Like everything else about 2020, this is a strange New Year’s Eve. Many have lost loved ones this year, and most of us have spent the festive season apart from friends and family. Whatever the year ahead brings, it will be made better by connecting with the natural world and doing the small (or large) things that we can to build a better society and environment.
On the eve of 2021, I am struggling personally to come to terms with losing EU citizenship and all of the opportunity, discovery and connections it has brought me. International cooperation is essential to tackling the global issues that face our wildlife and we will have to work harder than ever to build understanding and find solutions to problems that cannot wait.
Life will go on and I am super-excited about my new children’s book, Beach Explorer, due to be published in the spring. As ever, I will continue to bring you the very best of the Cornish rock pools straight to your computer through my blog.
To bring a little cheer to myself and to you, here are a few of my favourite rock pool wildlife photos from my encounters this year. I hope you will be inspired to get outside and meet your own local wildlife, and to join all of us who are working to protect and restore nature.
A Happy and Healthy New Year to All! Bonne Année 2021!
There’s no collective noun, as far as I am aware, for a group of rock poolers, but if there was it would refer to bottoms in the air as that’s our standard position – head down, bottom up, searching for marine life. On the best tides it’s not unusual to find other rock pool fanatics on my local shore, drawn by the promise of rarely accessible habitats. So, during the spring tides of early March, I found myself in the company of the bottoms-up brigade at Hannafore, exploring one of our favourite shores.
Junior and his friends were with me, enjoying one of the endless field trips that usually make up our home educating life. Around us, life was churning along as usual despite the first Coronavirus cases being recorded in Cornwall a day or two before. With so many of good friends living elsewhere in Europe, we were only too aware of how quickly the situation might deteriorate, but while we were already starting to avoid indoor events and gatherings as far as we could, the open shore felt as good a place to be as any.
While the kids were building stone citadels and warring rocky villages at the top of the beach, I gave them vague instructions to come and find me soon and set off down the shore, following the receding tide over slippery rocks and frothing seaweed. I was joined by a friend from north Devon making a special guest appearance at Hannafore.
Among the boulders we discovered a tiny Montagu’s sea snail; a small tadpole-like fish with tiny eyes that tends to curl its tail round its head, looking more like a sleeping cat to me than a snail. These fish were soon turning up everywhere, with more than half-a dozen down a single gully.
Further along, a topknot flatfish was clinging to the rock with its sucker-fin, so perfectly blended with the colours of the stones and weed that only its fluttering gills and swivelling eyes gave it away.
A head popped up from a neighbouring gully, another marine biologist friend from the Marine Biological Association (MBA) was busy exploring, and across the lagoon, other friends from Bude Marine Group were approaching. Junior and his friends also abandoned their construction works and set out to explore the exposed reef armed with cameras to capture their adventures.
Despite a brisk, cold wind that was welding my fingers to my camera, the excitement of the finds stopped me from worrying about anything except what was in front of me. Sea slugs, quirky hydroids, and beautiful clingfish kept me occupied and there was still a little time before the tide would turn.
The egg cases of the larger of our two catshark species were plentiful on the rainbow wrack and a shout from my MBA friend brought the children running back – a newly-hatched baby Greater spotted catshark (Scyliorhinus stellaris).
Time always feels desperately short to explore this fabulous environment, but every second is full of wonder. Finding a hairy hermit crab made my day, if it wasn’t already made by just being there with so many fantastic and knowledgeable people.
The hairy hermit crab isn’t a common find on our local shores and this particular crab was exceptionally co-operative, emerging from its hiding place without hesitation which meant I could take photos and video of its incredibly hairy claws, its pale blue eyes and its stunning violet antennae.
Like all children, my son is doing his best to adapt to keeping in touch with friends and family from a distance and my other half is working from home. Some friends have been desperately ill and others still are putting their lives on the line every day as nurses and critical workers. Writing has felt pointless at times, impossible at other time and yet it seems important to share the beautiful things, because these will return.
The happy moments shared with my bottoms-up brigade of rock poolers, the exploration and the freedom may just be a memory at the moment, but I am reassured to know that life carries out there beneath the waves as it will here above. The wild creatures that make me catch my breath will still be there when all this is over. Friendships remain and my little community is showing strength, compassion and ingenuity to make sure we carry each other through.
Stay safe and watch this space for more colourful creatures to brighten your days, whatever they may bring.
In these strange and frightening times, I could not be more proud of the strength and courage I am seeing in my friends and the local community. Our world has changed, seemingly overnight, yet in Cornwall, as elsewhere, people are meeting the challenges head-on.
While many people are risking their lives every day to look after others and deliver vital services, I can do little to help except support elderly neighbours and avoid contact. However, as long as a daily family walk from our home to our local shore is safe and permitted, I hope that I can lift someone’s mood by sharing what we see.
It feels like a dream to step into nature, to experience how life carries on in all its colour, beauty and chaos when human lives are narrowing to the confines of four walls. The clear blue skies, arriving at last after months of storms, open out the horizon and lighten the sea, while the glittering reflection of the sun shines out of every pool.
New seaweeds are suddenly sprouting, reaching up through the clear water, among dense tufts of the pink coral weed that lines these pools all through the year. A little shanny watches me from its hiding place deep in the water, cradled by rocks on either side.
