Like everything else about 2020, this is a strange New Year’s Eve. Many have lost loved ones this year, and most of us have spent the festive season apart from friends and family. Whatever the year ahead brings, it will be made better by connecting with the natural world and doing the small (or large) things that we can to build a better society and environment.
On the eve of 2021, I am struggling personally to come to terms with losing EU citizenship and all of the opportunity, discovery and connections it has brought me. International cooperation is essential to tackling the global issues that face our wildlife and we will have to work harder than ever to build understanding and find solutions to problems that cannot wait.
Life will go on and I am super-excited about my new children’s book, Beach Explorer, due to be published in the spring. As ever, I will continue to bring you the very best of the Cornish rock pools straight to your computer through my blog.
To bring a little cheer to myself and to you, here are a few of my favourite rock pool wildlife photos from my encounters this year. I hope you will be inspired to get outside and meet your own local wildlife, and to join all of us who are working to protect and restore nature.
A Happy and Healthy New Year to All! Bonne Année 2021!
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.
The tide isn’t always out far enough to go rock pooling, but on a windswept north coast beach like Mawgan Porth there’s always something interesting washed up on the tideline. Junior and I wander through the dunes to the soft sand of the upper shore just after the tide has turned with a plan to look for shark and ray egg cases (mermaid’s purses). We often take them home to soak so that we can check the species and record our finds on the Shark Trust’s Great Eggcase Hunt website.
We both see it at the same time. A greenish lump is shifting at the edge of the retreating sea, being nudged in and out by surging waves. From a distance it could be a stranded animal, but we quickly decide it’s a net and run towards it for a better look.
Currents run fast across the bay and can easily catch you unaware, so I leave Junior behind while I attempt to drag the net clear of the waves. It’s several metres wide and is weighed down with water and sand. With an eye on the sea, I stagger backwards a few centimetres with each heave until the net is clear of the waves.
While I catch my breath, we examine the net close-up. Much of it is encrusted with seaweeds and hydroids. It looks as though it has been in the sea for some while. Attached to one of the intersections is a stony lump like a tooth. This is the ‘skeleton’ of a Devonshire cup coral.
I’m thinking about how to detach the coral without breaking it when I spot a couple walking across the beach towards us. They look like able recruits, so I ask if they might be able to help. The four of us grab the net between us and tug it behind us, army fitness-test style. We take a few breaks along the way, take a small detour to avoid a stranded barrel jellyfish because it doesn’t feel right to run it over. We’re all getting unseasonably warm, but we don’t give up. As we near the top of the beach another woman joins us for the last push to the rubbish collection point.
I take a few minutes to look over the net and find several more cup coral ‘skeletons’. Without a knife it’s not easy to remove them but I manage to prise a few off to show my net-hauling team. To my delight one cup coral has a bump on the side of it. This is an Adna anglica barnacle which only grows on cup corals.
We walk back along the strandline, picking up lots of stray pieces of netting. The plastic fibres are everywhere, breaking into smaller pieces that will stay in the sea for an incredibly long time if they aren’t removed.
There are a couple of lesser spotted catshark eggcases among the seaweed and a ‘by the wind sailor’ hydroid. Then I give such a squeal of excitement that an old couple walking near us turn to stare. When I pick up a transparent piece of jelly that looks like plastic, they turn away again.
The creature fits neatly in the palm of my hand and glistens in the light and feels solid, even though it is entirely transparent. We turn it back and forth, looking through both ends of its tubular, barrel-shaped body. It’s no longer alive, but this is definitely my first salp.
Salps are tunicates, relatives of the sea squirts we find attached to rocks on the shore. They swim actively by contracting their bodies and some salps join together to form long chains. There is a species of amphipod (an animal like a sand-hopper) that is often found sheltering inside them, but this one is empty.
Junior names the salp Cecil. At home he rinses it in water before we take photographs of it. He then prepares a jar of salt water to place it in.
