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.
With our bingo cards of southerly species part-filled after an exciting day on the south coast, our visitors from Wales still had quite a wish list left to accomplish. To find cup corals and Celtic sea slugs, a trip to a more exposed coast would be needed. Naturally, I suggested my favourite beach: Porth Mear.
The weather was on our side, taking a break between the endless storms that have characterised the summer holidays. So, with swimmers and beach shoes at the ready, we walked down a valley alive with tortoiseshell butterflies to where the bluest sky met the bluest sea. Even the pools at the top of the beach churned with trapped young mullet, scurrying shore crabs and bright anemones. While one of our friends stayed looking at the upper shore pools and gathering shells, Junior and I led our other friend on a long slip and slide across the rocks to reach our goal.
With two hours to go until low tide, we could safely allow ourselves a few distractions on the way. I couldn’t resist stopping to take photos of this wonderful Montagu’s blenny, which let me creep ever closer with my camera as it sheltered under a limpet shell. Blennies are able to move their eyes independently and this one kept an eye on me while scanning the surface of the pool with the other.
My friend was delighted. Although it hadn’t appeared on our bingo card, the Montagu’s blenny is another southerly species which he had never seen in North Wales. This was too easy!
We had met some St Piran’s hermit crabs at Hannafore the previous day, but the colony here was well worth a look too. We found scores of these crabs in and around the pools along a couple of rocky overhangs, living in a range of sizes of shell. This species is doing well here, towards the northerly limit of its known range.
The painted top shells on this beach are always especially pink and beautiful, perhaps because in this more exposed location, they tend to accumulate less silt and micro-algae on their shells. We stopped to take plenty of photos.
Although it can be hard to find stalked jellyfish in the summer when the beach is thick with the seaweeds they attach to, we were determined to tick one or two off the list, especially Haliclystus octoradiatus. This may not be a particularly southerly species, but it occurs frequently around Cornish coasts. After much searching we found a very small blob that was probably a juvenile, but I could only confirm that by looking at photos afterwards.
As the tide dropped further, we picked up our pace and clambered towards a wave-battered gully. This area is only accessible on the lowest tides and, even then, is often out-of-bounds due to the huge swells that pound these rocks for much of the year. Today, the calm conditions were perfect and we could explore in relative safety while keeping an eye on the time.
Junior made straight for the high rocks, where he quickly found the first Celtic sea slug, out in the open among the barnacles and mussels.
These strange black lumps always remind me of armoured cars. This is mainly a very southerly species which is found widely around exposed Cornish coasts, but it has been recorded as far north as the Farne Islands and Scotland.
Celtic sea slugs may not be the most classically pretty slugs, but they are incredible animals. They are able to survive on these rough shores in terrifying conditions and they don’t even have gills. They breathe air and hide away in cracks in the rock when the tide comes in, staying alive by keeping an air pocket sealed inside their bodies and breathing through their skin when needed.
If there is one Celtic sea slug, there is usually a whole colony and we found dozens more on the rocks all along the gully.
Our next stop was a deep overhang with a pool at its base where we knew we would be able tick off another species from our bingo card, the scarlet and gold cup coral.
We had to kneel and lie at strange angles on rocks encrusted with sharp barnacles, but we were soon rewarded with the brilliant glow of many corals.
These tiny orange and yellow corals open their transluscent tentacles in the water here and always astound me. Their delicate soft bodies encase a spongy, fragile exoskeleton, none of which looks like it could stand up to a gust of wind, let alone the fierce, pounding seas that rage through this gully on a daily basis. Despite their soft appearance, scarlet and gold cup corals, like the Celtic sea slugs, thrive in these wild places.
It was a good thing we had left ourselves plenty of time to explore this rock pooler’s paradise. Between deep pools packed with enormous snakelocks anemones and prawns as big as my hand, we scrambled and stared at the huge diversity of species in front of us. Arctic and three-spot cowries moved across the damp surfaces encrusted with pink seaweeds and colourful sea squirts. Groups of light-bulb sea squirts seemed to shine out from the dark water and so much life abounded on every surface that we moved with great caution for fear of accidentally treading on creatures.
The underside of a large boulder at the head of the gully was coated in a red sponge. A quick inspection revealed a small white coil of sea slug sponge. It took me longer to find the slug, which matched its background flawlessly. Rostanga rubra are a common find on these sponges but this was another first for my friend who is almost as obsessed with slugs as I am. He was so delighted with this little find that he took some persuading to move away from the gully before the tide turned.
On our way out of the gully, we waded through a pool, up to our waists in the water and no longer caring how wet we were. Hidden at the back of the pool we discovered a deep hole in the rock that harboured dozens of scarlet and gold cup corals and many large snakelocks anemones. I spotted a leg sticking out from underneath this one and uncovered this Leach’s spider crab (Inachus phalangium) sheltering there.
A shallow pool nearby was dotted with tufts of rainbow weed. To our surprise, these harboured many Asterina phylactica – a small species of starfish. A nearby clump of codium seaweed was also home to several Elysia viridis sea slugs.
