Tag Archives: Rock pools

Chilly autumn rockpooling

I’m not a fan of winter. Even though I go rock pooling all year round and love the way the wildlife varies with the seasons, the November to February period is a challenge for me. The thought of sticking my hands in icy-cold water makes me want to hibernate. Right on cue, a fierce northerly wind blows in for the spring tides. I layer up and wear my fluffiest, most comforting jumper to bring you this week’s blog post.

Obelia geniculata - a hydroid known as 'sea fir'.
Obelia geniculata – a hydroid known as ‘Kelp fir’. Recognisable by its zig-zag ‘stems’.

I’m trying to photograph hydroids at the moment. These relatives of the jellyfish and anemones are generally translucent and no more than a few centimetres long, making them hard to spot. At this time of year when the seaweeds die back and the waves roll in, it’s especially tricky. My camera doesn’t like focussing on them and they won’t stay still in the current, but their nodding tentacles and curious structures are mesmerising.

Another hydroid - Coryne pusilla. This one can't retract its tentacles into little cups. It has a ringed stem (visible in the bottom-left of the photo).
Another hydroid – Coryne pusilla. This one can’t retract its tentacles into little cups. It has a ringed stem (visible in the bottom-left of the photo).

As always there are strange creatures galore. This Sea gherkin is unusually large and gnarled.

A Sea gherkin (Pawsonia saxicola) - this is a type of sea cucumber and clings onto the rock with its tentacle feet.
A Sea gherkin (Pawsonia saxicola) – this is a type of sea cucumber and clings onto the rock with its tentacle feet.

Among the sponges and brittle stars I come across this invasive species from the South Pacific, the Orange-tipped sea squirt, Corella eumyota.

The invasive Orange-tipped sea squirt
The invasive Orange-tipped sea squirt

The twisted gut is very prominent in this species and you can see the orange colouration at the top. It’s thought this species may compete with native squirts and other invertebrates, but we will only find out by monitoring its spread. This is the first one I’ve recorded here.

Nearby I find the native sea squirt Ascidia mentula with lovely red flecks in its almost transparent test.

Ascidia mentula - a tunicate sea squirt. The red streaks reminded me of fireworks.
Ascidia mentula – a tunicate sea squirt. The red streaks reminded me of fireworks.

This sponge also catches my eye. It’s hard to identify many sponges with any certainty without examining their spicules under a microscope, but this one has the appearance of Myxilla rosacea.

A striking sponge with its fine structures and deep pores. Possibly Myxilla rosacea.
A striking pink sponge with fine structures and deep pores. Possibly Myxilla rosacea.

On the next tide we make a successful return visit to the beach where Cornish Rock Pools Junior achieved finding a world record haul of stalked jellyfish last year. We come close to matching the numbers we found last time. I lose count at 25 because Junior makes it clear he doesn’t want his record broken.

Many of the stalked jellyfish are juveniles, only a few millimetres long and it tests my eyes to pick them out among the swirling seaweed. Then I spot this 1mm pinprick of a jelly blob and take a photo in case it turns out to be a stalked jelly.

My eyes must still be good - a 1mm baby stalked jellyfish. It's not possible to say for sure what species.
My eyes must still be good – a 1mm baby stalked jellyfish. It’s not possible to say for sure what species.

On my screen at home its column is clearly visible although the tentacles are either retracted or haven’t yet grown. Little is known about the very early stages of development of these creatures and how to separate the species by sight, but David Fenwick who runs the amazing Stauromedusae UK website confirms that it is definitely a stalked jelly.

It’s great to be able to show a friend from Natural England how abundant these species are in the Looe and Whitsand Bay Marine Conservation Zone, which aims to give them protection from developments and disturbance.

Haliclystus octoradiatus - the blobs between the arms are primary tentacles, which easily identify this species from most others we see.
Haliclystus octoradiatus – the blobs between the arms are primary tentacles, which easily identify this species from most others we see.

One of her sons does an impressive job of finding stalked jellies and even finds one that is in the middle of eating an amphipod. The current is too strong to get a great photo, but you can clearly see the unfortunate creature’s head sticking out of the stalked jellyfish’s mouth here.

