Category Archives: Volunteering

Giants of the Cornish rock pools

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.

Green shore urchin at Portmellon beach - adorned in seaweed
Green shore urchin adorned in seaweed. Portmellon beach.

At the end of an event I’d usually relax and enjoy my sandwiches, but the group was keen to survey another local beach. The walk to Colona was like something out of an Enid Blyton adventure. Cresting the hill out of Portmellon, we passed a disused cattle grid filled with nettles, beyond which the view opened out to sheep-grazed pasture plunging down to the bay. The whitewashed house on Chapel Point, to the east of the beach, perches over azure waters and would be any rockpooler’s dream pad.

Walking down to Colona bay
Skipping down to Colona bay

Matt Slater from Cornwall Wildlife Trust was straight out on the rocks setting fish traps in the deep pools. Matt, of course, is a fully-licensed professional giant catcher.

After just half an hour of mooching about the pools looking at anemones and some fine lugworms, we clambered across to check the traps. The first looked successful. At the back of the yellow-mesh cage, several creatures wriggled while Matt hoisted them onto the rocks and eased them into an awaiting bucket.

Once the greedy shore crabs that had been feasting on fish-bait had been picked out, there were three fish left. Every one of them was large by goby standards. One in particular was what Junior would describe as “a whopper”. Matt’s face said it all. From the fishes’ fleshy lips that could out-pout Mick Jagger to the beady eyes, it was clear that all three were Giant gobies (Gobius cobitus).

Three giant gobies from the first trap.
Three Giant gobies from the first trap.

These fish have special protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act and are at the northernmost point of their range around south west England. They’re not well recorded because they’re elusive and can be mistaken for the much more common Rock goby.

Giant gobies have huge lips, small eyes and lack the yellow band at the top of their first dorsal fin (distinguishing them from the Rock goby)
Giant gobies have huge lips, small eyes and lack the yellow band at the top of their first dorsal fin (distinguishing them from the Rock goby)
Another feature of the Giant goby is the fleshy lobe on their adapted pelvic fin - this helps them to sucker onto rocks
Another feature of the Giant goby is the fleshy lobe on their adapted ventral fin – this helps them to sucker onto rocks

To round off our week of giants, Junior and I took a stroll around a sheltered lagoon in Looe, after a Fox Club event and came across a fish even larger than a Giant goby. In fact, I was so busy examining tiny hydroids on seaweed looking for sea slugs that I practically tripped over the young catshark.

Greater spotted cat shark (Scyliorhinus stellaris) in a Cornish rock pool, Looe
Greater spotted cat shark (Scyliorhinus stellaris) in a Cornish rock pool, Looe

The Greater-spotted catshark goes by many different names (bull huss, nursehound, dogfish, etc.) and is far larger than a Giant goby, growing to around one and a half metres long when mature. The one I nearly stepped on in my neoprene beach shoes was just a baby, but still an impressive fish.

Catsharks tend to lie still for camouflage, so they’re easily approached to take photographs. If you touch one, as Junior did at the first opportunity, you’ll also notice that their skin is like sandpaper. Rough sharkskin is remarkably hydrodynamic, so much so that engineers are looking at ways to copy its structure to make swimmers faster and ships more fuel efficient, among other things.

This close-up of the catshark's skin shows how rough it is. You can also see the dark and white spots that are characteristic of this species.
This close-up of the catshark’s skin shows how rough it is. You can also see the dark and white spots that are characteristic of this species.

I think Junior would like it even better if we could stumble across a giant squid circling the pools, but for now, a shark will certainly do. The giants of the Cornish rock pools aren’t as easy to spot as you might imagine, but it’s well worth the effort.

 

 

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My First Fox Club Expedition To Porth Mear

It’s the middle of the night and I’m convinced there’s something wrong with my eyes. I’ve unplugged my phone, tried blinking several times but I’m still seeing flickering lights and flashes. Finally I twig what’s going on and open the curtains to reveal incessant sheet lightning.

My first thought is that it had better stop by the morning, else no-one will turn up to my first rock pooling event at Porth Mear with Fox Club, the junior branch of the Cornwall Wildlife Trust. As a child, I was a keen member myself so I’ve been looking forward to this for months.

By the morning the lightning storm has given way to wind and rain, but conditions are less than inspiring. It’s amazing anyone shows up for rock pooling, but a few hardy well-wrapped-up folk do, as does a lovely volunteer assistant. In the chill wind at Pentire Farm car park my faith in the weather wavers, but we’re here now. There’s nothing for it but to grab the buckets and set out.

