Category Archives: Starfish, Urchins and Sea Cucumbers

Wishing on a Rosy Feather Star

It’s been a while since I posted – thank you for bearing with me. I have so many rock pool adventures to share. I hope you will love this rosy feather star as much as I did.

“Do you see many feather stars?” Libbie asks. We’re on a favourite north coast beach, where we randomly first met a few months back. This time, she has brought her sister in law, Lynne, whose joyous rockpooling Twitter feed I highly recommend: lynne (@lynne08777205) / Twitter.

Asterina phylactica cushion star among seaweed
An Asterina phylactica dwarf cushion star among the seaweeds – one of our first finds of the day.

I admit that I have never seen one. Neither have Libbie or Lynne. I am convinced feather stars are somewhere here on this very beach, but it feels as though I’m looking in the wrong way. Perhaps between us, we’ll spot one? We all agree that sometimes you find things just because you have decided to. This, we say, will be our lucky day.

There is plenty to keep us occupied, including some new life. This is good to see after the heat-bleached seaweeds and poor water quality we have experienced around the coast over the summer. Young Montagu’s blennies flit between the rocks and turn their large eyes to watch us. Libbie discovers a juvenile white-ruffed sea slug (Aeolidiella alderi) under a small slate.

Juvenile Aeolidiella alderi slug found by Libbie.
The second slug of the day – another gorgeous white-ruffed sea slug, Aeolidiella alderi.

Nearby, an even smaller solar powered sea slug, Elysia viridis is out in search of seaweeds to eat. Under my camera, we can see the green and turquoise colours, clues to the presence of chloroplasts from algae it has consumed, which are still photosynthesising – making glucose inside the slug’s body.

A “solar powered” sea slug – Elysia viridis

While the tide recedes, we take a leisurely look into pools packed with St Piran’s hermit crabs and discuss Lynne’s wishlist for the day (Celtic sea slugs, Scarlet and gold cup corals and blue-rayed limpets). They are all species that don’t move far or fast and conditions are ideal.

Excitingly, there are some very small baby St Piran’s hermit crabs like this one in the pools. The next generation is doing well.

Junior, who now knows these rocks as well as I do, sets a course across the slippery stream bed towards an area where we’re almost sure to find everything we’re looking for.

The painted top shells come in especially striking colours on this beach.

As always, progress is slow. There is so much to see and we can’t resist checking every pool. There are vivid pink painted top shells and all sorts of fish and crabs. To my excitement, we find a species I haven’t noticed before, Perophora listeri – a cluster of small bubble-like sea squirts on the red seaweed.

Perophora listeri sea squirts
Perophora listeri sea squirts

In a wide pool near to where Junior is searching for Celtic sea slugs, we settle down to look closely at the rainbow wrack. Not only is this bushy seaweed a brilliant iridescent turquoise color and a favourite place for catsharks to lay their eggcases, it is also teeming with life, like a miniature forest.

Pheasant shell
A cowrie moving over an Asterina phylactica cushion star and a turf of other creatures.

Pheasant shells roam the canopy, young anemones cling on like epiphytes and the dense animal crust of sponges, sea squirts, hydroids and bryozoans around lower ‘branches’ attracts cowries and other small predators. Pretty Asterina phylactica cushion stars are everywhere and as I look down into the base of the seaweed, something else grabs my attention.

There is a bright pink, branched shape that doesn’t look like seaweed. I crawl in close to get my camera in position, but I already know what it is. “A feather star!” I gasp. It seems ridiculous to find one just because I’m looking, but there it is.

Our first rosy feather star!

As we watch, the rosy feather star extends and retracts its arms, uncurling them to show the alternating twiggy branches along the sides. These are fringed with a little comb-like structure to catch passing food. The animal is clinging onto the seaweed with its hooked pink-striped “cirri”. It is such a shocking coral pink colour that it seems impossible I would overlook one, but it is well hidden under the seaweed and camouflaged against the crust of pink seaweed and the coral weed that lines the whole pool.

Convinced there must be more feather stars here, I search for a while without success. In the meantime, Junior has found everything on today’s wish list and is keen to show Lynne and Libbie before the tide comes up. Sure enough, we are treated to scarlet and gold cup corals, blue rayed limpets and quite a battalion of Celtic sea slugs!

