Summer arrives early in Cornwall, with festivals around the county singing in the new season on the first of May every year. Except, this year the Padstow Obby Osses have stayed in their stables, the Calstock Giant hasn’t set sail down the Tamar to re-join his love, and there has been none of the usual dancing through the streets of Helston.
Oblivious to all of this, the natural world is carrying on. Swifts are screaming past the window, the herring gulls are nestled on their mossy rooftop nests and in rockpools everywhere, there will be tangles of new-growing seaweed, father fish guarding their eggs and all manner of colourful creatures going about their usual business.
Scroll through the gallery below for a glimpse of what will be happening right now beneath the waves in rock pools around Cornwall. And if you’d like to find out more about our amazing marine life, explore my blog, or take a look at the fantastic video workshops that Cornwall Wildlife Trust has been busy creating. Happy virtual rockpooling!
If my blog posts have seemed a bit thin on the ground the last few months, it’s fair to put the blame on Atiyah, Brendan, Ciara and Dennis.
Even on the good days the lighting and conditions have been less than ideal so, to make the best of a mediocre tide, I enlisted the help of Other Half. Together, we could look under the sort of rock I usually see but leave alone, knowing it weighs far more than I do.
This short video shows you some of the animals living there…. read on to find out more.
Other Half was pleased with the strawberry anemones, which were enormously plump with all their tentacles retracted.
Under a carefully constructed shelter made of small stones and pieces of kelp we could also see the purple-tipped spines of a green shore urchin. Among its many disc-topped tube feet, a long polychaete worm was exploring.
What drew my eye most, though, were the holes in the rock. These were scattered across the surface of the rock and about the circumference of a pencil. I caught the tiniest glimpse of movement as I looked into one of them.
If I were the BBC Natural History Unit, I’d have filmed inside with an endoscope or transported the rock to deeper water so I could photograph the gaping shells emerging to feed. Instead, you will have to take my word for it that there were piddocks in those holes!
Piddocks are bivalve molluscs (clam shells), which burrow into the rock and spend their entire lives in their holes.
A rock with this many cracks and holes in it is bound to contain some good hiding places for other animals and also some air pockets, which enable some of our most unlikely rock pool wildlife to survive being submerged twice a day. Some insects and other arthropods that breathe air live here, but you have to be patient to see them.
I settled down with my camera and before long, the first waggling antennae of a springtail poked over the rim.
I often see rafts of blue-grey Anurida maritima springtails floating on the surface tension of pools in the summer, but these were smaller still and so pale they looked almost transparent. They are clearly visible in the video but I could only take very blurred still photos.
The fabulous Essential Guide to Rock Pooling by Steve Trewhella and Julie Hatcher was my first port of call in trying to identify them. The book has great photos and plenty of clear information on what to look for. Steve kindly identified these springtails as Axelsonia littorlis – a new species to me. It’s amazing what you find when you stop to look.
The best shots I could get were of a larger bug called Aepophilus bonnairei, a beetle-like creature with red eyes and a spiky coat of hairs around its back and legs. These hairs trap air bubbles, which help the insect to breathe when it is submerged.
Time was short as the tide was already turning and the waves were pounding in. I tried to photograph as many species as I could so that I could put records together afterwards. Some, like the painted top shells and the various crabs, are easy to identify.
One of the most striking sponges I see on the shore is the vivid blue Terpios gelatinosus. Many other sponges are harder to identify confidently.
It seemed that no part of this valuable habitat was left unoccupied. To avoid any of these creatures coming to harm, we gently manoeuvred the rock back in place well before the surging waves reached us.
As always, I was left in utter awe of the fragile little creatures we saw.
It is remarkable that these animals will cling onto life here no matter how much the wind howls and the sea roars around them, while we head home to bring the plant pots in out of the wind, check the fences and put the kettle on.
We weren’t really rock pooling, just going for a walk to the beach, or so we said. Junior packed his hammer and chisel in case there were fossils and I packed my camera, because you never know.
On my last wander at our local beach I had hoped to find some gem anemones to photograph, but didn’t succeed. It was worth another look for these tiny creatures, which have stripy tentacles and bright colours around their mouths when they are open, but at low tide most of them are retracted into white-striped blobs.
I left the sounds of hammering and splitting rocks behind me at the edge of the shore, where Junior was happily amusing himself on a fossil hunt, and headed towards an unseasonably glassy sea, pausing to look for anemones in the small pools on the way.
