Category Archives: Fish

Summer Lazing in Cornwall’s Rock Pools

It’s funny how the summer days float by. The house has been practically bursting with people for weeks now and I haven’t found the space to write about our many beach trips, but August still feels like a lazy month.

It reminds me of my childhood summers; a jumble of paddling, swimming, rockpooling and finds. Only I’ve just turned 40 and now I’m the one remembering hats and towels, preparing picnics and being called on constantly to help build dams or identify creatures. Every few days I realise that I’ve failed to take many photos and still haven’t blogged anything I’ve found. It’s just the way August goes.

Compass jellyfish. Also known as sea nettles as they pack quite a little sting, these jellyfish have beautiful markings.
Compass jellyfish. Also known as sea nettles as they pack quite a little sting, these jellyfish have beautiful markings.

The warm waters are drawing in all sorts of creatures at the moment. The north coast especially is teeming with jellyfish. Harmless Moon jellyfish have washed up in their thousands. These transparent little jellies have four mauve circles in their centre in a pattern that reminds me of cucumber slices (OK, that’s probably just me). 

One of many moon jellyfish washed up by the strong swell. This species is harmless.
One of many moon jellyfish washed up by the strong swell. This species is harmless.

Other jellyfish that have mild stings, like the compass jellyfish are also washing in and I think my thigh met with one of the many blue jellies in the water at Mawgan Porth a couple of weeks ago from the unattractive rash I developed! On the plus side, some friends found a spiny starfish in a pool at the top of the mid-shore pools, which looked like it might be feeding on the stranded jellies. Continue reading Summer Lazing in Cornwall’s Rock Pools

Fun and fish at the Lundy Bay Bioblitz

Bioblitzes have become a regular thing these last few years and I love them. These time-limited surveys of every living thing in an area are a fantastic way to bring experts and the public together, so I’m excited to join the Lundy Bay 24 hour bioblitz organised by the National Trust.

Getting started on the beach with at the Lundy Bay bioblitz
Getting started on the beach with at the Lundy Bay bioblitz

When I first walk down on the first afternoon to do a pre-survey recce there’s no beach at all. The tide is high and the waves are exploding against the rocks sending up a shower of spray that delights Cornish Rock Pools Junior. Fortunately, some intrepid friends from the Marine Biological Association and Coastwise North Devon arrived early and collected a lovely hydroid medusa (like a tiny jellyfish) and lots of moon jellies – so it seems likely there will be interesting things to find when the tide goes back out.

One of many moon jellyfish washed up by the strong swell. This species is harmless.
One of many moon jellyfish washed up by the strong swell. This species is harmless.

After an exciting evening and early morning of mammal surveying with Junior, I finally get to see the beach at low tide. It’s an exposed shore with sheer rocks and golden sand, which looks wonderful, but is a tricky environment to find creatures. Still, with the number of people we have taking part and the combined resources of lots of different organisations including kick nets and fish traps, we’re sure to find something.

I spend most my time near the event flags, helping people to identify their finds. Everyone is fascinated by the sea hare. These common sea slugs are easily recognised by the long tentacle ‘ears’ on their heads. Up close, you can see a leopard-like pattern on their bodies. If you upset them (which we don’t) they can squirt out purple ink to confuse predators.

A small sea hare explores my tray.
A small sea hare explores my tray.

The find of the day is a creature none of us expect to find tangled in a discarded fishing net. This slow worm (a legless lizard) probably came down to the beach to hunt at low tide and became caught in the ghost net. It has a lucky escape and is released safely.

This slow worm was found tangled in discarded fishing gear.
This slow worm was found tangled in discarded fishing gear.

The nets bring up lots of tiny baby flatfish that were hiding in the sand in the shallows. Most are probably plaice and this one looks like a baby turbot – with a much wider body-shape. I’ve never seen one this small before, it swims onto my hand and rests there, looking around with bulging eyes, opening its lop-sided mouth a little. If it makes it to adulthood it may eventually weigh 10 kilos or more, but it has a way to go yet.

A tiny young turbot swims into my hand.
A tiny young turbot swims into my hand.

 Everyone loves a cheeky tompot blenny. There bold fish are unmistakeable with their fat lips, colourful eyes and television aerial style tentacles on their heads.