Celtic sea slug
Blue-rayed limpet on seaweed

Soon the oystercatchers are moving up the shore with the tide and it is time to retreat. We sit at the top of the shore, watching kestrels hovering over the clifftop while we enjoy a much-needed picnic. Buoyed by our success with the feather star, we reckon we should carry on actively looking for unlikely things next time. Soon, we have a whole list. Cuttlefish, octopus and seahorses, here we come!

A few more bonus creatures from our day’s rock pooling!

Clingfish sp. – probably small-headed clingfish.
Candelabrum cocksii hydroid
Botryllus leachii colonial sea squirt
A pretty chiton (a type of mollusc). Lepidochitona cinerea

This website is a labour of much love and the content is available for free to everyone. My wonderful readers often ask if there is a way to support my work. You can now ‘buy me a coffee’ through my page. (Just click donate and you can set the amount to pay by PayPal). Thank you!

Christmas Rock Pool Catch-up

As you may have noticed, blog writing has been relegated to my ‘to do dreckly’ list for a couple of months now. In September, I unexpectedly started a job that I didn’t know I’d applied for and my photos of rock pooling trips, including this day at Prisk Cove, have been piling up ever since. It’s time for a catch-up!

A swimming variegated scallop was one of the highlights of this short video I put together at Prisk Cove this autumn.

For once, the gales and mizzle held off for our visit to Prisk Cove, making it an ideal day for sitting by the pools and staring. The longer I looked the more I discovered.

This Aeolidiella alderi sea slug had recently munched its way through a Daisy anemone, turning the cerata on its back from white to a deep, speckled brown. It is sometimes called the ‘white-ruffed’ slug due to the paler cerata that form a smart collar behind its head.

Aeolidiella alderi – the white-ruffed sea slug

Finding a nudibranch sea slug made an auspicious start to the day, and there were plenty more discoveries in store. Many of the tunicate sea squirts I find on the shore are dull brown, but this Ascidia mentula was an explosion of colour.

Ascidia mentula
Up close, the Ascidia mentula sea squirt looks like a riotous display of tiny red fireworks

Nearby, a chiton nestled among the barnacles, moving very slightly as I watched. These unassuming little molluscs have changed very little since the Devonian period. You have to look closely to appreciate their varied patterns. There are several species commonly found on our shores and some – like this one – have clusters of bristles fringing their armoured plates.

Bristly chiton
Bristly chiton

Flatworms are far more exciting to watch than chitons. They are speedy for their size, flowing seamlessly over rock and engulfing any obstacles they meet.

This remarkably bright flatworm is a Cycloporus papillosus. I mostly see them in shades of star-studded blue, but this one has other ideas. They vary in colour to match their equally resplendent prey, the star ascidian sea squirt.

Caught crossing the rock in search of new food supplies, this flatworm was easy to spot. Once it is on a sea squirt, it will become almost invisible.

Cycloporus paplillosus flatworm, normally found on star ascidian sea squirts.
The colourful Cycloporus papillosus flatworm lives on star ascidian sea squirts like these.

Rocky overhangs are my happy place. They’re a kind of lucky dip with fascinating creatures hiding in every single one. I wouldn’t advise putting a hand in an overhang as there’s almost always a crab lurking at the back, but it’s worth going through the contortions required to obtain a good view of what lies within. This spiny starfish, however, wouldn’t win any games of hide-and-seek.

Spiny starfish
Always watch your fingers when there are velvet swimming crabs about. This one had especially blue claws.

Unlike the starfish, my next find was a master of disguise, hugging the rock and changing colour to match it. Only the googly eyes and a tiny fluttering fin gave this topknot flatfish away.

Topknot checking out my camera
Pressed against the rock, the topknot is almost invisible.
Topknot flatfish swimming.

Among boulders encrusted in colourful sponges, I was delighted to find my favourite slug: “Discodoris” – the Geitodoris planata. This one was busy tucking into the sponges and sported plenty of acid glands to ward off any would-be predators, visible as white patches on the slug’s back.

Geitodoris planata enjoying a feast of sponges.

Tortoiseshell limpets can go unnoticed due to their diminutive size, but they have one of the prettiest shells on our shores. This one, nestling among the pink seaweeds, was a perfect burst of pink and blue.