As soon as Cecil is in the water ‘he’ becomes near-invisible. This salp would be perfectly camouflaged in the sea, hiding in plain sight from predators.
At the end of our morning’s endeavours we have a remarkable collection of curiosities set out on the dining table. We have also left the beach cleaner than we found it. A perfect day’s beachcombing.
Huge thanks go to our team of net pullers from St Austell and Milton Keynes!
Although no beach in Cornwall is a complete secret, there is no shortage of inaccessible bays, without car parks, cafes and many of these are perfect for rock pooling. The extra effort of walking (in my case sliding) down a steep field and hauling back up it at the end of the day pays off. This secret beach, one of several between Falmouth and the Helford river is a complete gem, just as diverse as I remember it.
Cornish Rock Pools Junior’s friends who appeared on Countryfile with us have joined us today. Unlike Portreath, the north coast beach we filmed at, it’s incredibly easy to find creatures on this sheltered shore.
Our first discovery is that a population of St Piran’s hermit crabs has established here, probably new since my last visit several years back. I spot the tell-tale red antennae poking out of a shell.
We haven’t gone far before we come across a lovely long pool with plenty of loose boulders to provide protection to sea creatures. As I turn a rock, Junior spots a large fish that shoots out and noses into a clump of seaweed at the edge of the pool to hide. I put Other Half on the case. He skillfully coaxes it into a corner of the pool in the hope it will swim into his big bucket, which it obligingly does.
The underside of the rock I’ve turned is crowded with life. There are colourful patches of sponges and sea squirts. A clutch of yellow eggs coats part of the surface.
These are clingfish eggs and the parent will be nearby. Within them, the babies are developing fast. A pair of eyes gazes out of each egg and the tails, wrapped tightly round the little heads are visible too. Something close by catches my attention, a colourful slug.
The slug’s long, yellow-tipped cerata sway like hair in the current, giving it a puffed-up appearance. It’s an attractive animal, a pale blue colour when it catches the light. This slug, Calma glaucoides, specialises in eating fish eggs, and especially likes those of the clingfish.
Meanwhile, Other Half and Junior are excited about the fish in their bucket. Junior reckons it’s a giant goby and I think he may be right. I try to pick it up to try to confirm the species by taking a look at the fin under its belly, but the fish is very lively.
Junior deploys his best trout tickling skills to persuade the fish to lie still in his hands, which it eventually more or less does. The sucker-fin underneath has a thick, pointed lobe at the front.
The fish has the small eyes and the salt-and-pepper colouring typical of a giant goby and lacks the yellow band on the top of the first dorsal fin which identified the more common rock goby. Its fins are tipped with grey instead. This fish is highly protected and it’s important not to disturb or trap them without a licence, so, Junior carefully lowers the bucket into the pool allowing his goby friend to swim straight back to its favourite hiding place.
Other finds come in so fast, it’s hard to keep up with them. We come close to catching a huge mystery fish, which thrashes through the seaweed but escapes without being seen. I find a small yellow slug which I initially assume is Jorunna tomentosa, which I often see on the shore. It’s only when I look at the photos at home that I realise my mistake. This slug has lumpy protrusions all over its body that have a sandy, almost warty appearance.
I’ve never seen anything like it, the reason being that this slug has only rarely been recorded in the UK. Doris ocelligera tends to occur further south but seems to be becoming more established in the south of the UK and northern France, with several records coming in over the last few weeks. An exciting find and one I’ll have to look out for more carefully in future.
Thanks go to David Fenwick of Aphotomarine for confirming this slug’s identity.
One of Louis’s friends finds this fabulous spider crab.
It’s a female which has decorated herself in so much seaweed that, unless she moves, it’s impossible to tell she’s not just another rock. We have a good look at her amazing stalked eyes and spiny shell before returning her safely into the seaweed.
The children’s mums aren’t to be outdone. They get stuck in and bring me all sorts of lovely things. This Ophiothrix fragilis common brittle star has a wonderful bright orange centre.
