Category Archives: Fish

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

Rockpooling Heaven (And a downpour)

The sun is shining and, for the first time in months, I can feel the warmth on my face. With calm seas, the tide has run out even further than I hoped, rockpooling conditions here in Looe are near-perfect. There are ominous clouds looming over the hills behind me, but I choose not to look at them.

Perfect - this sheltered gully has weathered the storms.
Perfect – this sheltered gully has weathered the storms.

After the fierce storms, I half expect to find the rockpools empty, scoured of life, but I couldn’t be more wrong. I explore an area of my local shore in Looe that I don’t often visit and within minutes I have found my new favourite rockpooling spot, a gully that’s visibly wriggling with life. Continue reading Rockpooling Heaven (And a downpour)

Autumn in the Cornish Rock Pools

Autumn is a time of great change in the Cornish rock pools, but on the surface this could be mid-summer. The water is warm, the sun is blazing and an immense low tide is beckoning. I accompany a group of under-fives and their parents as they set out to investigate.

On land, the yellow tinge of autumn is only just creeping across the woods, but in the rock pools, the seaweeds have already died back. The invasive Japanese wireweed (Sargassum muticum) that clogs the pools all summer with long tresses like knotted hair all summer has thinned away, making it easier to see into the water.

A daisy anemone in clear water
A daisy anemone in clear water

There are many species that visit the shore in spring and summer to breed and some of these are long gone, but there’s still plenty to see. I was surprised to find a worm pipefish (Nerophys lumbriciformis) with eggs this late in the year. The pipefish are closely related to the seahorses, so it is the male that carries the eggs in a special groove on his belly. Continue reading Autumn in the Cornish Rock Pools

A perfect rockpool ramble in Looe

Friday was the ideal day for a Cornish rockpool ramble with warm weather and calm conditions. Over a hundred people joined the Looe Marine Conservation Group rockpool event and I’m sure other rockpooling sessions around the Cornwall were similarly well attended. (Here’s a list of what’s on this summer).

Learning about crabs with a Looe Marine Conservation Group volunteer
Learning about crabs with a Looe Marine Conservation Group volunteer

Continue reading A perfect rockpool ramble in Looe

Giant birthday surprises – a rare sea hare and a greater pipefish

There are lots of benefits to having a summer birthday; the sun usually shines, the rock pools shimmer and it’s just about warm enough to put my snorkel on and jump in. The beach has lots of presents in store for me today, including a huge greater pipefish, a cousin of the sea horse, and a rare sea slug. No unwrapping required.

A juvenile Aplysia depilans - a rare sea hare in UK waters.
A juvenile Aplysia depilans – a rare sea hare in UK waters.

It’s holiday season , but a little planning and some walking is all that is needed to find a peaceful cove. We set off to Port Nadler in perfect, calm conditions loaded with wetsuits, buckets and an ample picnic.

A typical rock pool at Port Nadler near Looe
A typical rock pool at Port Nadler near Looe

Under a rock I spot what I think is a very large anemone, but it looks odd. I’m still trying to puzzle it out when it crawls away, unfurling long ear-like tentacles from its head. It’s a sea hare but more bulky than the ones I normally see (Aplysia punctata).

I think I've found a strange anemone
I think I’ve found a strange anemone
Surprise! It turns into a sea hare.
Surprise! It turns into a sea hare.

As it oozes towards me across the rock I’m struck by its face, more like a hippo than a hare with wide flapping ears and a broad snout. Very occasionally larger sea hares, Aplysia depilans, have been found around the southern shores of the UK, and I begin to wonder.

Aplysia depilans - looking more like a sea hippo than a sea hare
Aplysia depilans – looking more like a sea hippo than a sea hare

I contact experts who have seen them before and they confirm it is a juvenile Aplysia deplians – a rare find and a species I’ve never seen before. Happy birthday to me!

It’s still cold for snorkelling and I only last about a quarter of an hour before my teeth start to chatter, but it’s worth it. After several minutes of seeing nothing but kelp, silt and the occasional two-spot goby, a long snake-like body catches my eye. It’s the unmistakeable shape of a greater pipefish (Syngnathus acus).

The greater pipefish looks out from the weeds
The greater pipefish looks out from the weeds

These fish grow to about arm length and have a hexagonal cross-section. This one hardly moves, relying on camouflage for defence, its long nose stretching out over the sand.

Greater pipefish - a cousin of the seahorse
Greater pipefish – a cousin of the seahorse

I drift back into shore, and find a compass jellyfish (Chrysaora hysoscella) stranded in the shallows. It takes its name from the beautiful markings on its back, but I don’t go too close – sea nettle is its other common name.

Compass jellyfish - showing its distinctive markings
Compass jellyfish – showing its distinctive markings

Back on the shore, I huddle on the sand, wrapped in jumpers and towels, shivering and eating cake. Birthdays don’t get any better than this.

This snakelocks anemone looks like it's had a fright - the tentacles were being picked up by the current
This snakelocks anemone looks like it’s had a fright – the tentacles were being picked up by the current

 

Up close to a red-eyed velvet swimming crab (Necora puber)
Up close to a red-eyed velvet swimming crab (Necora puber)

 

Cornish clingfish eggs - little eyes and noses visible inside
Cornish clingfish eggs – little eyes and noses visible inside
A snorkel-scape. Thong weed at Port Nadler near Looe
A snorkel-scape. Thong weed at Port Nadler near Looe

Baffling jellies, a little shark and a possible giant – A day in the Cornish Rock Pools

Sometimes everything’s just meant to be. This is one of those times.