As soon as I see the bay, I know it’s going to be fine. The cliffs are sheltering the pools and the waves are dashing themselves out against the rocks on the western side of the cove. The cloud thins, the temperature lifts. It’s a perfect day for rockpooling.

Within minutes of hitting the pools, a little girl brings over the first sea hare. We watch it unfolding its long ‘ears’ in the tub and she’s delighted with it, announcing it to be far nicer than garden slugs.

Sea hares (Aplysia punctata) graze on seaweeds and have antennae on their heads that look like big ears.
Sea hares (Aplysia punctata) graze on seaweeds and have antennae on their heads that look like big ears.

She’s barely returned to the pool before she’s back again with a gorgeous baby spiny starfish on some kelp. When I turn the seaweed over I realise she’s also brought me an even tinier baby cushion star. The kids squeal at its cuteness. It’s going to be a magical day!

A Xantho pilipes crab. These crabs have hairy back legs and vary a lot in colour. They often curl up like pebbles when you pick them up.
A Xantho pilipes crab. These crabs have hairy back legs and vary in colour. They often curl up like pebbles when you pick them up.

The finds flood in. There are Green shore crabs, Xantho pilipes (hairy-legged ‘pebble’ crabs), including some females with eggs tucked under their tails. There are hermit crabs, brittle stars and lots more sea hares. The seaweed-packed pools are providing the perfect conditions  for sea hares to get fat and start spawning.

Sure enough, we find the pink spaghetti eggs of the sea hare in a pool.

Sea hares lay egg-strings that look like pink spaghetti.
Sea hares lay egg-strings that look like pink spaghetti.

Even more excitingly, when one of the mums rescues a sea hare that is stranded on a rock, drying out fast, it assumes it’s being attacked and squirts out purple ink. We gather round to watch the jet of ink in the tub which soon turns the water purple.

Sea hare on the defensive squirting out purple ink to confuse predators.
Sea hare on the defensive, squirting out purple ink to confuse predators.

We’re all looking out for the St Piran’s hermit crab (Clibanarius erythropus) and sure enough we find several large colonies of them. They first re-arrived here last year after an absence of around 40 years.

St Piran's hermit crab at Porth Mear
St Piran’s hermit crab at Porth Mear

There are plenty of the common hermit crabs (Pagurus bernhardus) too. The species are easy to tell apart, as the common hermit has yellow eyes and a right claw much bigger than the left, whereas the St Piran’s crab has black and white eyes, equal sized claws and red, hairy legs.

I keep asking if they’ve had enough, given that it’s past lunch time, but they’re keen to carry on. I’m impressed by how knowledgeable everyone is already and how good they all are at taking care of the animals they find. There might well be some future marine biologists in this group.

Light bulb sea squirts at Porth Mear
Light bulb sea squirts at Porth Mear

The finds keep flooding in. There’s a smart little Aeolidia papillosa ‘sheep’ slug, which has turned from white to browny-red after eating an anemone.

This Great grey sea slug (Aeolidia papillosa) has been eating an anemone and turned brown
This Great grey sea slug (Aeolidia papillosa) has been eating an anemone and turned brown

On the lowest part of the shore I find a yellow-clubbed sea slug (Limacia clavigera).

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

Best of all, among the many fish eggs I see under the rocks, there’s a sea slug feeding on a patch of goby eggs. It’s the rare Calma gobioophaga that I only recorded for the first time last week. It’s so impossibly small and well-camouflaged that the children need to view it on my camera to even see that it’s there.

A Calma gobioophaga sea slug feeding on goby eggs at Porth Mear
A Calma gobioophaga sea slug feeding on goby eggs at Porth Mear

By the time I return to our ‘shore laboratory’ to talk through our finds at the end of the session, it’s teeming with colourful anemones, painted top shells and many more lovely creatures. Everyone has done a good job of keeping the animals comfortable and safe, with crabs in separate buckets to prevent any injuries to the animals.

The kids show me their favourite finds and we talk about each of them and practice handling them safely. There are enough starfish for all the children to hold one at the same time. The fish are popular too and we have a good selection of species to look at; a shanny, rock goby, Cornish clingfish and a baby sea scorpion.

A juvenile scorpion fish.
A juvenile scorpion fish.

Before the tide turns, everyone helps out with carrying creatures back to the pools where we found them.

