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.
Steve has recently been specialising in finding and studying marine insects and other air-breathing invertebrates that live on the shore, hiding in cracks in the rocks. It seems improbable that beetles and acrachnids can survive out here in the marine environment, but Steve tells me that they’re everywhere, and just get overlooked.
He prises away a piece of rock and points to a minute ant-like insect that’s scurrying across the stone. A rove beetle. It doesn’t take him long to find what he’s been searching for, a pseudoscorpion.
I borrow Steve’s headband magnifier, which is a must-have item for anyone who wants to look like a mad scientist.
It takes me a few seconds to find what I’m looking for and under the magnifier, with its pincers raised towards me, it looks alarmingly like a real scorpion. Pseudoscorpions lack the stinging tail typical of the true scorpions, but they have another way of capturing their prey; they use a poisonous gland in their claws.
Neobisium maritimum is the only species of pseudoscorpion that can live out here on the shore, although others may be found at the top of the beach above the strandline or on cliffs and many species are found in gardens and houses, with one species (Cheridium museorum) even specialising in eating book mites.
This pseudoscorpion seems quite at home exploring the back of Steve’s hand, but its favourite hideouts are deep in the joints of the rocks, where it lurks, hunting for springtails and other tiny prey.
I’m meant to be helping Steve and Julie find spiny starfish and bull huss shark egg cases, but it’s too windy to access the best areas. Undeterred we see what turns up and this beach never disappoints.
A blob gets me excited (as blobs often do). I frequently see Lamellaria perspicua here – it’s a kind of cross between a snail and a slug and has a syphon tube sticking out the front, which makes them look like mini daleks. This one is different. It’s paler, flatter and doesn’t have the usual crusty appearance. Finally, I’ve found a Lamellaria latens.
Having failed to find any eggs when filming with Countryfile looking for signs of spring, I’m now seeing them everywhere. Every other crab I find seems to be in berry and there’s a wonderful variety in the colour of the eggs between species.
This long-clawed porcelain crab is around the size of my thumb nail and has a small clutch of eggs to match. I don’t remember ever seeing the eggs of this species before. They’re a rich lemon colour, visible under the female’s tail even when she’s upright because they’re so bright.
Also sporting colourful eggs, this Xantho pilipes crab is wandering near a patch of sea grass I’ve not seen on this beach before. This time, the eggs are a deep burgundy red and there are so many of them it’s amazing the crab can still walk.
Steve finds an unusual crab with an arched front, but otherwise like a Green shore crab. We think it might be a species we’ve not seen before and take lots of photos but decide in the end it’s probably just a weirdly shaped shore crab.
It’s quite late in the season now for scorpion fish eggs, and the clutch that Julie finds are looking dried out and generally unhealthy, although there are still eyes visible in there. The dead eggs are being scavenged by hordes of hungry springtails (Anurida maritima).
It makes me wonder if there’s a pseudoscorpion nearby, waiting to guzzle the springtails up.
Everywhere I step there seem to be sea hares, roaming the sea floor and feasting on the freshly sprouted seaweeds. I even find my first tangle of ‘pink spaghetti’ of the season – these are the eggs of the sea hare.
Other-Half, who has been specialising in fish catching recently, manages to scoop up a topknot flatfish. This one is a good size and has the classic highwayman-style dark mask pattern across its eyes.
These fish specialise in living on the shore and have a specially adapted sucker fin allowing them to cling on to the underside of rocks.
The finds come in thick and fast. Julie and Other-Half both come across fully-grown spider crabs covered in seaweeds, pretending to be rocks.
Junior discovers a Green shore crab with a classic clutch of orange eggs under her tail, to complete our kaleidoscope of crab egg colours.
Not to outdone, there are mollusc eggs everywhere too. I see clutches of sting-winkle eggs under every overhang and there are plenty of netted dog-whelk eggs on the seaweed too.
It’s almost a given that you never find what you’re looking for. There’s not a spiny starfish in sight when normally I see them everywhere. We manage to find some catshark egg cases, but most of them are already hatched. It doesn’t matter. What we do find is incredible and I’m so excited to have seen my first pseudoscorpion. As Louis said on Countryfile the other week, there’s always something!
Even my family look at me strangely when I suggest rock pooling in this weather. The Met Office reckons it’s going to turn out fine, but the wind is flinging water straight into our faces and the beach is deserted. We huddle down on some damp rocks and rush to eat our pasties before the rain turns the pastry soggy.
“I wonder if people realise what you go through to put pretty pictures on your blog?” Other Half says.