A tompot blenny giving its typical toothy smile.
A tompot blenny giving its typical toothy smile.

Other highlights include toothed crabs (Primela denticulate), celtic sea slugs, which are present in huge numbers on some large rocks around the point, and a lobster lurking at the back of a deep overhang cave.

Built like miniature tanks, the Celtic sea slugs cover the rocks in places.
Built like miniature tanks, the Celtic sea slugs cover the rocks in places.

After the strong winds and rain of the previous day, the sunshine takes us by surprise. Conditions are perfect and the turnout is good, but before long the tide is racing back in. By the time we make it back to base, the short, intense Bioblitz is coming to an end and the stands are being packed away. Soon this will be a remote empty field again, but I’ll be back sometime soon to explore this wonderful bay some more.

If you would like to join a Bioblitz there’s another one coming up in North Devon on 17th September at Croyde with the fabulous Coastwise North Devon team – see http://www.coastwisenorthdevon.org.uk/news/summerbioblitz-time.html

Kynance Cove: A rock pooling challenge

There are many fabulous rock pooling beaches around Cornwall and this isn’t one of them. The smooth serpentinite rocks of Kynance Cove on the Lizard peninsula are colourful and create breathtaking scenery, but they’re mostly devoid of places for creatures to shelter. Realistically there’s not much here, but it’s one of Cornwall’s loveliest places and experience tells me there’s always something if I look hard enough.

It's easy to see the snake-skin texture that gives serpentine rock its name.
It’s easy to see the snakeskin texture that gives serpentine rock its name.

One thing this beach does have is caves. Junior strides ahead of me, clutching a geological hammer and chisel, shining his torch along the smooth, damp walls.

Cornish rock pools junior explores the serpentinite caves
Cornish rock pools junior explores the serpentinite caves

He’s on a mission to explore every centimetre of these rare rocks, forced up millions of years ago from deep under the oceans, exposing the upper layer of Earth’s mantle. While Junior hammers away at history, cave-dwelling periwinkles not much bigger than grape pips are undertaking their own explorations.

This tiny periwinkle species lives on the upper shore in dark and damp places such as this cave.
This tiny periwinkle species lives on the upper shore in dark and damp places such as this cave.

A steady swell breaks against the island stacks and scattered rocks of the bay. Barnacles cling to imperfections and overhangs, joined by beadlet anemones and black-footed limpets.

A beadlet anemone next to dog whelk eggs. Barnacles and limpets also cling on to this small overhang in the smooth serpentinite.
A beadlet anemone next to dog whelk eggs. Barnacles and limpets also cling on to this small overhang in the smooth serpentinite.

I watch a limpet slamming down its shell on a barnacle’s feeding arms and wonder if it’s if it’s after a more substantial meal than its usual fare of micro-algae?

Sea slaters scuttle among the barnacles together with occasional flies and even a centipede. I assume it has journeyed down from the top of the grassy island to forage at low tide.

A centipede visiting the shore
A centipede visiting the shore

An oystercatcher watches me cross the beach, preening itself with its orange chopstick bill. It watches as I climb a shelving part of the lower cliffs where several deep bowls have been eroded from the rock.

A lone oystercatcher on a rock at Kynance Cove.
A lone oystercatcher on a rock at Kynance Cove.

As I approach the pools, a gaggle of small fish jostles against each other before darting away below a ledge. I take up position beside the pool and wait. Sure enough, after a few minutes, a shanny’s head pops over the ledge, propping itself on its clawed pectoral fins to get a better look. Others soon join it as they return to their basking positions at the shallow edges of the pool.

A grinning shanny propped on its pectoral fins watches me from a rock pool.
‘Say cheese!’ A grinning shanny propped on its pectoral fins watches me from a rock pool.

I lower my camera bit by bit until it’s almost touching the surface of the water. The fearless shanny stays put. After a few attempts I manage to capture one of my favourite things about these common little rockpool fish: their extraordinary chameleon-like eyes which can swivel independently in all directions.

Being able to do this must be a huge advantage when looking out for prey and predators.

