A day at Kynance Cove on the Lizard Peninsula has become a fixture in the Cornish Rock Pools calendar. The smooth, serpentine cliffs don’t create many hiding places for marine life, but Junior loves the geology and caves. There are always creatures to see too if you look carefully enough, so I take the opportunity to relax in the sun, staring at fish through the clear water.
The funny thing is that, while I stare in, the fish stare back, creeping closer up the sides, over pink encrusting algae and through fronds of the Corallina seaweed to secure a better view. Bold young shannies, prop themselves up on their two-pronged pectoral fins, swivelling their colourful clown eyes to observe me.
In the far corner of the pool, a Montagu’s blenny pops up to say hello. It’s easily recognisable by its pronged head tentacle, which looks like a tiny Christmas tree.
The surrounding rocks are covered in barnacles, which suits these fish well. The Montagu’s blenny likes nothing better than to nibble the feeding legs off barnacles.
I soon start to doubt that this fish is just curious. Unlike the shannies, which are just juveniles, this Montagu’s blenny is full size and sports a fine pattern of turquoise spots on his body. It is the male blenny’s job to guard the eggs, and this fish is taking no prisoners.
He seems determined to chase me out of his territory, repeatedly headbutting my camera. He may only be 7cm long, but I have a feeling that if I put a finger in the water he won’t hesitate to take me on with his sharp little teeth.
The hard rock becomes uncomfortable to lie on after a while, digging into my legs, but I try not to change position. The fish will scatter if I make any sudden movement or noise. Half a dozen shannies are darting around the bottom of the pool, while others are basking in shallow grooves at the edge. The Montagu’s blenny doesn’t take his eye off my camera.
I watch him until the tide turns and the waves begin to sweep in. This may not be the most diverse rock pooling beach, but the fish are a joy to watch and it’s a wonderful spot to while away a sunny morning before enjoying a pasty in the café. Summer starts here!
When the BBC approached me about filming a Countryfile episode with Matt Baker on the signs of spring, I reeled off all the exciting things we might find in the Cornish rock pools. By mid-April there would be male pipefish with eggs on their bellies, scorpion fish babies already hatched, crabs with egg masses under their tails and so much more. No problem.
What I hadn’t considered was that the TV crew’s packed schedule would require us to film on an exposed north coast beach on small tide. All I could do was to hope for good weather and some luck.
The West Cornwall episode of Countryfile is available on BBC iPlayer here. (Available at the time of writing).
Portreath, near Redruth, has wide, golden sands and magical craggy cliffs. Like many other beaches in Cornwall, it has a fantastic community group working to conserve wildlife and keep it clean – Love Portreath.
To the east of the bay lies what used to be an important mining port, sheltered by a long harbour wall with a stretch of rocks alongside.
The pools here are a great habitat, but the fierce waves sweep any small stones away, leaving only large boulders and deep overhangs as hiding places for the rock pool creatures. Great for wildlife, but tricky for rock poolers, especially with a strong swell rolling in.
Fortunately, I had help in the form of Cornish Rock Pools Junior and two of his friends, Ashley and Rowen. Without their keen eyes and amazing patience, it would have been an impossible task to find as much as we did in just fifteen minutes. Louis led Matt Baker crashing surf, assuring him there would be more to find on the lower shore, while Ashley plunged waist-deep into pools trying to catch a goby. Rowen spotted a cushion star at the back of a crevice in the rock. Needless to say I was prepared to risk getting my hand stuck to retrieve it (and nearly did).
In just a few minutes we managed to assemble a good collection of common rock pool creatures: a green shore crab, a common blenny, some top shells and, of course, the cushion starfish.
Inevitably, I made my television debut by telling the nation that starfish feed by pushing their stomachs out of their mouths and dissolving their prey. You’re welcome!
Although we failed to find many signs of spring other than the large amounts of seaweed sprouting all around us, the magic of television went to work and the final programme included some fabulous footage of green shore crab eggs hatching out into the plankton.
It’s incredible how all the snippets we filmed on the day were woven together into the final programme. Huge thanks go to the all of the Countryfile crew for putting us at ease and doing their TV magic, and to Matt Baker in particular for taking the time to chat and take photos with the children.
Even though conditions weren’t ideal, it was a wonderful opportunity to showcase the Cornish beaches and the creatures that survive in this extreme environment.
Spring tides and slightly more spring-like weather might finally coincide this weekend, so I’m preparing for a big weekend of rock pooling. If all goes to plan, I’ll be reporting back next week. In the meantime, I’m readying my waterproofs, planning which beach I’ll go to according to the wind direction and sorting out my photos from the last month. And of course, I’ll be at the Looe Marine Conservation Group Rock Pool Ramble on Monday at Hannafore beach, so maybe I’ll see you there?
One beach I’m hoping to visit on Saturday is Millendreath. This sheltered south coast beach has an interesting geological history. Somewhere under the sand is a submerged ancient forest. Whether the nutrients come from there, drift along from the Looe river, or both, this beach has a unique fauna and is always full of surprises.
In the past I’ve found masked crabs, weever fish and unusual swimming crabs here. On my visit last week, it was all about the sea slugs and cucumbers.
In the chilly breeze it felt less than spring-like, but these things seem not to bother the rock pool creatures. Sea lemons, a type of sea slug with a big circle of feathery gills on their back and pocked citrus-like skin, were everywhere.
