Category Archives: Beaches

A Summer Splash with a New Friend

I know there are good reasons not to meet people you only know from the internet, but I often do. It has been brilliant every time because people who love the rock pools are the best! When an online acquaintance who is part of the Shores of South Devon group messaged me about meeting up, I knew we would have a great time.

Junior and I grabbed our beach shoes and headed to the local rocks to meet her. The tide might not have been the lowest ever, but with three keen pairs of eyes on the job and warm water (by Cornish standards) to splash around in, we couldn’t fail to have fun.

Our new friend especially wanted to see cowries and sea slugs, so we had fun looking.

The summer seaweed was starting to die back and the water was cloudy with plankton and silt, but the sun breaking through the water made it easy to see. There are always plenty of interesting molluscs; the dusky-pink cowries and chitons caught our eye.

A pretty chiton – Lepidochitona cinerea

The mid-shore pools are extensive around Looe and are crammed with rock pool species, all jostling for space and food. This cushion star was out exploring a shallow pool.

Cushion starfish in the rock pools

Anemones know their place as the star of the show! They love plankton-rich water and come in every possible colour. The brightest of the day was this gorgeous dahlia anemone.

Dahlia anemone
This daisy anemone had a fabulous purple mouth
Waving tentacles of snakelocks anemones catching the sunlight (and some plankton).

One of the great benefits of summer rockpooling is that we can go as deep as we like in the pools. Junior was excited to show our new friend his favourite swimming pool. It’s unusual to find seagrass in the rock pools, but there are usually a few clumps of it here. Sure enough, Junior spotted it straight away.

This deep pool often has some seagrass growing in it.

Our new friend was wonderfully excited by everything we saw and the time flew by as we met urchins, crabs, variegated scallops and other incredible little creatures.

A green shore urchin wearing a selection of this season’s seaweed.
A St Piran’s hermit crab pops out to say hello.

Many of the rocky overhangs and boulders were coated in animal life. Thick sponges, gelatinous sea squirts and mossy bryozoans crowded together with tube worms and spiral worms in a jumble of colours and shapes.

This distinctive sea squirt has four crimson spots at the tip of each zooid.
A collage of sponges and sea squirts.

It almost goes without saying that we were looking for sea slugs. Our friend had found a few on other beaches and was keen to discover more. There are generally fewer about on the shore at the end of the summer, when the spawning season is coming to a close, but there was still a chance of seeing some.

On a loose piece of seaweed floating in with the tide, I found the unmistakable pink spaghetti coils of sea hare spawn. Looking through my camera, I could see the developing eggs inside. These ones probably would not survive, but many others will have hatched successfully.

Pink spaghetti! Sea hare spawn.
Lots of baby sea hares developing!

As we searched among the rocks in a shallow pool, an eel slid past my feet and promptly disappeared, tunneling effortlessly down among the pebbles.

Common eel slinking away to hide under the stones.

Just when we are leaving the pools, I checked under a stone and found a nudibranch sea slug. It was a beauty with long pink cerata and striking brown rhinophores. The slug might only have been a centimetre or two long, but it was speedy; every time I thought I had it in focus, it went gliding away across the rock. It didn’t matter. We were all happy just to enjoy watching it for a minute before returning the stone exactly as we found it.

We found a sea slug! Favorinus branchialis.
The brown rhinophores with a bulge near the top are typical of Favorinus branchialis.
Favorinus branchialis. This little nudibranch likes to eat the eggs of other sea slugs.
Look closely – the shining blue dots are the eyes of tiny baby fish!

As always, it was great fun to explore the shore with someone else who takes delight in the little things. In a fast-moving world, it’s important to take the time to connect with nature and with each other.

Social media certainly has its downsides, but I love how easy it is to find others who care about the natural world and to build real-world social connections with them. If we are going to find solutions to the problems facing our environment, those connections will be essential.

Whatever the tide, always stay safe in the rock pools. Follow my rockpooling tips to look after yourself and the wildlife on the shore.

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Summer Rock Pooling At Millendreath

Irys and her mum are hoping to see a sea slug. As regular readers of this blog will know, I am more than a little slug obsessed, so we quickly hatch a plan to visit “Slug Alley”.

