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.
The pools sparkle as the sun finally shoulders its way through the February murk. Beneath the surface, the seaweeds are sprouting up, the first sign of spring in the rock pools, and with them come the sea slugs. Many of these minute molluscs choose to spawn in the shallow waters around the shore, where their favourite foods such as sponges, sea squirts and seaweeds are abundant.
How they travel such distances to find mates and lay their eggs here is something of a mystery to me. They are delicate, squishy little things at best, and mere blobs of jelly out of the water. Once in the water, though, they reveal their colours and shapes, and most rockpoolers delight in finding them. Today, I see mostly pale, blobby ones rather than their spectacular cousins, but they are intriguing nonetheless. Continue reading A Window to the Underwater World→
February is an amazing time in the Cornish rock pools. Spring is coming and all sorts of fish, sea slugs and other creatures are moving onto the shore. Rock pooling is free, fun and exciting for all ages, so why not wrap up warm this half-term and head for the beach?
There are some great low tides on Saturday 11th, Sunday 12th and Monday 13th February around lunch time. Check the tide times for your local area before you go.
Aim to start one to two hours before low tide as it’s safest to rock pool on an outgoing tide. Keep an eye out for the tide and always stay away from surging waves.
Joining a guided event is the very best way to discover marine wildlife. Experts (including me!) will be on hand to help you find and identify the crabs, fish, shells, starfish and more. At the end of the session you’ll be able to meet everyone’s best finds in the ‘Shore Laboratory’ and find out how the animals live and how to conserve them.
(If anyone know of any other rock pooling events on this half-term, please let me know and I’ll list them here).
Any beach with some sheltered rockpools will do. There are lots all around Cornwall – some of my favourites can be found under the beaches tab at the top of this page.
What to do…
The shore can be very exposed, so make sure you’re well wrapped up and waterproofed. Your feet will get wet so wellies are essential.
Otherwise, all you need is a tub and/or bucket (please don’t use nets as these harm delicate animals). A camera and species guide are useful.
Head for the lower shore (keeping a safe distance from the sea’s edge) and go slowly, looking in shaded, wet areas like pools.
Under rocks and seaweed are great places to look, but move them gently and always return them to how you found them.
Next month, 50 years will have passed since the Torrey Canyon tanker ran aground off the Isles of Scilly, releasing a 700 square km oil slick. On the last day of 2016, I visited Porth Mear to learn how a long-term survey has revealed the secrets of the beach’s fragile recovery, and to see if the St Piran’s hermit crab (Clibanarius erythropus)has managed to make more than a temporary comeback.
When the Torrey Canyon hit rocks in February 1967, its cargo of oil ended up on the Cornish, Breton and nearby coasts. The oil, along with huge quantities of solvent emulsifying chemicals used in an attempt to disperse it, decimated seabird populations and marine wildlife.
Concerned by the impact on his local beach, biology teacher, Richard Pearce, decided to monitor the wildlife on the shore three times a year. He’s been doing his survey without fail ever since.
I wasn’t born when Richard first marked out his quadrats on Porth Mear beach, but I grew up hearing stories of the horror people felt at the sight of the thick black tide, the pervasive smell of the oil, and the woefully unprepared volunteers attempting to shift the cloying oil with garden tools. Decades later, lumps of tar were still washing onto our beaches after every storm.
I’ve always wondered what the process of recovery looked like, so I jumped at the chance to join Richard at Porth Mear for survey number 150.
It’s clear, after many surveys, that Richard knows the beach well. So well, in fact, that even when the gouged crosses and splodges of green paint that mark the survey quadrats have worn away or been covered up by seaweed, he still knows exactly where they are.
As he shows me his method, calling out the presence and coverage of seaweeds, barnacles and molluscs to his partner, Richard tells me how after the Torrey Canyon disaster the green seaweeds were the first to flourish. With many of the grazing molluscs wiped out by the oil and the chemicals used to disperse it, the seaweeds soon took over. After this other animals gradually returned.
Over the years, Richard has seen many changes. Some are seasonal or weather related, others are harder to explain but may be due to warming seas. Why one pool that was once crammed with mussels now has almost none and why limpets are doing particularly well this season is hard to say, but the data he is collecting reveals changes that would otherwise go unnoticed.
The tide drops and, while Richard is knee-deep examining a quadrat alongside a long deep pool, I explore the lower shore pools, determined to find out whether the St Piran’s crab is still here. After an absence of more than 30 years, this equal-clawed hermit crab started to reappear around Cornwall in 2016 and we had one record on this beach in the spring. Although past records are too patchy to be sure, it’s thought that pollution from the Torrey Canyon played a role in the loss of this species, so 50 years on it would be lovely to find it re-establishing.
