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.
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.
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→
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.
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.
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.
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→
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.
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!)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Things have been quiet on this page the last couple of months. Cornish Rock Pools Junior, Other Half and I took an extended holiday to visit the towns and beaches of Brittany. As always our travels had a bit of a marine theme…
“Est-ce que c’est un anémone?” the eager child in the dark-rimmed spectacles asks. We explain what a ‘stalked jellyfish’ is to the class of seven-year-olds. “Jellyfish!” they chant.
Between fascinating excursions to the fire station and the sardine factory, we are giving impromptu English lessons to a class of primary school students during our twinning visit to Quiberon in Brittany.