Tortoiseshell limpet Tectura virginea

I always tell people that they should go slowly and look closely to see and appreciate wildlife. It works every time and is good advice for life in general, yet it’s advice I sometimes forget myself. In my haste to find the next thing, I can easily miss what is in front of me.

This quiet, meandering day at Prisk Cove, was a rare chance to truly stop and look, to watch animals doing their own thing. From the mysid prawns flocking around the snakelocks anemones to the way the green shore urchins had arranged their shelters of seaweed, pebbles and shells, there were endless insights into rockpool life. If the tide hadn’t come in, I would happily have stayed for many hours, staring into those perfect pools.

Nadelik lowen! Merry Christmas! Wishing you a happy and restful time.

Mysid prawn hovering over a snakelocks anemone
“The urchin’s got his hat on…” – Green shore urchin using a limpet shell for shelter.

Whatever the weather, always stay safe in the rock pools. Follow my rockpooling tips to look after yourself and the wildlife on the shore.

This website is a labour of much love and the content is available for free to everyone. My wonderful readers often ask if there is a way to support my work. You can now ‘buy me a coffee’ through my page. (Just click donate and you can set the amount to pay by PayPal). Thank you!

Neap Tide Adventures

Days like this don’t seem ideal for rock pooling; the tide is nowhere near low enough to expose my favourite pools and the weather is iffy. Despite this, I am convinced that there is plenty to see on the mid-shore. Cameras and rock pooling super-crew (Other Half and Junior) at the ready, we set out to uncover marine treasures.

One advantage of neap tides, when the sea doesn’t go out very far, is that it won’t rush back in either. We can take our time. Junior soon locates lots of gem anemones with their tentacles wide open.

Gem anemone

Under a stone further down the shore, I spot a beautifully camouflaged anemone. It’s too small to see properly, so I have to wait until I get home to confirm that it’s a Sagartia troglodytes anemone.

Sagartia trogladytes anemone

The B shape at the base of the tentacles is a useful identifying feature, although I’ve always thought they look more like Scooby Doo ghost eyes than letters.

Other Half calls me over to look at a blob. He’s becoming quite an expert blob finder.

We look together at the tiny brown jelly-spot on the seaweed. At first, we think it is an anemone because it seems to have a circle of retracted tentacles. As soon as I dunk it in the water though, I can see the pale lumps of primary tentacles around the edge. It must be a stalked jellyfish.

Is it just me or does this stalked jelly not look pleased to see me? Haliclystus octoradiatus.

Gradually, the stalked jelly unfurls each arm until it looks much less blob-like.

Haliclystus octoradiatus -starting to look more like a stalked jellyfish than a blob.

The rain seems to be holding off now, and I make myself comfortable by a calm pool to watch the little world go by. My camera has barely entered the water before a bold prawn trots out of the seaweed, its legs working at top speed in its eagerness to check out what I’m up to.

Common prawn coming to take a look at my camera.
Common prawn

A head pops up between the fronds of saw wrack at the back of the pool. The young Montagu’s blenny swivels an eye back and forth beneath its jaunty headgear. I feel a larger blenny move through the seaweed near my hand and lift my camera out of the water before I get a nip from the territorial shanny.

Peek-a-boo! Montagu’s blenny taking a look above the serrated wrack.
Montagu’s blenny.

A dinky starfish in the coral weed catches my eye. I see several species of starfish on this beach, but this is a mid-shore specialist: Asterina phylactica. The colours of the tiny pincers on its back (the pedicellariae) form an orange star shape. Under the camera, I can see its tube feet reaching out and exploring its surroundings as it glides along.

Asterina phylactica – cushion starfish

Other Half brings passes me a tiny shell he has found. He thinks it might be a wentletrap, a shell we sometimes find. I have never seen one so small and assume it is probably a different species. I take a look with the camera and realise he was right. The bold sculpture of ribs over the rounded whorls of the long spire are striking, even in this tiny juvenile. Best of all, the shell is occupied.

Juvenile wentletrap

I watch the snail emerge and set off across the pool.

This makes me think of a unicorn and a rainbow – juvenile wentletrap.

Sea squirts are something of an enigma to me. They are hugely varied in their colours, shapes and sizes. Aplidium turbinatum, in particular, seems to me to look different every time I find it. When I first see this one, I am convinced that the white, spiky-looking set of openings under the coral weed is a bryozoan.

I know this looks familiar, but takes me a long time to work out that it is Aplidium turbinatum, a sea squirt.