The day is grey and mizzly, as is typical in Cornwall any time of year. These damp conditions are ideal for sea creatures that would hide away on sunnier days to avoid drying out. The tide is nothing special, but there is still a fair chance of finding slugs if it drops enough to allow us to access the deep rocky overhang.

This flat periwinkle is happily searching for seaweeds among the damp sponges and sea squirts.

Tiny blobs of jelly aren’t easy to see, especially when the whole of the rock is coated in an assortment of blobs already. As well as some blobby seaweed, there is a rich turf of sponges, sea squirts and bryozoans, all competing for space in this damp, shaded area.

Star ascidian colonial sea squirts at Millendreath, Cornwall.

Among the hydroids I find a few super-small blobs that might be Doto sea slugs, but out of the water it is impossible to tell. Junior finds a “huge” stalked jellyfish a few centimetres long, which can only be a Calvadosia campanulata.

Calvadosia capanulata stalked jellyfish.

This jelly is common in the summer and can be a few centimetres long. The tiny turquoise spots on the outside of the bell are unique to this species.

Less obvious, but more numerous Haliclystus octoradiatus stalked jellies are everywhere at the moment.

Haliclystus octoradiatus stalked jellyfish.

I even find one under a stone. These stalked jellyfish normally only live on seaweed, so this one has probably been dislodged by something and will try to loop its way back to the seaweed when the tide comes in.

Stalked jellyfish under a stone looking rather sorry for itself!

Irys finds a blob and shows me. It is small, brown and jelly-like and I am pretty sure it is a slug. I try not to get excited until we are sure. Carefully, we remove it from the sponge and pop it in a pot of seawater. In true magic slug style, the little creature sticks itself to the bottom of the tub and begins to open up and move. This is not either of the species I first thought it might be.

Irys’s fabulous find – Aegires punctilucens, a nudibranch sea slug.

We transfer the slug to a shallow petri dish to get a better look. As soon as it is under the camera, it is obvious that this slug is indeed something different. It’s a species I have only seen before in my (many) books and it’s an absolute gem. It even looks like it is hewn out of rock with its bumpy, knobbly back, but between the bumps, the body is smooth, dark brown and decorated with spots of iridescent blue.

Aegires punctilucens sea slug at Millendreath

This is a fabulous find and I am in awe that Irys spotted it having never seen a sea slug before. I have to check the name in a book when we get home – Aegires punctilucens. Punctilucens means points of light shining through or dawning… a perfect description.

Aegires punctilucens sea slug exploring the pool at Millendreath.

We take a lot of photos  of the slug in a petri dish and in a shallow pool before returning it to the rock where we found it, where it will feed on the sponges. Ideally we would take photos of it in situ, but out of the water it really is featureless brown goo!

The tide has dropped a little more, so we explore the pools further down the beach while we can.

Among a forest (or salad garden?) of sea lettuce, I spot this beautiful Polycera sp. slug. It is fairly large for this species and has striking yellow lines.

Polycera sp. nudibranch sea slug.

It is likely Polycera quadralineata, the four-lined sea slug, but it can be difficult to distinguish from Polycera norvegica. This lovely slug likes to eat bryozoans – colonial animals that form mossy sheets on the seaweed and rock – so it can become quite numerous this time of year.

Polycera sp. sea slug at Millendreath

I hadn’t been sure of finding much today on such a small tide, but slug alley has done us proud. We are all delighted with our finds and we are already planning another expedition together next time Irys and her mum visit.

Another creature in an unusual place – Aplidium turbinatum sea squirt on sea lettuce.

If you are visiting the beach this summer, be sure to rock pool responsibly and safely. Check the tides and leave everything as you found it. Read my top tips for successful rock pooling.

This website is a labour of much love and the content is available for free to everyone. My wonderful readers often ask if there is a way to support my work. You can now ‘buy me a coffee’ through my Ko-fi.uk page. (Just click donate and you can set the amount to pay by PayPal). Thank you!

Staycation Safari

After many days of getting drenched every time we step outside, Junior and I decide to make the most of the warmer weather and have a lazy day pootling about our local area. If everyone else is taking a holiday in Cornwall, so can we! The rocks between Plaidy and Millendreath are perfect for clambering and exploring, and I promise Junior a spot of wave jumping when we reach the sand beyond.

