You’re never far from a beach in Cornwall, but the distances from one end of the county to the other mean I visit some beaches more often than others. I made the most of a recent trip ‘out west’ visiting friends to explore the Penzance area.
Although Mount’s Bay itself is a protected area and is best left undisturbed, there are plenty of fabulous rock pools to discover near the town and at nearby Mousehole.
The wealth of colourful seaweeds here makes the clear waters especially enticing. Stepping carefully among them, I found clingfish, shark egg cases and an abundance of stalked jellyfish.
Star ascidians formed a psychedelic wallpaper of turquoise and pastel blue petal patterns along some deep overhangs. Close by, another star ascidian colony painted the rocks in saffron yellow.
Shouts carried across the shallow waters. My friends had found something exciting: a newly-hatched baby catshark. This young greater-spotted catshark, also known as a bull huss or nursehound, had spent many months incubating in an egg case before emerging. When fully grown it could be over one-and-a-half metres, but for now it lay quietly in the tub, taking in the world through half-closed eyes. We returned it quickly to the shelter of the dense seaweed where it would soon be covered by the rising tide.
As the days begin to lenthen noticeably I hope this is the first of many forays to new and more distant beaches over the course of the summer. No matter how many times I visit the rock pools, there is always something new.
If you’re looking for some summer reading, my book Rock Pool: Extraordinary Adventures Between the Tides is out on 2nd May with September Publishing and is available at local book shops, Waterstones and through NHBS as well as through online retailers.
There’s no more auspicious start to an afternoon’s rock pooling than a dolphin display while you’re munching your pasty.
Jan from Coastwise North Devon, Junior and I were treated to an incredible leaping, spinning pod of dolphins at the start of our last Looe rockpooling foray, which could only be a good sign.
Following a busy summer season, it was magical to have the beach to ourselves. Despite a keen wind that made it difficult to see into the more exposed pools, the sheltered gullies were full of colour.
Every colour variant of the beadlet anemone was on display in one short stretch of pools. These common anemones are often red, but here they showed off their full traffic-light range of shades. Some splayed open a shower of bright tentacles, while others were retracted, showing nothing but the distinctive blue circle at the base of their columns.
Junior’s sharp young eyes were focused on the task and he brought us several isopods to identify. These minute woodlouse-type creatures swam around our pot-lids at high speed while we tried to photograph their tails. All of them had two prongs on their backs, so were male Dynamene bidentata.
We used our cameras to focus in on the blob-like bodies of the Ascidia mentula sea squirts, which we found attached to several rocks. From a distance, they have a pink tinge. Close-up, they seem to be gearing up for fireworks night, with bursting patterns of red sparks along their sides.
Lurking inside the sediment-filled layers of a fractured rock, was a colony of Thalassema thalassema spoon worms. These wonderfully alien creatures have plump pink bodies like an overfed grubs, with an extendible, frilled proboscis.
Unlike many other marine worms that speed around on bristly legs or swim with paddles, Thalassema thalassema seems to have no efficient means of locomotion. Instead, it rolls contentedly in the muddy sand, feeding on detritus.
These worms alarm me with their indolence. I always suspect that, like most vulnerable-seeming marine animals, they must have some secret defence. Many worms have a impressive set of biting jaws, but despite my wariness this species is safe to handle. I think.
Among the dense carpet of animal colonies, among them sponges, sea squirts, bryozoans and hydroids, we found a smart small species of spider crab, probably Macropodia sp. It was perfectly camouflaged to hide among the seaweeds.
Further out in the lagoon, near a seagrass bed, we found several egg cases of the greater spotted catshark, Scyliorhinus stellaris. In some we could see the fresh yolk, in others the baby was forming while some were already hatched and thickly encrusted with life.
By the time we reached the rocky outcrop at the far side of the lagoon, the tide was at its lowest and we could only stay a few minutes.
Inevitably, the finds rolled in just as the tide was turning. Junior was delighted with the yellow colour of this common brittle star, Ophiothrix fragilis, which is more usually pink in colour when we see it further up the shore.
Under one stone was a faint lattice pattern marking the spot where, earlier in the season, a clutch of clingfish eggs had been attached. Although they seemed to be long-since hatched, the site was still being watched by what was probably an anxious parent.
A speck of blue on the rock concealed a good cause for any clingfish parent to be concerned: a Calma glaucoides sea slug. Despite the elegance of its long blue cerrata, flashing their golden tips as they waved in the water, this slug could well have destroyed the entire brood of eggs, which are its food.
We could easily have knelt around the pool for longer, wondering at this tiny creature, but a change in the wind and a stirring of the kelp out towards the island meant that the race was on.
We sploshed and slid our way back over hidden rocks and through tangled weed that grabbed at our ankles, watching the flow of water growing by the second as the powerful tide raced in. Behind us, the water was working fast to submerge the slugs, shark eggs, anemones and brittle stars, closing the door on the watery world.
We made it back without over-topping our wellies; wishing, as always, that there was a little more time between the tides.
Last week I shared with you the miniature world of the sea slugs, so this week I’ll super-size things and bring you some big fish. Silly-season reports of Great-white sharks often hit the headlines in Cornwall, but I prefer rock-pool giants; they’re not made up, and you can get close to them without having your leg bitten off!
Cornwall is brilliant in all sorts of ways, our network of local, grassroots marine conservation groups being just one of them. The public launch, last week, of the new Three Bays Wildlife Group brought experts and volunteers together and gave me a chance to explore some new beaches in the St Austell area.
Judging by the squeals of excitement from the children and adults alike, the crabs, pipefish, prawns and anemones we found at the main rockpool ramble on Portmellon beach near Mevagissey went down well. By the end of the day, the local group had recruited lots of potential new volunteers.
It’s amazing to watch the rock pools appear. Just an hour ago, as we ate our picnic on Hannafore beach, two ladies were swimming just a hundred metres away. Now the tide has slipped back to reveal the dark, alluring rocks. An egret flies down to stalk the distant pools and oystercatchers follow, trilling loudly.