Ex­plor­ing the secret life of the seashore

Once the tide goes out there is a trea­sure trove of an­i­mal life in the rock pools around our coast­line, writes

Irish Independent - - News | John Hume: 1937-2020 - Kathy Don­aghy

WHEN we think of the seashore we might con­jure up vi­sions of golden sand stretch­ing for miles. But the coun­try’s seashore is wide and var­ied from rocky in­lets to shel­tered coves and if you know where to look, they’re all full of amaz­ing crea­tures.

With few of us trav­el­ling very far this year, day trips to the beach might be a big part of our sum­mer hol­i­days. It doesn’t have to be all about build­ing sand­cas­tles and pic­nics ei­ther. Once the tide goes out, the an­i­mal life in rock and sand pools left be­hind be­come vis­i­ble, open­ing up a trea­sure trove for in­quis­i­tive minds.

De­spite the fact that I grew up on the coast of Done­gal with miles of shore­line all around me, my knowl­edge of the crea­tures that live along the shore was lim­ited. Even the names of the sea­weed eluded me but I had grown up hear­ing of its mag­i­cal heal­ing prop­er­ties.

My grand­mother was a big be­liever in car­rageen moss, a type of sea­weed, for colds and flus. I re­mem­ber my great-un­cle Jim us­ing Blad­der Wrack — the brown sea­weed which takes its names from the air blad­ders in it — as a fer­tiliser on crops in his field.

In my fam­ily if you had an ail­ment from a stiff­ness in your legs to sore feet, there was lit­tle that a walk in the sea al­gae couldn’t sort out. So per­haps it’s no won­der I’m drawn to this place that for gen­er­a­tions in my fam­ily was a source of nour­ish­ment and health.

And spend­ing more time on the shore as my own two boys grew, I learned by os­mo­sis about the tiny crea­tures that live there. No two days along the shore are the same and beach comb­ing — look­ing for treasures washed up by the tide — and search­ing for sea glass are among our favourite things to do as a fam­ily.

Lift sea­weed from rocks and you never know what you might find: a crab in deep cover or some limpets cling­ing to the rocks. Some years ago, early on in our shore ex­plo­rations, we made the dis­cov­ery of a most valu­able re­source. A Be­gin­ner’s Guide to Ire­land’s

Seashore, pub­lished by Sherkin Is­land Marine Sta­tion, is a pocket-size ev­ery­thing-you-needto-know guide.

It’s di­vided into sec­tions and helps you iden­tify your sea­weeds, lichens, sponges, crabs, shells and fish. It gives a handy in­tro­duc­tion telling you how to use the book and ex­plains how tides are caused.

And once you start look­ing there’s no end to the crea­tures you’ll find. Our favourites are the brown crabs that hide in pools. A few years ago we got a valu­able tip from a man and his son crab fish­ing on Inish­keel Is­land near Port­noo in Done­gal. It was sim­ple; crabs can’t re­sist ba­con.

Keen to try out this tip, we cre­ated our own line and dan­gled some ba­con in a rock pool. It worked like magic. Within min­utes of the raw rasher en­ter­ing the wa­ter, a brown crab ap­peared from be­low some float­ing sea­weed, grab­bing on to the ba­con with his pin­cers.

With a bucket, we scooped him up for a closer look be­fore putting him back in his pool. Years later we’re still us­ing the ba­con and the kids are still en­am­oured by watch­ing a large crab risk leav­ing his sea­weed cam­ou­flage to fol­low the scent of ba­con.

Ac­cord­ing to Cushla Drum­gool-Re­gan, who has just re­cently pub­lished the Marine In­sti­tute’s Ex­plorer’s Ed­u­ca­tion Pro­gramme,

My Ex­plor­ers Seashore Guide Book, there are a few things to be aware of when ex­plor­ing the seashore. The first is to take note of the tides. “It’s so im­por­tant that you work out when your low tide is. Go down an hour be­fore low tide so you are mov­ing down the shore line as the tide is go­ing out,” she says.

It’s a tip that is also high­lighted in A Be­gin­ner’s Guide to Ire­land’s Seashore. The book urges peo­ple to re­mem­ber that the seashore can be dan­ger­ous and to make sure they find out the times of low and high tides and to let some­one know where you are go­ing.

Grow­ing up on the Bay of Is­lands in New Zealand be­fore mak­ing her home in Gal­way, Cushla has al­ways been en­tranced by the sea and na­ture in gen­eral. For begin­ners on their first seashore sa­fari, she be­lieves a good place to start is by notic­ing what dif­fer­ent kinds of shells there are on the beach.

“You de­velop that pas­sion just by look­ing and be­ing open to it. I say to teach­ers ‘don’t worry about hav­ing to know ev­ery­thing’,” says Cushla, who is cur­rently film­ing a pro­gramme teach­ers can use as a re­source in schools to teach chil­dren about the seashore.

