Tag Archives: Falmouth

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.

Secret Beach Day

Although no beach in Cornwall is a complete secret, there is no shortage of inaccessible bays, without car parks, cafes and many of these are perfect for rock pooling. The extra effort of walking (in my case sliding) down a steep field and hauling back up it at the end of the day pays off. This secret beach, one of several between Falmouth and the Helford river is a complete gem, just as diverse as I remember it.

Cornish Rock Pools Junior’s friends who appeared on Countryfile  with us have joined us today. Unlike Portreath, the north coast beach we filmed at, it’s incredibly easy to find creatures on this sheltered shore.

Our first discovery is that a population of St Piran’s hermit crabs has established here, probably new since my last visit several years back. I spot the tell-tale red antennae poking out of a shell.

St Piran's hermit crabs reappeared in Cornwall a few years ago after a long absence. The red antennae and chequerboard eyes make it instantly recognisable.
St Piran’s hermit crabs reappeared in Cornwall a few years ago after a long absence. The red antennae and chequerboard eyes make them instantly recognisable.

We haven’t gone far before we come across a lovely long pool with plenty of loose boulders to provide protection to sea creatures. As I turn a rock, Junior spots a large fish that shoots out and noses into a clump of seaweed at the edge of the pool to hide. I put Other Half on the case. He skillfully coaxes it into a corner of the pool in the hope it will swim into his big bucket, which it obligingly does.

The underside of the rock I’ve turned is crowded with life. There are colourful patches of sponges and sea squirts. A clutch of yellow eggs coats part of the surface.

Close up of Cornish clingfish (Lepadogaster purpurea) eggs showing the eyes and spotty tails
Close up of Cornish clingfish (Lepadogaster purpurea) eggs showing the eyes and spotty tails

These are clingfish eggs and the parent will be nearby. Within them, the babies are developing fast. A pair of eyes gazes out of each egg and the tails, wrapped tightly round the little heads are visible too. Something close by catches my attention, a colourful slug.

Calma glaucoides sea slug
Calma glaucoides sea slug

The slug’s long, yellow-tipped cerata sway like hair in the current, giving it a puffed-up appearance. It’s an attractive animal, a pale blue colour when it catches the light. This slug, Calma glaucoides, specialises in eating fish eggs, and especially likes those of the clingfish.

Calma glaucoides sea slug, found near its favourite prey, clingfish eggs.
Calma glaucoides sea slug, found near its favourite prey, clingfish eggs.

Meanwhile, Other Half and Junior are excited about the fish in their bucket. Junior reckons it’s a giant goby and I think he may be right. I try to pick it up to try to confirm the species by taking a look at the fin under its belly, but the fish is very lively.

Giant goby
Giant goby

Junior deploys his best trout tickling skills to persuade the fish to lie still in his hands, which it eventually more or less does. The sucker-fin underneath has a thick, pointed lobe at the front.

The fleshy sucker fin underneath the giant goby has a point at the front - but the fish isn't keen on staying still for me to get a better photo.
The fleshy sucker fin underneath the giant goby has a point at the front – but the fish isn’t keen on staying still for me to get a better photo.

The fish has the small eyes and the salt-and-pepper colouring typical of a giant goby and lacks the yellow band on the top of the first dorsal fin which identified the more common rock goby. Its fins are tipped with grey instead. This fish is highly protected and it’s important not to disturb or trap them without a licence, so, Junior carefully lowers the bucket into the pool allowing his goby friend to swim straight back to its favourite hiding place.

Other finds come in so fast, it’s hard to keep up with them. We come close to catching a huge mystery fish, which thrashes through the seaweed but escapes without being seen. I find a small yellow slug which I initially assume is Jorunna tomentosa, which I often see on the shore. It’s only when I look at the photos at home that I realise my mistake. This slug has lumpy protrusions all over its body that have a sandy, almost warty appearance.

Doris ocilligera - a species I've never seen before, but which seems to be having a good year in southern UK and northern France.
Doris ocelligera – a species I’ve never seen before, but which seems to be having a good year in southern UK and northern France.

I’ve never seen anything like it, the reason being that this slug has only rarely been recorded in the UK. Doris ocelligera tends to occur further south but seems to be becoming more established in the south of the UK and northern France, with several records coming in over the last few weeks. An exciting find and one I’ll have to look out for more carefully in future.

Thanks go to David Fenwick of Aphotomarine for confirming this slug’s identity.

Doris ocelligera
Doris ocelligera

One of Louis’s friends finds this fabulous spider crab.

It's hard to tell that this is a spider crab and not a lump of seaweed!
It’s hard to tell that this is a spider crab and not a lump of seaweed!