At the water’s edge, I reached a large pool too deep for gem anemones, but in the middle of the pool a submerged boulder was covered in Irish moss seaweed, providing the perfect habitat for stalked jellyfish. I looked so closely among the tangles of weed, hunting for tiny jellies, that I almost missed the huge stalked jellyfish right under my nose.
This was an unusually large Haliclystus octoradiatus stalked jellyfish, easily distinguished from the other species we see in Cornwall by the presence of blob-shaped primary tentacles in between its arms.
Most stalked jellyfish of this species have just one primary tentacle blob between each pair of arms, but this one had far more blobs than usual. The jelly can use these primary tentacles as anchors to grip onto the seaweed if it chooses to move, using a looping, cartwheeling motion.
In another nearby pool I spotted this colourful Calvadosia cruxmelitensis stalked jellyfish, well decorated with white nematocysts, which are its stinging cells.
Junior joined me at this point, wanting to show me a blenny he’d found. We scrambled nearly to the top of a high rocky outcrop in which some small pools had formed. There was no sign of his little fish, and there were no gem anemones, but there was this daisy anemone.
We carried on our expedition through a gap in the rocks to the adjoining beach where clear, shallow pools lined with pink encrusting seaweed nestled under a towering overhang carved out by the sea into the shape of a breaking wave.
These pools were full of anemones too and we stopped to take photos of clusters of snakelocks anemones and a rather flattened-looking strawberry anemone before I noticed the first gem anemone. It was closed up, forming a diminutive pink blob that blended perfectly into the colours of the pool. Close to it was another.
As we moved among the chain of pools we found dozens, but not a single one was open. Junior stared determinedly into every cranny, excited that the pools he had found were proving so interesting.
“There are some open anemones here,” he called out, “maybe Dahlia anemones? What do gem anemones look like when they’re open?”
I knelt on the rock beside him. At the far edge of the pool, tucked under a small ledge, I could see the white stripes of the gem anemone tentacles. Much cheering and hugging ensued.
Soon I was able to show Junior my up-close photos of the anemones so he could see why I was so obsessed with finding them. Each one had a vivid, almost fluorescent green mouth tinged with bright pink spots at its corners. The anemone’s mouths were framed in deep red and grey rays that stretched to the base of the zebra striped tentacles, some of which had flashes of green at their bases.
Truly one of our most spectacular anemones, people rarely notice the gem anemone because it is only a few centimetres across even when fully grown.
Junior is already planning a night time return to these pools to investigate whether these anemones will glow under the light of our ultra-violet torch. Watch this space!
Tis the season for overspending, overindulgence and over-exhaustion, so what better way to recharge the batteries than some fresh air and rock pool exploration? It’s a family tradition for us this time of year to head in the opposite direction from the shops and to take a breather on the beach.
Christmas cards don’t often depict the traditional Cornish winter weather for good reason. Between the fog and the persistent mizzle, we have to imagine the view through the valley to the beach. Even when we arrive on the shore, we can barely make out the sea, although we can hear it crashing over the rocks and surging up the gullies.
The lower shore might be unsafe, but there’s no shortage of colour and variety in the sheltered pools. The rain kindly stops for long enough to let us enjoy our potter through the pools and we have the beach to ourselves.
Other Half finds a large common hermit crab, Pagurus bernhardus, tapping at a shell and we wonder if the crab’s about to move house. Looking closely, the shell it’s interested in is smaller than its own shell and when I look inside there are legs in there. Most likely our hermit is carrying a female around with her until she moults, hoping to mate with her when she does.
The rock pool wildlife couldn’t care less that it’s Christmas, but the bright anemones can’t help but look festive and are all the easier to see now that the seaweeds have died back for the winter.
Stalked jellyfish are also easier to see on the remaining short crops of Irish moss and red seaweeds in the pools. In a short stretch I find Haliclystus octoradiatus and a beautiful red Calvadosia campanulata stalked jelly.
Another jelly blob catches my eye, just a minute red speck among the seaweed. It seems to be moving, so I focus in with my camera to reveal a baby sea hare grazing its way across a tuft of seaweed. Its red sides seem to be snow-speckled with white and its black-fringed parapodia look like a tiny chimney pot.
In a few months’ time, if it survives the winter, this slug will swell and grow into a fat brown lump many times this size, feeding on the spring growth of seaweed.
Zipping across a shallow pool, a fish smaller than my little finger heads for the shelter of a low rocky ridge where it lies still, relying on its camouflage. The young shanny obligingly sits still for a couple of photos.
Soft rain begins to blow into my face as I work my way back over the slippery rocks to rejoin Other Half and Junior, who are entertaining themselves with the noble sport of throwing stones at other stones.
