You’re never far from a beach in Cornwall, but the distances from one end of the county to the other mean I visit some beaches more often than others. I made the most of a recent trip ‘out west’ visiting friends to explore the Penzance area.
Although Mount’s Bay itself is a protected area and is best left undisturbed, there are plenty of fabulous rock pools to discover near the town and at nearby Mousehole.
The wealth of colourful seaweeds here makes the clear waters especially enticing. Stepping carefully among them, I found clingfish, shark egg cases and an abundance of stalked jellyfish.
Star ascidians formed a psychedelic wallpaper of turquoise and pastel blue petal patterns along some deep overhangs. Close by, another star ascidian colony painted the rocks in saffron yellow.
Shouts carried across the shallow waters. My friends had found something exciting: a newly-hatched baby catshark. This young greater-spotted catshark, also known as a bull huss or nursehound, had spent many months incubating in an egg case before emerging. When fully grown it could be over one-and-a-half metres, but for now it lay quietly in the tub, taking in the world through half-closed eyes. We returned it quickly to the shelter of the dense seaweed where it would soon be covered by the rising tide.
As the days begin to lenthen noticeably I hope this is the first of many forays to new and more distant beaches over the course of the summer. No matter how many times I visit the rock pools, there is always something new.
If you’re looking for some summer reading, my book Rock Pool: Extraordinary Adventures Between the Tides is out on 2nd May with September Publishing and is available at local book shops, Waterstones and through NHBS as well as through online retailers.
It’s that time of year again. Amazing spring tides, ideal conditions and, of course, it coincides with Other Half’s birthday. Lucky him! What else could he possibly want to do but come rock pooling? To be fair, he needs no persuading that it beats a day in the office and, as a birthday treat, I offer him an evening out afterwards – watching me give a talk at the Cornwall Marine Recorders’ event in Gwithian (with a bar and nibbles).
We pile into the car ridiculously early in the morning to make sure we make it to Prisk Cove in time to meet our lovely friends and their twins to explore as the tide rolls out.
This beach is a little off the beaten track, but worth the walk. We find it empty of people and the tide so far out that the kelp hangs limply in shallow pockets of water in the bay.
The beach’s sheltered position between the Helford and Falmouth Bay, combined with the huge numbers of loose boulders, makes this habitat perfect for many marine species. Despite his initial certainty that he won’t find anything, Junior’s friend is first to find a spiny starfish. Its long tapering arms set with thick spines have an attractive purple hue.
We watch its many tentacle feet reaching out to explore the rocks.
The asymmetric heads of flat fish always intrigue me, so I am delighted when we find the first little topknot, then more and more of them. Some are sticking to the rocks, even clinging on when completely upside down, using their fringing fins to mould themselves to bumps and imperfections in the surface. Their mottled patterns can make them hard to spot and they stay completely still to avoid detection.
Under a large rock we find a large edible crab that makes the other twin shriek. She soon overcomes her nerves when I move it out of the way so that we can look at the fish, which are also sheltering here.
Everyone crowds round to see the stunning colours and impressive headgear of the tompot blenny, and the kids are amazed by the smoothness of the rockling’s eel-like skin.
Other Half holds the edible crab for a quick birthday photo before we pop everything back where we found it.
Out among the furthest accessible rocks, the twins’ mum is not being outdone. She brings some fish over to show me, among them a beautiful goldsinny wrasse. It’s not a fish I often see on the shore, but it is easily identified by its two dark spots, one at the front of its dorsal fin and the other at the top of its tail.
It has wide orange eyes with a flash of blue and the wonderful pouting lips of the wrasse family.
The finds flood in and I struggle to keep up with taking photos of everything to ensure that I can submit records afterwards. On one area of the shore I find a large patch of Wakame.
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This invasive non-native seaweed is easily identified by its corrugated-looking stipe and thin, floppy fronds. Originating from China, Japan and Korea, it has spread widely in Europe and can out-compete native seaweeds.