‘Slug alley’ at Millendreath

“I’ve found a blob,” Junior calls over to me.

I am kneeling among some seaweed at the top of a deep rocky gully. My head is almost pressed against the minute Dynamene pumila hydroids that grow on this seaweed, looking at what I’m sure is Doto sea slug spawn. “What kind of blob?” I ask.

“I think it’s a slug,” he says, and I’m up and at his side in a second.

The blob is bigger than I expect, almost like a small anemone on the rock. We stare at it closely, our heads touching. It looks as though it is tipped with blue.

“Oh my word,” I say. “I think you’ve done it.”

We hug and cheer and do a little slug dance, because every slug deserves a dance and this one is especially special. For weeks now, we have been looking for Antiopella cristata, a slug which ought to be found here but which I have never seen.

Taking great care not to harm the slug, we transfer it to a pot of seawater and watch it floof up.

The fully ‘floofed’ Antiopella cristata nudibranch sea slug.

The slug’s body is yellowish, but its back is covered in large waving cerata, each tipped in pale, frosted blue. The effect is like opening a geode to find tall, pointed blue crystals inside.

Close-up Antiopella cristata’s cerata remind me of peacock feathers.

We call the slug ‘Aunty Crystal’ to help remember its scientific name.

Antiopella cristata – or Aunty Crystal as we named this stunning sea slug.

We have named this gully ‘slug alley’ for a reason and plenty more creatures, slugs and others, are hiding on the tall, shady rock face. I find several bright red Rostanga rubra slugs munching on the red sponges.

The Rostranga rubra slug, which gets its incredible colour from the sponges it eats.

A tiny ghost-white slug has been laying its eggs nearby. In the water it takes on a frilly appearance, making it look ever more spectral.

Goniodoris nodosa, looking frilly and ghost-like.

Sea cucumbers adore this area and are to be found everywhere, with their bodies hidden in holes in the rock and just their black and yellow mouths protruding. The two main species I see are Pawsonia saxicola and Aslia lefevrei.

Sea cucumber at Millendreath.

When submerged, they will open a wide fuzz of frilly tentacles to feed.

We clamber over the rocks onto the sand, helping a stranded rockling back into a pool on the way, and splash in the waves for a while.

This rockling had ended up out of the water at low tide, so we helped it back into a pool.

A couple of shells roll past my feet, tumbled by the waves over the silty sand. I make a quick grab for them and, sure enough, they both contain hermit crabs. At low tide, I occasionally find this species here, easily recognised by its enormously long left claw. These crabs are both south-clawed hermit crabs, also known by their gladiatorial sounding scientific name, Diogenes pugilator.

Diogenes pugilator, the south-clawed hermit crab.

They are ready for battle, almost falling out their shells in their attempts to dislodge my grip, unaware that I am saving them from the herring gulls that are lurking at the water’s edge.

The south-clawed hermit crab has long hairs on its antennae.

Junior and I kneel at the edge of a sandy pool and pop the hermit crabs in. We watch one emerge without hesitation. The tips of its claws come first, then the stalked eyes and finally its long hairy antennae. The hermit crab hoists its shell up and runs a few paces.

With a furtive glance about it, the crab swings its vast left claw inwards, shoveling sand into a pile while simultaneously flicking the sand over its back with its little right claw. Grains of sand are flung up through the water and by the time they have settled, only the back of the shell and the tops of the hermit crab’s eyes are visible. It is buried out of sight.

We take the hermit crabs back to the sea, leave them as far out as possible – safe from predators – and carry on wave hopping until the tide turns, when we too must head for home.

Here’s a little video of this week’s highlights from the Cornish rock pools. Sit back and enjoy!

If you would like to find out more about rock pool wildlife or go on your own rock pooling adventures, be sure to pick up my books Rock Pool and Beach Explorer. Out now with September Publishing and available from all book shops and online.

Meeting up and staying apart in the rock pools

When I’m sitting here writing my blog in the evening, with the cat snoring gently beside me, I find it hard to imagine that people anywhere in the world might be reading about my finds the next day. So, it’s always lovely to receive messages from people who follow the blog and share my passion for our rock pool wildlife. It’s especially surprising to me that these include many people I’ve never met and that some of my readers even live beyond the Tamar!