And so was their spawn.
A species that seems to love the conditions here is the brown sea cucumber, Aslia lefevrei, which likes to hide away in holes in the rock with just its retracted tentacles sticking out. When these are fully extended they have a frilly, carrot-top appearance, but at low tide all we see is a yellow and brown blob.
Among the seaweed at the edge of the shore, I spotted a fleck of orange. Old seaweeds often turn bright colours as they die back, but this fleck wasn’t attached to anything. After fumbling about in the cold water for as long as I could bear, I managed to scoop the fleck up and tip it into a petri dish.
Much of my time on the shore is spent staring at things, wondering if they’re animals or just tricks of the imagination. Often they’re nothing, but this one was definitely a something.
As it settled in the water, the blob began to unfurl and then to secure itself to the dish. It was definitely a sea slug, although still quite hard to see as you can tell from its size compared to the 20p piece.
The chunky cerrata on its back and the orange on its body were typical of the species, a Eubranchus farrani. By far the smallest one I’ve ever seen.
Conditions were too cold to spend any longer with my hands in the water, so I retreated to the upper shore to look for anemones with Junior and to let him dig around the stream. Perhaps one day he’ll dig down to the submerged forest?
Even on uninviting, cold days, there are always things to find. Millendreath never fails to surprise me. Who knows what will turn up this weekend? Conditions should be easier, but I’m taking no chances. Other half got a big thermos flask for his birthday and I’ll be filling it with hot chocolate before we go out!
I wasn’t supposed to be rock pooling at all. It was Other Half’s birthday and we were joining my parents for a walk and lunch to also celebrate my dad’s birthday from the day before. To add to the celebration list, my parents were in the middle of their golden wedding anniversary break at the beautiful Meudon Hotel near the Helford river.
I did well at first, catching up on my parents’ late-night dash across the county to reach the hotel before the snow arrived, while we wandered in the gardens. We stared into the lush ponds and spotted a couple of newts and lots of tadpoles (because it was a family event, nothing like rock pooling).
As we wound our way down the valley we could see the remnants of the snow nestling among the fronds of the tree ferns. We could also see something else glinting in the distance. The sea.
Junior and I picked up the pace. We both knew there was a beach at the end of the path. He was clutching his spade ready for action and I had my camera in my pocket, just in case you understand…
While I was talking to Mum on the beach, we happened to drift ever-closer to the rock pools and, well… I couldn’t help myself!
At Bream Cove, like other beaches in this area, the folds and channels in the rocks create lovely gullies and pools. There was no shortage of wildlife to be found on the overhangs and in the sand at the base of the pools.
Each time we approached a new pool a flicker of movement caught my eye. At first I assumed it to be prawns or perhaps small blennies scooting out of sight, then I spotted the tubes.
The Acromegalomma vesiculosum fanworms that build these constructions to camouflage and protect themselves are extremely hard to photograph. On the end of each long feathery arm of their fan, they have a dark eyespot. As soon as they sense a change in the light, they retract back into their tubes at lightning speed.
I treated mum to a Cornish Rock Pools comedy spectacle as I crawled about on the rocks attempting to approach them from all different angles. No matter what I tried, the fan worms nearly always retracted before I could get close enough to focus and then stayed stubbornly inside their tubes.
This beach has a wonderful collection of anemones; the whole area is great for them. In a single pool I found snakelocks anemones, beadlet anemones, a dahlia anemone and a daisy anemone. Like the fanworms, the daisy anemones do a quick disappearing trick when disturbed.
My favourite find of the day was this Harbour crab. All the books tell me it’s a common species, but this was the first one I have ever seen.
Like other swimming crabs they have flattened back legs, which act as paddles. In this crab the paddles are a bright blue or purple. Best of all were the eyes, which bulged out like yellow lamps. As I watched the crab demonstrated how it could swivel each eye separately in all directions . A great party trick.
Nearby, Other Half (who had wisely decided the only way to get my attention on his birthday was to join me in the rock pools) found this mystery blob. It was around 10cm long and seemingly attached to the seaweed.
It looked vaguely familiar but I didn’t have a clue why. The only white jelly-like blob as big as this that I could think of was squid eggs, which normally come in big clusters, but it looked all wrong.
With the miracle of modern technology, I soon had the answer. The amazing Seasearch Identifications Group on Facebook are poised at their keyboards any time of day of night, ready to identify anything that’s found, no matter how obscure.
Within minutes of posting, I had the answer. Mystery blob was a syphon from a large bivalve mollusc, probably a razor clam or otter shell.
Quite what it was doing tangled in seaweed halfway up a rock, I’ll never know, but as soon as I saw the answer I knew why it had looked so familiar. Huge thanks to David Fenwick who runs the brilliant Aphotomarine species identification site, which is also well worth a visit any time you’re struggling to identify something.
Another great little crustacean find was this St Piran’s Crab.
The tide was falling beautifully and I could see more pools emerging. I had to accept, though, that if I wanted my family to ever speak to me again, I’d better tear myself away from the rock pools for the birthday lunch.
Bream Cove, like so many others on this wonderful stretch of coastline between Falmouth and the Helford, is firmly on my return visit list. There aren’t any facilities at the beach, but you can always pop up to the Meudon Hotel for a luxury cream tea!
I’ll leave you with a few more photos from my sneaky rockpooling excursion.
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→
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