I nod, watching the waves crashing onto the shore and thinking that it’s worse than that. In these conditions I’m unlikely to find much, let alone manage pretty pictures.
Fortunately, I’m wrong.
After a quarter of an hour of staring into holes in the rock, taking lots of rain-blurred photos and a few passable ones of common crab and barnacles species, I’ve established that my waterproofs are anything but waterproof. If it’s possible, the rain is getting heavier.
Cornish Rock Pools Junior and his dad have wandered off and are probably reaching their tolerance limit. I find a stalked jellyfish and think that’s likely to be the most exciting find of the day.
I lift the edge of one last stone. There are some thick yellow sponges and the rock is crusted over with bryozoans. Broad-clawed porcelain crabs are scuttling along and there are little banded chink shells. On the far side is a spot, maybe half a centimetre across. It’s hard to make it out, but it has a blue-ish tinge and a lined appearance, like an anemone out of the water.
I think it’s a sea slug, but it’s far too delicate to pick off the rock and even if I do there’s nowhere to put it. I need to see it in water otherwise it’s just a blob of jelly. There’s no chance of that here at the base of the gully where the waves are pounding in, so I heave the boulder up the shore and lower the side with the slug into the nearest pool.
Shelter’s hard to come by. The surface of the pool distorts with every gust of wind and the rain goes up the back of my coat and into my ears as I lean over to hold the rock in position. Straight away, I know this is definitely a sea slug. In the water, its cerata pop up all over its back and long tentacles and rhinophores unfurl around its head.
This is the sort of colourful, beautiful slug that I’m always hoping to find and only rarely do. Under the camera it has striking red lines and markings up its cerata, white stripes down its head and an iridescent blue sheen that changes as it moves.
This is a new slug to me and I can’t wait to look it up when I get home to check the exact species. In the meantime, I take as many photos as I can before hauling the rock back to the same spot where I found it. That done, I rush up the beach to tell my Other Half, Cornish Rock Pools Junior and everyone else I see that day about how amazing my sea slug was.
Thanks to my pile of identification books and the quick responses of the hugely knowledgeable members of the NE Atlantic Nudibranchs forum on Facebook, I soon have it confirmed as Facelina auriculata (previously known as Facelina coronata).
This slug is found around many coasts of the UK, and is meant to feed on hydroids, although I didn’t see many in the vicinity of this one. I’m very lucky to find it intertidally on such an average tide.
If you think rock pooling isn’t a normal sort of thing to do in January, I can understand that. You’re probably right and I think my family would agree with you, but you never know what’s going to turn up next in the Cornish Rock Pools.
Sometimes it’s worth braving the horizontal rain just in case.
I’m always pleased to hear about interesting things other people have found around Cornwall especially from readers of this blog. I’ve been more than a touch jealous these last few weeks, however, of all the people finding Portuguese man o’war. They turn up occasionally in Cornwall but I’ve never seen one before and I feel like I’m missing my chance.
According to other people’s messages, Portuguese man o’war are everywhere and have been for weeks, covering strand lines, floating in pools, strewn on rocks everywhere from Penzance to Wales. And for weeks I’ve been searching and searching my local beaches and finding none. Until today.
It’s low tide and there are posts bouncing around social media saying that there are Portuguese man o’war around Looe. I have a house to clean, scones to make and blogs to write, so of course I drop everything and drag my other half and Junior to Hannafore beach.
I know they’ll be lifted off with each tide and battered and probably blown away with the next storm, so I’m not going to let this opportunity pass. Junior thinks I’ve gone mad though. He knows how powerful their sting is and insists, at first, that he’s not going near one.
His reluctance evaporates within a minute of arriving at the beach, when I find the first one. We all huddle round. The colours take me by surprise. In photos they always look a striking blue, but in real life they’re iridescent and seem to glow in the sun.
I love sea slugs a bit more than is probably usual. My other half even made sure I have the t-shirt, which I wear with pride in the Cornish rock pools despite the odd looks it gets me.
If you don’t already have your own t-shirt, it might be that you haven’t yet met these amazing little creatures. Unlike land slugs, sea slugs come in a mind-boggling variety of colours and shapes and have cool super-powers.
If you’ve ever been rockpooling, you’ll know the feeling: you’re in the zone, bottom high, head down, lifting a rock or staring into the water when a movement catches your eye. While you’re registering that it’s some interesting creature you’ve never found before, said creature is darting away under an overhang or boulder never to be seen again.
My camera is full of “things that were there only a millisecond before”.