With the days beginning to draw in and with all normal group activities off due to Covid, making connections with others is more important than ever. When I heard from a couple of keen naturalists and Shoresearchers planning a trip to Cornwall, I thought it could be fun to head out on the shore together with my family. I couldn’t have been more right!

You know someone is a good person when they like finding slugs. Within minutes of meeting our new friends on Millendreath beach near Looe, we had established that slugs were top of their wishlist of things to find. I led the way to “slug alley”, a deep gully between the rocks where I often find sea slugs feeding on the sponges, squirts, bryozoans and hydroids that line the dripping overhangs.

We advance in our family groups, keeping several metres apart, pointing at interesting creatures, giving directions then backing away. By this stage in the pandemic, we’re all confident in these new dance steps.

Botryllus leachii colonial sea squirts

Large patches of colonial sea squirts smooth over the rocky surfaces, providing not just striking colours and patterns but food for many animals that predate them. We find both the European three-spot cowrie and the Arctic cowrie happily gorging themselves on this beautiful feast.

A cowrie on the search for sea squirts to eat.

A brown spot among the squirts and barnacles catches my eye. Although the colours blend in perfectly, it looks different from its surrounds. I gently touch it and it comes away. In a seawater-filled petri dish it rapidly transforms itself, puffing up, elongating and sprouting feathery gills and tall rhinophores. There’s no doubt about it, we have our first slug. My excitement is as great as that of our new friends – this is a species I have never seen before.

Goniodoris castanea exploring the petri dish.

We take turns to examine the slug and take photos. As soon as it is under my camera, which shows far more detail than I can make out with the naked eye, I recognise it from my books (yes, I browse slug books for fun). It’s my first Goniodoris castanea. Castanea means chestnut and the slug’s autumnal mottling of red, brown and white hues make seems a perfect fit with the oncoming season.

Goniodoris castanea showing off its beautiful autumnal colours.
Goniodoris castanea

While our friends marvel at the slug, Junior makes another exciting find. He knows what it is just by the purplish tips of the arms protruding from under the rock. “Spiny starfish!” he calls. We carefully move it out to take a look and it’s a monster. Our starfish has clearly found plenty to eat in this area. Although we regularly see them on the shore here, spiny starfish aren’t found in rockpools in some other parts of the country and this is another new species for our visitors.

I forgot to take photos of the spiny starfish due to my excitement over the slugs – but here’s a pic of one we found on an earlier expedition to Millendreath.

We edge ever outwards with the tide. Although we can hear the shouts of holidaymakers playing in the waves on the beach beyond the rocks, no one else ventures into our magical gully where startled sand eels zip across the surface of the water like skimming stones and velvet swimming crabs scuttle across the seabed then bury themselves in the sand, leaving only their red eyes visible.

A lurking velvet swimming crab.

Some of the rocks are fringed with a dense covering of brown seaweeds. Toothed wrack and kelp compete for space here and clinging to this forest, mossy bryozoans and delicate hydroids thrive, creating a perfect habitat for isopods and slugs. Some of the seaweeds have crescents of white jelly scattered among their fronds. These are sea slug eggs but it takes me some time to find the slug itself, which is smaller than its spawn and decorated with bright yellow and black which somehow make it hard to see.

Sea slug spawn…. now to find the slugs.

These pretty little slugs were, until very recently, known as Polycera quadrilineata. Scientists have now discovered that there are two separate species and the ones we see here, which sometimes have black lines and spots, are now called Polycera norvegica.

Polycera norvegica feeding on bryozoans.

In the moving seaweed, it’s hard to take clear photos and the tide is, of course, coming in just as I’m trying to position the camera in water that’s already waist deep, but we are all content just to be here, together but apart, sharing this experience of encountering incredible creatures.

Polycera norvegica.
Pair of Polycera norvegica sea slugs with the edge of a fingernail in shot showing just how tiny these stunning little creatures are!

These are strange times for everyone, but finding ways to come together and enjoy nature is what makes the world go round (for me at least). Thanks to our new friends for making it a fabulous day. Happy rock pooling!

This time of year, the kelp is studded with blue-rayed limpets – always a joy to see.
Brown sea cucumber – Aslia lefevrei.

