SCHOOL OF ROCK POOLS
The seashore is teeming with interesting creatures – but don’t just dig in without a plan, says Jake Wallis Simons
Proper prior planning prevents painfully poor performance. Some weeks ago, on a rocky Norfolk beach, I proved that adage to myself. We were staying with the in-laws, and had decided to go rock pooling. It was a beautiful afternoon, and the beach was busy. I left my wife to relax on the beach towel, armed the children with buckets, and led them out onto the rocks. After 10 minutes of hunting we had found nothing. Not a crab, not a mollusc, not even a decent bit of seaweed. The children were getting frustrated. It looked like we would return empty-handed. Dad, I feared, was heading for humiliation. The day was saved by a mystery man in Bermuda shorts and sandals. “There you are,” he said in broad Norfolk twang, pointing at a patch of wet sand, “there’s a crab in there.” We stared but could see nothing. He dug in his fingers and lo, just below the surface, a crab lay hidden. “They like to mask themselves like that,” he said, brushing it off and dropping it into my daughter’s bucket. “You can spot them by the little bubbling air holes.” We were triumphant. When I turned to thank him, he was gone. “If you don’t know what you’re doing, there are any number of things that can go wrong,” says Maya Plass, the marine and coastal ecologist who is presenting the next series of Springwatch. “The tide might not be as low as you think. You might choose a tricky part of the beach. If it is very busy, that can make things difficult.” The moral of the story is simple. If you know where to go, when to go, what to take with you and what to look for, the children will get much more out of it. You’ll be less stressed, and you may even gain the respect of your other half. Maya’s new book, RSPB Handbook of the Seashore (Bloomsbury, £12.99), is a handy resource. And if all else fails, ask a local. WHERE TO GO The best places to find interesting creatures are fairly sheltered, rocky seashores, whether they are gravelly or sandy. The underside of boulders, piers and pontoons can provide rich pickings. The bottom of Salcombe pier in Devon, for example, is covered with sea squirts, also known as sea pigs, which have two holes on top like a pig’s nose. You can also find star ascidians there, too; these are beautiful, jellylike, glassy creatures that look as if they have been painted with flower designs. Most importantly, seek local advice. “Nothing beats asking the people who are in the know,” says Maya. “Some places might look ideal, but have strong currents.” BEST FOR SANDY DIGS Crabs, starfish and other sand- dwelling creatures can be found at Camber Sands, East Sussex; Wembury Beach and South Milton Sands in Devon; and Portreath on the north coast of Cornwall. BEST FOR UNDER-PIERHUNTS These wet, shady environments are perfect for marine life. Aberystwyth; Trearddur Bay, Anglesey; Salcombe, Devon. BEST FOR ROCKY EXPLORING The flat bedrock at Whitby, North Yorkshire, offers excellent fool’s gold and fossils, as does Hilbre Island near Liverpool. The Isle of Skye has a rocky shoreline, teeming with life. WHEN TO GO The lower the tide, the more unusual things you will find in the lowest part of the shore. Marine researchers always go on field trips during the equinox, or when the moon is full or new, when the tides are at their lowest. Consult a tide table before you set off. These are readily available in local newsagents, petrol stations and shops; you can also use the app UK Tides, or visit websites such as http://easytide.ukho.gov.uk. Head out an hour or two before low tide, so that you have plenty of time to walk out with the tide and the most time at the lowest point before the tide comes in around you. Tough, waterproof footwear is important, as rocks can be slippery and sharp. You’ll also need plenty of protective sun cream and sun hats, as thewater can reflect the sun up at you. Nets are generally discouraged as they can damage the ecosystems. It is better to collect animals with your hands so as not to hurt them. Pick up crabs by placing a finger and thumb on the top and bottom of the carapace. Use clear buckets or Tupperware boxes, as these will allowyou to viewthe creatures frombelow. If you find a cushion starfish, for example, youwill be able to see the mouth and suckers on the underside, and the children can see howit clings to thewall of the bucket. Make sure you change water regularly and keep the creatures separate so that they don’t attack each other.