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
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.
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