With our wallets intact and our appetites renewed, we’re ready for the feasting to begin.
Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas. Here’s to more rock pooling adventures in 2019!
On a summer’s day when the sea and the sky are a matching blue and the whole world sparkles, there’s nothing as inviting as donning a snorkel and taking a swim across the bay. This summer, for the first time, Junior joined me in my forays over the rocky reefs.
While he built up experience, we floated shoulder to shoulder and sculled our way over the waving seaweed to the deeper gullies.
On our third snorkel outing, I was enjoying the sun on my back and the gentle roll of the waves when Junior screamed down his snorkel. I grabbed his arm in case he was hurt, but he was frantically pointing and making the “fish’”sign with his hand. He had just seen his first ballan wrasse.
The fish was a full-sized adult, maybe 40 or 50cm long with a thick body and a criss-cross patterns of lines interspersed with pale blue spots. An impressive fish. Undeterred by Junior’s shriek of excitement, it carried on its slow, hovering path through the kelp-lined gully for a while before darting away as we neared.
On the same venture, we spotted barnacles feeding with their feathery legs, shore crabs strolling along the sea floor, a shanny surveying its territory from the top of a rock and great glistening shoals of sand eels rolling by. On other days, we came across groups of corkwing wrasse with pouting lips and turquoise-striped faces, spider crabs lurching through the kelp, and tangled snakelocks anemones spreading their green tentacles.
Nearby, crowds of tourists paddled and swam, oblivious to the beauty below them (or the pinching claws and stinging tentacles near their feet).
This summer has seen waves of jellyfish drifting through, from comb jellies to the harmless moon jelly, the less harmless blue and compass jellies and the enormous barrel jellies. Some days the sea was thick with jellyfish, but this didn’t stop Junior from mastering the art of catching waves on his bodyboard or wiping out headfirst into the blue-jelly-soup. He swam for the shore in a hurry on one of our snorkel safaris though, when a compass jelly brushed over my face and stung my back.
I have almost no photos of our snorkelling expeditions this year. Next year, when Junior is more confident, I’ll be able to carry a camera, but this season we just revelled in the perfect days and soaked up the sun . As we knew it would, the summer ended abruptly, dissipating like a mirage from one day to the next and the water is no longer so inviting.
For now, we are hanging up our snorkels and returning to the rock pools, exchanging beach shoes for wellies as the autumn chill moves in, but there is everything to look forward to. A week of Shoresearch surveys starts tomorrow in Looe, which is guaranteed to bring new finds and lots of species records for Cornwall Wildlife Trust.
The empty beaches make this a wonderful time of year to explore the rock pools and before we know it, the first of the autumn storms will blast in, washing who knows what onto our shores. Watch this space!
Between the snorkel trips, I did squeeze in some rock pooling. Here are some of my favourite photos from the summer.
I should be at home, cracking on with some work, but I’ve heard there are comb jellies about and I could do with some photos for my jellyfish course for ERCCIS.
I cut through overgrown vegetation, down the cliff path to a favourite cove. In the ten minutes it’s taken me to walk here, the grey clouds have lifted and the sea’s looking good enough to dive into.
My progress through the rocky gully is slow. The warm weather has brought an explosion of slippery sea lettuce which blocks my view of my feet as they feel for underwater rocks. Tangles of pink spaghetti, the eggs of sea hares, are wrapped around many of the green fronds and a close inspection reveals that dozens of stalked jellyfish (Haliclystus octoradiatus) have already made their homes here.
As I move into deeper water, something catches my eye, floating below the surface. It’s so transparent it’s barely there, but it shimmers intermittently. With some difficulty, the current swishing the jelly back and forth, I scoop it up and carry it in cupped hands to a sheltered overhang. For a moment I think I’ve dropped it, then it swims out.
I’m treated to a fabulous display of iridescence as the comb jelly beats its tiny combs, sending a trail of light and colour up the lines on its tiny body.
Between the current washing into the pool and the jelly’s own surprisingly speedy swimming efforts, it slips away each time I come close to getting it under the camera. To add to the fun, my camera can’t see it. I take a whole series of photos of nothing. The perfect transparency of the animal means I can only focus on the seaweed below.
When another comb jelly washes into the pool, I’m sure there will be lots more opportunities to attempt photos. Stepping out into the open water, I take some time to accustom my eyes, staring past the surface reflection into the water. Soon, I notice comb jellies everywhere.
There are dozens, hundreds even, and some are large enough to fill the palm of my hand. Even the large jellies pose a challenge to my camera, but amongst the many seaweed shots, I start to take a few that show off the jellies’ light display.