It’s a female which has decorated herself in so much seaweed that, unless she moves, it’s impossible to tell she’s not just another rock. We have a good look at her amazing stalked eyes and spiny shell before returning her safely into the seaweed.

Spider crab
Spider crab

The children’s mums aren’t to be outdone. They get stuck in and bring me all sorts of lovely things. This Ophiothrix fragilis common brittle star has a wonderful bright orange centre.

Brittle star with a lovely orange central disk - Ophiothrix fragilis
Brittle star with a lovely orange central disk – Ophiothrix fragilis

Another mum finds brilliant yellow Berthella plumula slugs, paired together under a stone ready to spawn.

Berthella plumula sea slugs
Berthella plumula sea slugs

This white-ruffed sea slug (Aeolidella alderi) was another lovely find.

Aeolidella alderi - the white-ruffed sea slug
Aeolidella alderi – the white-ruffed sea slug

The rocks of the lower shore are covered in all sorts of colourful wildlife. Ciona intestinalis sea squirts tipped with bright yellow rings, blue star ascidian sea squirts and lots of variegated scallops decked out in marbled patterns of brilliant orange and pink.

Ciona intestinalis sea squirt
Ciona intestinalis sea squirt

One variegated scallop opens its shell and swims away in jerking side to side movements, like a leaf falling from a tree.

A variegated scallop prepares to swim away
A variegated scallop prepares to swim away

Before we know it, the tide is pushing in and we slip and slide our way across the seaweed-covered rocks back to the sand. The time between the tides is short, just enough to give us a glimpse into this extraordinary marine community before the sea rolls in to cover everything once more. We sit and watch oystercatchers, herons and even a pair of swans fly across the sea, while the children set off into the distance with a metal detector, onto new adventures already.

Visiting a beach like this is an extraordinary privilege. We make sure to leave everything unharmed, to pick up any litter we see and to leave nothing behind. I’m already looking forward to my next visit.

Light bulb sea squirts - and some mystery orange eggs
Light bulb sea squirts – and some mystery orange eggs

Sneaky Rockpooling at Bream Cove

I wasn’t supposed to be rock pooling at all. It was Other Half’s birthday and we were joining my parents for a walk and lunch to also celebrate my dad’s birthday from the day before. To add to the celebration list, my parents were in the middle of their golden wedding anniversary break at the beautiful Meudon Hotel near the Helford river.

I did well at first, catching up on my parents’ late-night dash across the county to reach the hotel before the snow arrived, while we wandered in the gardens. We stared into the lush ponds and spotted a couple of newts and lots of tadpoles (because it was a family event, nothing like rock pooling).

As we wound our way down the valley we could see the remnants of the snow nestling among the fronds of the tree ferns. We could also see something else glinting in the distance. The sea.

Junior and I picked up the pace. We both knew there was a beach at the end of the path. He was clutching his spade ready for action and I had my camera in my pocket, just in case you understand…

Examining the geology in the cliffs at Bream Cove (I'm already drifting towards the pools).
Examining the geology in the cliffs at Bream Cove (I’m already drifting towards the pools).

While I was talking to Mum on the beach, we happened to drift ever-closer to the rock pools and, well… I couldn’t help myself!

At Bream Cove, like other beaches in this area, the folds and channels in the rocks create lovely gullies and pools. There was no shortage of wildlife to be found on the overhangs and in the sand at the base of the pools.

Each time we approached a new pool a flicker of movement caught my eye. At first I assumed it to be prawns or perhaps small blennies scooting out of sight, then I spotted the tubes.

Fanworm tubes built from sand among the topshells at Bream Cove.
Fanworm tubes built from sand among the topshells at Bream Cove.

The Acromegalomma vesiculosum fanworms that build these constructions to camouflage and protect themselves are extremely hard to photograph. On the end of each long feathery arm of their fan, they have a dark eyespot. As soon as they sense a change in the light, they retract back into their tubes at lightning speed.

I treated mum to a Cornish Rock Pools comedy spectacle as I crawled about on the rocks attempting to approach them from all different angles. No matter what I tried, the fan worms nearly always retracted before I could get close enough to focus and then stayed stubbornly inside their tubes.

Acromegalomma vesiculosum fan worm - my best shot
Acromegalomma vesiculosum fan worm – my best shot

This beach has a wonderful collection of anemones; the whole area is great for them. In a single pool I found snakelocks anemones, beadlet anemones, a dahlia anemone and a daisy anemone. Like the fanworms, the daisy anemones do a quick disappearing trick when disturbed.

Daisy anemone
Daisy anemone

My favourite find of the day was this Harbour crab. All the books tell me it’s a common species, but this was the first one I have ever seen.

