of Other Half. Together, we could look under the sort of rock I usually see but leave alone, knowing it weighs far more than I do.
This short video shows you some of the animals living there…. read on to find out more.
Other Half was pleased with the strawberry anemones, which were enormously plump with all their tentacles retracted.
Under a carefully constructed shelter made of small stones and pieces of kelp we could also see the purple-tipped spines of a green shore urchin. Among its many disc-topped tube feet, a long polychaete worm was exploring.
What drew my eye most, though, were the holes in the rock. These were scattered across the surface of the rock and about the circumference of a pencil. I caught the tiniest glimpse of movement as I looked into one of them.
If I were the BBC Natural History Unit, I’d have filmed inside with an endoscope or transported the rock to deeper water so I could photograph the gaping shells emerging to feed. Instead, you will have to take my word for it that there were piddocks in those holes!
Piddocks are bivalve molluscs (clam shells), which burrow into the rock and spend their entire lives in their holes.
A rock with this many cracks and holes in it is bound to contain some good hiding places for other animals and also some air pockets, which enable some of our most unlikely rock pool wildlife to survive being submerged twice a day. Some insects and other arthropods that breathe air live here, but you have to be patient to see them.
I settled down with my camera and before long, the first waggling antennae of a springtail poked over the rim.
I often see rafts of blue-grey Anurida maritima springtails floating on the surface tension of pools in the summer, but these were smaller still and so pale they looked almost transparent. They are clearly visible in the video but I could only take very blurred still photos.
The fabulous Essential Guide to Rock Pooling by Steve Trewhella and Julie Hatcher was my first port of call in trying to identify them. The book has great photos and plenty of clear information on what to look for. Steve kindly identified these springtails as Axelsonia littorlis – a new species to me. It’s amazing what you find when you stop to look.
The best shots I could get were of a larger bug called Aepophilus bonnairei, a beetle-like creature with red eyes and a spiky coat of hairs around its back and legs. These hairs trap air bubbles, which help the insect to breathe when it is submerged.
Time was short as the tide was already turning and the waves were pounding in. I tried to photograph as many species as I could so that I could put records together afterwards. Some, like the painted top shells and the various crabs, are easy to identify.
One of the most striking sponges I see on the shore is the vivid blue Terpios gelatinosus. Many other sponges are harder to identify confidently.
It seemed that no part of this valuable habitat was left unoccupied. To avoid any of these creatures coming to harm, we gently manoeuvred the rock back in place well before the surging waves reached us.
As always, I was left in utter awe of the fragile little creatures we saw.
It is remarkable that these animals will cling onto life here no matter how much the wind howls and the sea roars around them, while we head home to bring the plant pots in out of the wind, check the fences and put the kettle on.
Though there is much to love about December, I know I’m not the only one who’s flagging well before the end of the month. The spring tides arrive at the perfect time to boost my energy levels, ready for all the rockpooling and writing adventures that await me in 2020.
No-one in the family is sure what day it is, and the gloomy weather isn’t doing anything for our timekeeping. By the time we reach Plaidy, we only have half an hour left before it will begin to get dark. Fortunately, that’s plenty of time to find some winter colour.
This beach is ideal for strawberry anemones, a species that seems to like some wave energy. While I try to take photos of a stunning open anemone, its bright tentacles tucked too far under a dark overhang for my camera to capture well, the waves surge in behind me, finding a hole somewhere in my left welly.
Undeterred by the steady seep of chilly water down my ankle, I take a close look at the tough seaweeds that have clung on at the edges of the pools through the winter storms. There are tufty pink fringes of coral weed, the frayed remains of last summer’s kelp, and, sprouting from the rocks at the pool’s entrance, there are dark clusters of wiry-looking Irish moss. Among these seaweeds are dozens of mauve stalked jellyfish dancing like fairy lights.
In every rocky crack and crevice alongside the pools there are crabs lurking, waiting for the returning tide. A velvet swimming crab watches me through red eyes like glowing coals.
Nearby, the sculpted pink spire of a painted top-shell brightens up a shady overhang that is also home to several cushion stars and bright sponges.
Everywhere I look there are colourful sea squirts, shells, fish and seaweeds. These may be the darkest days of the year, and I can feel a cold coming on, but the brightness of the shore always reminds me that spring is around the corner.
In fact, new life is beginning already in the rock pools. Before I leave I come across this 2mm long baby sea hare grazing on the seaweed. By the summer, if it survives, this tiny slug will have developed a striking brown leopard-spot colouration and will have grown large enough to fill my palm. Perhaps we will meet again?
Happy New Year! May 2020 bring you health, happiness, and many, many beach adventures.
Happy New Year from Bernard the hermit! (Pagurus bernhardus).
The clocks have gone back, endless bands of rain are pushing in from the grey sea and the UK government has announced there will be a general election during the festive season. It might be easier to hide under a duvet and attempt hibernation, but Junior and I have other plans. We grab a camera each and race to the rock pools in search of brightness and sparkle.
Millendreath beach near Looe is cold enough to warrant silly winter hats – mine has big ear flaps and Junior’s is a Christmas pudding – we don’t care what we look like as long as we’re comfortable. We head out onto a rocky outcrop that gives us some shelter from the north-easterly winds and begin our search. When I find a spiny starfish twice the size of my hand in the first pool we come to, we know it’s going to be a good day.
Moving towards the sea, the gullies are full of leathery kelp and Junior knows just what to look for. The iridescent blue dashed lines on the shells of blue-rayed limpets are his favourite thing to photograph and at this time of year, some of the kelp is studded with these miniature jewels.
While Junior gets to work trying to capture these colours, I edge along the slippery rocks towards a tall overhang. Sponges and sea squirts coat the rocks in a huge range of hues from pinks and yellows to blues and greens. Among them are cowries, which feed on the sea squirts. One has abseiled down from the rock and is hanging by its mucous thread.
Nearby, a common starfish is trying to hide in a crevice but its bright orange colour gives it away. In the dark behind it, a Xantho hydrophilus crab is doing a better job of blending in.
For some reason the painted top shells here are paler than on those on our other local beaches and some are almost white. Another feature of this beach is the high population of sea cucumbers. We spot both the sea gherkin and the brown sea cucumber, but they are closed up today, hiding their frilly tentacles.
Just before we move out of this isolated gully, Junior shouts in delight. He has taken his best ever photo of a blue-rayed limpet. All the practice and patience has paid off.
As the tide turns we take a quick look for stalked jellyfish. At this time of year, the seaweed is dying back making it easier to spot them, but the rushing currents from the stormy sea and the large amount of sediment that has been stirred up by the waves aren’t aiding our search. There are probably scores of stalked jellies here as the location is perfect for them, but we only see half a dozen. Among them are three different species: Calvadosia cruxmenlitensis,Haliclystus octoradiatus and a rather sorry-looking closed up specimen of Calvadosia campanulata.
Junior spends a happy half hour watching the cracking cliffs of sand that have formed around the edges of the rain-swollen stream, until the incoming tide begins to send waves up the river, flooding the sand around us and forcing us back.
The first spots of drizzle spatter down and will soon be followed by yet more heavy rain. There’s nothing we can do to prevent the arrival of even shorter days or colder weather, but whenever we need to find colour and inspiration during the dark winter, we will know where to find it.
Happy rock pooling!
Huge thanks to everyone who has shared their finds and photos with me. I love hearing about your rock pooling adventures through my contact page.
For everyone who loves Cornwall's rock pools. Information about great beaches, marine wildlife and conservation.