While most are the large species, Beroe cucumis, with their characteristic sack shape, there are a few smaller ones amongst them. These are sea gooseberries, Pleurobrachia pileus. They are barely a couple of centimetres long, spherical, with two trailing tentacles.
Despite their tiny size, they are just as mesmerising as the B. Cucumis, the lines down their sides flickering every colour of the rainbow.
Among all the comb jellies I spot an even smaller interloper, a hydroid medusa. Hydroids are related to jellyfish, but their adult form usually lives attached to seaweeds, stones or shells. This minute creature is a baby hydroid, looking very much like a jellyfish as it actively swims past, beating its bell fringed with short tentacles.
The pattern of the cross on top of it and the fringe of dark spots around the edge of the bell suggest that it is a young Clytia hemispherica.
The glare of sunlight on my screen combined with the transparency of all the animals I’m trying to photograph make it impossible to tell how I am doing. I give up taking photos and simply enjoy the spectacle until the tide calls time and forces me back up the beach.
Comb jellies are supposed to phosphoresce, which would be amazing to see. I’m wondering if I can sneak in a little night time rockpooling this weekend. Although the jellies are here in huge numbers today, they may disappear as quickly as they arrived. I should be working, but some things are just too exciting.
Nights out tend to become a distant memory when you’re a parent. For the most part I don’t miss them. I have, however, been looking forward to Junior being old enough to join me for night time rock pooling. Towards the end of last year, we tried it for the first time and, although the conditions weren’t ideal, he’s been asking to go again ever since.
The best low tides always happen around the middle of the day, and the middle of the night, but we compromise for this first family expedition of the year, choosing a reasonable low tide at around 10.30pm. The warm, calm weather provides good opportunities for seeing nocturnal activity and tonight I’m trying out my ultraviolet (UV) torch.
It doesn’t disappoint.
I’ve always known that certain species glow under UV light, but I had no idea how much. We’ve barely taken ten paces out across the rocks when we see our first snakelocks anemone, shining from the darkness like an eerie green beacon. The colour is wonderfully alien.
This fluorescence is caused by certain proteins within the animals that take in light of one colour and emit it as another. Some deeper water species can use these properties to appear red, even though red light is filtered out as it passes through the water, meaning the only light available to underwater creatures is UV or blue.
It’s not clear why snakelocks anemones and other sea creatures might want to fluoresce in this way. It seems there may be some benefit in it for their symbiotic algae or it might give them sun protection. It may just be a by-product of a protein that’s useful in other ways. Whatever the reasons, it produces an incredible glow. Junior is already talking of coming back at Halloween.
It’s not just the anemones that take our breath away. If you’re used to rock pooling in daylight when most animals are hiding away under rocks and seaweed, the sheer level of activity in after dark takes you by surprise.
A scratching, crackling sound stops us in our tracks. It’s coming from the rocks. I lift the seaweed to show Junior a group of limpets. Some are feeding, their strong radulas scouring seaweed off the rock and chipping bits of rock. Others are setting into their home scars, grinding their shells into their grooves to create a perfect fit. Close-up, their activities make a surprising amount of noise.
Most rockpool animals are largely nocturnal. Pools that seem empty in daytime become bustling cities of activity. We watch hermit crabs milling around in large numbers, crabs marauding through the pool and across the rocks, fish floating in plain sight. Prawns come towards the light and watch us before shooting away backwards.
Other Half spots a small species of spider crab (Macropodia sp.) decorated with long fronds of seaweed edging sideways across the pool. It’s moving too fast to take a clear photo in the poor light. The blurring makes it look even more alien.
A scorpion fish lies still on the sand, watching out for prey.
One surprise is the stunning colours of the seaweeds under the UV light. Some of the dark red seaweeds take on a far more intense, bright colour, glowing red, pink and orange. Where the top shells have worn spires, their tips glow pink.
After an hour, tiredness and cold begin to set in. We switch off our torches and take a moment to gaze at the stars before we head home to bed. Junior is already asking if we can come again the next night, and the next.
It looks like I’ll be having a few more nights out this summer.
When the BBC approached me about filming a Countryfile episode with Matt Baker on the signs of spring, I reeled off all the exciting things we might find in the Cornish rock pools. By mid-April there would be male pipefish with eggs on their bellies, scorpion fish babies already hatched, crabs with egg masses under their tails and so much more. No problem.
What I hadn’t considered was that the TV crew’s packed schedule would require us to film on an exposed north coast beach on small tide. All I could do was to hope for good weather and some luck.