As I try to photograph the fish’s bright clown-eyes, Junior spots another creature clinging to the weed. We kneel at the edge of the water, our heads touching as he points it out. His find is a slender woodlouse-like creature speckled with white spots, an isopod crustacean called Idotea balthica.
In a dark gully cut between the rocks by the water that rushes out between the tides, I see a flash of colour. For days now, I have been capturing images of spring flowers, breaking waves and open seascapes to send to a dear friend on lockdown with her partner and cat in her flat in Bergamo, Italy. As soon as I see this strawberry anemone, I know she will love it.
It is one of the few unexpected positive effects of the enforced confinement that we are finding time to reach out and renew friendships. Now, she and I are sharing videos and inspiration daily, carrying each other through. She has turned her substantial abilities to creating stories and artwork to reassure those struggling with fear.
Among other things, she has shared heartwarming images of paintings and balcony decorations depicting rainbows, the symbol of hope. The slogan of the community in Italy has become ‘Andrà tutto bene!” – Everything will be all right.
The tide is turning and the anemone sways with the current, disappearing under seaweed and re-emerging again, in constant motion that makes photography difficult. I balance myself on a rock to stop the waves flooding my wellies and wait for an instant of stillness. The slant of the sun’s rays through the water makes the camera screen white-out. I take some snaps and hope for the best.
I check my images when I get home and the strawberry anemone has come out as I hoped, its warm colour and flower-like tentacles are as lovely as I remember.
It is only when I download the images onto my larger laptop screen that I notice the rainbows playing on the pink paint weed under the anemone. Rainbows of hope for my friend in Italy and for all those facing horrors and hardships. Rainbows for all of us wondering where this will end.
All will be well.
In the coming weeks and months, I hope to bring you more beauty from the Cornish rock pools. Even if we become completely locked down, I have a treasure trove of photos to go through so watch this space.
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.
We watch its many tentacle feet reaching out to explore the rocks.
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.
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.
Other Half holds the edible crab for a quick birthday photo before we pop everything back where we found it.
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.
It has wide orange eyes with a flash of blue and the wonderful pouting lips of the wrasse family.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
Cornish Rock Pools Junior loves Harry Potter. A while back he noticed that a lot of rock pool creatures have scientific names that sound like spells straight from a Hogwarts classroom.
Rock pool animals have many amazing (and disgusting) tricks up their sleeves. Some are simply fearsome looking like the Devil crab in the photo above. Others have weapons and disguises.
What better way to learn their names than by chanting them spell-style to unleash their freaky abilities?
So, wands at the ready – swish and flick – here are some top spooky rock pool spells.
Sepia officinalis – Invisibility spell
Nothing can hide better than a Common cuttlefish. Sepia officianalis can change colour and texture in an instant to make it invisible to both its predators and its prey.
Marthasterias glacialis – Regrow-an-arm spell
Many sea creatures like crabs and starfish can re-grow a lost limb. Starfish like this Spiny starfish can regenerate several arms at once, so it’s not uncommon to find one with just a couple of arms and three stumps.
Here’s a spooky story for you… Some say that fishermen in the North Sea used to hack starfish in half when they found them in their nets. Starfish attacked their catch so they were determined to get rid of them. They slaughtered all the starfish they could get their hands on, certain they were reducing the population. Instead, each half of the severed starfish began to regenerate, slowly regrowing its arms. So, every time the fishermen cut one in half, they created two starfish. Soon the area was swarming with starfish.
I’m not convinced this story’s true, but it makes a great Halloween tale!
Berthella plumula – Acid squirting spell
Lots of sea slugs use poisons from their prey to defend themselves and some produce acid. The Berthella plumula can squirt out sulphuric acid from a special gland when it’s attacked. If you pick one up, it’ll make your skin blister and fall off (so best not to!).
Anemonia viridis – Harpoon stinging spell
Use this spell to unleash a secret weapon – the nematocysts. All jellyfish, anemones and other related animals have special stinging cells called nematocysts. Inside each cell is a coiled harpoon, which is fired out into anything that touches the tentacles.
Here’s a video of a pool full of Anemonia viridis eating an unfortunate fly.
Lineus longissimus – Smelly slime spell
The bootlace worm is in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s longest animal. When fully unravelled it often stretches 7 or 8 metres but the longest ever recorded was an incredible 55 metres long. More importantly, though, its special power is giving out a stinky slime. A perfect spell to use against your enemies!
Elysia viridis – Energy-making spell
Feeling worn out? Try the Elysia viridis spell instead of over-doing the trick-or-treat sweets. This amazing little sea slug retains energy-making chloroplasts from the seaweed it eats. The chloroplasts carry on making food for the slug through photosynthesis, giving the slug an ideal energy boost.
Aplysia punctata – Smoke screen spell
Werewolves, zombies and vampires on your tail? Don’t panic – use the smoke screen spell!
Sea hares (Aplysia punctata) may look like dull brown blobs, but they are as strange as rock pool creatures get. Not only do they lay eggs in the form of pink silly-string, but they have the ability to shoot out a cloud of purple ink when attacked, providing a perfect smoke screen.
These are just a few of the bizarre things our rock-pool creatures can do. There’s plenty more rock pool magic to learn.
If you’d like to know more about the gruesome habits of the animals on our shore, have a read of my guide to revolting rockpools. You can also take part in organised events to meet the creatures for yourself. Happy Halloween!
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.