Yet, after a while watching it, I realise it is opening and closing like a squirt, puffing water in and out. It bears little resemblance to the orange gelatinous Aplidium turbinatum I usually see further down this beach, but the jutting triangular crowns around the edge of each opening are the same.

Aplidium turbinatum sea squirts

Fortunately, I can turn to the incredible Aphotomarine website for confirmation and, sure enough, it has some photos of very similar specimens (thanks David!).

While the tide seeps back into the pools, we chat with a fellow rock pooler whose photos I have often seen online, and who I eventually realise I have met before in real life through another conservation group.

Chthamalus sp barnacles starting to open as the tide comes in.

By the time we leave, the sun is low in the sky. I am more than satisfied with all the wonderful creatures I have found on the neap tide, and it is high time I had some birthday cake.

Strawberry anemone

Whatever the tide, always stay safe in the rock pools. Follow my rockpooling tips to look after yourself and the wildlife on the shore.

This website is a labour of much love and the content is available for free to everyone. My wonderful readers often ask if there is a way to support my work. You can now ‘buy me a coffee’ through my page. (Just click donate and you can set the amount to pay by PayPal). Thank you!

Cushion Starfish and Babies Galore – Summer Rockpooling in Looe.

The sun is shining, the tide is going out and I’m wearing my ‘new’ blue sunglasses that I found in a rock pool last week. Junior and I are searching for signs of new life on the sheltered shore at Looe. Most of all, we are looking for cushion starfish eggs.

We aren’t the only ones out on the beach. Grey herons, egrets, oystercatchers, great black-backed gulls and crows, many with hungry nestlings to feed, are taking a keen interest in the pools and rocks. We give the birds plenty of space and settle ourselves by a mid-shore pool.

There is always lots going on here. Colonies of light-bulb sea squirts are sprouting up around the rocks, hermit crabs scuttle across the gravel and prawns swim over to see what we are doing – or perhaps to see if we are edible.

Light bulb sea squirts.

Under a rock adorned with a brilliant blue patch of Terpios fugax sponge, a rock goby is lying still, watching me through small eyes.

Terpios fugax – a blue sponge

Another goby close by, its head poking out from under a stone. There is no sign of any rock goby eggs, but as I check the underside of the rock, something glides along its surface.

Spot the fish

It’s hard to see what the tiny creature is. It looks as though it is changing colour as it moves, but this is because I am seeing straight through its body to the colours of the algae and sponges. After a few attempts, I manage to zoom in on the baby fish, which rests only for a few seconds at a time before zipping forward in a new direction.

The baby fish is very transparent.

This is probably a baby goby. As the summer goes on, many quiet mid-shore pools will hold large populations of tiny gobies and blennies.

The juvenile fish’s organs and spine can be seen clearly in its transparent body.

The cushion star Asterina gibbosa is a common rock pool starfish here in Cornwall, easily recognized by its puffy body and short, stiff, arms. These little starfish all start life as males and then become hermaphrodites (with both male and female organs) as they grow.

Unlike many other species of starfish, these cushion stars do not spawn into the plankton but lay a clutch of bright orange eggs. I sometimes find newly-laid eggs several times.

Cushion stars (Asterina gibbosa) laying eggs

When the eggs are developing, the curled-up legs of a baby starfish can just be seen.

Developing cushion star eggs.

This area of the beach seems to be a popular egg-laying site for the cushion starfish, so today I am hoping to fully developed or just-hatched eggs.

I search the pool, gently lifting a few stones before replacing them exactly as they were. This pool is crowded with St Piran’s and common hermit crabs of all sizes. The high population means that there is competition for shells. One St Piran’s hermit crab is occupying a very battered dog-whelk shell with half of the back missing – it’s better than nothing.

St Piran’s hermit crab in a broken dog whelk shell.

A Xantho hydrophilus crab wanders past me. From the way her tail sticks out a little behind her shell, I can see that she must be carrying eggs. I take a quick look, keeping her in the water and cradling her to keep her eggs safe. The tiny black spots on the eggs show that they are near hatching. Under my camera I can see all the little eyes staring out.

Xantho hydrophilus crab – female with eggs. The feathery accessories around her tail keep the eggs in place.

When her eggs are ready to hatch, the crab will release them into the sea, flapping her tail to send them on their way. The baby crabs will swim in the plankton for a while before gradually changing into their final form and settling.

