When the BBC approached me about filming a Countryfile episode with Matt Baker on the signs of spring, I reeled off all the exciting things we might find in the Cornish rock pools. By mid-April there would be male pipefish with eggs on their bellies, scorpion fish babies already hatched, crabs with egg masses under their tails and so much more. No problem.
What I hadn’t considered was that the TV crew’s packed schedule would require us to film on an exposed north coast beach on small tide. All I could do was to hope for good weather and some luck.
The West Cornwall episode of Countryfile is available on BBC iPlayer here. (Available at the time of writing).
Portreath, near Redruth, has wide, golden sands and magical craggy cliffs. Like many other beaches in Cornwall, it has a fantastic community group working to conserve wildlife and keep it clean – Love Portreath.
To the east of the bay lies what used to be an important mining port, sheltered by a long harbour wall with a stretch of rocks alongside.
The pools here are a great habitat, but the fierce waves sweep any small stones away, leaving only large boulders and deep overhangs as hiding places for the rock pool creatures. Great for wildlife, but tricky for rock poolers, especially with a strong swell rolling in.
Fortunately, I had help in the form of Cornish Rock Pools Junior and two of his friends, Ashley and Rowen. Without their keen eyes and amazing patience, it would have been an impossible task to find as much as we did in just fifteen minutes. Louis led Matt Baker crashing surf, assuring him there would be more to find on the lower shore, while Ashley plunged waist-deep into pools trying to catch a goby. Rowen spotted a cushion star at the back of a crevice in the rock. Needless to say I was prepared to risk getting my hand stuck to retrieve it (and nearly did).
In just a few minutes we managed to assemble a good collection of common rock pool creatures: a green shore crab, a common blenny, some top shells and, of course, the cushion starfish.
Inevitably, I made my television debut by telling the nation that starfish feed by pushing their stomachs out of their mouths and dissolving their prey. You’re welcome!
Although we failed to find many signs of spring other than the large amounts of seaweed sprouting all around us, the magic of television went to work and the final programme included some fabulous footage of green shore crab eggs hatching out into the plankton.
It’s incredible how all the snippets we filmed on the day were woven together into the final programme. Huge thanks go to the all of the Countryfile crew for putting us at ease and doing their TV magic, and to Matt Baker in particular for taking the time to chat and take photos with the children.
Even though conditions weren’t ideal, it was a wonderful opportunity to showcase the Cornish beaches and the creatures that survive in this extreme environment.
There’s no better way to explore the shore than with a group of experienced rock poolers. During this month’s big spring tides, I was privileged to join a small, dedicated team to survey Hannafore Beach in Looe. Best of all, David Fenwick who runs the brilliant Aphotomarine website brought along his newly-converted marine laboratory camper van for a test run.
A few weeks on and I’m still downing hot chocolate to recover from the cold (any excuse!), but this was a priceless opportunity to expand my knowledge and encounter new species. Over the week we recorded over 230 species, some of which I never knew existed and I finally found my first Snake pipefish.
Day one got off to an inauspicious start. David’s marine lab van broke down on its way to the beach, meaning he missed the best of the tide that day. Those of us who did make it had to leap back into our cars to take refuge from the hail before we’d even got our boots on. Despite the wind chill, we were soon in full swing. Incredibly, the pools were full of signs of spring.
Scorpion fish lay their clusters of yellow glitter-ball shaped eggs earlier than most other species. In some, the baby fish were already taking shape and hundreds of eyes gazed into my camera lens.
Along the grooved bellies of some of the worm pipefish, there were also lines of eggs. Like seahorses, it is the male pipefish that carries the eggs until they hatch.
It’s hard to think of slugs as migratory animals, but several sea slug species have made their annual journey onto the shore to breed. We saw lots of the rarely-recorded slug Aeolidella alderi. My friend Jan from Coastwise North Devon found one that had been chomping on a dark anemone. The colour had passed into the cerrata on its back so that instead of the normal bright white, this one looked almost red.
