Summer arrives early in Cornwall, with festivals around the county singing in the new season on the first of May every year. Except, this year the Padstow Obby Osses have stayed in their stables, the Calstock Giant hasn’t set sail down the Tamar to re-join his love, and there has been none of the usual dancing through the streets of Helston.
Oblivious to all of this, the natural world is carrying on. Swifts are screaming past the window, the herring gulls are nestled on their mossy rooftop nests and in rockpools everywhere, there will be tangles of new-growing seaweed, father fish guarding their eggs and all manner of colourful creatures going about their usual business.
Scroll through the gallery below for a glimpse of what will be happening right now beneath the waves in rock pools around Cornwall. And if you’d like to find out more about our amazing marine life, explore my blog, or take a look at the fantastic video workshops that Cornwall Wildlife Trust has been busy creating. Happy virtual rockpooling!
There are many advantages to home educating Junior, but one of our favourite things is being free to go outside whenever we like. During the winter months, good weather and daylight coincide so infrequently that we nearly always drop everything to make the most of it. Today, Junior wants to explore our local beach and dig in the sand, so we grab our wellies, spade and camera and set out with the low morning sun glimmering from behind the clouds.
Spring comes earlier in Cornwall than it does further north, and the signs are there even though the days are still cold. The herring gulls have already moved back onto the roof-tops in our neighbourhood, and some are sitting on empty nests to deter others from moving into their territories. Buds are tightly wrapped on the hedgerow plants, waiting to open and a few hardy wildflowers are already blooming.
We hear the fulmars honking to each other on the cliffside above Plaidy before we see them. When we stop at a viewspot to look across to the Eddystone lighthouse, a male fulmar glides towards us on stiff wings before circling back to land on a ledge and touch beaks with the female that is resting there.
In the rock pools, spring is even further ahead and I have been finding sea slug spawn for a few weeks already. ‘Sea mushrooms’, the holdfasts of seaweed are appearing on the rocks and beginning to sprout from their centres. Colourful colonies of star ascidian are budding and spreading across the rocks. On one a flatworm is grazing, while another young colony is being visited by a hungry 3-spot cowrie.
The tide is wonderfully low so we scramble out to the furthest rocks we can safely reach. Junior discovers anemones and sponges. A tall rocky gully is coated in every colour of sponge, sea squirt and bryozoan, and we peer closely at their strange forms.
I spot an overhang that plunges into a pool. Even though I can see it’s too deep for my wellies, I wade in, balancing from one submerged rock to another, feeling a cold trickle down my shin as the water overtops my boots. At the edge of the rock the water is still precariously high, but I have noticed some dark, frilly tentacles in the water. Several sea cucumbers are lodged in cracks in the rock here and are busy feeding with their extended fronds. Junior crawls over the rock to get a better view of this unusual sight.
Edging our way through the narrow rocks, we reach the very edge of the sea. We are sheltered a little from the waves by a rocky reef further out, but the waves are still surging back and forth. In a hollow I can see a young common starfish. I tease it out of its hiding place and Junior holds it on his hand while I take photos.
Despite its name, this starfish is nothing like as common on our beaches as the other species we see here, preferring the deeper offshore waters. Junior takes a good look at its colours and its tube feet before placing it back where we found it.
We cross the rocks to the next beach, where Junior begins his sand-mining excavations while I take a walk along an old sea wall in the hope of taking a photo of shanny. These fish hide in holes out of the water while the tide is out and there are usually plenty in this wall. Of course, there are none in accessible places now that I have come to look for them, so I carry on across the beach to take photos of the lugworm casts that litter the muddy sand here.
I am about to go back to see Junior’s work, when I see movement in a shallow pool. It looks as though there’s a tiny geyser beneath the surface throwing the sand up in a constant jet. There are several animals that like to bury themselves here, including some quirky species of prawn, but this sandy pool near the low tide mark makes me think of something else. I crouch by the pool for a few minutes without moving, scanning the sand before I see what I’m looking for. A small, sand-coloured fish is sitting unmoving in the shelter of a rock. I know it will be a weever fish.
Trying not to scare the fish away, I cross to the other end of the pool. It sticks its ground, watching me through shining eyes set towards the top of its head. Even as I lower my camera into the pool, it stays perfectly still, so that I can see its gaping mouth and moving gills. The mouth is unlike that of most other fish: the opening is nearly as high as the fish’s eyes and is hinged at the bottom like a tall flap. Inside it, I can see some spindly, crooked teeth.
I have no bucket and this fish will bury itself in the sand in an instant if I disturb it, so I just watch, putting my camera as close as I dare to frame the fish’s remarkable metallic-green eyes. Although the dark fin on the fish’s back is folded down now, it is made of venomous spines that cause painful stings to bathers in the summer.