A stalked jellyfish (Haliclystus octoradiatus) eating an amphipod.
A stalked jellyfish (Haliclystus octoradiatus) eating an amphipod.

I’ll be submitting all my stalked jellyfish records to help reinforce the evidence that will hopefully keep these protected species from harm.

A juvenile Calvadosia cruxmelitensis stalked jellyfish. We found 3 species of stalked jellyfish on the site.
A juvenile Calvadosia cruxmelitensis stalked jellyfish. We found 3 species of stalked jellyfish on the site.

I can’t help taking a look at some other things while I’m here. But before long the cold is hurting my fingers and chilling my insides in the sort of way that can only be fixed by a steaming mug of hot chocolate.

That’s the bit of winter I look forward to!

Rayed trough shell
Rayed trough shell
Aslia lefevrei - the brown sea cucumber. This sea cucumber lives in crevices in the rock with just its tip poking out.
Aslia lefevrei – the brown sea cucumber. This sea cucumber lives in crevices in the rock with just its dark tip poking out.
Dysidea fragilis - or the hedgehog sponge as I call it.
Dysidea fragilis – or the hedgehog sponge as I call it.
3-spot cowrie hanging on an overhang
3-spot cowrie hanging on an overhang

 

Happy rockpooling!

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Wrasse and wrack

The Cornish summers are anything but predictable. One day I’m sweltering in shorts and beach shoes and the next I’m shivering in waders and a thick jumper. Although the showers are back with a vengeance, there’s always something to be found if I can make it across the rocks without breaking an ankle.

Painted top shell, East Looe
Painted top shell, East Looe

My first outing is to the rocks beyond East Looe beach and I’m pleased to come across a new colony of St Piran’s hermit crabs on the mid-shore.

A St Piran's hermit crab starting to emerge from its shell.
A St Piran’s hermit crab starting to emerge from its shell.

They’re becoming a familiar sight around Cornwall and I’m starting to recognise them from the tips of their red legs, before their chequerboard eyes and equal-sized claws emerge from their shells. Continue reading Wrasse and wrack

My First Fox Club Expedition To Porth Mear

It’s the middle of the night and I’m convinced there’s something wrong with my eyes. I’ve unplugged my phone, tried blinking several times but I’m still seeing flickering lights and flashes. Finally I twig what’s going on and open the curtains to reveal incessant sheet lightning.

My first thought is that it had better stop by the morning, else no-one will turn up to my first rock pooling event at Porth Mear with Fox Club, the junior branch of the Cornwall Wildlife Trust. As a child, I was a keen member myself so I’ve been looking forward to this for months.

By the morning the lightning storm has given way to wind and rain, but conditions are less than inspiring. It’s amazing anyone shows up for rock pooling, but a few hardy well-wrapped-up folk do, as does a lovely volunteer assistant. Continue reading My First Fox Club Expedition To Porth Mear

Discoveries on my Doorstep – Rockpooling with the experts in Looe (Day 1)

There’s a questionable theory that 10 000 hours of practice makes you an expert and I may be close to ‘doing my time’ in the Cornish rock pools by now. However, I often feel I’m only scratching the surface of what’s out there. What better then, than to spend a few days on the shore with the genius that is David Fenwick, creator of Aphotomarine together with a fabulous group of fellow rockpool fanatics from Coastwise North Devon?

With layers and waterproofs aplenty, Junior and I joined them at Hannafore Beach, a site I know intimately, to see what new discoveries might await us.

 I realised within minutes that I should have brought a notebook. David’s knowledge of marine species is immense and he wasted no time in finding signs of nematode worms living inside seaweed, reeling off their names. It was windy, drizzling and cold and to make matters worse Junior sprung a leak in his wellies, but there was no doubt this is going to be a fascinating day. Leaving Junior playing at reconstructing ancient ruined cities from the rocks of a mid-shore ridge, we waded across the lower shore.

Sea hares (Aplysia punctata) were everywhere munching on the seaweed.
Sea hares (Aplysia punctata) were everywhere munching on the seaweed.