I spot a Montagu’s blenny in the pool, easily distinguished from its larger cousins by its radio mast style headgear. It’s too shy to have its photo taken and I’m called away to help with  Junior’s mining exploits, but it’s been a rewarding morning. It shows how much is there if you look.

Barnacles on a beautiful piece of banded serpentinite.
Barnacles on a beautiful piece of banded serpentinite.

Hatchlings in the rock pools at Port Nadler

A sunny bank holiday weekend followed by a sunny half-term week is nothing short of a miracle. That the second weekend also coincided with some big spring tides is more amazing still.

I’ve seen some wonderful photos this week of rockpooling finds all around Cornwall. Some fabulous creatures. And if you haven’t been able to explore the shore yourself, Springwatch tonight (8th June) are going to be showing footage of the remarkable comeback of the Clybanarius ethryropus (nope, still can’t pronounce it) hermit crab, filmed with Cornwall Wildlife Trust at Castle Beach, Falmouth.

The stars of my pretty perfect day of wading through pools in the blazing sunshine at Port Nadler, near Looe, were the baby fish.

There are plenty of young fish around at the moment but the new hatchlings can hard to spot. I took this photo of clingfish eggs to capture the eyes staring out of each eggs and the little spotty tails curled round them.

Clingfish eggs hatching in a Cornish rock pool.
Clingfish eggs hatching in a Cornish rock pool.

It was only when I uploaded photo to my laptop that I realised I’d managed to capture my first hatchling (in the centre of the picture). I can’t get enough of those golden eyes.

A recently hatched Cornish clingfish among its egg-bound siblings
A recently hatched Cornish clingfish among its egg-bound siblings

Fish often stick around to guard their eggs and sure enough there was a proud parent next to this rock.

An adult Cornish clingfish showing the typical beaky nose, antenna by the eyes and blue patches on the head.
An adult Cornish clingfish showing the typical beaky nose, antenna by the eyes and blue patches on the head.

I was up to my waist between rocks leading to the open sea when I saw this pale creature, about 4cm long, wriggling amongst the darker kelp. From its elongated, looping form I expected a worm.

A recently-hatched Greater pipefish baby.
A recently-hatched Greater pipefish baby.

On closer inspection the large eyes and fins were clear. This is the first time I’ve ever seen a baby pipefish.

A baby Greater pipefish with yolk sac still attached. The large eyes and long snout are reminiscent of its cousins, the seahorses.
A baby Greater pipefish with yolk sac still attached. The large eyes and long snout are reminiscent of its cousins, the seahorses.

Judging by the yolk sac still attached to its belly, this little fish hatched very recently. I saw several more in the water, their curling movements reminding me of their cousins the seahorses. I wondered if the dad was close by – like seahorses, the male pipefish looks after the gestating eggs in his pouch until they hatch – but he’d be too well camouflaged to spot in this seaweed.

 The rocks were crawling with crabs and the pools were busy with the fry of larger fish that use these sheltered waters as nurseries. My camera battery was low, but this Limacia clavigera sea slug was worth draining my battery for.

A Limacia clavigera sea slug on the move.
A Limacia clavigera sea slug on the move.

 The water was so warm after a week of sun that I put on my snorkel for the first time this year and enjoyed a leisurely float across the bay, watching wrasse skirting the rocks and snakelocks anemones waving in the current. 

If this weather carries on, I can see myself returning to Port Nadler regularly this summer to watch the baby fish growing up.

Cornish Rock Pools junior drying off in the sunshine at Port Nadler, near Looe.
Cornish Rock Pools junior drying off in the sunshine at Port Nadler, near Looe.

A plaice in the sun and a starfish (Asterina phylactica)

It’s a while since we did evening rockpooling, but the days are lengthening again and there’s something satisfying about reaching the beach just as the daytime crowds are melting away. We meet friends in Looe and explore rocks just beyond the main beach.

East Looe rocks in the evening
East Looe rocks in the evening.

The tide’s not especially low so we have no expectation of finding much. Cornish Rock Pools junior and his friends scale rocks and leap across gullies, stopping occasionally to examine anemones and watch hermit crabs emerging.

I sit and stare into a deep pool that’s lined with pink coral weed, running my fingers through to see what lives there. Below the surface the water temperature drops away, providing a constant cool environment for the pool’s inhabitants.