A Rainbow in the Cornish Rock Pools – Andrà tutto bene!

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.

I feel like I could fish the sun out of this pool. A welcome change after a wet and stormy winter.

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.

The shanny – also known as the common blenny – has lovely eyes.

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.

Idotea balthica – an isopod crustacean.

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.

Strawberry anemone on pink paint weed surrounded by little ‘rainbows’.

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.

More photos from my last rock pool walk below.

Snakelocks anemone
Painted top shell
A great grey sea slug. The iridescent blue lines in the foreground near its head are a fragment of blue-rayed limpet shell. Another unexpected little rainbow in the rock pool!
Great grey sea slug. The white tubes on the rocks are made by keel worms. You can see a keel worm’s circle of feathery feeding tentacles to the left of the slug.
Broad-clawed porcelain crab.

Starfish and Blue-Rayed Limpets on a gloomy day

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.

To the rock pools!

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.

Junior takes a look at the tube feet on the underside of the spiny starfish.

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.

Blue rayed limpets on kelp – photo by Cornish Rock Pools Junior.

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.

This Arctic cowrie has abseiled from the top of the rock and is still holding on to its thread of mucus.
A pair of Arctic cowries with their shells partly covered by their dark-striped mantles.

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.

A bright star on a gloomy day – common starfish at Millendreath.
Xantho hydrophilus crab hiding in a crevice.

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.

A pale and beautifully marked painted top shell.
Brown sea cucumber (centre) mostly hidden in a crevice, surrounded by sponges and other encrusting animals.

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.

Junior’s best blue-rayed limpet photo.
He’s also captured me at work in my natural habitat!

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.

This Calvadosia campanulata stalked jellyfish has (hopefully) seen better days!
The only Haliclystus octoradiatus stalked jellyfish we find is being thrown around in the current, but the white blobs of its primary tentacles can be clearly seen in this photo.
Most of the stalked jellyfish we see today are the ‘Maltese cross’ stalked jelly – Calvadosia cruxmelitensis.
Calvadosia cruxmelitensis stalked jelly with lots of white spots – these spots are clusters of the stinging cells (nematocysts).

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.

Berthella plumula sea slug
A breadcrumb sponge with microalgae growing inside the green parts.
Star ascidian
A tortoiseshell limpet surrounded by pink encrusting seaweed.

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.

Rock Pool Bingo – Searching for Southerly Species (Part 2 – North Coast)

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.

A flock of geese joined us on the shore at low tide.

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.

Montagu’s blenny looking two ways at once. This blenny has a single head tentacle.

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.

A typically bright pink painted top shell at Porth Mear.

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.

This tiny juvenile Haliclystus octoradiatus stalked jellyfish was only a few milimetres long, but in the photos, its primary tentacles are visible.

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.

Celtic sea slug

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.

Celtic sea slug foraging on tiny micro-algae and other micro-organisms.

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.

Scarlet and gold cup 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.

3-spot cowrie

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.

Rostanga rubra sea slug
Rostanga rubra sea slugs feed on orange and red sponges such as Ophlitaspongia papilla. As they feed they take in the colour from the sponge, which makes them perfectly camouflaged.

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.

Inachus phalangium living in the shelter of a snakelocks anemone’s stinging tentacles. This crab also grows sponge on its carapace for camouflage.

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.

Asterina phylactica – a small species of cushion star.

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.

A white Haliclystus octoradiatus stalked jellyfish

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.

Sea hare, Aplysia punctata, at Porth Mear
A blue-rayed limpet on kelp at Porth Mear
A yellow form of the Scarlet and gold cup coral.
A huge prawn checks out my camera!
A shanny (common blenny) hiding in a crevice waiting for the tide to come in at Porth Mear.
Light bulb sea squirts at Porth Mear.
The walk to and from Porth Mear is always a wonderful part of the adventure – Junior spotted lots of cinnabar moth caterpillars on our way back.

An Outbreak of Starfish – Wildlife Watch Explores Readymoney Cove

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.

Xantho hydrophilus - the 'furrowed crab'.
Xantho hydrophilus – the ‘furrowed crab’.

Male worm pipefish with eggs
Male worm pipefish with eggs

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.