Another mum finds brilliant yellow Berthella plumula slugs, paired together under a stone ready to spawn.
This white-ruffed sea slug (Aeolidella alderi) was another lovely find.
The rocks of the lower shore are covered in all sorts of colourful wildlife. Ciona intestinalis sea squirts tipped with bright yellow rings, blue star ascidian sea squirts and lots of variegated scallops decked out in marbled patterns of brilliant orange and pink.
One variegated scallop opens its shell and swims away in jerking side to side movements, like a leaf falling from a tree.
Before we know it, the tide is pushing in and we slip and slide our way across the seaweed-covered rocks back to the sand. The time between the tides is short, just enough to give us a glimpse into this extraordinary marine community before the sea rolls in to cover everything once more. We sit and watch oystercatchers, herons and even a pair of swans fly across the sea, while the children set off into the distance with a metal detector, onto new adventures already.
Visiting a beach like this is an extraordinary privilege. We make sure to leave everything unharmed, to pick up any litter we see and to leave nothing behind. I’m already looking forward to my next visit.
The sun shone, which is always a good start, and I couldn’t have asked for a more enthusiastic group. After the morning’s presentation and a lot of work on topshell identification, we enjoyed a perfect picnic on Gyllingvase beach, taking care to protect our sandwiches from the herring gulls, before setting out to explore the rocks.
I was showing some of the group the different topshells, winkles and other shells found near the top of the shore, when someone found a coil of eggs under a stone. It was a perfect start – the eggs of a great grey sea slug (Aeolidia filomenae). We looked all around the area and couldn’t see the slug that had laid them, but it was probably still close by.
Inspired by our early success, we carried on down the shore and one of the group found some codium seaweed. Remembering that I’d mentioned that the photosynthesising sea slug, Elysia viridis, is often found on this seaweed, she called me over.
The lump on the codium she’d hoped might be a slug was seaweed, but we examined the codium some more and soon found two photosynthesising slugs on it. The shout of, ‘Slug’, went up so that everyone could gather to take a look.
Gyllingvase has all sorts of seaweeds, lots of pools and steep rocky overhangs, which makes it a perfect habitat for snails. We found the egg capsules of the netted dog whelk and the European sting winkle among many other things.
‘Slug!’ The shout went up again, this time for a big brown sea hare (Aplysia punctata) and before long we’d seen several of them. They love the sea lettuce and other seaweeds that are growing rapidly in the pools this time of year. They were congregating all over the beach to lay their pink spaghetti egg strings on the seaweed.
We had another shout, that turned out to be this beautiful candy-striped flatworm. It’s not a mollusc of course, but was still a great find.
It was clear there were plenty of creatures to be found and the entire group took the search seriously, crawling on the rocks, staring into pools, lifting seaweed and bringing all sorts of finds to me.
In a kelp-strewn gully at the edge of the sea, we found more snail eggs of various sorts and some live sting winkles. A sea lemon was sheltering in a small hole in the rock, our fourth sea slug species of the day.
We put it in a pot of water to watch its rhinophores emerge from its head and its gill feathers unfurl on its back.
By now the tide was starting to turn, so I placed the sea lemon back on its rock and hurried to take a look down another promising gully. There were some anemones about, the favourite food of the great grey sea slug whose eggs we’d seen at the beginning, so I hoped I might find one hanging about there somewhere.
After a few minutes of examining an overhang and taking a look under stones I’d drawn a blank and stopped to take a look at some finds people had brought to me. I was about to haul myself back up the rocks when I spotted a long stone that was half-wedged against the rounded overhang at the back of the pool. It looked like a sluggy sort of stone, one that wouldn’t move easily and might have all sorts of sponges, squirts and other things slugs like to eat growing on or near it.
As soon as I turned the stone, I could see the colourful cerrata of a little slug. It most definitely wasn’t a great grey sea slug with its bright reds and blues. I screamed, ‘Slug!’ loudly enough for most of Falmouth to hear and fumbled with a petri dish, scared I might drop the slug in the water and lose it.