The West Cornwall episode of Countryfile is available on BBC iPlayer here. (Available at the time of writing).
Portreath, near Redruth, has wide, golden sands and magical craggy cliffs. Like many other beaches in Cornwall, it has a fantastic community group working to conserve wildlife and keep it clean – Love Portreath.
To the east of the bay lies what used to be an important mining port, sheltered by a long harbour wall with a stretch of rocks alongside.
The pools here are a great habitat, but the fierce waves sweep any small stones away, leaving only large boulders and deep overhangs as hiding places for the rock pool creatures. Great for wildlife, but tricky for rock poolers, especially with a strong swell rolling in.
Fortunately, I had help in the form of Cornish Rock Pools Junior and two of his friends, Ashley and Rowen. Without their keen eyes and amazing patience, it would have been an impossible task to find as much as we did in just fifteen minutes. Louis led Matt Baker crashing surf, assuring him there would be more to find on the lower shore, while Ashley plunged waist-deep into pools trying to catch a goby. Rowen spotted a cushion star at the back of a crevice in the rock. Needless to say I was prepared to risk getting my hand stuck to retrieve it (and nearly did).
In just a few minutes we managed to assemble a good collection of common rock pool creatures: a green shore crab, a common blenny, some top shells and, of course, the cushion starfish.
Inevitably, I made my television debut by telling the nation that starfish feed by pushing their stomachs out of their mouths and dissolving their prey. You’re welcome!
Although we failed to find many signs of spring other than the large amounts of seaweed sprouting all around us, the magic of television went to work and the final programme included some fabulous footage of green shore crab eggs hatching out into the plankton.
It’s incredible how all the snippets we filmed on the day were woven together into the final programme. Huge thanks go to the all of the Countryfile crew for putting us at ease and doing their TV magic, and to Matt Baker in particular for taking the time to chat and take photos with the children.
Even though conditions weren’t ideal, it was a wonderful opportunity to showcase the Cornish beaches and the creatures that survive in this extreme environment.
Not many people go rock pooling this time of year. While everyone is busy with the Christmas shopping, Junior and I have the whole beach to ourselves. This is a perfect time of year to watch the common rock pool species going about their business, to enjoy the vivid colours and, as always, make some discoveries too.
Our first surprise is a stranded flounder, possibly dropped by the heron that flapped away as we arrived on the shore.
Assuming the unmoving fish is dead, I scoop it off the muddy sand into my bucket. As I do so, it flaps a little and we stumble through the quicksand pools to find it some water. After a few minutes lying still in the bucket, it seems to revive and we release it in a deep pool alongside a good overhang. It glides straight into the shelter of the rock and buries itself in the sand.
In the dark days of winter, the colourful anemones are even more striking and this beach is a great spot for Strawberry anemones.
There are more bright red spots among the seaweeds. Dozens of juvenile Sea hares, each just a few millimetres long, are grazing away. They’re hard to spot among the red weeds, but they’re beautiful little beasts. Their red bodies look like they’re flecked with snow and their extremities are tipped in black as though they’ve been dipped upside down in black paint.
Not all red glows in the Cornish rock pools are friendly. Under every overhang there seem to be twin pairs of scarlet lights glowing; the eyes of Velvet swimming crabs. These stunning creatures do not appreciate being disturbed and won’t hesitate to use their claws. Junior and I leave the ‘devil crabs’ well alone and take photos from a safe distance.
My eye is drawn to the shimmering colours as this iridescent animal disappears into a hole in the rock.
If you ever doubted that worms could be beautiful, this might be the one to change your mind. It looks like a ragworm of some sort, perhaps Perinereis cultrifera. Attractive though these worms are, they have impressive jaws on them that I prefer not to mess with so I let it glide away.
Junior calls me over to look at strange little animals darting about in a shallow sand pool. He thinks at first they are cuttlefish from their odd-looking mouthparts. They are a type of shrimp that I haven’t seen before – and thanks to the wonders of Facebook groups, I’ve been able to confirm that they are Philocheras trispinosus (rolls off the tongue doesn’t it!).
The calm conditions are perfect for observing the animals moving about. In the same pool we also watch a thin tellin burying itself in the sand. Although these fragile shells are common, they live hidden beneath the surface and we only usually see dead shells washed up on beaches.
Rockpooling might not be the most popular activity in December, but on a calm day, it is still as rewarding and surprising as any summer day, but without the crowds.
For everyone who loves Cornwall's rock pools. Information about great beaches, marine wildlife and conservation.