She be­lieves that one of the main re­sources par­ents and ed­u­ca­tors need is en­thu­si­asm and a cu­ri­ous mind. Beach clean-ups also pro­vide a good op­por­tu­nity for learn­ing about the crea­tures that live on the shore and she is a big be­liever in in­tro­duc­ing chil­dren to the con­cept of the ‘Take 3 for the sea ini­tia­tive’ which en­cour­ages peo­ple to take three pieces of rub­bish with them when they leave the beach.

“You won’t even have reached the wa­ter and you’ll dis­cover hun­dreds of things on the seashore. Sea pud­dles cre­ated when the tide goes out could con­tain shrimps or prawns or even flat fish,” says Cushla.

But she urges peo­ple to re­mem­ber that they are ex­plor­ers and ob­servers only. “Re­mem­ber you’re go­ing into their home,” she says of the rock pools where crabs and other crea­tures live. “You wouldn’t go into a field and prod some­thing big­ger than your­self so don’t go and prod some­thing smaller than you.

“Be gen­tle with the smaller crabs and don’t pick limpets off the rocks — that’s their home,” she says of the limpets, which are eas­ily recog­nis­able by their cone-shaped shell. With their sucker feet they are ex­pert at cling­ing on to the rock sur­face. I have even found ones ar­ranged into the shape of a heart.

Within min­utes of the raw rasher en­ter­ing the wa­ter, a brown crab ap­peared from be­low some float­ing sea­weed, grab­bing on to the ba­con with his pin­cers

Hav­ing a white bucket or even a see-through one is use­ful on your sea sa­fari ad­ven­tures, ac­cord­ing to Cushla be­cause you can eas­ily take a look at the an­i­mals you find be­fore putting them back where they be­long.

If you are con­founded and be­fud­dled by a plant or an­i­mal you have spot­ted on the seashore or coast­line, you can post it on the Face­book page of Ex­plore your Shore run by the Na­tional Bio­di­ver­sity Data Cen­tre where other en­thu­si­asts will help you get a pos­i­tive ID. You can then take part in some of the Ex­plore Your Shores sur­veys, like Seashore Spot­ter for ex­am­ple.

An­other good tip Cushla gives is to re­mind peo­ple to wear the right footwear. Rocks can be jagged and sea­weed can be slip­pery so mak­ing sure you’re wear­ing good shoes is im­por­tant. In gen­eral, avoid walk­ing on the green sea­weed as it’s par­tic­u­larly slip­pery, she says.

Water­ford City na­tive Tina Keat­ing, a ge­ol­o­gist who is one of the Her­itage Coun­cil’s schools ex­perts, reg­u­larly takes school chil­dren on sa­faris to the seashore to dis­cover the life there.

She be­gins by ask­ing chil­dren to look at what belongs there and what doesn’t so chil­dren un­der­stand about pol­lu­tion. She might do a rock pool sur­vey look­ing at the dif­fer­ent colours in the pool and the crea­tures that live there.

“When the tide goes out and the rocks start to emerge, you’ll see limpets and bar­na­cles. The golden rule is to put the crea­tures back. One of the most amaz­ing things I ever found was a tiny lit­tle sword­fish but kids get re­ally ex­cited when we find crabs. One crab put on a show for us — it was danc­ing and hop­ping around and it was like it was en­ter­tain­ing us,” she says.

The most com­mon shells you’ll find are mus­sels, limpets and ra­zor shells, which are long, thin slightly curved rec­tan­gu­lar shells of­ten found empty on the shore.

When­it­comestothe­anemone­foundin rock­pools, Tina says it’s im­por­tant to re­mem­ber not to squash them. “Touch them gen­tly to feel what they feel like but if you squeeze and they lose wa­ter, they die,” she says.

The beadlet anemone is the most com­monly found one on Ir­ish shores and it’s a strange look­ing crea­ture. A deep red in colour, it’s usu­ally seen as a jelly-like blob stuck on the rocks when the tide goes out.

‘One crab put on a

show­forus — it was danc­ing and hop­ping around and it was like it was en­ter­tain­ing us’

“You’ll keep dis­cov­er­ing things no mat­ter how many times you go out. Just be care­ful and never push or shove one an­other on the rocks as they’re slip­pery. If you lift a rock and there are crea­tures un­der­neath, put it back the way you found it,” says Tina.

As for my own top tip, it’s this. When you see a crab qui­etly slink­ing out from be­neath some sea­weed en­ticed by the tasty rasher you’re dan­gling into a rock pool, stay stock still and keep quiet. We have learned that if any­one shrieks or whoops with delight or ex­cite­ment as he leaves the safety of his hide­out, he will dis­ap­pear into the gloom again. Quiet­ness goes hand-in-hand with suc­cess­ful crab fish­ing.

Photo: Lor­can Do­herty

Pool sharks: Kathy Don­aghy and her sons Dal­lan (far left) and Oirghiall at the rock pools dur­ing low tide at Shroove Beach in Inishowen, Co Done­gal.

Seal­ife: Kathy Don­aghy with Oirghiall and Dal­lan

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