Every time I see a shell move, I leap on it, looking for the red legs and spotty eyes, but every one is a common hermit crab (Pagurus bernhardus).
Rooting around in the pools always reveals some unexpected treasures. I make my first record of a stalked jellyfish (Calvadosia cruxmelitensis) at this site.
This is always a good beach for finding Cornish clingfish, and the rocks of the lower shores don’t disappoint. In one small area I find a dozen of these stunning little duck-faced fish, some with iridescent blue spots on their heads.
As I follow a gully across the shore I find several scorpion fish lurking among the rocks. Brittle stars lurch away into the seaweed and Xantho pilipes crabs close up, pretending to be pebbles.
My other half and Junior join me, hunting for crabs and fish. Every thirty seconds I remind them that we need to look for little hermit crabs and they ignore me as they should. They’re used to me and my missions.
Junior at least keeps pointing out suitable pools. He knows they like the ones with pink coralline seaweed and there are lots here. I barely have time to glance at one before he’s trying to drag me to the next.
And then it happens. A shell moves and as soon as I pick it up I know. The legs are red, the shape’s wrong for the common hermit crab.When the crab extends its claws there can be no doubt, they’re hairy and pretty much equal sized. This is a St Piran’s crab.
I yell like I’ve won a golden ticket. Under my camera it’s easy to see the black and white spotty eyes of the crab. We all gather to look and as I take an underwater photo, I see other shells moving.
Sure enough, this next shell has a St Piran’s crab in it, and the next, and the next. While I’m taking photos in the pool, Richard is examining shells on the rock by a small overhang. “There are nine more here,” he says. Soon we’ve counted at least fourteen. They’re all larger than the one found here earlier in 2016.
Whether there are other groups of St Piran’s crabs on this beach is hard to say. The tide is surging in now so we’ve run out of time to search.
The existence of the St Piran’s crab is a fragile one; storms, temperature change, pollution and disturbance threaten our shore wildlife now more than ever. Richard’s survey provides an incredible conservation tool with its wealth of data about what’s here and how it changes.
50 years on from the Torrey Canyon disaster, the confirmation of the St Piran’s crab’s comeback is an uplifting way to complete this survey (and the year).
In a year of turmoil in the human world, the colour and diversity of the Cornish rock pools have revived my spirits on every visit. While there’s much to be done about plastic waste, discarded fishing gear, pollution and other threats to our marine wildlife, the end of the year feels a good time to reflect on the positives.
So, here are a few of my rockpool highlights from 2016… (and a scroll down for a video of a chough!)
Flat periwinkles are so common on the shore that I’m guilty of overlooking them. Taking a morning to watch them was a revelation. They’re colourful, industrious and surprisingly engaging. They’re well worth a look, especially on stormy winter days when the lower shore isn’t accessible.
On the first big tides of the year, I explored a new section of the rocky shore near Looe and found an amazing gully teeming with life. Among the cowries, sea squirts, sea slugs and crabs, I came across this gorgeous little hermit crab with one huge white-gloved claw, the Anapagurus hyndmanni.
In March the rock pools were bursting into life. Baby cat sharks were hatching in front of my eyes and other fish were busy laying their eggs. Among the rocks I spotted this Galathea strigosa squat lobster – a rare sight on my local beach. This one was only a few centimetres long, but its colours were fabulous.
In April I visited one of my favourite childhood beaches, Porth Mear near Porthcothan, with a group of North Devon naturalists. We recorded sea spiders, unusual crabs and had the most northerly sighting (at that time) of the St Piran’s Hermit crab, which has made a comeback around Cornwall in 2016. Best of all, we found a pool full of Scarlet and gold cup corals. These corals were way too small for my old camera to capture but this time I was better prepared.
The water was warming up nicely in May and little eyes were starting to look back at me from the fish eggs clustered under the rocks. Sea slugs were also making their way onto the shore and, as always, blowing me away with their colours. This yellow-clubbed sea slug (Limacia clavigera) was exploring the seaweed in West Looe and was a big hit with the children on our shore survey.
Under a shining sun, June was a fabulous month for rockpooling. What grabbed my attention most were the fish eggs. To the naked eye there’s not much to see, but with some help from my camera, I was looking into the fully-formed eyes of baby clingfish and seeing their spotted tails wrapped around their noses. In this photo there was even one recently-hatched baby among the crowd.
