Though there is much to love about December, I know I’m not the only one who’s flagging well before the end of the month. The spring tides arrive at the perfect time to boost my energy levels, ready for all the rockpooling and writing adventures that await me in 2020.
No-one in the family is sure what day it is, and the gloomy weather isn’t doing anything for our timekeeping. By the time we reach Plaidy, we only have half an hour left before it will begin to get dark. Fortunately, that’s plenty of time to find some winter colour.
This beach is ideal for strawberry anemones, a species that seems to like some wave energy. While I try to take photos of a stunning open anemone, its bright tentacles tucked too far under a dark overhang for my camera to capture well, the waves surge in behind me, finding a hole somewhere in my left welly.
Undeterred by the steady seep of chilly water down my ankle, I take a close look at the tough seaweeds that have clung on at the edges of the pools through the winter storms. There are tufty pink fringes of coral weed, the frayed remains of last summer’s kelp, and, sprouting from the rocks at the pool’s entrance, there are dark clusters of wiry-looking Irish moss. Among these seaweeds are dozens of mauve stalked jellyfish dancing like fairy lights.
In every rocky crack and crevice alongside the pools there are crabs lurking, waiting for the returning tide. A velvet swimming crab watches me through red eyes like glowing coals.
Nearby, the sculpted pink spire of a painted top-shell brightens up a shady overhang that is also home to several cushion stars and bright sponges.
Everywhere I look there are colourful sea squirts, shells, fish and seaweeds. These may be the darkest days of the year, and I can feel a cold coming on, but the brightness of the shore always reminds me that spring is around the corner.
In fact, new life is beginning already in the rock pools. Before I leave I come across this 2mm long baby sea hare grazing on the seaweed. By the summer, if it survives, this tiny slug will have developed a striking brown leopard-spot colouration and will have grown large enough to fill my palm. Perhaps we will meet again?
Happy New Year! May 2020 bring you health, happiness, and many, many beach adventures.
Happy New Year from Bernard the hermit! (Pagurus bernhardus).
It’s always wonderful to spend time with other rock pooling obsessives, so I was popping with excitement at the prospect of three whole days one the shore with friends from North Wales.
Welsh coasts are wonderfully rich in marine life, but I was looking forward to showing my friends some species that I see in Cornwall which aren’t found in most of the rest of the British Isles. I also had a new camera to try out. We wasted no time in drawing up a bingo card of what we hoped to find.
On day 1 we explored the shore at Hannafore in Looe. Junior knew exactly where to look to cross off the first species on our bingo card: the St Piran’s hermit crab (Clibanarius erythropus). He scrambled over rocks on the mid-shore to a pool where these crabs tend to congregate and within a minute he had located the first one.
Sometimes these hermit crabs, with their red antennae and equal-sized claws are barely visible, hiding deep in their borrowed shells. Today they were less shy. This one seemed to almost fall out of its shell as it investigated my camera, while another nipped boldly at my friend’s fingers as he photographed the crab’s distinctive black and white chequerboard eyes.
As we followed the tide further down the shore, we looked for sea slugs in some of the usual places but with no luck. I soon realised that I was the only one feeling disappointed. With his head hidden from sight under an overhang, one of my friends was gasping in delight at the sight of a painted top shell. They might be common on the shore here, but apparently that’s not the case in Anglesey.
Despite the keen breeze that was preventing the tide running out as much as I’d hoped, we soon ticked off another item from the wish list.
I’ll admit that I hadn’t realised that rainbow wrack (Cystoseira tamariscifolia) is mainly a south westerly species. This bushy seaweed is one of our most unmistakeable plants and is a common sight all around Cornwall. In the water its fronds display a turquoise-green iridescent sheen that is arrestingly beautiful. Out of the water, rainbow wrack loses its magic, appearing brown or dull-green. For some reason I find it impossible to fully capture the colours in photos.
Catsharks favour rainbow wrack when they come inshore to lay their distinctive egg cases often known as “mermaid’s purses”. Despite my hopes of ticking off the egg cases of the greater spotted catshark (Scyliorhinus stellaris) on day 1, the breezy conditions meant we struggled to see into the water. The only eggcases I found were from the smaller species (Scyliorhinus canicula).
The small patch of seagrass that appeared last year was looking denser and wider than before. The length and width of the fronds suggested that it might be Dwarf seagrass (Zostera noltii), a different species from the other seagrass bed I know of on the site.
We embarked on the usual fruitless look for seahorses, which like to live in or near seagrass. I know they’re unlikely to turn up on the shore, but it never stops me looking.
With two species of stalked jellyfish on our bingo card, I was feeling confident of finding them. Instead I kept finding a species that my visitors had already seen, Calvadosia campanulata. These lovely bell-shaped jellies often have brilliant turquoise spots on the bell and and are very photogenic.
Despite the less-than-perfect conditions, we had ticked off some new species and amassed a huge collection of photos by the time the tide turned. With two days still to go and better weather on the way, we were off to an excellent start.
There are many advantages to home educating Junior, but one of our favourite things is being free to go outside whenever we like. During the winter months, good weather and daylight coincide so infrequently that we nearly always drop everything to make the most of it. Today, Junior wants to explore our local beach and dig in the sand, so we grab our wellies, spade and camera and set out with the low morning sun glimmering from behind the clouds.