It’s a random get-together; my Twitter friend Nanny Pat from Bosinver Farm Cottages has suggested we meet with her family and friends to explore a special beach that her son loves. Sounds good to me!

The view towards Falmouth, Cornish Rock Pools
The view towards Falmouth

The sun is struggling through the clouds as we all descend from Mawnan towards the glittering shore. We are nine adults, six children, one dog, some huge buckets and a promisingly enormous picnic bag that Nanny Pat has packed for us.

We waste no time and strike out across the slippery rocks. These are serious rock poolers. I am, as other half puts it, “among my people”.

Just one more rock... exploring the Cornish rock pools
Just one more rock… exploring the Cornish rock pools

We set to and the finds flood in. There are fish eggs everywhere, some are just starting to develop like these clingfish eggs.

Cornish clingfish eggs are a distinctive yellow colour
Cornish clingfish eggs are a distinctive yellow colour

Others are nearly ready to swim away, eyes jammed against their transparent egg cases, tails squished around them.

Ever feel like you're being watched? Fish eggs in a rock pool.
Ever feel like you’re being watched? Fish eggs in a rock pool.

Best of all, I’m baffled by some of the creatures we find.

The medusa (jelly) stage of a hydroid or sea fir - possibly clytia hemisphaerica or similar
The medusa (jelly) stage of a hydroid or sea fir – possibly clytia hemisphaerica or similar

First there’s a transparent disk of jelly a centimetre across. I scoop it up in a tub and peer at it until I go cross-eyed. It shows no sign of life, but I’m sure it is an animal. All around its rim are mauve dots and a thin purple cross hangs across its centre.

The underside of the medusa
The underside of the medusa

I rule out all the UK jellyfish and it’s the wrong shape for a sea gooseberry. When I take a photo of it in the water, my camera shows some short tentacles, invisible to the naked eye.

Having since consulted the experts, it looks to be the medusa (jelly) stage in the lifecycle of some sort of hydroid or sea fir.

Swimming free - the side view with tentacles showing.
Swimming free – the side view with tentacles showing.

I’m distracted from my observations by some excited shouts and squeals. “Quick, we’ve found a shark!” one of the adults calls.

The children are gathering around the edge of a pool and there in some shallow seaweed, a dogfish (small spotted catshark – scyliorhinus canicula) lies stranded.

Scyliorhinus canicula - small spotted catshark or dogfish stranded in a Cornish rock pool
Scyliorhinus canicula – small spotted catshark, also known as dogfish – stranded in a Cornish rock pool

The animal is calm despite being out of the water and surrounded by eager kids. We take a minute to take photos. Some of the children tentatively touch its sandpaper-rough skin and Cornish Rock Pools junior sluices it with water in an effort to keep it happy.

Close up you can see the rough skin (that used to get used as sandpaper) and the cat-like eyes
Close up you can see the rough skin (dogfish skin used to be used as sandpaper) and the cat-like eyes

The dads rush in for the privilege of relocating our shark to a deeper pool, where it lurks as we carry on our rockpooling.

The 'rehomed' catshark waiting for the tide to come in. It was so well camouflaged it was hard to spot among the seaweed.
The ‘rehomed’ catshark waiting for the tide to come in. It’s so well camouflaged it’s tricky to spot among the seaweed.

One of the finds, a little fish catches my eye. When I first see its red body and dark head, I think it could be a black-faced blenny. The shape doesn’t seem right though. After much staring, I conclude it’s probably a scorpion fish. In my photos the spines on its face can be seen more clearly, confirming that it’s the smallest specimen of this species I’ve ever seen.

A juvenile scorpion fish - the smallest I've ever seen
A juvenile scorpion fish – the smallest I’ve ever seen.

The picnic is perfect in every way. Some of the children huddle together with their sandwiches on top of a tall rock. The smaller kids play in the sand and shower some into the olives, but no one cares.

The tide has moved in but there’s still time for some last-ditch rock pooling to the east of the beach. One of the boys is desperate to find and eel and his determination pays off. He locates a good-sized common eel under a rock, but it slithers into a crevice, evading capture.

Love is in the air! Berthella plumula sea slugs under a rock.
Love is in the air! Berthella plumula sea slugs under a rock.

There is no shortage of crabs here and we find pairs of lemon-yellow berthella plumula sea slugs clinging to the underside of the rocks. I’m told there are giant gobies around and it’s not long before one of the dads sends up a triumphant cry. “It’s a giant.”

It's a whopper, but is it a giant? Goby found in a mid-shore pool
It’s a whopper, but is it a giant? Goby found in a mid-shore pool

We all look closely. I’ve seen some big rock gobies and I know they can be hard to tell apart from the rarer giant goby. This one looks like it could be the real thing. It’s large, at least 17cm, and has the fat-lipped face and salt and pepper colouring of a giant goby.

The goby's face showing the super-thick lips.
The goby’s face showing the super-thick lips.

I take photos of the sucker fin on its belly and hope we’ll be able to get a definitive answer from the experts. The giant goby has a detatched lobe at the front of its sucker fin which the rock goby doesn’t have…apparently.

The pelvic sucker fin of the goby
The pelvic sucker fin of the goby

As we release the goby into the pool where we found it, the children spot their granddad walking onto the beach. He’s arrived just as the tide overtakes the last pools and he invites the kids to join him for a spot of skimming.

It’s the first time I’ve been to this beach. I think I’ll be back.  Some things are indeed meant to be.

Brittle star
Brittle star

 

A good sized three-bearded rockling
A good sized three-bearded rockling