Category Archives: Starfish, Urchins and Sea Cucumbers

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.

 

Chilly but Fabulous – February Rockpools

I’m not cut out for rockpooling in a northerly wind in February. My hands are too frozen to hold my battered old camera steady, but nothing is going to make me miss this tide. It’s so low that the seagrass at Hannafore is high and dry and a shark is lurking in shin-deep water, but I haven’t seen that yet.

A male Xantho incisus crab
A male Xantho incisus crab
A beautiful dahlia anemone (Urticina felina).
A beautiful dahlia anemone (Urticina felina).

There are fish, crabs, worms and brittle stars in droves Continue reading Chilly but Fabulous – February Rockpools