Spring comes earlier in Cornwall than it does further north, and the signs are there even though the days are still cold. The herring gulls have already moved back onto the roof-tops in our neighbourhood, and some are sitting on empty nests to deter others from moving into their territories. Buds are tightly wrapped on the hedgerow plants, waiting to open and a few hardy wildflowers are already blooming.
We hear the fulmars honking to each other on the cliffside above Plaidy before we see them. When we stop at a viewspot to look across to the Eddystone lighthouse, a male fulmar glides towards us on stiff wings before circling back to land on a ledge and touch beaks with the female that is resting there.
In the rock pools, spring is even further ahead and I have been finding sea slug spawn for a few weeks already. ‘Sea mushrooms’, the holdfasts of seaweed are appearing on the rocks and beginning to sprout from their centres. Colourful colonies of star ascidian are budding and spreading across the rocks. On one a flatworm is grazing, while another young colony is being visited by a hungry 3-spot cowrie.
The tide is wonderfully low so we scramble out to the furthest rocks we can safely reach. Junior discovers anemones and sponges. A tall rocky gully is coated in every colour of sponge, sea squirt and bryozoan, and we peer closely at their strange forms.
I spot an overhang that plunges into a pool. Even though I can see it’s too deep for my wellies, I wade in, balancing from one submerged rock to another, feeling a cold trickle down my shin as the water overtops my boots. At the edge of the rock the water is still precariously high, but I have noticed some dark, frilly tentacles in the water. Several sea cucumbers are lodged in cracks in the rock here and are busy feeding with their extended fronds. Junior crawls over the rock to get a better view of this unusual sight.
Edging our way through the narrow rocks, we reach the very edge of the sea. We are sheltered a little from the waves by a rocky reef further out, but the waves are still surging back and forth. In a hollow I can see a young common starfish. I tease it out of its hiding place and Junior holds it on his hand while I take photos.
Despite its name, this starfish is nothing like as common on our beaches as the other species we see here, preferring the deeper offshore waters. Junior takes a good look at its colours and its tube feet before placing it back where we found it.
We cross the rocks to the next beach, where Junior begins his sand-mining excavations while I take a walk along an old sea wall in the hope of taking a photo of shanny. These fish hide in holes out of the water while the tide is out and there are usually plenty in this wall. Of course, there are none in accessible places now that I have come to look for them, so I carry on across the beach to take photos of the lugworm casts that litter the muddy sand here.
I am about to go back to see Junior’s work, when I see movement in a shallow pool. It looks as though there’s a tiny geyser beneath the surface throwing the sand up in a constant jet. There are several animals that like to bury themselves here, including some quirky species of prawn, but this sandy pool near the low tide mark makes me think of something else. I crouch by the pool for a few minutes without moving, scanning the sand before I see what I’m looking for. A small, sand-coloured fish is sitting unmoving in the shelter of a rock. I know it will be a weever fish.
Trying not to scare the fish away, I cross to the other end of the pool. It sticks its ground, watching me through shining eyes set towards the top of its head. Even as I lower my camera into the pool, it stays perfectly still, so that I can see its gaping mouth and moving gills. The mouth is unlike that of most other fish: the opening is nearly as high as the fish’s eyes and is hinged at the bottom like a tall flap. Inside it, I can see some spindly, crooked teeth.
I have no bucket and this fish will bury itself in the sand in an instant if I disturb it, so I just watch, putting my camera as close as I dare to frame the fish’s remarkable metallic-green eyes. Although the dark fin on the fish’s back is folded down now, it is made of venomous spines that cause painful stings to bathers in the summer.
Junior emerges from the hole he’s dug to look at the photos and do a beach clean before we head for home in the last of the day’s pale sunshine.
Ever since we discovered gem anemones in the pools at Plaidy last week, Junior has been planning a night-time trip to see them fluorescing under ultraviolet light. Lots of anemones glow in UV due to special proteins they contain that absorb the ultraviolet light before re-transmitting it at a longer, visible wavelength.
Snakelocks anemones are well-known in rockpooling circles for glowing a vivid, eerie green in UV and we have seen those many times, but we’re intrigued to see if gem anemones are as spectacular by night as they are by day.
Other-Half joins our after-dark ramble. We wrap up and walk through the deserted lanes. In the light of the rising full moon, there’s no need for torches. The stars have been out for a while already and the Eddystone lighthouse is flashing away at the horizon.
It took us quite a while to spot the gem anemones by daylight. Despite their pretty colours, they are tiny and well camouflaged among the pink encrusting seaweed that lines the pools.
We cross the sand and the heap of seaweed that the tide has brought in to the far rocks and take our UV torch out. Junior scans it over the pool and within seconds we’ve found them. They seem to light up in patterns of green and orange.
We kneel down and look closely at the starburst of orange that radiates out from the turquoise and pink mouth at the anemone’s centre. The green fringes to the tentacles that are sometimes visible by day are unmissable now.