The great thing about teaching a workshop is that everyone there is just as excited by marine creatures as me, and this one, a Facelina auriculata, is one of the most beautiful slugs I’ve seen on the shore. It caused a lot of excitement and photo taking.
After returning the Facelina auriculata, which we nicknamed ‘the patriotic slug’ due to its red, white and blue colours, I turned my attention to a deep pool to look at some rainbow wrack. Lovely though the turquoise iridescence of rainbow wrack is, it wasn’t the seaweed itself that interested me, but the colony of various hydroids growing on it. These colonial animals are relatives of the jellyfish and anemones and are a favourite food of many sea slugs.
I was hoping to find a Eubranchus farrani, a colourful slug with fat cerrata and orange markings on its body, which loves to eat hydroids. I soon spotted a tiny slug, but it was something different. It was so small I could barely see it, but in the petri dish when it came out fully I could see under my camera’s magnification that it was a Polycera quadrilineata, a pretty white slug with yellow markings and yellow-tipped tentacles.
It was hard to see much with the naked eye, but we all had hand lenses and cameras to get a close look.
By this time the tide was rushing in. A last foray along a higher gully produced a cowrie shell and a perfectly orange common starfish, which isn’t a mollusc but made us happy nonetheless.
By the end of the day we’d seen five species of sea slug, the egg spiral of the great grey sea slug and all sorts of snails. It was the kind of fantastic result that comes from lots of dedicated people searching and a good dose of luck.
I can only hope that my run of workshop luck holds for my jellyfish course later in the year. Who knows what might turn up?
Rock pooling can be an emotional experience and I’ve experienced everything from happiness to horror in the last couple of weeks. The arrival of warmer weather has brought out a joyous burst of extraordinary colours in the pools and plenty of surprises too.
I’ve picked out some of the best below, but I’d suggest you put down your food before you read the last one.
It’s never easy to run in knee-deep water and across slippery rocks wearing wellies, but I came close to setting a new land-speed record after hearing the cry of, ‘Octopus!’ from across the shore at Lee Bay.
The timing couldn’t have been better. I was teaching a Coastal Creatures workshop on molluscs in North Devon and here was the mollusc I’d been hoping to find for decades.
Experienced local rock pooler, Rob Durrant of Coastwise North Devon, found the Curled octopus (Eledone cirrhosa) hiding under a rock. With quick thinking, he scooped it into a transparent pot where it demonstrated its great ability to change shape and colour, blanching almost to white when we placed it in a white bucket.
Octopi are natural escape artists. Because they have no bones, they can squeeze into incredibly tight spots. This one seemed to enjoy the safety of its pot and it took some effort to persuade it to swim free in the pool.
One of the volunteers asked me to verify what species of pipefish a participant had found. The fish did have a long snout like a pipefish, but on closer inspection I could see its body was thickened in the middle, and in front of its dorsal fin was a row of flattened spines.
The fifteen-spined stickleback (Spinachia spinachia) is a species I’ve only seen a couple of times before. It’s elusive and easily overlooked, but it is a remarkable fish. In addition to having the most beautiful, tiny mouth, it also has an fascinating life cycle. The male fish builds a nest, arranging fronds of seaweed just-so before the female lays her eggs in it. The female fish dies soon after laying, leaving her mate to guard the nest of eggs until they hatch.
On the same day, we had another surprise, a corkwing wrasse swam straight into Other Half’s bucket.
‘There’s something weird on it,’ he said, thrusting the bucket towards me.
Inside the bucket, a fish with bold turquoise stripes across its face was swimming at an awkward angle, looking at me through a wide orange eye. Pretty though it was, it was something just behind its eye that Other Half was pointing at. He needn’t have bothered: I was already staring at it.
I wasn’t sure I wanted to see it, but I couldn’t help looking.