Junior emerges from the hole he’s dug to look at the photos and do a beach clean before we head for home in the last of the day’s pale sunshine.
We weren’t really rock pooling, just going for a walk to the beach, or so we said. Junior packed his hammer and chisel in case there were fossils and I packed my camera, because you never know.
On my last wander at our local beach I had hoped to find some gem anemones to photograph, but didn’t succeed. It was worth another look for these tiny creatures, which have stripy tentacles and bright colours around their mouths when they are open, but at low tide most of them are retracted into white-striped blobs.
I left the sounds of hammering and splitting rocks behind me at the edge of the shore, where Junior was happily amusing himself on a fossil hunt, and headed towards an unseasonably glassy sea, pausing to look for anemones in the small pools on the way.
At the water’s edge, I reached a large pool too deep for gem anemones, but in the middle of the pool a submerged boulder was covered in Irish moss seaweed, providing the perfect habitat for stalked jellyfish. I looked so closely among the tangles of weed, hunting for tiny jellies, that I almost missed the huge stalked jellyfish right under my nose.
This was an unusually large Haliclystus octoradiatus stalked jellyfish, easily distinguished from the other species we see in Cornwall by the presence of blob-shaped primary tentacles in between its arms.
Most stalked jellyfish of this species have just one primary tentacle blob between each pair of arms, but this one had far more blobs than usual. The jelly can use these primary tentacles as anchors to grip onto the seaweed if it chooses to move, using a looping, cartwheeling motion.
In another nearby pool I spotted this colourful Calvadosia cruxmelitensis stalked jellyfish, well decorated with white nematocysts, which are its stinging cells.
Junior joined me at this point, wanting to show me a blenny he’d found. We scrambled nearly to the top of a high rocky outcrop in which some small pools had formed. There was no sign of his little fish, and there were no gem anemones, but there was this daisy anemone.
We carried on our expedition through a gap in the rocks to the adjoining beach where clear, shallow pools lined with pink encrusting seaweed nestled under a towering overhang carved out by the sea into the shape of a breaking wave.
These pools were full of anemones too and we stopped to take photos of clusters of snakelocks anemones and a rather flattened-looking strawberry anemone before I noticed the first gem anemone. It was closed up, forming a diminutive pink blob that blended perfectly into the colours of the pool. Close to it was another.
As we moved among the chain of pools we found dozens, but not a single one was open. Junior stared determinedly into every cranny, excited that the pools he had found were proving so interesting.
“There are some open anemones here,” he called out, “maybe Dahlia anemones? What do gem anemones look like when they’re open?”
I knelt on the rock beside him. At the far edge of the pool, tucked under a small ledge, I could see the white stripes of the gem anemone tentacles. Much cheering and hugging ensued.
Soon I was able to show Junior my up-close photos of the anemones so he could see why I was so obsessed with finding them. Each one had a vivid, almost fluorescent green mouth tinged with bright pink spots at its corners. The anemone’s mouths were framed in deep red and grey rays that stretched to the base of the zebra striped tentacles, some of which had flashes of green at their bases.
Truly one of our most spectacular anemones, people rarely notice the gem anemone because it is only a few centimetres across even when fully grown.
Junior is already planning a night time return to these pools to investigate whether these anemones will glow under the light of our ultra-violet torch. Watch this space!
I’m not sure who cancelled spring, but I’m not impressed. Yet again, the spring tides are accompanied by ear-numbing winds and a flurry of snow. Just the thought of plunging my hands into the pools makes my fingers ache, and yet, like the fool I am, I wade into the pools to see what’s there.
Due to my reluctance to leave my warm house, it’s half-past low tide by the time I hit the beach. The easterly winds are dashing the waves against the rocks and the gully I’d hoped to explore is well and truly submerged. All that’s left is an average-looking pool.
I’m tempted to give up and go home, but I’m always telling people that there’s something in every pool. That you just need to go slowly and look closely. I set myself a 15 minute challenge to find as many species as I can.
One of my first discoveries is this wonderful mutant cushion star. According to the books, these have five arms. Clearly this one hasn’t read the books. At some point it has lost one or more of its arms and in an incredible feat of regeneration it has sprouted an excess of new ones.
In fact, this cushion star has put so much energy into sprouting arms that it now has a total of seven arms. I do sometimes see another species, the Seven-armed starfish, but they are bright orange and have longer arms so I’m not fooled. It’s a nice try though.
There are lots of molluscs including several colourful painted topshells.
Nearby, a colony of dog whelks huddles in a crack in the rock, around their yellow egg capsules.