Some species were familiar. The sea hares were everywhere and so abundant that it was impossible to avoid them. This swirling cloud of purple ink in the water was a sign we’d accidentally disturbed one of them. Continue reading Discoveries on my Doorstep – Rockpooling with the experts in Looe (Day 1)

All-Weather Rock Pooling

Much as I love the Cornish rock pools, there are times – throughout the year – when the conditions are grim. According to the forecast, today is going to be one of those days. I have reluctantly cancelled a meet-up with Junior’s friends because the charts show the sort of gales and lashing rain that have most little kiddies shivering before they even reach the pools.

I don’t want to make rockpooling a traumatic experience for other people’s children, but I don’t think Junior’s aware that staying in is an option. He’s so well trained to enjoy the misery that at 10am he’s merrily pulling on waterproofs and wellies and grabbing a bucket. We’re off to ‘the gully’ and no amount of buffeting winds or ominous clouds are going to stop him.

Junior's training in rockpooling in all weathers started early - out with Countryfile age 3
Junior’s training in rockpooling in all weathers started early – out with Countryfile age 3

We are climbing across the rocks from Plaidy beach towards our favourite spot when hail starts ricocheting off our buckets. We keep our heads down, turning our attention to the variety of colours in the pebbles. Junior crams his pockets with his favourites, the extra ballast helping to keep him upright against the howling wind. Continue reading All-Weather Rock Pooling

Port Nadler in the Fog

The other side of the Looe valley has disappeared. Beneath the thick Cornish sea fog, a steady, soaking drizzle is blowing in. Junior, contemplating the scene out of our back window, decides it’s a perfect day to go for a picnic at Port Nadler.

Two and a half miles later, with water running off our noses and mud splashed up our waterproof trousers, we arrive in the deserted bay. We listen to the whistles of oystercatchers, sounding closer than they are in the fog. Junior follows trails of bird footprints across the beach.

The sun doesn’t shine on our picnic, but the rain eases and we begin to catch glimpses of the sea through the mist. After a quick sandwich, we start exploring.

The cool, damp conditions aren’t great for humans, but they’re ideal for rockpool creatures that need to avoid drying out. I’ve barely taken a few steps across the rocks when I spot a decorator crab out for a walk among the seaweed. It’s so well covered with pieces of weed that I have to move it to take a distinguishable photo.

A decorator crab - a small species of spider crab - out for a walk
A decorator crab – a small species of spider crab – out for a walk

It’s not a particularly big tide, but it’s low enough to access some wide, shallow pools and an area strewn with loose rocks begging to be turned. Continue reading Port Nadler in the Fog

The best of 2016 in Cornwall’s Rock Pools

In a year of turmoil in the human world, the colour and diversity of the Cornish rock pools have revived my spirits on every visit. While there’s much to be done about plastic waste, discarded fishing gear, pollution and other threats to our marine wildlife, the end of the year feels a good time to reflect on the positives.

So, here are a few of my rockpool highlights from 2016… (and a scroll down for a video of a chough!)

January

Flat periwinkle in the Cornish rock pools
Flat periwinkle in the Cornish rock pools

Flat periwinkles are so common on the shore that I’m guilty of overlooking them. Taking a morning to watch them was a revelation. They’re colourful, industrious and surprisingly engaging. They’re well worth a look, especially on stormy winter days when the lower shore isn’t accessible.

February

Anapagurus hyndmanni hermit crab
Anapagurus hyndmanni hermit crab

On the first big tides of the year, I explored a new section of the rocky shore near Looe and found an amazing gully teeming with life. Among the cowries, sea squirts, sea slugs and crabs, I came across this gorgeous little hermit crab with one huge white-gloved claw, the Anapagurus hyndmanni.

March

Galathea strigosa - a squat lobster
Galathea strigosa – a squat lobster

In March the rock pools were bursting into life. Baby cat sharks were hatching in front of my eyes and other fish were busy laying their eggs. Among the rocks I spotted this Galathea strigosa squat lobster – a rare sight on my local beach. This one was only a few centimetres long, but its colours were fabulous.