Trivia monacha - Three spot cowrie at Porth Mear
Trivia monacha – Three spot cowrie at Porth Mear

It must be getting on for 2pm by the time Junior and I reach the top of the bay and sit on the sand for a quick sandwich. It’s been a perfect day despite the iffy weather at the start and I hope that the children will remember it as well as I remember my own Fox Club trips. Who knows, perhaps Junior and his new friends will be back here leading an event some day?

Cross-Border Rockpooling with the Porcupine Marine Natural History Society

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.

 

A prickle of Porcupines at work
A prickle of Porcupines at work at Wembury, Devon

While the environment at Wembury is similar to my home patch in South East Cornwall, a major difference is that Wembury has a marine centre, staffed by lovely people from the Devon Wildlife Trust. The centre promotes marine conservation and runs all sorts of public and educational events. It also provided a handy indoor base to set up some microscopes and a refreshment station. Luxury after my recent all-weather forays!

Coral, from the Marine Centre, was especially interested to know of any stalked jellyfish finds as past records suggest they used to be more abundant. Having spent the last few months doing stalked jellyfish surveys, I was starting to see them in my sleep, so I was happy to take a look.

Sure enough, there were plenty of stalked jellyfish there, the lower shore pools and gullies were ideal for them. One small clump of seaweed I looked at had six Calvadosia cruxmelitensis on it.

Calvadosia cruxmelitensis stalked jellyfish at Wembury, Devon
Calvadosia cruxmelitensis stalked jellyfish at Wembury, Devon

I also found several Craterolophus convolvulus, a species that I see less frequently, although it does occur in my home patch. It looks like it has four twisted coils of rope running down to the centre and has a wide base with a goblet-like profile.

A Craterolophus convoluvulus stalked jellydish at Wembury, Devon
A Craterolophus convoluvulus stalked jellydish at Wembury, Devon

 

Side view of a Craterolophus convolvulus stalked jellyfish at Wembury, Devon
Side view of a Craterolophus convolvulus stalked jellyfish at Wembury, Devon

This was my first visit to Wembury and I couldn’t bring myself to spend all my time looking at stalked jellyfish, lovely though they are. Having established there were lots of them, I set my mind to other things. 

Spotting a patch of a thick green, finger-like seaweed, Codium. I looked for the wonderful Photosynthesising sea slug (Elysia viridis). All my books say it loves nothing better than this seaweed, but so far I’ve always found them on other things. Today, for the first time, I discovered one that had clearly read the same book as me.

An Elysia vididis sea slug showing off its bright green spots and eating Codium seaweed just like it's supposed to!
An Elysia vididis sea slug showing off its bright green spots and eating Codium seaweed just like it’s supposed to!

These slugs retain chloroplasts from their food in their bodies, where they carry on photosynthesising to provide the slug with energy or other benefits. This one wasn’t a particularly vivid green, but it’s still pretty amazing to see a solar powered slug. 

Slugs were plentiful elsewhere on the shore too, although I didn’t come across anything particularly unusual. I loved this frilly little pair of Goniodoris nodosa.

Goniodoris nodosa sea slugs at Wembury, Devon
Goniodoris nodosa sea slugs at Wembury, Devon
A frilly sea slug - Goniodoris nodosa - at Wembury, Devon
A frilly sea slug – Goniodoris nodosa – at Wembury, Devon

This Berthella plumula was exploring the rocks and I saw the spawn of several species of sea slug, so there will soon be babies about!

Berthella plumula sea slug at Wembury, Devon
Berthella plumula sea slug at Wembury, Devon

In February, the only sea hares I could find were a few millimetres long. Today they’re several centimetres long and developing their adult leopard-spot colours.

Sea hare (Aplysia punctata) growing nicely at Wembury, Devon
Sea hare (Aplysia punctata) growing nicely at Wembury, Devon

The small clingfish species were abundant, but I didn’t attempt to check their teeth to see which species they were!

The books say to check the species by checking the teeth - not easy with a tiny clingfish like this one!
The books say to check the species by checking the teeth – not easy with a tiny clingfish like this one!

 

A small clingfish species (small headed or two-spot) at Wembury, Devon
A small clingfish species (small headed or two-spot) at Wembury, Devon

This male worm pipefish looked smart in his limpet-hat. He was carrying eggs in his belly-groove so I popped him straight back in his pool. 

Male pipefish with eggs wearing a limpet-shell hat at Wembury, Devon
Male Worm pipefish with eggs sporting a limpet-shell hat at Wembury, Devon

As you’d expect, there was no shortage of crabs. This tiny Anapagurus hyndmanni hermit crab caught my eye as it scuttled across the sand. They don’t grow more than about a centimetre long, but their right claw is about as long again and looks it’s wearing a huge white boxing glove. There were several around once I got my eye in.