It’s hard to make out if it’s really there or not, but my eyes think they see a minute star shape among the coralline weed. I trawl my fingers through the weed a couple of times before I think I’ve honed in. Sure enough, I lift an Asterina phylactica starfish from the water. It looks like a baby next to the cushion star in my bucket, but it’s a fully grown adult.

Asterina phylactica, East Looe rocks
Asterina phylactica, East Looe rocks

I’ve only found this species in a few pools around the south coast before. This is a new location. Small species like this are often under-recorded and may be more common than they seem. I tend to find them in these cool pools with plenty of pink weed to hide in, so I’m going to make a point of looking for them on all my rockpooling forays this year.

My sharp-eyed other half announces he’s found a flat fish at the same instant that Junior announces he needs the toilet. I grab the big bucket and offer to catch the fish while Junior goes for a walk with his dad.

Flat fish have near-perfect camouflage against the sand, rocks and weed. They also like to part-bury themselves in the sea bed to maximise the effect. I creep forwards from the seaward end of the rocky gully, treading slowly and lifting seaweed, hoping that if I disturb the fish, I’ll flush it into shallower water where it’s easier to catch. Flat fish are nippy swimmers so I have little chance of finding or catching the thing, but it’s fun to try.

As I look into some kelp, I see a change in the texture of the sand. I move the seaweed a fraction and there it is. The fish is facing up the gully, so I place the bucket ahead of it, scooping it forwards at the same time as stroking the fish’s tail.

For the first time ever, the technique works and the fish swims straight into the bucket.

Young plaice looking a bit cramped in my big bucket.
Young plaice looking a bit cramped in my big bucket.

I expect it to be a topknot, the most common flatfish on the shore, which can cling to the underside of rocks, but this fish has bright orange spots. It’s a plaice (Pleuronectes platessa); only a small one, but it doesn’t have much room to move in the bucket.

Flat fish can be tricky to identify, but the plaice is easily recognised by its orange spots.
Flat fish can be tricky to identify, but the plaice is easily recognised by its orange spots.

We keep it until the boys come back from their walk. The children take turns to touch the plaice’s back, discovering it to be smooth and a little slimy. The older boy walks down to the gully with me and releases the fish into the rising tide. It slides out and is gone in an instant, invisible once more among the weed and sand.

Close up of the plaice's skin shows its scales and the characteristic spot of bright orange pigment.
Close up of the plaice’s skin shows its scales and the characteristic spot of bright orange pigment.

For a mediocre tide, it’s a productive evening and with the summer still young, there should be plenty more evening forays to come this year.

Plaice, like all flatfish have evolved asymmetric features. The eye position on top of the head is perfect to enable good vision while lurking on the sea bed.
Plaice, like all flatfish have evolved asymmetric features. The eye position on top of the head is perfect to enable good vision while lurking on the sea bed.

Rockpooling at Hannafore – Video

A variegated scallop opens up showing its multiple eyes then snaps shut. A topknot flatfish skimming along the sand. Just some of the creatures I saw in the rockpools at Hannafore, Looe today on the low spring tide.

I was a too busy taking kids ‘shark hunting’ to take more video today. It was a successful mission; we found more than twenty live egg cases of the Nursehound (Scyliorhinus stellaris) and one live Smallspotted catshark (Scyliorhinus canicula) egg case. There were all sorts of other treasures too.

I’m already looking forward to doing it all again tomorrow.

 

Rockpooling on a mega-tide

This week the spring tides are huge, which means perfect rockpooling conditions all around Cornwall. Yesterday’s ‘storm without a name’ passed just in time and today the sun shone, so I dusted off my waders and followed the tide out to see what it would reveal. Answer: lobsters, baby sharks and a whole lot more.

Greater spotted catshark baby - Scylliorhinus stellatus
Greater spotted catshark baby – Scyliorhinus stellaris

I was hoping to re-discover an overhang packed with jewel anemones at the far end of the beach that I’d come across once before, but couldn’t resist taking a look at the wildlife on the way. You know it’s going to be a good day when the first stone you lift is unexpectedly awesome. This one was hiding a troop of hermit crabs, a rock goby and a beautifully camouflaged scorpion fish. Continue reading Rockpooling on a mega-tide