April

Scarlet and gold cup coral
Scarlet and gold cup coral

In April I visited one of my favourite childhood beaches, Porth Mear near Porthcothan, with a group of North Devon naturalists. We recorded sea spiders, unusual crabs and had the most northerly sighting (at that time) of the St Piran’s Hermit crab, which has made a comeback around Cornwall in 2016. Best of all, we found a pool full of Scarlet and gold cup corals. These corals were way too small for my old camera to capture but this time I was better prepared.

May

Limacia clavigera sea slug
Limacia clavigera sea slug

The water was warming up nicely in May and little eyes were starting to look back at me from the fish eggs clustered under the rocks. Sea slugs were also making their way onto the shore and, as always, blowing me away with their colours. This yellow-clubbed sea slug (Limacia clavigera) was exploring the seaweed in West Looe and was a big hit with the children on our shore survey.

June

Clingfish eggs - with one newly-hatched fish (centre)
Clingfish eggs – with one newly-hatched fish (centre)

Under a shining sun, June was a fabulous month for rockpooling. What grabbed my attention most were the fish eggs. To the naked eye there’s not much to see, but with some help from my camera, I was looking into the fully-formed eyes of baby clingfish and seeing their spotted tails wrapped around their noses. In this photo there was even one recently-hatched baby among the crowd.

July

A juvenile turbot at Lundy Bay
A juvenile turbot at Lundy Bay

At the beginning of July, the Bioblitz at Lundy Bay saw perfect conditions, with a tompot blenny, moon jellyfish and even a slow worm among the beach finds. The high point for me was holding this tiny baby turbot – a flatfish – which had been found using nets in the sandy shallows.

August

Cornish Rock Pools Junior meets a bootlace worm
Cornish Rock Pools Junior meets a bootlace worm

During the school holidays, the more accessible sandy beaches are packed, but there’s often plenty of space on the rocky shore. I took Junior and his friends out to explore. On this day we saw jewel anemones, a stalked jellyfish and a butterfish, but our highlight was this bootlace worm. According to the Guinness Book of Records, it’s the world’s longest animal – this was just part of the one we found.

September

A male worm pipefish with eggs on his belly
A male worm pipefish with eggs on his belly

I joined a Shoresearch survey at Hannafore in early September and, as always, there was lots to see. Although they’re not uncommon on the shore, the pipefish are special creatures. They are close relatives of the seahorses. This male is carrying eggs in a special groove down his belly.

October

St Piran's Crab in Concarneau
St Piran’s Crab in Concarneau

In October I took a little ‘school trip’ to see our Celtic cousins in Brittany. I soon discovered that the ‘St Piran’s Crab’, which has reappeared in Cornwall this year after decades of absence, is the common species on the Breton shores. They’re so new to our shores that the only ones we see are tiny. The full-grown specimens were much easier to photograph – showing their equal-sized claws and white-spotted eyes.

November

Strawberry anemone basking in a brief moment of November sunshine
Strawberry anemone basking in a brief moment of November sunshine

In the last couple of months of the year I spent most of my time looking for stalked jellyfish in the pools, but I couldn’t help but be distracted by the sunshine falling on this strawberry anemone.

December

Cornish rockpool junior's first stalked jellyfish - Calvadosia cruxmelitensis
Cornish rockpool junior’s first stalked jellyfish – Calvadosia cruxmelitensis

Stalked jellyfish are relatively easy to see this time of year, when the seaweed has died back, but only if the conditions are calm and clear. During several calm days of spring tides this December I recorded dozens of these little gems in the rock pools. When the land is looking bare and brown in winter, there’s still no shortage of colour in the rock pools.

I closed my year with a walk on my home beach of Mawgan Porth. As I watched sand gobies skidding away under a rock, an unmistakeable cry made me look up. On the clifftop just metres away, a solitary chough was feeding, plunging its scarlet deep into the turf. These birds were considered extinct here when I was a child on this beach, but now I’m able to show my son his first chough in the place I grew up.

We came across a chough again at sunset and my other half took this video.

What better sign could there be? 2017 will bring challenges for wildlife, but as long as there are enough people who take action, positive change is possible.