Xantho hydrophilus crab eggs looking ready to hatch

Finally, I come across a small patch of orange cushion star eggs under a rock. I crouch down and put my camera in the water. These eggs look a little different to others I have found. It takes me a moment to realise why: they have hatched!

Instead of eggs, I am looking at hundreds of minuscule orange cushion stars, all very gradually extending their little tube feet and beginning to move and explore.

The cushion starfish eggs have hatched. Asterina gibbosa juveniles.

Most of the cushion starfish babies are still piled up together in a huddle, but some are a few centimetres away from the crowd, already taking their first journey alone in the rock pool.

I am entranced. So much so, that I don’t notice that I am sitting in the water getting a wet bottom while I take photos. I could stay watching this forever, but I want to share it with Junior.

A bundle of newly-hatched baby cushion stars.

Junior goes through the same process as me, seeing the eggs and taking a few shots on his camera before realising what he is looking at. He’s seen most things in the rock pools by now so it takes something special to impress him. This is something very special.

Newly-hatched cushion starfish.

Cushion stars are lovely; baby cushion stars are pure magic. Once again, the rock pools have exceeded all our expectations. We will never know how things turn out for these particular baby starfish, but we may well meet some of them again as adults on our future visits to our local shore.

If you are visiting the beach this summer, be sure to rock pool responsibly and safely. Check the tides and leave everything as you found it. Read my top tips for successful rock pooling.

This website is a labour of much love and the content is available for free to everyone. My wonderful readers often ask if there is a way to support my work. You can now ‘buy me a coffee’ through my page. (Just click donate and you can set the amount to pay by PayPal). Thank you!

An Outbreak of Starfish – Wildlife Watch Explores Readymoney Cove

Before I’ve found the time to upload all of last year’s records, the rock pooling event season is upon me again. Junior comes along to help at my first Wildlife Watch event of the year for Cornwall Wildlife Trust at Readymoney Cove, undeterred by the bone-chilling wind.

A crowd of hardy young rock poolers, kitted out from head to toe in weatherproof gear, is gathered at the top of the beach and I am joined by Liz, a lovely volunteer assistant. Half the group have their hands up before I’ve even asked a question and these keen kids are practically bursting with stories and facts about crabs, blennies, pipefish and killer jellyfish. They also have high expectations of what we might find – seahorses and cuttlefish are among the requests – but most of all they want to see starfish.

Starfish of some sort are almost guaranteed on all our local beaches, especially cushion stars, which like to hide under rocks and overhangs. If we are lucky we might also find brittle stars, that walk on their five feathery arms, or even a gargantuan spiny starfish, so I am hopeful that we will be successful on our mission.

As the group spreads across the shore, the finds soon rush in. We turn shiny top shells in our fingers, hold chunky-clawed Xantho hydrophilus crabs, and to the immense joy of one young seahorse enthusiast, we find the next best thing to a seahorse: a male worm pipefish with eggs on his belly.

Xantho hydrophilus - the 'furrowed crab'.
Xantho hydrophilus – the ‘furrowed crab’.

Male worm pipefish with eggs
Male worm pipefish with eggs

Pipefish are close relatives of the seahorse and the male takes care of the female’s eggs, storing them in a special groove on his belly until they hatch. Coincidentally this pipefish has taken up residence next to an old pipe.

It only takes a minute for the children to discover a common starfish. I often find one or two on this beach, even though they’re not so common intertidally as offshore. The deep-water harbour alongside this beach is probably packed with them and sometimes young common starfish make their way into these sheltered pools. Today, however, there is something unusual going on.

One of the common starfish found - photo courtesy of Liz Barker
One of the common starfish found – photo courtesy of Liz Barker

Under the first stone I turn, I see two baby common starfish. As I look I notice a third, a fourth and then a fifth. On the side of the rock, there is yet another starfish. The adjacent rock has four more.

Common starfish at Readymoney Cove near Fowey
Common starfish at Readymoney Cove near Fowey

Everywhere on the beach, children are shrieking with excitement as they find more starfish. There are scores of them among the rocks I look at.

We could easily collect the starfish by the bucket-load, but these children know not to disturb the animals. We keep just a few for our trays so that we can watch them and all those who want to can have a go at holding a starfish before they are returned to their rocky homes.