On our way back across the beach, my friend found a clump of seaweed with half a dozen stalked jellyfish growing on it. This time, the blobs of the primary tentacles between the arms were easy to spot and we could be sure that these were Haliclystus octoradiatus.
With most of our bingo card of southerly species complete and with another day of rock pooling to try to find the remaining species, my friend set off up the beach to rest and enjoy a well-earned picnic.
Junior and I lingered in the sunny pools, exploring further into the slippery masses of thong weed and kelp until the tide turned.
To celebrate the rare August sunshine, we finished the day with a visit to the vast rock pool where I used to swim as a child. Plunging into the cool waters, I experienced the familiar feelings of wonder and trepidation at the thought of what might lurk in the depths.
We splashed and floated between the rocky walls, finding starfish, prawns, star ascidians and sponges as we swam, side by side. Time might move on, but this beach never loses its magic.
It’s always wonderful to spend time with other rock pooling obsessives, so I was popping with excitement at the prospect of three whole days one the shore with friends from North Wales.
Welsh coasts are wonderfully rich in marine life, but I was looking forward to showing my friends some species that I see in Cornwall which aren’t found in most of the rest of the British Isles. I also had a new camera to try out. We wasted no time in drawing up a bingo card of what we hoped to find.
On day 1 we explored the shore at Hannafore in Looe. Junior knew exactly where to look to cross off the first species on our bingo card: the St Piran’s hermit crab (Clibanarius erythropus). He scrambled over rocks on the mid-shore to a pool where these crabs tend to congregate and within a minute he had located the first one.
Sometimes these hermit crabs, with their red antennae and equal-sized claws are barely visible, hiding deep in their borrowed shells. Today they were less shy. This one seemed to almost fall out of its shell as it investigated my camera, while another nipped boldly at my friend’s fingers as he photographed the crab’s distinctive black and white chequerboard eyes.
As we followed the tide further down the shore, we looked for sea slugs in some of the usual places but with no luck. I soon realised that I was the only one feeling disappointed. With his head hidden from sight under an overhang, one of my friends was gasping in delight at the sight of a painted top shell. They might be common on the shore here, but apparently that’s not the case in Anglesey.
Despite the keen breeze that was preventing the tide running out as much as I’d hoped, we soon ticked off another item from the wish list.
I’ll admit that I hadn’t realised that rainbow wrack (Cystoseira tamariscifolia) is mainly a south westerly species. This bushy seaweed is one of our most unmistakeable plants and is a common sight all around Cornwall. In the water its fronds display a turquoise-green iridescent sheen that is arrestingly beautiful. Out of the water, rainbow wrack loses its magic, appearing brown or dull-green. For some reason I find it impossible to fully capture the colours in photos.
Catsharks favour rainbow wrack when they come inshore to lay their distinctive egg cases often known as “mermaid’s purses”. Despite my hopes of ticking off the egg cases of the greater spotted catshark (Scyliorhinus stellaris) on day 1, the breezy conditions meant we struggled to see into the water. The only eggcases I found were from the smaller species (Scyliorhinus canicula).
The small patch of seagrass that appeared last year was looking denser and wider than before. The length and width of the fronds suggested that it might be Dwarf seagrass (Zostera noltii), a different species from the other seagrass bed I know of on the site.
We embarked on the usual fruitless look for seahorses, which like to live in or near seagrass. I know they’re unlikely to turn up on the shore, but it never stops me looking.
With two species of stalked jellyfish on our bingo card, I was feeling confident of finding them. Instead I kept finding a species that my visitors had already seen, Calvadosia campanulata. These lovely bell-shaped jellies often have brilliant turquoise spots on the bell and and are very photogenic.
Despite the less-than-perfect conditions, we had ticked off some new species and amassed a huge collection of photos by the time the tide turned. With two days still to go and better weather on the way, we were off to an excellent start.
The tide has turned and I am reluctantly preparing to leave one of best rock pooling beaches in Cornwall after a fabulous few hours in perfect conditions in the company of great friends. As you’d expect, the day has been full of interesting finds, from sponge-covered spider crabs to golden clutches of clingfish eggs. My camera batteries are running low and my hair is dripping with seawater from all the time I’ve spent poking my head under seaweed-festooned overhangs. The kids migrated up the beach a while back to investigate the picnic bag but us adults can’t bear to leave the pools. As the water creeps up my wellies, I gently turn one last rock, and then another for luck.
I let out gasp so loud that it would make most people think I’d just broken a bone, but my friend knows better. She moves closer to ask what I’ve discovered, but I’m so overwhelmed with excitement that I can only babble about having, “finally found one”.
I point a trembling finger at the rock. “It’s a Disco…a Discodoris planata,” I stutter, before launching into a garbled explanation of how it used to be a Discodoris has been renamed Geitodoris, but I use Discodoris because I love that name and…
I take a few photos of the cause of my breathless wonder, straighten up and fling my arms over my head and shout at the top of my lungs to attract the children’s attention. It takes me a minute to realise that the distant child I have in my sights is not mine, but Junior has noticed my flailing and comes scrambling across the rocks with his friends.
We crowd in the fast-filling pool and peer down at my rock. Even Junior is a bit confused by my excitement over the small, brown lump I’m indicating.