Hermit crab (Anapgurus hyndmanni) showing it's huge white claw.
Hermit crab (Anapgurus hyndmanni) showing its huge white claw.

 

Anapagurus hyndmanni hermit crab at Wembury, Devon
Anapagurus hyndmanni hermit crab at Wembury, Devon

It was wonderful to share finds with other ‘Porcupines’, as members of the society refer to each other. The society is named after HMS Porcupine, although I’m more than a little vague as to why! One unusual discovery was this purple whelk, Raphitoma purpurea.

Raphitoma purpurea shell at Wembury, Devon
Raphitoma purpurea shell at Wembury, Devon

Inevitably I got carried away on the shore and didn’t think to have lunch until the tide was washing over my boots. By the time I’d gulped down a sandwich and some delicious M&S chocolate tiffin (a perk of having visited Plymouth!), all the Porcupines were assembled in the Marine Centre swapping notes and checking identifications. After a very pleasant half-hour checking other people’s stalked jelly photos and generally enthusing, it was time to cross the border back to Kernow once more.

I might not get to meet up with everyone like this very often – I’m pretty unlikely to make it to the next event in Newcastle for obvious reasons – but it’s inspiring to feel part of a national network of people who are all passionate about the same things as me.

So, a huge thank you goes to all the ‘Porcupines’ for making me welcome at my first conference, to Wembury Marine Centre and to my other half and Cornish Rockpools Junior for being patient with me while I nattered for hours about marine creatures with my new friends.

 Thanks also to you for sharing my adventures. Bonus photos follow for reading this far!

A lovely yellow Ophiothrix fragilis brittle star at Wembury, Devon
A lovely yellow Ophiothrix fragilis brittle star at Wembury, Devon
Close-up of a spiny starfish arm, Wembury, Devon
Close-up of a spiny starfish arm, Wembury, Devon
A black brittle star (Ophiocomina nigra) at Wembury, Devon
A black brittle star (Ophiocomina nigra) at Wembury, Devon
A Cornish clingfish over the border in Wembury, Devon
A Cornish clingfish over the border in Wembury, Devon

Happy rockpooling everyone!

Sharing the Love of Rockpooling

This week I’m planning rockpooling events for next year and adding identification pages to my website….

Yesterday it was so foggy you couldn’t see the sea in front of your wellies. Before that it was raining; before that it was blowing a gale and on the one day the sun came out I was nowhere near the beach. It’s not bad for eggcase hunts – which Cornish Rock Pools junior loves – but that’s about it.

This time of year, when the short days and inclement weather make even die-hard rockpoolers like me reach for the duvet, I turn to flicking through the 2017 tide table and dreaming of sunny days and gleaming expanses of shore.

Is it too early for New Year’s resolutions? Mine is to spend (even) more time sharing my love of rockpooling with others. I’ve put all the Looe Marine Conservation Group rockpooling events in my diary and I’m also hoping to volunteer with the utterly fabulous Fox Club (the junior branch of the Cornwall Wildlife Trust), helping to run events around the county. Then there will be other events for the local scouts and home educating groups to fit in, and who knows what else. Continue reading Sharing the Love of Rockpooling

Help our rockpool wildlife – Recording your finds is easier than ever

It’s always exciting when you find something new, something different, but did you know how easy it is to record your finds? Sending in your sightings can help conserve our fantastic wildlife.

"Rob's rock" -Compiling a species list on a Cornwall Wildlife Trust Shoresearch survey
“Rob’s rock” – Compiling a species list on a Cornwall Wildlife Trust Shoresearch survey

After the recent huge spring tides, I had a long list of species spotted at various beaches, and I was dreading writing everything up.

It was time to try out the new Online Recording for Kernow and Isles of Scilly (ORKS) website.

The Environmental Records Centre for Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly (ERCCIS) at the Cornwall Wildlife Trust now offers three ways to send in your seashore records. Continue reading Help our rockpool wildlife – Recording your finds is easier than ever

Join the search – Help monitor our Cornish Rock Pools

The summer holiday may be over, but there are still some great opportunities to get your feet wet in Cornish rock pools this autumn.

Next week we’ll see some of the lowest tides of the year and Cornwall Wildlife Trust will be making the most of it with a week of Shore Search expeditions to locations around Cornwall. It’s a sure-fire way to find new things and be inspired by like-minded people. Continue reading Join the search – Help monitor our Cornish Rock Pools