Harbour crab (Liocarcinus depurator) at Bream Cove
Harbour crab (Liocarcinus depurator) at Bream Cove

Like other swimming crabs they have flattened back legs, which act as paddles. In this crab the paddles are a bright blue or purple. Best of all were the eyes, which bulged out like yellow lamps. As I watched the crab demonstrated how it could swivel each eye separately in all directions . A great party trick.

The distinctive blue paddle on the back leg of the harbour crab (Liocarcinus depurator).
The distinctive blue paddle on the back leg of the harbour crab (Liocarcinus depurator).

Nearby, Other Half (who had wisely decided the only way to get my attention on his birthday was to join me in the rock pools) found this mystery blob. It was around 10cm long and seemingly attached to the seaweed.

The mystery blob
The mystery blob

It looked vaguely familiar but I didn’t have a clue why. The only white jelly-like blob as big as this that I could think of was squid eggs, which normally come in big clusters, but it looked all wrong.

With the miracle of modern technology, I soon had the answer. The amazing Seasearch Identifications Group on Facebook are poised at their keyboards any time of day of night, ready to identify anything that’s found, no matter how obscure.

Within minutes of posting, I had the answer. Mystery blob was a syphon from a large bivalve mollusc, probably a razor clam or otter shell.

Solved - this is the syphon of a large clam shell, e.g. Razor shell.
Solved – this is the syphon of a large clam shell, e.g. Razor shell.

Quite what it was doing tangled in seaweed halfway up a rock, I’ll never know, but as soon as I saw the answer I knew why it had looked so familiar. Huge thanks to David Fenwick who runs the brilliant Aphotomarine species identification site, which is also well worth a visit any time you’re struggling to identify something.

Another great little crustacean find was this St Piran’s Crab.

St Piran's Hermit Crab (Clibanarius erythropus) showing its equal-sized claws
St Piran’s Hermit Crab (Clibanarius erythropus) showing its equal-sized claws

Since they reappeared in Cornwall a couple of years back, they’ve been popping up everywhere. I only saw one, but with plenty of empty shells around, I’m sure there must have been others.

St Piran's Hermit crab on the move with its black and white eyes sticking out.
St Piran’s Hermit crab on the move with its black and white eyes sticking out.

The tide was falling beautifully and I could see more pools emerging. I had to accept, though, that if I wanted my family to ever speak to me again, I’d better tear myself away from the rock pools for the birthday lunch.

Bream Cove, like so many others on this wonderful stretch of coastline between Falmouth and the Helford, is firmly on my return visit list. There aren’t any facilities at the beach, but you can always pop up to the Meudon Hotel for a luxury cream tea!

I’ll leave you with a few more photos from my sneaky rockpooling excursion.

A striped venus shell (Chamelea gallina). There were lots of these living in the sand.
A striped venus shell (Chamelea gallina). There were lots of these living in the sand.
The moult of a Hairy crab (Pilumnus hirtellus)
Hairy crab (Pilumnus hirtellus)
Painted topshell from above - the patterns make my eyes go funny!
Painted topshell from above – the patterns make my eyes go funny!
Dahlia anemone with tentacles partly retracted - the column is sticky so is covered with fragments of shell.
Dahlia anemone with tentacles partly retracted – the column is sticky so is covered with fragments of shell.
Bream Cove looking towards Falmouth.
An overcast Bream Cove looking towards Falmouth.

Rockpooling With Mum

My mum will be seventy this year, but she cuts a sprightly figure as she steps across the rocks at Castle Beach. In a rare, precious moment we have time together, surrounded by glittering pools and a wide open bay.

Mum exploring Cornish rock pools.
Rockpooling with Mum, Castle Beach, Cornwall.

These are the moments we hoped for not so many years ago when Mum was lying in a hospital bed, hooked up to a blood transfusion to give her the strength to make it through her cancer operation. Continue reading Rockpooling With Mum

The Selfish Shellfish – The story of a Cornish Rock Pool

It feels like we’re living out a scene from the children’s picture book about a Cornish rock pool, The Selfish Shellfish.

Grandma Paint Pot at Castle Beach
Grandma Paint Pot at Castle Beach

 I’m with the author, Grandma Paint Pot (Donna Painter), on Castle Beach in Falmouth, where her story is set. The tide is rising fast and we’re slithering about on a wet rock while we watch limpets, top shells and anemones coming to life as the waves push in. Continue reading The Selfish Shellfish – The story of a Cornish Rock Pool

Summer Holiday Rock Pooling Events in Cornwall 2014

Rock pooling with the experts is a great way to explore the shore this summer. Below is a full list of events where you can find amazing rock pool creatures and learn all about them.

Asterina phylactica cushion star

Have a fantastic summer!

Please check the full event details with the relevant organisation page before attending in case of changes and cancellations. Continue reading Summer Holiday Rock Pooling Events in Cornwall 2014