Another had distinct yellow tips to its antenna and cerrata. This species always has a ring of short white cerrata below the head, making them look like they’re wearing a white ruff.
Nearby, a relative of Aeolidella alderi, the more common ‘Great grey sea slug’ (Aeolidia sp. probably filomenae) is feasting on an anemone. This hungry slug isn’t holding back and has dived headfirst into its feast.
Yellow-clubbed sea slugs (Limacia clavigera) were also out looking for mates. They’re not easy to spot when the tide’s out, as they look like minute splodges of white jelly on the rocks. Once in the water, they are transformed, with spiral rhinophores sprouting from their heads and robust yellow-tipped cerrata sticking out from their heads and bodies.
When, towards the end of day 2, I glimpsed a shape gliding through the seaweed my heart leapt. I’ve been looking out for this fish for years to no avail, but this one was hovering above my foot. Snake pipefish, like other pipefish, freezes and relies on its fabulous camouflage to escape predators.
I was able to reach into the water and lift it out for a quick photo. It wasn’t slippery to hold, but it wound its body around my arm so I had to overcome the powerful urge to squeal and drop it.
Snake pipefish can grow to 60cm and have pale vertical lines down their bodies so are easily recognised. They like to live among sea grass beds so are not commonly seen on the shore.
Inevitably, other fish were more evasive. David saw a Conger eel among the kelp, but it slipped away.
Among many amazing and less-common species, David Fenwick showed me this rare prawn, Caridion steveni, which appeared to have an especially short, blunt ‘nose’ (rostrum) compared to some other species. Its bright red pigmentation helps it blend in to the seaweeds.
Among the weeds on the rocks, tiny spider crabs were everywhere, only visible when they moved their spindly legs. Even when I take close-up photos it can be hard to make out the shape of the crabs.
Junior spotted a crab with an even more amazing disguise. We were looking under a boulder when he gasped and pointed at a seaweed-covered stone.
‘It’s a crab, I saw it move,’ he whispered, as though it might hear him and realise the game was up.
Whichever way I looked at the stone that Junior was waving his finger at, it still looked inanimate. It was only when I picked it up that I felt the sharp spines of the Common spider crab (Maja bracchydactyla) lurking below the seaweed camouflage. We turned it over to see the crab’s legs neatly tucked under its carapace. Junior delighted in placing the ‘stone’ back in the water to watch it sprout legs and scuttle away into the safety of the seaweed.
On day one I reached, or frankly surpassed, my cold tolerance limit. By the end of the week I was only able to function by keeping my hands thrust deep inside my scarf to warm them against my neck. I must have ressembled a trussed chicken, but there was no point caring. As always, the rewards outstripped the pain.
Next weekend we’re expecting some huge spring tides in Cornwall, and yet more freezing winds, so you know where I’ll be.
To me, there can be nothing closer to heaven than the cliff tops around Mawgan Porth in late spring. The explosion of colours can be seen from afar and will reach its peak over the next few weeks.
The thick, warm, honey-laden scents of the gorse and the delicate smell of the opening thrift provides the perfect accompaniment to the view of taut lines of swell stretching across a wide indigo horizon.
It comes as more of a surprise that so many flowers are blooming near the base of the cliffs, in the shadow of the old mine workings that are set deep into the northern cliff face.
At first glance it seems that nothing could survive among the stark rockfall boulders and the red metallic ooze from the flooded and blocked shaft. As we clamber closer across the rocks, we see plants poking out. Scurvy grass – so named because it’s rich in vitamin C – more beautiful than the name suggests. Thrift, sea plantain and more are pushing up between the red stones and flowering happily.Continue reading Life at the Mine Pool -Mawgan Porth→
Spring is a wonderful time of year in the Cornish rock pools, although like all things British, it’s hard to predict when it will arrive.
This time of year, the fish are moving inshore to lay their eggs. In many common shore species, the male stays close by, protecting the eggs until the baby fish hatch. Blennies, in particular, are frequently found hiding among the rocks, close to their precious broods.