No doubt, like me, you’ve heard of fish lice. They’re generally tiny copepods, a kind of swimming baked bean, that attach to a fish and suck its blood. They’re the sort of thing that can put you off your lunch, but you accept it’s part of nature.
This thing, on the other hand, was straight out of an alien movie.
Far from tiny, this parasite was at least a quarter of the length of the fish.
It was a giant, woodlouse-like animal, a marine isopod, clamped onto the fish by its jaws. On closer inspection, there were other, smaller isopods of the same sort on the fish.
I’d never seen anything like it – and would be happy not to again. I’ve come across many grim feeding habits on the shore, but never imagined that I’d see a parasite this large.
It was the find of the day, even if it did make me feel a touch nauseous.
Several people at the ramble asked if we should remove the parasite. However horrific it looks to us, all these animals are part of the ecosystem and they have to feed, so it’s best not to interfere.
It turns out that there are a couple of species of isopod that target wrasse. This one is Anilocra physodes, confirmed by David Fenwick of Aphotomarine. David suggests looking out for another isopod that replaces the tongue in weever fish. Yes, you read that right! I have no idea how to go about looking in the mouths of weever fish.
It goes to show that there’s no end of surprises on the shore.
To allow you to get back to your food, here are some less alarming rock pool finds from the recent spring tides.
There’s no better way to explore the shore than with a group of experienced rock poolers. During this month’s big spring tides, I was privileged to join a small, dedicated team to survey Hannafore Beach in Looe. Best of all, David Fenwick who runs the brilliant Aphotomarine website brought along his newly-converted marine laboratory camper van for a test run.
A few weeks on and I’m still downing hot chocolate to recover from the cold (any excuse!), but this was a priceless opportunity to expand my knowledge and encounter new species. Over the week we recorded over 230 species, some of which I never knew existed and I finally found my first Snake pipefish.
Day one got off to an inauspicious start. David’s marine lab van broke down on its way to the beach, meaning he missed the best of the tide that day. Those of us who did make it had to leap back into our cars to take refuge from the hail before we’d even got our boots on. Despite the wind chill, we were soon in full swing. Incredibly, the pools were full of signs of spring.
Scorpion fish lay their clusters of yellow glitter-ball shaped eggs earlier than most other species. In some, the baby fish were already taking shape and hundreds of eyes gazed into my camera lens.
Along the grooved bellies of some of the worm pipefish, there were also lines of eggs. Like seahorses, it is the male pipefish that carries the eggs until they hatch.
It’s hard to think of slugs as migratory animals, but several sea slug species have made their annual journey onto the shore to breed. We saw lots of the rarely-recorded slug Aeolidella alderi. My friend Jan from Coastwise North Devon found one that had been chomping on a dark anemone. The colour had passed into the cerrata on its back so that instead of the normal bright white, this one looked almost red.
Another had distinct yellow tips to its antenna and cerrata. This species always has a ring of short white cerrata below the head, making them look like they’re wearing a white ruff.
Nearby, a relative of Aeolidella alderi, the more common ‘Great grey sea slug’ (Aeolidia sp. probably filomenae) is feasting on an anemone. This hungry slug isn’t holding back and has dived headfirst into its feast.
Yellow-clubbed sea slugs (Limacia clavigera) were also out looking for mates. They’re not easy to spot when the tide’s out, as they look like minute splodges of white jelly on the rocks. Once in the water, they are transformed, with spiral rhinophores sprouting from their heads and robust yellow-tipped cerrata sticking out from their heads and bodies.
When, towards the end of day 2, I glimpsed a shape gliding through the seaweed my heart leapt. I’ve been looking out for this fish for years to no avail, but this one was hovering above my foot. Snake pipefish, like other pipefish, freezes and relies on its fabulous camouflage to escape predators.
I was able to reach into the water and lift it out for a quick photo. It wasn’t slippery to hold, but it wound its body around my arm so I had to overcome the powerful urge to squeal and drop it.