It’s hard to see through the wind-rippled water into the tangled seaweed below, but this Calvadosia campanulata stalked jellyfish catches my eye. Its bright-white stinging cells stand out among the pink and red seaweed fronds.
There are several more stalked jellies, including this Haliclystus octoradiatus. This species has a blob between each pair of arms, which acts as a sucker (‘primary tentacle’) allowing the jelly to flip upside down and cartwheel along the seaweed. This one seems to have two suckers between some of its arms. It also has an extra arm (nine arms instead of 8).
I start to wonder if this pool is going to be full of mutants with extra arms and tentacles.
The waves are breaking over the rocks and splashing over my back and the water level is rising precariously close to the top of my wellies. I take a few more quick photos of some wriggling worms, strawberry anemones and a banded chink shell just a few millimetres long.
As I leave the pool, I find a Saddle oyster shell. These small oysters attach to the underside of rocks and have round hole in the upper valve.
It may be a grey day, but the inside of the shell is coated in the most brilliant mother-of-pearl, shining with every colour of the rainbow. I’ll take it as a sign that spring’s on its way.
Not many people go rock pooling this time of year. While everyone is busy with the Christmas shopping, Junior and I have the whole beach to ourselves. This is a perfect time of year to watch the common rock pool species going about their business, to enjoy the vivid colours and, as always, make some discoveries too.
Our first surprise is a stranded flounder, possibly dropped by the heron that flapped away as we arrived on the shore.
Assuming the unmoving fish is dead, I scoop it off the muddy sand into my bucket. As I do so, it flaps a little and we stumble through the quicksand pools to find it some water. After a few minutes lying still in the bucket, it seems to revive and we release it in a deep pool alongside a good overhang. It glides straight into the shelter of the rock and buries itself in the sand.
In the dark days of winter, the colourful anemones are even more striking and this beach is a great spot for Strawberry anemones.
There are more bright red spots among the seaweeds. Dozens of juvenile Sea hares, each just a few millimetres long, are grazing away. They’re hard to spot among the red weeds, but they’re beautiful little beasts. Their red bodies look like they’re flecked with snow and their extremities are tipped in black as though they’ve been dipped upside down in black paint.
Not all red glows in the Cornish rock pools are friendly. Under every overhang there seem to be twin pairs of scarlet lights glowing; the eyes of Velvet swimming crabs. These stunning creatures do not appreciate being disturbed and won’t hesitate to use their claws. Junior and I leave the ‘devil crabs’ well alone and take photos from a safe distance.
My eye is drawn to the shimmering colours as this iridescent animal disappears into a hole in the rock.
If you ever doubted that worms could be beautiful, this might be the one to change your mind. It looks like a ragworm of some sort, perhaps Perinereis cultrifera. Attractive though these worms are, they have impressive jaws on them that I prefer not to mess with so I let it glide away.
Junior calls me over to look at strange little animals darting about in a shallow sand pool. He thinks at first they are cuttlefish from their odd-looking mouthparts. They are a type of shrimp that I haven’t seen before – and thanks to the wonders of Facebook groups, I’ve been able to confirm that they are Philocheras trispinosus (rolls off the tongue doesn’t it!).
The calm conditions are perfect for observing the animals moving about. In the same pool we also watch a thin tellin burying itself in the sand. Although these fragile shells are common, they live hidden beneath the surface and we only usually see dead shells washed up on beaches.
Rockpooling might not be the most popular activity in December, but on a calm day, it is still as rewarding and surprising as any summer day, but without the crowds.
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.
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.
As always there are strange creatures galore. This Sea gherkin is unusually large and gnarled.
Among the sponges and brittle stars I come across this invasive species from the South Pacific, the Orange-tipped sea squirt, Corella eumyota.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I’ll be submitting all my stalked jellyfish records to help reinforce the evidence that will hopefully keep these protected species from harm.
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.
The sun is shining and, for the first time in months, I can feel the warmth on my face. With calm seas, the tide has run out even further than I hoped, rockpooling conditions here in Looe are near-perfect. There are ominous clouds looming over the hills behind me, but I choose not to look at them.
After the fierce storms, I half expect to find the rockpools empty, scoured of life, but I couldn’t be more wrong. I explore an area of my local shore in Looe that I don’t often visit and within minutes I have found my new favourite rockpooling spot, a gully that’s visibly wriggling with life. Continue reading Rockpooling Heaven (And a downpour)→
The leaves are turning, the swallows are no longer dipping over the rock pools, but this long, warm Cornish summer never seems to end. We set sail from Hannafore over a barely rippling sea in the good ship Red Canoe to seek secret beaches, pirate caves and, of course, photos of interesting marine creatures. Continue reading Pirate Rock Pooling Adventure→