One of the common starfish found - photo courtesy of Liz Barker
One of the common starfish found – photo courtesy of Liz Barker

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.

Common starfish at Readymoney Cove near Fowey
Common starfish at Readymoney Cove near Fowey

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.

Limacia clavigera - the yellow-clubbed sea slug
Limacia clavigera – the yellow-clubbed sea slug

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.

If you’d like to get involved with Wildlife Watch, book on to my rockpooling sessions or join any other Wildlife Watch events, check out the listings on the Cornwall Wildlife Trust pages.

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.

West Cornwall Adventures

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.

A small species of clingfish hides among the coral weed near Penzance.
A small species of clingfish hides among the coral weed near Penzance.

A Calvadosia cruxmelitensis stalked jellyfish near Penzance. The diverse seaweeds of the Mounts Bay area provide a perfect habitat for a variety of stalked jellyfish species.
A Calvadosia cruxmelitensis stalked jellyfish near Penzance. The diverse seaweeds of the Mounts Bay area provide a perfect habitat for a variety of stalked jellyfish species.

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. 

The delicate colours of this star ascidian blew me away. It comes in so many colour morphs, but this one was new to me.
The delicate colours of this star ascidian blew me away. It comes in so many colour morphs, but this one was new to me.

 

More of the wonderful pastel-blue star ascidian, looking like an impressionist flower painting.
More of the wonderful pastel-blue star ascidian, looking like an impressionist flower painting.

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.

A cat shark egg case with a young greater-spotted catshark developing inside
Egg case with a young greater-spotted catshark developing inside

Hatchling greater-spotted catshark, which we kept for a minute before returning it safely exactly where it was found.
Hatchling greater-spotted catshark, which we kept for a minute before returning it safely exactly where it was found.

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.

Another species of stalked jellyfish - Haliclystus octoradiatus - near Penzance
Another species of stalked jellyfish – Haliclystus octoradiatus – near Penzance

A beautifully marked pheasant shell near Penzance, Cornwall
A beautifully marked pheasant shell near Penzance, Cornwall

Blustery Rock Pooling in North Cornwall

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.

Whatever the conditions may be, it’s a welcome chance to grab some fresh air after months of writing my new book Rock Pool: Extraordinary Encounters Between the Tides, which is out on 2nd May with September Publishing.

Junior hones his photography skills
Junior hones his photography skills

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.

In the water the sea lemon's rhinophores and frilly gills emerge and we can see its wonderful colours
In the water the sea lemon’s rhinophores and frilly gills emerge and we can see its wonderful colours

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.

Blue-rayed limpet. Photo by Cornish Rock Pools Junior
Blue-rayed limpet. Photo by Cornish Rock Pools Junior

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.

A brief glimpse of a St Piran's hermit crab.
A brief glimpse of a St Piran’s hermit crab.

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.

The European 3-spot cowrie (Trivia monacha)
The European 3-spot cowrie (Trivia monacha)

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.

Scarlet and gold cup corals at Porth Mear - showing both the yellow and the orange varieties.
Scarlet and gold cup corals at Porth Mear – showing both the yellow and the orange varieties.

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.

A Cornish clingfish. There was also a Rock goby and a pair of worm pipefish under the same rock.
A Cornish clingfish. There was also a Rock goby and a pair of worm pipefish under the same rock.

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.

Candelabrum cocksii hydroids are limited to the far south west of the UK.
Candelabrum cocksii hydroids are limited to the far south west of the UK.

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.

Strange and colourful - the Lamellaria perspicua is one of our favourite finds of the day.
Strange and colourful – the Lamellaria perspicua is one of our favourite finds of the day.

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.

This colourful worm, which I think is Oerstedia dorsalis, was only around 1cm long
This colourful worm, which I think is Oerstedia dorsalis, was only around 1cm long

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.

Spiny starfish at Porth Mear near Porthcothan
Spiny starfish at Porth Mear near Porthcothan

A fuzzy-looking Jorunna tomentosa sea slug
A fuzzy-looking Jorunna tomentosa sea slug

Fish eggs by Cornish Rock Pool Junior - these were floating in a pool, unattached to anything.
Fish eggs by Cornish Rock Pool Junior – these were floating in a pool, unattached to anything.