Snake pipefish can grow to 60cm and have pale vertical lines down their bodies so are easily recognised. They like to live among sea grass beds so are not commonly seen on the shore.
Inevitably, other fish were more evasive. David saw a Conger eel among the kelp, but it slipped away.
Among many amazing and less-common species, David Fenwick showed me this rare prawn, Caridion steveni, which appeared to have an especially short, blunt ‘nose’ (rostrum) compared to some other species. Its bright red pigmentation helps it blend in to the seaweeds.
Among the weeds on the rocks, tiny spider crabs were everywhere, only visible when they moved their spindly legs. Even when I take close-up photos it can be hard to make out the shape of the crabs.
Junior spotted a crab with an even more amazing disguise. We were looking under a boulder when he gasped and pointed at a seaweed-covered stone.
‘It’s a crab, I saw it move,’ he whispered, as though it might hear him and realise the game was up.
Whichever way I looked at the stone that Junior was waving his finger at, it still looked inanimate. It was only when I picked it up that I felt the sharp spines of the Common spider crab (Maja bracchydactyla) lurking below the seaweed camouflage. We turned it over to see the crab’s legs neatly tucked under its carapace. Junior delighted in placing the ‘stone’ back in the water to watch it sprout legs and scuttle away into the safety of the seaweed.
On day one I reached, or frankly surpassed, my cold tolerance limit. By the end of the week I was only able to function by keeping my hands thrust deep inside my scarf to warm them against my neck. I must have ressembled a trussed chicken, but there was no point caring. As always, the rewards outstripped the pain.
Next weekend we’re expecting some huge spring tides in Cornwall, and yet more freezing winds, so you know where I’ll be.
I’m not a fan of winter. Even though I go rock pooling all year round and love the way the wildlife varies with the seasons, the November to February period is a challenge for me. The thought of sticking my hands in icy-cold water makes me want to hibernate. Right on cue, a fierce northerly wind blows in for the spring tides. I layer up and wear my fluffiest, most comforting jumper to bring you this week’s blog post.
I’m trying to photograph hydroids at the moment. These relatives of the jellyfish and anemones are generally translucent and no more than a few centimetres long, making them hard to spot. At this time of year when the seaweeds die back and the waves roll in, it’s especially tricky. My camera doesn’t like focussing on them and they won’t stay still in the current, but their nodding tentacles and curious structures are mesmerising.
As always there are strange creatures galore. This Sea gherkin is unusually large and gnarled.
Among the sponges and brittle stars I come across this invasive species from the South Pacific, the Orange-tipped sea squirt, Corella eumyota.
The twisted gut is very prominent in this species and you can see the orange colouration at the top. It’s thought this species may compete with native squirts and other invertebrates, but we will only find out by monitoring its spread. This is the first one I’ve recorded here.
Nearby I find the native sea squirt Ascidia mentula with lovely red flecks in its almost transparent test.
This sponge also catches my eye. It’s hard to identify many sponges with any certainty without examining their spicules under a microscope, but this one has the appearance of Myxilla rosacea.
On the next tide we make a successful return visit to the beach where Cornish Rock Pools Junior achieved finding a world record haul of stalked jellyfish last year. We come close to matching the numbers we found last time. I lose count at 25 because Junior makes it clear he doesn’t want his record broken.
Many of the stalked jellyfish are juveniles, only a few millimetres long and it tests my eyes to pick them out among the swirling seaweed. Then I spot this 1mm pinprick of a jelly blob and take a photo in case it turns out to be a stalked jelly.
On my screen at home its column is clearly visible although the tentacles are either retracted or haven’t yet grown. Little is known about the very early stages of development of these creatures and how to separate the species by sight, but David Fenwick who runs the amazing Stauromedusae UK website confirms that it is definitely a stalked jelly.
One of her sons does an impressive job of finding stalked jellies and even finds one that is in the middle of eating an amphipod. The current is too strong to get a great photo, but you can clearly see the unfortunate creature’s head sticking out of the stalked jellyfish’s mouth here.
