It sometimes feels like I don’t get out much – either socially or out of the county (Not that it’s a hardship to be in Cornwall!). So, I could barely contain my excitement at having the opportunity to attend the Porcupine Marine Natural History Society Conference in Plymouth. I packed my passport and set forth across the Tamar.
Not only did I mingle with the most amazing bunch of fellow marine wildlife obsessives and hear their latest findings, but the third day of the conference was spent rockpooling at Wembury in South Devon.
After a week of ear-numbing northerlies, the low January sunshine is at last winning through. Junior sets to work with his bucket and spade, attempting to create a sand fort that can be seen from space while I take a stroll at the water’s edge.
The stretch of sand that forms Looe beach is ideal for summer holidaymakers to lounge on, but generally offers little to the rockpooler, unlike the surrounding shores. Today is different; probably due to a combination of large tides and strong winds from an unusual direction.
Glistening mounds of shells are heaped the length of the shore, and are being nudged onwards by the incoming tide. They crack under my feet despite my efforts not to trample them.
It’s not unusual to see the odd limpet or a few mussel shells here – the harbour is carpeted with them – but this haul of shells is not just large, it’s more diverse than usual. There’s such a kaleidoscope of blues, whites, oranges and pinks that I have to get in close to focus on individual shells.Continue reading A Shell Collecting Bonanza on Looe Beach→
Bioblitzes have become a regular thing these last few years and I love them. These time-limited surveys of every living thing in an area are a fantastic way to bring experts and the public together, so I’m excited to join the Lundy Bay 24 hour bioblitz organised by the National Trust.
When I first walk down on the first afternoon to do a pre-survey recce there’s no beach at all. The tide is high and the waves are exploding against the rocks sending up a shower of spray that delights Cornish Rock Pools Junior. Fortunately, some intrepid friends from the Marine Biological Association and Coastwise North Devon arrived early and collected a lovely hydroid medusa (like a tiny jellyfish) and lots of moon jellies – so it seems likely there will be interesting things to find when the tide goes back out.
After an exciting evening and early morning of mammal surveying with Junior, I finally get to see the beach at low tide. It’s an exposed shore with sheer rocks and golden sand, which looks wonderful, but is a tricky environment to find creatures. Still, with the number of people we have taking part and the combined resources of lots of different organisations including kick nets and fish traps, we’re sure to find something.
I spend most my time near the event flags, helping people to identify their finds. Everyone is fascinated by the sea hare. These common sea slugs are easily recognised by the long tentacle ‘ears’ on their heads. Up close, you can see a leopard-like pattern on their bodies. If you upset them (which we don’t) they can squirt out purple ink to confuse predators.
The find of the day is a creature none of us expect to find tangled in a discarded fishing net. This slow worm (a legless lizard) probably came down to the beach to hunt at low tide and became caught in the ghost net. It has a lucky escape and is released safely.
The nets bring up lots of tiny baby flatfish that were hiding in the sand in the shallows. Most are probably plaice and this one looks like a baby turbot – with a much wider body-shape. I’ve never seen one this small before, it swims onto my hand and rests there, looking around with bulging eyes, opening its lop-sided mouth a little. If it makes it to adulthood it may eventually weigh 10 kilos or more, but it has a way to go yet.
Everyone loves a cheeky tompot blenny. There bold fish are unmistakeable with their fat lips, colourful eyes and television aerial style tentacles on their heads.
Other highlights include toothed crabs (Primela denticulate), celtic sea slugs, which are present in huge numbers on some large rocks around the point, and a lobster lurking at the back of a deep overhang cave.
After the strong winds and rain of the previous day, the sunshine takes us by surprise. Conditions are perfect and the turnout is good, but before long the tide is racing back in. By the time we make it back to base, the short, intense Bioblitz is coming to an end and the stands are being packed away. Soon this will be a remote empty field again, but I’ll be back sometime soon to explore this wonderful bay some more.
There are many fabulous rock pooling beaches around Cornwall and this isn’t one of them. The smooth serpentinite rocks of Kynance Cove on the Lizard peninsula are colourful and create breathtaking scenery, but they’re mostly devoid of places for creatures to shelter. Realistically there’s not much here, but it’s one of Cornwall’s loveliest places and experience tells me there’s always something if I look hard enough.
One thing this beach does have is caves. Junior strides ahead of me, clutching a geological hammer and chisel, shining his torch along the smooth, damp walls.
He’s on a mission to explore every centimetre of these rare rocks, forced up millions of years ago from deep under the oceans, exposing the upper layer of Earth’s mantle. While Junior hammers away at history, cave-dwelling periwinkles not much bigger than grape pips are undertaking their own explorations.