Junior is keen to look at the sponges and seaweeds to see what they do under UV and leads me on a precarious climb towards an overhang he knows. The rocks here glow insanely orange and though it’s hard to tell what is causing this effect in the dark, it feels like either a dense red seaweed or a sponge.
As we scramble over the rocks, we find more fluorescing plants and animals. A brown seaweed glows green, possibly due to micro-algae that is growing on its fronds.
Grey topshells are easy to spot because the tip of their shell glows pink.
We are intrigued by thin bright-blue streaks among the seaweed. It takes a while for us to realise that these are man-made threads. They feel coarse and may well be fibres from a fishing net. Many seaweeds on the shore are so tangled in them that it is almost impossible to clear the plastic fibres without damaging the seaweed.
In a shallow, rocky pool lined with sediment more anemones are glowing. These look nothing like the gem, snakelocks or daisy anemones I’ve seen so far.
I turn my normal torch on them to see what species they are and I can’t see them at all. By switching back between UV and normal light I manage to pinpoint them. They are at least as small as the gem anemone, but are flecked with a marble of brown, white and orange that blends perfectly into the sand and rock around them.
Under the camera I can make out dark ‘B’ shaped markings at the base of the tentacles and realise this is Sagartia troglodytes. I don’t remember seeing this anemone before, probably because it would be almost impossible to spot in daylight.
I touch one of the anemones gently with a finger and it retracts in a puff of sediment, disappearing without trace.
I take photos while Junior and Other Half climb onto a high rock to watch the stars. On nights like this it is hard to tell whether the sea or the sky is shining more brightly. With a last sweep of the torch over the glowing anemones we turn away and head home for hot drinks.
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!
There’s no more auspicious start to an afternoon’s rock pooling than a dolphin display while you’re munching your pasty.
Jan from Coastwise North Devon, Junior and I were treated to an incredible leaping, spinning pod of dolphins at the start of our last Looe rockpooling foray, which could only be a good sign.
Following a busy summer season, it was magical to have the beach to ourselves. Despite a keen wind that made it difficult to see into the more exposed pools, the sheltered gullies were full of colour.
Every colour variant of the beadlet anemone was on display in one short stretch of pools. These common anemones are often red, but here they showed off their full traffic-light range of shades. Some splayed open a shower of bright tentacles, while others were retracted, showing nothing but the distinctive blue circle at the base of their columns.
Junior’s sharp young eyes were focused on the task and he brought us several isopods to identify. These minute woodlouse-type creatures swam around our pot-lids at high speed while we tried to photograph their tails. All of them had two prongs on their backs, so were male Dynamene bidentata.
We used our cameras to focus in on the blob-like bodies of the Ascidia mentula sea squirts, which we found attached to several rocks. From a distance, they have a pink tinge. Close-up, they seem to be gearing up for fireworks night, with bursting patterns of red sparks along their sides.
Lurking inside the sediment-filled layers of a fractured rock, was a colony of Thalassema thalassema spoon worms. These wonderfully alien creatures have plump pink bodies like an overfed grubs, with an extendible, frilled proboscis.
Unlike many other marine worms that speed around on bristly legs or swim with paddles, Thalassema thalassema seems to have no efficient means of locomotion. Instead, it rolls contentedly in the muddy sand, feeding on detritus.
These worms alarm me with their indolence. I always suspect that, like most vulnerable-seeming marine animals, they must have some secret defence. Many worms have a impressive set of biting jaws, but despite my wariness this species is safe to handle. I think.
Among the dense carpet of animal colonies, among them sponges, sea squirts, bryozoans and hydroids, we found a smart small species of spider crab, probably Macropodia sp. It was perfectly camouflaged to hide among the seaweeds.
Further out in the lagoon, near a seagrass bed, we found several egg cases of the greater spotted catshark, Scyliorhinus stellaris. In some we could see the fresh yolk, in others the baby was forming while some were already hatched and thickly encrusted with life.
By the time we reached the rocky outcrop at the far side of the lagoon, the tide was at its lowest and we could only stay a few minutes.
Inevitably, the finds rolled in just as the tide was turning. Junior was delighted with the yellow colour of this common brittle star, Ophiothrix fragilis, which is more usually pink in colour when we see it further up the shore.
Under one stone was a faint lattice pattern marking the spot where, earlier in the season, a clutch of clingfish eggs had been attached. Although they seemed to be long-since hatched, the site was still being watched by what was probably an anxious parent.
A speck of blue on the rock concealed a good cause for any clingfish parent to be concerned: a Calma glaucoides sea slug. Despite the elegance of its long blue cerrata, flashing their golden tips as they waved in the water, this slug could well have destroyed the entire brood of eggs, which are its food.
We could easily have knelt around the pool for longer, wondering at this tiny creature, but a change in the wind and a stirring of the kelp out towards the island meant that the race was on.
We sploshed and slid our way back over hidden rocks and through tangled weed that grabbed at our ankles, watching the flow of water growing by the second as the powerful tide raced in. Behind us, the water was working fast to submerge the slugs, shark eggs, anemones and brittle stars, closing the door on the watery world.
We made it back without over-topping our wellies; wishing, as always, that there was a little more time between the tides.
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.
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