At the beginning of July, the Bioblitz at Lundy Bay saw perfect conditions, with a tompot blenny, moon jellyfish and even a slow worm among the beach finds. The high point for me was holding this tiny baby turbot – a flatfish – which had been found using nets in the sandy shallows.
During the school holidays, the more accessible sandy beaches are packed, but there’s often plenty of space on the rocky shore. I took Junior and his friends out to explore. On this day we saw jewel anemones, a stalked jellyfish and a butterfish, but our highlight was this bootlace worm. According to the Guinness Book of Records, it’s the world’s longest animal – this was just part of the one we found.
I joined a Shoresearch survey at Hannafore in early September and, as always, there was lots to see. Although they’re not uncommon on the shore, the pipefish are special creatures. They are close relatives of the seahorses. This male is carrying eggs in a special groove down his belly.
In October I took a little ‘school trip’ to see our Celtic cousins in Brittany. I soon discovered that the ‘St Piran’s Crab’, which has reappeared in Cornwall this year after decades of absence, is the common species on the Breton shores. They’re so new to our shores that the only ones we see are tiny. The full-grown specimens were much easier to photograph – showing their equal-sized claws and white-spotted eyes.
In the last couple of months of the year I spent most of my time looking for stalked jellyfish in the pools, but I couldn’t help but be distracted by the sunshine falling on this strawberry anemone.
Stalked jellyfish are relatively easy to see this time of year, when the seaweed has died back, but only if the conditions are calm and clear. During several calm days of spring tides this December I recorded dozens of these little gems in the rock pools. When the land is looking bare and brown in winter, there’s still no shortage of colour in the rock pools.
I closed my year with a walk on my home beach of Mawgan Porth. As I watched sand gobies skidding away under a rock, an unmistakeable cry made me look up. On the clifftop just metres away, a solitary chough was feeding, plunging its scarlet deep into the turf. These birds were considered extinct here when I was a child on this beach, but now I’m able to show my son his first chough in the place I grew up.
We came across a chough again at sunset and my other half took this video.
What better sign could there be? 2017 will bring challenges for wildlife, but as long as there are enough people who take action, positive change is possible.
It’s funny how the summer days float by. The house has been practically bursting with people for weeks now and I haven’t found the space to write about our many beach trips, but August still feels like a lazy month.
It reminds me of my childhood summers; a jumble of paddling, swimming, rockpooling and finds. Only I’ve just turned 40 and now I’m the one remembering hats and towels, preparing picnics and being called on constantly to help build dams or identify creatures. Every few days I realise that I’ve failed to take many photos and still haven’t blogged anything I’ve found. It’s just the way August goes.
The warm waters are drawing in all sorts of creatures at the moment. The north coast especially is teeming with jellyfish. Harmless Moon jellyfish have washed up in their thousands. These transparent little jellies have four mauve circles in their centre in a pattern that reminds me of cucumber slices (OK, that’s probably just me).
Other jellyfish that have mild stings, like the compass jellyfish are also washing in and I think my thigh met with one of the many blue jellies in the water at Mawgan Porth a couple of weeks ago from the unattractive rash I developed! On the plus side, some friends found a spiny starfish in a pool at the top of the mid-shore pools, which looked like it might be feeding on the stranded jellies.Continue reading Summer Lazing in Cornwall’s Rock Pools→
Bioblitzes have become a regular thing these last few years and I love them. These time-limited surveys of every living thing in an area are a fantastic way to bring experts and the public together, so I’m excited to join the Lundy Bay 24 hour bioblitz organised by the National Trust.
When I first walk down on the first afternoon to do a pre-survey recce there’s no beach at all. The tide is high and the waves are exploding against the rocks sending up a shower of spray that delights Cornish Rock Pools Junior. Fortunately, some intrepid friends from the Marine Biological Association and Coastwise North Devon arrived early and collected a lovely hydroid medusa (like a tiny jellyfish) and lots of moon jellies – so it seems likely there will be interesting things to find when the tide goes back out.
After an exciting evening and early morning of mammal surveying with Junior, I finally get to see the beach at low tide. It’s an exposed shore with sheer rocks and golden sand, which looks wonderful, but is a tricky environment to find creatures. Still, with the number of people we have taking part and the combined resources of lots of different organisations including kick nets and fish traps, we’re sure to find something.
I spend most my time near the event flags, helping people to identify their finds. Everyone is fascinated by the sea hare. These common sea slugs are easily recognised by the long tentacle ‘ears’ on their heads. Up close, you can see a leopard-like pattern on their bodies. If you upset them (which we don’t) they can squirt out purple ink to confuse predators.