While the children are caught up in the magic of starfish, I take a moment to explore the rocks at the sea’s edge and discover this wonderful yellow clubbed sea slug, Limacia clavigera.

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

There is never enough time to take many photos at these events as I am too caught up in the excitement of identifying finds and helping the children learn more about them. We also have plenty of discussions about the animals’ impressive defences and quirky eating habits.

The children do a perfect job of looking after the animals, returning them all safe and unharmed to their homes before the incoming tide floods back into the pools. Despite the chilly conditions, the kids are buzzing with happiness at finding so many starfish. A friend tells me her kids talked of nothing else all the way home.

Even Junior, who has seen most things before, is delighted with today’s finds and even more delighted when he secures the very last cheese and onion pasty from the beach shop for his lunch.

If you’d like to get involved with Wildlife Watch, book on to my rockpooling sessions or join any other Wildlife Watch events, check out the listings on the Cornwall Wildlife Trust pages.

Did you know that starfish can regrow their limbs? Find out more about the secrets of these iconic rock pool animals in my book Rock Pool: Extraordinary Encounters Between the Tides out on 2nd May with September Publishing and available through local and national bookshops and online.

Birthday Rock Pooling

It’s that time of year again. Amazing spring tides, ideal conditions and, of course, it coincides with Other Half’s birthday. Lucky him! What else could he possibly want to do but come rock pooling? To be fair, he needs no persuading that it beats a day in the office and, as a birthday treat, I offer him an evening out afterwards – watching me give a talk at the Cornwall Marine Recorders’ event in Gwithian (with a bar and nibbles).

We pile into the car ridiculously early in the morning to make sure we make it to Prisk Cove in time to meet our lovely friends and their twins to explore as the tide rolls out.

This beach is a little off the beaten track, but worth the walk. We find it empty of people and the tide so far out that the kelp hangs limply in shallow pockets of water in the bay.

The beach’s sheltered position between the Helford and Falmouth Bay, combined with the huge numbers of loose boulders, makes this habitat perfect for many marine species. Despite his initial certainty that he won’t find anything, Junior’s friend is first to find a spiny starfish. Its long tapering arms set with thick spines have an attractive purple hue.

Spiny starfish at Prisk Cove near Falmouth
Spiny starfish at Prisk Cove near Falmouth

We watch its many tentacle feet reaching out to explore the rocks.

Spiny starfish arm in action
Spiny starfish arm in action

The asymmetric heads of flat fish always intrigue me, so I am delighted when we find the first little topknot, then more and more of them. Some are sticking to the rocks, even clinging on when completely upside down, using their fringing fins to mould themselves to bumps and imperfections in the surface. Their mottled patterns can make them hard to spot and they stay completely still to avoid detection.

Topknot flatfish resting on a rock
Topknot flatfish resting on a rock

Flatfish like this topknot have their mouth set on one side of their head.
Flatfish like this topknot have their mouth set on one side of their head.

Under a large rock we find a large edible crab that makes the other twin shriek. She soon overcomes her nerves when I move it out of the way so that we can look at the fish, which are also sheltering here.

Everyone crowds round to see the stunning colours and impressive headgear of the tompot blenny, and the kids are amazed by the smoothness of the rockling’s eel-like skin.

Tompot blenny
Tompot blenny

Other Half holds the edible crab for a quick birthday photo before we pop everything back where we found it.

Edible crab at Prisk Cove
Edible crab at Prisk Cove

Out among the furthest accessible rocks, the twins’ mum is not being outdone. She brings some fish over to show me, among them a beautiful goldsinny wrasse. It’s not a fish I often see on the shore, but it is easily identified by its two dark spots, one at the front of its dorsal fin and the other at the top of its tail.

Goldsinny wrasse at Prisk Cove
Goldsinny wrasse at Prisk Cove

It has wide orange eyes with a flash of blue and the wonderful pouting lips of the wrasse family.

Goldsinny wrasse - a beautifully coloured fish
Goldsinny wrasse – a beautifully coloured fish

The finds flood in and I struggle to keep up with taking photos of everything to ensure that I can submit records afterwards. On one area of the shore I find a large patch of Wakame.

This invasive non-native seaweed is easily identified by its corrugated-looking stipe and thin, floppy fronds. Originating from China, Japan and Korea, it has spread widely in Europe and can out-compete native seaweeds.

