Tag Archives: night

Full Moon in the Cornish Rock Pools

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.

Gem anemone by day
Gem anemone 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.

Under UV the gem anemones are easy to spot
Under UV the gem anemones are easy to spot

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.

Gem anemone under UV light
Gem anemone under UV light

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.

Junior's orange-glowing sponge or seaweed
Junior’s orange-glowing sponge or seaweed

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.

Brown seaweed glowing green in places - presumably coated in a microalgae
Brown seaweed glowing green in places – presumably coated in a microalgae

Grey topshells are easy to spot because the tip of their shell glows pink.

Grey topshell in UV light
Grey topshell in UV light

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.

One of many plastic fibres found tangled in the seaweed
One of many plastic fibres we find tangled in 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.

Another anemone species that fluoresces - Sagartia troglodytes.
Another anemone species that fluoresces – Sagartia troglodytes.

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.

The same Sagartia troglodytes anemone under normal torchlight is much harder to see among the sediment.
The same Sagartia troglodytes anemone under normal torchlight is much harder to see among the sediment.

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.

Gem anemone under UV
Gem anemone under UV
This daisy anemone glowed red under UV but was a dull brown under normal light.
This daisy anemone glows red under UV but is a dull brown under normal light.
Anemones weren't the only animals out in the moonlight - this green shore crab glowed blue under the UV torch.
Anemones aren’t the only animals out in the moonlight – this green shore crab glows blue under the UV torch.

A Night Out in the Rock Pools

Nights out tend to become a distant memory when you’re a parent. For the most part I don’t miss them. I have, however, been looking forward to Junior being old enough to join me for night time rock pooling. Towards the end of last year, we tried it for the first time and, although the conditions weren’t ideal, he’s been asking to go again ever since.

The best low tides always happen around the middle of the day, and the middle of the night, but we compromise for this first family expedition of the year, choosing a reasonable low tide at around 10.30pm. The warm, calm weather provides good opportunities for seeing nocturnal activity and tonight I’m trying out my ultraviolet (UV) torch.

It doesn’t disappoint.

Head torch at the ready - night time rock pooling is a perfect adventure
Head torch at the ready – night time rock pooling is a perfect adventure

I’ve always known that certain species glow under UV light, but I had no idea how much. We’ve barely taken ten paces out across the rocks when we see our first snakelocks anemone, shining from the darkness like an eerie green beacon. The colour is wonderfully alien.

Snakelocks anemone at night under UV light - a true alien of the Cornish rock pools
Snakelocks anemone at night under UV light – a true alien of the Cornish rock pools

This fluorescence is caused by certain proteins within the animals that take in light of one colour and emit it as another. Some deeper water species can use these properties to appear red, even though red light is filtered out as it passes through the water, meaning the only light available to underwater creatures is UV or blue.

It’s not clear why snakelocks anemones and other sea creatures might want to fluoresce in this way. It seems there may be some benefit in it for their symbiotic algae or it might give them sun protection. It may just be a by-product of a protein that’s useful in other ways. Whatever the reasons, it produces an incredible glow. Junior is already talking of coming back at Halloween.

A spooky night time rock pooling walk is definitely on the programme for this Halloweeen!
A spooky night-time rock pooling walk is definitely on the programme for this Halloweeen!

It’s not just the anemones that take our breath away. If you’re used to rock pooling in daylight when most animals are hiding away under rocks and seaweed, the sheer level of activity in after dark takes you by surprise.

A scratching, crackling sound stops us in our tracks. It’s coming from the rocks. I lift the seaweed to show Junior a group of limpets. Some are feeding, their strong radulas scouring seaweed off the rock and chipping bits of rock. Others are setting into their home scars, grinding their shells into their grooves to create a perfect fit. Close-up, their activities make a surprising amount of noise.

Limpets on their way home as the tide retreats
Limpets on their way home as the tide retreats

Most rockpool animals are largely nocturnal. Pools that seem empty in daytime become bustling cities of activity. We watch hermit crabs milling around in large numbers, crabs marauding through the pool and across the rocks, fish floating in plain sight. Prawns come towards the light and watch us before shooting away backwards.

A green shore crab looking blue in the UV light
A green shore crab looking blue in the UV light
Hermit crabs are more active at night, every pool is teeming with them
Hermit crabs are more active at night, every pool is teeming with them

Other Half spots a small species of spider crab (Macropodia sp.) decorated with long fronds of seaweed edging sideways across the pool. It’s moving too fast to take a clear photo in the poor light. The blurring makes it look even more alien.

A blurry small spider crab (Macropodia sp) moving across sand.
A blurry small spider crab (Macropodia sp) moving across sand.

A scorpion fish lies still on the sand, watching out for prey.

A scorpion fish (Taurus bubalis) hiding in plain sight.
A scorpion fish (Taurus bubalis) hiding in plain sight.

One surprise is the stunning colours of the seaweeds under the UV light. Some of the dark red seaweeds take on a far more intense, bright colour, glowing red, pink and orange. Where the top shells have worn spires, their tips glow pink.

A grey topshell on a red seaweed under UV light
A grey topshell on a red seaweed under UV light

After an hour, tiredness and cold begin to set in. We switch off our torches and take a moment to gaze at the stars before we head home to bed. Junior is already asking if we can come again the next night, and the next.

It looks like I’ll be having a few more nights out this summer.