The find of the day is a creature none of us expect to find tangled in a discarded fishing net. This slow worm (a legless lizard) probably came down to the beach to hunt at low tide and became caught in the ghost net. It has a lucky escape and is released safely.
The nets bring up lots of tiny baby flatfish that were hiding in the sand in the shallows. Most are probably plaice and this one looks like a baby turbot – with a much wider body-shape. I’ve never seen one this small before, it swims onto my hand and rests there, looking around with bulging eyes, opening its lop-sided mouth a little. If it makes it to adulthood it may eventually weigh 10 kilos or more, but it has a way to go yet.
Everyone loves a cheeky tompot blenny. There bold fish are unmistakeable with their fat lips, colourful eyes and television aerial style tentacles on their heads.
Other highlights include toothed crabs (Primela denticulate), celtic sea slugs, which are present in huge numbers on some large rocks around the point, and a lobster lurking at the back of a deep overhang cave.
After the strong winds and rain of the previous day, the sunshine takes us by surprise. Conditions are perfect and the turnout is good, but before long the tide is racing back in. By the time we make it back to base, the short, intense Bioblitz is coming to an end and the stands are being packed away. Soon this will be a remote empty field again, but I’ll be back sometime soon to explore this wonderful bay some more.
There are many fabulous rock pooling beaches around Cornwall and this isn’t one of them. The smooth serpentinite rocks of Kynance Cove on the Lizard peninsula are colourful and create breathtaking scenery, but they’re mostly devoid of places for creatures to shelter. Realistically there’s not much here, but it’s one of Cornwall’s loveliest places and experience tells me there’s always something if I look hard enough.
One thing this beach does have is caves. Junior strides ahead of me, clutching a geological hammer and chisel, shining his torch along the smooth, damp walls.
He’s on a mission to explore every centimetre of these rare rocks, forced up millions of years ago from deep under the oceans, exposing the upper layer of Earth’s mantle. While Junior hammers away at history, cave-dwelling periwinkles not much bigger than grape pips are undertaking their own explorations.
A steady swell breaks against the island stacks and scattered rocks of the bay. Barnacles cling to imperfections and overhangs, joined by beadlet anemones and black-footed limpets.
I watch a limpet slamming down its shell on a barnacle’s feeding arms and wonder if it’s if it’s after a more substantial meal than its usual fare of micro-algae?
Sea slaters scuttle among the barnacles together with occasional flies and even a centipede. I assume it has journeyed down from the top of the grassy island to forage at low tide.
An oystercatcher watches me cross the beach, preening itself with its orange chopstick bill. It watches as I climb a shelving part of the lower cliffs where several deep bowls have been eroded from the rock.
As I approach the pools, a gaggle of small fish jostles against each other before darting away below a ledge. I take up position beside the pool and wait. Sure enough, after a few minutes, a shanny’s head pops over the ledge, propping itself on its clawed pectoral fins to get a better look. Others soon join it as they return to their basking positions at the shallow edges of the pool.
I lower my camera bit by bit until it’s almost touching the surface of the water. The fearless shanny stays put. After a few attempts I manage to capture one of my favourite things about these common little rockpool fish: their extraordinary chameleon-like eyes which can swivel independently in all directions.
Being able to do this must be a huge advantage when looking out for prey and predators.
I spot a Montagu’s blenny in the pool, easily distinguished from its larger cousins by its radio mast style headgear. It’s too shy to have its photo taken and I’m called away to help with Junior’s mining exploits, but it’s been a rewarding morning. It shows how much is there if you look.
Have I mentioned that I don’t like the cold? Well I don’t, and worse than that I don’t function well in it; my fingers seize up, my brain goes fuzzy and my grumpiness level soars. Not ideal when I’ve agreed to meet up with a small army of children on a freezing, windswept beach. Fortunately I’m prepared and have no shame.
Full thermals + three layers of jumpers + coat + scarf + green waders equals = a toasty-warm fashion disaster.
Junior’s still young enough not to notice or care about anything except whether I’ve brought his enormous metal spade. The other kids don’t seem worried either as I waddle over to them. They call me ‘the shark lady’. I think they mean that in a good way.
It’s amazing how fast children learn. A few minutes after he’s shown his first catshark egg case, a friend’s child is spotting them everywhere, his sharp eyes picking them out faster than me. We’ve soon clocked a couple of dozen of them. The parents find some too.