“It’s Discodoris,” I explain, breathlessly. Instantly, he joins my paroxysms of delight, shrieking out the great news to his friends and going through the same Geitodoris speech as me, for this unassuming slug has become something of a legend in our household.
This isn’t the first time I’ve ever seen one, but it’s the first time I’ve had a working camera with me and it’s the first “Discodoris” that Junior has seen. He is especially impressed with the white star patches on the slug’s back. These are glands which secrete a powerful acid, ideal for seeing off predators.
On close inspection, there’s a pale-yellow blob alongside our “Discodoris” (Geitodoris planata): another slug. At first, I assume from its colour that it must be a Jorunna tomentosa, a slug I often see on this shore. Indeed, there is another Jorunna tomentosa on the same rock. However, this one seems to be getting very cosy with Discodoris. In fact, it looks to me as though they are mating. The yellow slug also has a far flatter profile than any Jorunna tomentosa I’ve seen before.
If the tide wasn’t coming in, and if I wasn’t called away by someone further up the beach finding a giant goby, I might have been able to check the slug’s underside. If I’d done that I could have seen without doubt that this was a second “Discodoris”, a two-for-one package. The underside of Geitodoris planata is fringed in brown spots, unlike the very similar sea lemon, which is all one colour.
Fortunately, social media now enables geeks like me to swap photos with other slug-loving types and sure enough, Geitodoris planata, though usually brown with distinct white acid glands, can sometimes be pale.
Although I will record the slug as Geitodoris planata and there are important scientific reasons for the name change, this little animal will always conjure up glitter balls and platform shoes in my mind. To take photos of the fabled Discodoris, and a mating pair at that, has to be the perfect end to a perfect day.
“The slug formerly known as Discodoris” and a host of other rock pool creatures feature in my book Rock Pool: Extraordinary Encounters Between the Tides. Out now online and in book shops nationwide from September Publishing. If only I’d found one in time to include a photo in the book…
Before I’ve found the time to upload all of last year’s records, the rock pooling event season is upon me again. Junior comes along to help at my first Wildlife Watch event of the year for Cornwall Wildlife Trust at Readymoney Cove, undeterred by the bone-chilling wind.
A crowd of hardy young rock poolers, kitted out from head to toe in weatherproof gear, is gathered at the top of the beach and I am joined by Liz, a lovely volunteer assistant. Half the group have their hands up before I’ve even asked a question and these keen kids are practically bursting with stories and facts about crabs, blennies, pipefish and killer jellyfish. They also have high expectations of what we might find – seahorses and cuttlefish are among the requests – but most of all they want to see starfish.
Starfish of some sort are almost guaranteed on all our local beaches, especially cushion stars, which like to hide under rocks and overhangs. If we are lucky we might also find brittle stars, that walk on their five feathery arms, or even a gargantuan spiny starfish, so I am hopeful that we will be successful on our mission.
As the group spreads across the shore, the finds soon rush in. We turn shiny top shells in our fingers, hold chunky-clawed Xantho hydrophilus crabs, and to the immense joy of one young seahorse enthusiast, we find the next best thing to a seahorse: a male worm pipefish with eggs on his belly.
Pipefish are close relatives of the seahorse and the male takes care of the female’s eggs, storing them in a special groove on his belly until they hatch. Coincidentally this pipefish has taken up residence next to an old pipe.
It only takes a minute for the children to discover a common starfish. I often find one or two on this beach, even though they’re not so common intertidally as offshore. The deep-water harbour alongside this beach is probably packed with them and sometimes young common starfish make their way into these sheltered pools. Today, however, there is something unusual going on.
Under the first stone I turn, I see two baby common starfish. As I look I notice a third, a fourth and then a fifth. On the side of the rock, there is yet another starfish. The adjacent rock has four more.
Everywhere on the beach, children are shrieking with excitement as they find more starfish. There are scores of them among the rocks I look at.
We could easily collect the starfish by the bucket-load, but these children know not to disturb the animals. We keep just a few for our trays so that we can watch them and all those who want to can have a go at holding a starfish before they are returned to their rocky homes.
While the children are caught up in the magic of starfish, I take a moment to explore the rocks at the sea’s edge and discover this wonderful yellow clubbed sea slug, Limacia clavigera.
There is never enough time to take many photos at these events as I am too caught up in the excitement of identifying finds and helping the children learn more about them. We also have plenty of discussions about the animals’ impressive defences and quirky eating habits.
The children do a perfect job of looking after the animals, returning them all safe and unharmed to their homes before the incoming tide floods back into the pools. Despite the chilly conditions, the kids are buzzing with happiness at finding so many starfish. A friend tells me her kids talked of nothing else all the way home.
Even Junior, who has seen most things before, is delighted with today’s finds and even more delighted when he secures the very last cheese and onion pasty from the beach shop for his lunch.
Did you know that starfish can regrow their limbs? Find out more about the secrets of these iconic rock pool animals in my book Rock Pool: Extraordinary Encounters Between the Tides out on 2nd May with September Publishing and available through local and national bookshops and online.
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.
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