White painted top shells, an improbably hairy purse sponge and an interesting anemone all catch my eye before the tide turns.
I also discover half a dozen shark eggcases of the Greater spotted catshark (Scyliorhinus stellaris) attached to the rainbow wrack of the lower shore pools.
All too soon it seems, the tide is flowing in. At first it is a faint current, but it turns quickly into a churning river through the tight gullies and we retreat to enjoy a birthday picnic.
When the tides are perfect, I always hope that the weather will be perfect too, but this is Cornwall in late winter and strong southerlies are whipping up the waves. I plan my rock pooling accordingly, choosing Porth Mear, a north-facing beach between Newquay and Padstow to avoid the worst of the storms, accompanied by Junior and a new friend and fellow rock pool enthusiast.
I give Junior a camera to use and he’s straight on the case, trying out the settings and attempting to capture a blenny at the back of a hole in the rock. He spots some jelly nearby; the eggs of a sea lemon slug and we soon find the animal itself. We place it in water to watch its gills and ringed rhinophores (head tentacles) emerge.
We edge further down the beach, keeping a nervous watch on the swell that is breaking over the rocks and exploding through the gullies. Junior takes photos of everything and is entranced by the blue-rayed limpets, manoeuvring himself through every possible angle as he tries to capture the iridescent turquoise lines on their tiny shells.
We find two thriving colonies of St Piran’s hermit crabs, with dozens of shells of all sizes in and around one pool, all occupied by these hermits. They are immediately recognisable by their red antennae and blue-tinged claws, but they stay firmly tucked away in the recesses of their borrowed shells.
Junior is keen to show our new friend a gully where we often make interesting finds, but even as the tide dips to its lowest point, we are unsure whether it will be accessible. We climb to a high vantage point to look down at our favourite spot, but with foaming waves crashing over the rock face on one side, we admit defeat.
I lead the way over the rocks to another sheltered inlet and we clamber down into a deep cleft in the blue slates. The wet rocks are so steep and slippery that after sliding to the bottom I briefly wonder if I will be able to haul myself out again, but I am soon distracted by the richness of the rocks here. Three-spot cowries abound and a large edible crab is resting under an overhang.
Our friend carries on over a huge boulder to look at the pool on the other side. We discover cup corals at the same time; there is just a scattering of them on our side, but many dozens in the pool out friend has found.
Junior and I cross to take a look and balance precariously on the edge of a deep pool, leaning under a steep shelf of rock to try to take photos of the corals that are tucked away there. Most of the scarlet and gold cup corals are a deep, warm orange, but some are bright yellow like tiny suns.
Within a couple of minutes, we can feel a shift in the sea and the waves are breaking harder and closer to us, so we abandon our efforts to take photos and slip and scramble our way out of the gully.
Back on the beach, all seems calm and fish huddle under many of the rocks, waiting for the tide’s return. As always, this shore abounds with Cornish clingfish and worm pipefish.
Under the rocks we find a host of crabs and a few Candelabrum cocksii hydroids, which are fascinatingly variable in colour and shape, extending and contracting their bodies and proboscises.
Junior is especially pleased to find a bright orange Lamellaria perspicua (Dalek snail, as he calls it). It looks like a slug, but keeps its shell hidden under its soft body, exploring the rocks with two small antennae and a tubular appendage like a Dalek’s gun held out in front of it.
A short, prettily marked white worm with chestnut banding catches my eye, but I have little time to take photos as the waves are roaring in.
We watch the sea reclaim the shore from the safety of the tideline while we munch our sandwiches and check through our photos. Beaches can be challenging this time of year, especially when it’s stormy, but the vivid colours and strange lives of the creatures we have seen today, together with the chilly temperatures, send us home with colour in our cheeks.
There are many advantages to home educating Junior, but one of our favourite things is being free to go outside whenever we like. During the winter months, good weather and daylight coincide so infrequently that we nearly always drop everything to make the most of it. Today, Junior wants to explore our local beach and dig in the sand, so we grab our wellies, spade and camera and set out with the low morning sun glimmering from behind the clouds.