A steady swell breaks against the island stacks and scattered rocks of the bay. Barnacles cling to imperfections and overhangs, joined by beadlet anemones and black-footed limpets.
I watch a limpet slamming down its shell on a barnacle’s feeding arms and wonder if it’s if it’s after a more substantial meal than its usual fare of micro-algae?
Sea slaters scuttle among the barnacles together with occasional flies and even a centipede. I assume it has journeyed down from the top of the grassy island to forage at low tide.
An oystercatcher watches me cross the beach, preening itself with its orange chopstick bill. It watches as I climb a shelving part of the lower cliffs where several deep bowls have been eroded from the rock.
As I approach the pools, a gaggle of small fish jostles against each other before darting away below a ledge. I take up position beside the pool and wait. Sure enough, after a few minutes, a shanny’s head pops over the ledge, propping itself on its clawed pectoral fins to get a better look. Others soon join it as they return to their basking positions at the shallow edges of the pool.
I lower my camera bit by bit until it’s almost touching the surface of the water. The fearless shanny stays put. After a few attempts I manage to capture one of my favourite things about these common little rockpool fish: their extraordinary chameleon-like eyes which can swivel independently in all directions.
Being able to do this must be a huge advantage when looking out for prey and predators.
I spot a Montagu’s blenny in the pool, easily distinguished from its larger cousins by its radio mast style headgear. It’s too shy to have its photo taken and I’m called away to help with Junior’s mining exploits, but it’s been a rewarding morning. It shows how much is there if you look.
The sea, viewed from the top of the steep valley, is a distant pool of blue decorated with a scattering of rocky islets. Here ‘my people’ (as my other half puts it) gather, unperturbed by the intense hail shower that sweeps over us. We pull on our wellies and waterproofs in the shelter of our car boots until the storm slinks away, uncovering a cleansed sky.
A few years back I hosted a Coastwise North Devon field trip to the south Cornish coast. Today I’ve been invited back for a north Cornwall foray with this dedicated group of marine naturalists. There could be no more serious band of rockpoolers. Should there be any unusual species on this shore, they are about to be discovered.
The walk down the valley to Porth Mear beach never disappoints, even in the muddy aftermath of a hail storm. Our party is accompanied by the trills of the first skylarks of summer and the first swallows dancing over the marshes.
My main objective today is to photograph the corals. Like so much of our colourful marine life, the scarlet and gold cup coral (Balanophyllia regia) is barely the size of my fingernail and prefers to live in the most awkward spots possible.
When I last found corals here, I crawled into a damp overhang on my belly, discovered the space was too small for my camera’s waterproof casing and removed it so I could hold my camera at arm’s length into the dripping cave (it died soon afterwards). The resulting photos showed blurred bloblets. The colours were lovely but beyond that you had to use your imagination. I suspect my new camera can do better.
The water is slow to run out today. A swell is building in advance of a storm and waves are rushing into the gullies that I was hoping to explore; the ones where I last saw the cup corals. Despite that, it’s one of the best tides of the year, and with so many expert eyes on the case it’s not long before a shout goes up and people gather round.
In a shallow pool at the back of a rocky grotto are dozens of scarlet and gold cup corals, spots of colour as bright as a sunset. Each one has a central disc of fiery orange fringed in rays of saffron yellow tentacles. I can only see this by lying down and pulling myself over the rocks until my head is wedged in the overhang so deeply that salt water dribbles down my forehead. I have a small head, small enough to wear my child’s bike helmet; just occasionally that’s useful.
This time my camera fits easily through the slit in the rocks and after a fair amount of wriggling I find a way to position it in the water and focus. A clear shot of the cup coral, translucent spotted tentacles and all, appears on my screen. I bang my head on the rock in my excitement, then take fifty more photos – just in case.
I could spend all day here, except that the spray is already breaking over my back from the waves pounding the seaward rocks. Soon the tide will swallow this gully once more. The cup corals need these fierce currents to bring them food, but I wouldn’t last two minutes in them.
We carry on our explorations, making more discoveries and enjoying the sunshine, so unexpected after the morning’s hail.
There may be places where the sea shows its treasures more willingly, where large, colourful wildlife swims all around you without having to clamber over slippery rocks, lift boulders or traipse back up a steep hill at the end of the day. But I prefer this. Just as adventure stories would be dull if the quest were over on page one, finding marine treasure would be less fulfilling if you didn’t have to work at it; or so I tell myself.
Finding and managing a decent photo of a scarlet and gold cup coral has taken me nearly forty years. Even now, I’ve only managed it thanks to having ‘my people’ around me, sharing my fascination with these creatures. I couldn’t ask for more.