White painted top shells, an improbably hairy purse sponge and an interesting anemone all catch my eye before the tide turns.

An especialy hairy purse sponge - presumably just a variant of Sycon ciliatum
An especialy hairy purse sponge – presumably just a variant of Sycon ciliatum

Painted top shells are usually pink, but this beach had many of the white variety
Painted top shells are usually pink, but this beach had many of the white variety

I also discover half a dozen shark eggcases of the Greater spotted catshark (Scyliorhinus stellaris) attached to the rainbow wrack of the lower shore pools.

Catshark egg case among the seaweed
Catshark egg case among the seaweed

When it is in the water, Rainbow wrack is wonderfully iridescent
When it is in the water, Rainbow wrack is wonderfully iridescent

All too soon it seems, the tide is flowing in. At first it is a faint current, but it turns quickly into a churning river through the tight gullies and we retreat to enjoy a birthday picnic.

A lovely little Lamellaria snail, likely Lamellaria latens
A lovely little Lamellaria snail, likely Lamellaria latens

Limacia clavigera sea slug at Prisk Cove
Limacia clavigera sea slug at Prisk Cove

An especially small anemone growing on rainbow wrack.
An especially small anemone growing on rainbow wrack.

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.

Searching for Starfish

We’ve been planning this trip since our visitors first came to Cornwall a year ago. They’re determined to try rock pooling having missed out last time. This week the tides are perfect. They live near the sea back home in Essex, but they tell me it’s not the same and I can well believe it.

They’ve never seen a starfish in the wild before. My mission is clear.

Getting stuck in to Cornish rock pooling
Getting stuck in to Cornish rock pooling

With picnic and buckets in hand, we set out, treading gingerly over seaweed and searching among the rocks. Within minutes, our friends are putting yesterday’s hasty tutorial on crabs into practice as they try picking them up safely. They score top marks on this and on working out whether the crabs are male or female from the shape of their tails. We find several species of crustacean, including this large squat lobster.

A squat lobster - galathea squamifera
A squat lobster – galathea squamifera

While our visitors search the shallow pools, finding anemones, fish, prawns and hermit crabs, Other Half and I walk out through slippery gullies towards the sea with Junior, taking photos and collecting interesting creatures for our visitors to see. I find a small rock with a beautiful covering of star ascidian. Continue reading Searching for Starfish

A very British beach picnic.

It’s bank holiday Monday and, by rights, the beaches should be packed with tourists, but this is a British bank holiday complete with the standard issue of drizzle and greyness. We seem to be the only people who’ve come for a picnic today.

A very un-summery bank holiday at Plaidy beach near Looe
A very un-summery bank holiday at Plaidy beach near Looe

Cornish Rock Pools junior and his Dad undertake mega-engineering projects on the stream while I explore the rock pools, eager to put my new camera through its paces.

Pleased to meet you! A broad-clawed porcelain crab extends a claw. Cornish Rock Pools
Pleased to meet you! A broad-clawed porcelain crab extends a claw.

It seems that the wildlife has also gone to ground, as though the animals have moved further out to sea during the heavy rains. The regulars are still here though, lurking in the murky water.

Green shore crabs abound among the rocks.
Green shore crabs abound among the rocks.

Under almost every rock there are young edible crabs shunting sand over themselves while larger green shore crabs run for cover.

Netted dog whelk egg capsules
Netted dog whelk egg capsules

In a pool that threatens to over-top my wellies, I find a pheasant shell going about its business. I can barely see it in the silty water as it makes its way along the red seaweed. Under the camera, its neat maroon stripes become more visible and I can see its tentacles flopping over the edge of the weed.

A pheasant shell undeterred by the silty water
A pheasant shell undeterred by the silty water

A grey heron is fishing in the farthest pools. As the waves begin to slosh up the gulley, a cormorant flies in and takes up position behind the heron, where it stays for the next half hour. I hunt the mid-shore for the ever illusive starfish, Asterina phylactica.

The first Asterina phylactica starfish I find is especially tiny.
The first Asterina phylactica starfish I find is especially tiny.

The first of these minute starfish I find is so small that I can barely see it among the weed. It moves remarkably quickly, sliding round the branching tuft of pink coralline seaweed and disappearing from view each time I try to focus on it.