Spring comes earlier in Cornwall than it does further north, and the signs are there even though the days are still cold. The herring gulls have already moved back onto the roof-tops in our neighbourhood, and some are sitting on empty nests to deter others from moving into their territories. Buds are tightly wrapped on the hedgerow plants, waiting to open and a few hardy wildflowers are already blooming.
We hear the fulmars honking to each other on the cliffside above Plaidy before we see them. When we stop at a viewspot to look across to the Eddystone lighthouse, a male fulmar glides towards us on stiff wings before circling back to land on a ledge and touch beaks with the female that is resting there.
In the rock pools, spring is even further ahead and I have been finding sea slug spawn for a few weeks already. ‘Sea mushrooms’, the holdfasts of seaweed are appearing on the rocks and beginning to sprout from their centres. Colourful colonies of star ascidian are budding and spreading across the rocks. On one a flatworm is grazing, while another young colony is being visited by a hungry 3-spot cowrie.
The tide is wonderfully low so we scramble out to the furthest rocks we can safely reach. Junior discovers anemones and sponges. A tall rocky gully is coated in every colour of sponge, sea squirt and bryozoan, and we peer closely at their strange forms.
I spot an overhang that plunges into a pool. Even though I can see it’s too deep for my wellies, I wade in, balancing from one submerged rock to another, feeling a cold trickle down my shin as the water overtops my boots. At the edge of the rock the water is still precariously high, but I have noticed some dark, frilly tentacles in the water. Several sea cucumbers are lodged in cracks in the rock here and are busy feeding with their extended fronds. Junior crawls over the rock to get a better view of this unusual sight.
Edging our way through the narrow rocks, we reach the very edge of the sea. We are sheltered a little from the waves by a rocky reef further out, but the waves are still surging back and forth. In a hollow I can see a young common starfish. I tease it out of its hiding place and Junior holds it on his hand while I take photos.
Despite its name, this starfish is nothing like as common on our beaches as the other species we see here, preferring the deeper offshore waters. Junior takes a good look at its colours and its tube feet before placing it back where we found it.
We cross the rocks to the next beach, where Junior begins his sand-mining excavations while I take a walk along an old sea wall in the hope of taking a photo of shanny. These fish hide in holes out of the water while the tide is out and there are usually plenty in this wall. Of course, there are none in accessible places now that I have come to look for them, so I carry on across the beach to take photos of the lugworm casts that litter the muddy sand here.
I am about to go back to see Junior’s work, when I see movement in a shallow pool. It looks as though there’s a tiny geyser beneath the surface throwing the sand up in a constant jet. There are several animals that like to bury themselves here, including some quirky species of prawn, but this sandy pool near the low tide mark makes me think of something else. I crouch by the pool for a few minutes without moving, scanning the sand before I see what I’m looking for. A small, sand-coloured fish is sitting unmoving in the shelter of a rock. I know it will be a weever fish.
Trying not to scare the fish away, I cross to the other end of the pool. It sticks its ground, watching me through shining eyes set towards the top of its head. Even as I lower my camera into the pool, it stays perfectly still, so that I can see its gaping mouth and moving gills. The mouth is unlike that of most other fish: the opening is nearly as high as the fish’s eyes and is hinged at the bottom like a tall flap. Inside it, I can see some spindly, crooked teeth.
I have no bucket and this fish will bury itself in the sand in an instant if I disturb it, so I just watch, putting my camera as close as I dare to frame the fish’s remarkable metallic-green eyes. Although the dark fin on the fish’s back is folded down now, it is made of venomous spines that cause painful stings to bathers in the summer.
Junior emerges from the hole he’s dug to look at the photos and do a beach clean before we head for home in the last of the day’s pale sunshine.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Grey topshells are easy to spot because the tip of their shell glows pink.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
In another nearby pool I spotted this colourful Calvadosia cruxmelitensis stalked jellyfish, well decorated with white nematocysts, which are its stinging cells.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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