The seas around the UK have the potential to be amongst the most productive and wildlife-rich on earth. Hidden beneath the surface are landscapes every bit as varied and beautiful as those we see on land, with undersea cliffs, caves, chasms, mountains, dunes and plains. But it is not until the waves have retreated and the tide is low that we get a glimpse of this mysterious world and the weird and wonderful wildlife that inhabits it.
Rockpooling is a fantastic activity that people of all ages can enjoy. Summer is a great time to get out to the coast to take full advantage of our island state. Leaning over the small pools of water that form on the rocky shoreline, you can find a huge range of creatures that you might otherwise never know were there.
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Wildlife including crabs, shrimps, anemones, limpets, snails and starfish can all commonly be seen in rockpools around the coast.
How to go rockpooling
Slowly submerge a bucket into the water and see what's inside when you pull it back up again. Once you're done observing, slowly push the bucket back into the water, returning the creatures to their home. Nets aren't recommended when rockpooling as most of the creatures are small and getting stuck in the net which can seriously harm them.
You need to get stuck in to have the best chance of spotting something. Pick up rocks to see if there's a crab underneath. Inspect seaweed to try and find what creatures are living within in it.
Investigate crevices in the rocks to find shellfish, but make sure you return them once you've observed them.
Where to go rockpooling
The best places to find interesting creatures are fairly sheltered rocky shores, on shingle or sandy beaches. You could also search around boulders, piers and pontoons which often contain interesting nooks and crannies for wildlife to hide in.
Spring tides are best as they reveal the very best pools and the best wildlife – species which you normally only find underwater, such as lobsters, spider crabs and small fish. Here are some of the best spots for rockpooling in the UK:
- Bill Oddie voted Wembury his top spot for rockpooling in the UK – and it’s easy to see why. Look out for the intriguing beadlet anemones, which reproduce by spitting out perfect baby anemones that float around until they find a rock to attach to; cushion starfish, which feed by pushing out their stomachs through their mouths to engulf food.
- If you fancy getting more than your feet wet in Britain’s rockpools, just around the corner from Rhossili Bay in the Gower you’ll find a perfectly round, deep plunge pool. Nearby, you can explore a series of sea arches called the Three Chimneys as well as ancient caves that reportedly contain gold coins from a Portuguese wreck.
- The Brough of Birsay is a small island off the Orkney mainland, scattered with the remains of Pictish and Norse settlements. Low tide exposes a causeway to the island, along with a medley of rockpools. Keep your eyes peeled and your buckets ready, as you’re likely to find the popular groatie buckies (cowrie shells), starfish, anemones and crabs.
- Beneath the chalky face of the Seven Sisters, Hope Gap offers plenty of rewards for rockpoolers. It’s also beautifully eerie at sunset, when the moon-like landscape turns pink in the changing light. Watch out for strawberry anemones, with speckled spots like berry pips, and velvet swimming crabs, which have paddle-like hind legs to scull away from predators.
- When the tide draws out on Treyarnon Cove on the Cornish coast, it reveals a natural tidal pool that’s 9m long and 2.5m deep in the centre. Snorkelling in this renowned swimming spot, formed with a little help from a concrete dam at one end, provides an alternative perspective on the marine life within.
You can find the full list and a more detailed description of the best places to go rockpooling here.
What to look out for when rockpooling
Highlights of a good day out can include a mermaid’s purse (dogfish eggs that are like a tiny womb – hold them up to the light and you can see the developing embryo inside), squat lobsters and crabs hiding under rocks, common prawns darting about in the open water, blennies changing colour to match their background, cushion stars and starfish.
Beautiful beadlet anemones can only feed when their entire body is covered by water. Find one and watch it feeding – you may even tempt it if you dangle a bit of bacon in front of it. Then there’s the aptly named butterfish, found under rocks and seaweed, which is very slippery and a difficult one to catch. Look for limpets that are underwater and see if they have moved from their mark on the rocks to feed on the surrounding algae.
Also keep a lookout for dogwhelks near mussels and check the mussels for holes – this is how the whelks feed, by drilling a hole in the mussel shell and sucking out the contents.
Rockpool identification guide
1. Hermit Crab Pagurus bernhardus
2. Common Starfish Asterias rubens
3. Shanny Lipophrys pholis
What equipment do you need for rockpooling?
Your bucket would ideally be transparent so you can can observe the critters closely from below. You can also use clear tupperware as an alternative.
When searching for the best rockpool, you'll need a sturdy pair of waterproof shoes as the rocks will inevitably be slippery, sharp and therefore very dangerous.
If you're lucky enough to be rockpooling beneath beaming sunshine, make sure you wearing sufficient sun-cream and a hat in order to avoid sunburn.
Main image: Girl searches for creatures in rock pool. Credit: Getty Images
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