Other half sidles over and asks about the sandwiches. I realise I’ve been staring into this pool for way too long and somehow I’ve managed to soak my fringe and my coat sleeves in my enthusiasm, but I’m not quite ready to give up. Eventually I’m rewarded by finding a larger, brighter specimen, which I photograph with numb fingers.

A slightly larger, more brightly coloured Asterina phylactica starfish.
A slightly larger, more brightly coloured Asterina phylactica starfish.


Asterina phylactica starfish - well worth the time spent searching.
Asterina phylactica starfish – well worth the time spent searching.

The drizzle sets in properly as we begin our picnic. Cornish Rock Pools junior builds a shelter under his Dad’s coat and happily munches on sandwiches and biscuits. I flex my fingers and am just beginning to sense the return of some sort of blood flow when I remember the bucket. I definitely had it and now I don’t. Other half and I mount a search party, but he heroically sends me back to the chocolate digestives while he continues the hunt.

Cornish Rock Pools junior makes his picnic shelter.
Cornish Rock Pools junior makes his picnic shelter.

After several long minutes of searching, the tide and mist closing around him, he lifts the bucket aloft and junior and I clap and cheer with our mouths full.

Red bucket is saved!
Red bucket is saved!

Soon the cliffs are disappearing in the fog and the rain sets in properly. As the oystercatchers sweep in, we hastily pack up our very British picnic and leave the beach completely deserted.

A snakelocks anemone among the sea lettuce.
A snakelocks anemone among the sea lettuce.

Staring Into Pools

The lack of time before the sea laps back in can sometimes make the hunt for sea creatures a bit of a frantic affair. Add eager small children to the mix and the clock is ticking. After a busy week, I took the time to stop and stare and it paid off.

Enticing Cornish rock pools in the sunshine
Enticing Cornish rock pools in the sunshine

The wide blue skies gave us perfect conditions for taking our Easter visitors and their children rock pooling this week and I’m pretty sure they weren’t disappointed. A quick search was enough to find starfish, blennies, crabs and shells to wow our guests.

Inevitably a child fell in a rock pool – but fortunately it was fearless Cornish Rock Pools junior. He was already shouting, ‘I’m all right,” as I hooked him out and he ran off to climb rocks as soon as I’d wrung out his coat.

A female Xantho incisus crab carrying her eggs
A female Xantho incisus crab carrying her eggs

On Monday, another set of visitors arrived with their teenage boy, so the pace was suddenly less urgent.

As I clambered over the rocks with my friend’s son, I pointed out shallow pools packed with snakelocks anemones and we sat awhile entranced by the tangle of moving tentacles.

Watching tentacles moving in a pool packed with snakelocks anemones
Watching tentacles moving in a pool packed with snakelocks anemones

“Sometimes,” I said, “if you sit and stare at a pool for long enough, you begin to notice things you didn’t realise were there.”

We were looking into a clear rock-top pool lined with pink corraline seaweed. “You might even spot rare creatures, you just have to make time to look,” I explained.

I trailed my finger gently through the seaweed a few times. Then a few times more, and a tiny star shape came into view. I reached in and lifted it on the tip of my finger, realising it might just be… yes, it was… an Asterina phylactica.

The tiny Asterina phylactica starfish
The tiny Asterina phylactica starfish

I’m probably not meant to have favourites, but Asterina phylactica are absolutely, without a doubt, my favourite sea stars. They are decorated with dots of bright colour, like little gems. I don’t often see them and had no idea they lived here at my local beach.

Of course, I was there without my camera so I went back today for some more staring.

 After half an hour of gazing into pools and browsing the seaweed, I finally found this little fellow.

ASterina phylactica are easily recognised by the little circles of colour which often form a dark central star shape
Asterina phylactica are easily recognised by the little circles of colour which often form a dark central star shape

 I walked out to the lower shore and stood in a welly-deep pool staring and staring some more. I’m not sure how long I was there before this little stalked jellyfish caught my eye. The Lucernariopsis cruxmelitensis is another beautiful little animal that I don’t often see.

A stalked jelly - Lucernariopsis cruxmelitensis
A stalked jelly – Lucernariopsis cruxmelitensis

 Sometimes it pays to stop and stare.

If I looked away for a second, it was almost impossible to spot this stalked jellyfish again.
If I looked away for a second, it was almost impossible to spot this stalked jellyfish again.