I’ll be submitting all my stalked jellyfish records to help reinforce the evidence that will hopefully keep these protected species from harm.
I can’t help taking a look at some other things while I’m here. But before long the cold is hurting my fingers and chilling my insides in the sort of way that can only be fixed by a steaming mug of hot chocolate.
Every year, the Cornwall Wildlife Trust’s Shoresearch project undertakes the ultimate rockpooling challenge with a week of beach surveys. I’d love to survey all five locations, but Junior has other plans, including a midnight rockpooling session. Watching hermit crabs bombing about the pools at 1am is great fun, but isn’t conducive to being the other side of the county bright and early.
We catch up with the indefatigable Matt and Adele from the Cornwall Wildlife Trust on days three and four of their Shoresearch survey marathon. Together with a team of enthusiastic volunteers, we complete a randomised quadrant transect and a general search at Readymoney Cove in Fowey and Hannafore beach in Looe.
It’s lovely to hang out with like-minded people and whether you’re experienced or completely new to rockpooling, there are always new things to find and learn by exploring the shore in a group.
At Readymoney Cove, we soon discover that there are lots of Common starfish about. These are the classic orange five-armed sea stars that are always represented on children’s seaside books, but are more common in deeper water than on the shore.
In fact, it’s an echinoderm-rich sort of day, with loads of representatives of this family of animals on the shore. There’s a whole collection of echinoderms together on one rock: a green shore urchin; sea gherkin (a type of sea cucumber); brittle stars and cushion stars.
It feels like interrupting a family meeting so I replace the stone and leave them to it.
Later in the day we find another echinoderm, the Kaleidoscope starfish (Asterina phylactica) which is very small and lives among the pink coral weeds in sheltered pools. Its back is covered in colourful circles of orange and white, forming a dark star in its centre. The dots are made by the little pincers (pedicillerae) which the starfish uses to keep its back clean, as you can see in the photo.
Other great finds were numerous Devonshire cup corals.
When these are underwater they extend their translucent tentacles, but on the shore you tend to only see the calcerous cup shapes.
There are several Calvadosia campanulata stalked jellyfish in the pools. They seem to grow large this time of year and are easier to spot as the seaweed begins to die back.
After a lot of looking, I finally turn up some sea slugs too. There are several Sea lemons under one rock and next to a coil of spawn I also find a Jorunna tomentosa slug.
On the next day we survey Hannafore, which has a vast are of rocky shore. We spread out looking for interesting creatures and have no problem finding them.
We spend a lot of time failing to re-find the very rare Lucernaria quadricornis stalked jellyfish which was recorded on this beach a few months back. We do, however, find many other fabulous creatures while we are looking.
Junior and I decide to leave a bit early as he’s been wading in deep water and is completely sodden, so we miss the find of the day, a Giant goby.
Shoresearch has been going for a good few years now and is a perfect opportunity to learn about wildlife, contribute to conservation and connect with others. I’m hoping I’ll get to do all five days of Shoresearch Week next year as well as other surveys and events during the year. Perhaps I’ll see you there?
In the meantime here are some more of the week’s finds…
Last week I shared with you the miniature world of the sea slugs, so this week I’ll super-size things and bring you some big fish. Silly-season reports of Great-white sharks often hit the headlines in Cornwall, but I prefer rock-pool giants; they’re not made up, and you can get close to them without having your leg bitten off!
Cornwall is brilliant in all sorts of ways, our network of local, grassroots marine conservation groups being just one of them. The public launch, last week, of the new Three Bays Wildlife Group brought experts and volunteers together and gave me a chance to explore some new beaches in the St Austell area.
Judging by the squeals of excitement from the children and adults alike, the crabs, pipefish, prawns and anemones we found at the main rockpool ramble on Portmellon beach near Mevagissey went down well. By the end of the day, the local group had recruited lots of potential new volunteers.