The Drama of Life in the Rock Pool

by KathleenDuffy

Rock pools are amongst the most fascinating ecosystems in nature. Exploring them reveals the beauty and fragility of these miniature worlds.

Whether you are a child or an adult, a visit to the beach is always exciting because it's a landscape that changes constantly. The moon controls the tides which twice daily, or sometimes more, deliver and remove shells, stones, plants and animals. Nothing is static on the beach.

If the beach has rock pools the adventure is even more thrilling. These miniature worlds are teeming with life and drama. They are subject to violent changes – think of a tsunami that sweeps across the pool when the tide comes in so that eventually it disappears and becomes one with the surrounding surf. Yet when the tide goes out the rock pool appears once more, seemingly calm and unchanged. But that's an illusion.

Life in the rock pool is the equivalent of the most dramatic soap opera you could ever see on your TV. Life, death, the struggle for survival, the threat of eviction – it’s all there!

With a little knowledge and care children and adults can see into the strange and magical world of the rock pool.

Life's a struggle.....

especially in a rock pool...

By observing the rock pool 'close up and personal', you'll  delve into a complex world.  On the surface all may be  calm, but in the depths of the pool the struggle for survival goes on 24/7.

The inhabitants of the rock pool must be extremely adaptable to a constantly changing environment.  Water temperature changes all the time depending on the amount of sunlight available, the amount of salt in the water (salinity) and oxygen levels fluctuate too.  There's competition for food. Then there’s the waves that crash in and out carrying some organisms out to sea but bringing in new potential food sources.

Despite all this turmoil, the rock pool community is full of a diverse number of hardy creatures such as molluscs, shrimps, sea anemones, whelks and the famous hermit crab, as well as fish, worms and starfish.

This BBC's 'Springwatch' Clip Shows the Drama of Life in the Rock Pool

But with a very funny script...!

It's a Dog Whelk eat Dog Whelk World...

But first, what are the components of a rock pool.  Obviously, the most noticeable items are rocks, seawater and above the rock pool is the air.  

Through the air comes sunlight which is the source of all life on our planet.  Inside the rock pool are  seaweed plants. Energy from the sun is captured by these plants, as well as microscopic plants, called ‘plankton’.  All these plants are eaten by small animals in the pool such as shrimps -  which in turn  are eaten by larger animals such as, sea anemones, whelks,  fish etc.  There are also massive numbers of single-celled organisms that can only be seen with a microscope. Yet they all play their part in keeping this little ecosystem balanced by providing energy in the form of nutrients for larger animals. 

Plankton - German Vintage Poster

Plankton - Vintage poster
Plankton - Vintage poster

Then a huge seagull swoops down and gobbles the fish - well, so it goes on!  (It's a bit like that old nursery rhyme, "I know an old lady who swallowed a fly...")

Life in a Rockpool on the Seashore
Life in a Rockpool on the Seashore
The Rock Pool Guide
The Rock Pool Guide

Yes, behind closed doors, behind the net curtains of the suburban rock pool  there's all sorts going on! It's enough to give Quentin Tarantino plenty of inspiration.

Battle of the Starfish and the Limpet!

When to Explore a Rock Pool

With some safety advice first!

Safety First!  

  • You always have to be aware of the tides on the beach.  Looking into rock pools is so absorbing that it’s easy to forget about the tide - so keep an eye open and don’t get cut off!  You can buy a tide timetable at newsagents and local shops, the Tourist Information Centre -  or look on line.
  • Don't go near the bottom of cliffs in case of falling rocks.
  • Stay away from soft mud or quicksand.
  • Only explore rock pools that you don't have to stretch out into the middle of with your arms.
  • Don't stand in a rock pool
  • Always wash your hands after you've finished in the rock pool.


If you can spare the time, it's a good idea to go out well before low tide. This will ensure you have time to explore the beach thoroughly as it is becomes exposed, giving you plenty of time at low tide before the tide comes back in.

If you want to be really serious about it, you could go during the equinox, or during a new or full moon. That's when the tides are at their lowest.

Essential Equipment for Exploring Rock Pools

First, think of practical clothing.


  • Proper tough footwear is essential. Waterproof walking boots, or wellington boots are good as well as special strong beach shoes.
  • Sun cream
  • Sun hat.

DX WETSHOES by Two Bare Feet - Adults / Childrens - SIZES INFANT 6 TO ADULT 12 Unisex -

Wet Shoes
Wet Shoes


Child's Sun Hat
Child's Sun Hat

Rock Pool Tackle

Nets? -  If you use a net, make sure you don't swish it around or poke creatures with it. Many environmentalists discourage using nets as they tend to disturb the rock pool ecosystem too much. Instead, gently reach down and lift out sea creatures with your hands.  Alternatively, use those little nets that hold dishwasher or washing machine tablets.  Wash them out thoroughly first.  They don't have any wire bits in and are gentle to use.

Clear Plastic Buckets/Boxes - Two or three clear buckets or tupperware boxes are great for seeing the creatures you have collected. Keep different species apart though in case they have a fight!  You can see the bottom of the creature through these tupperware items.  

Mask and Snorkel -  For the older child or adult, a really fun way to look deep into a rock pool is by using a mask and snorkel.  If the rock pool is deep this is a great way to get a good insight into life down there!  

Waterproof Camera - If you have a waterproof camera, you can get some great shots of the creatures in their natural habitat with minimum disturbance to their lives. A video feature would be good too!

Book - Don't forget a good book which will identify all the specimens you have captured. Once you have identified them, then it's time to return them to the rock pool.

Akita SuperCam;ASC046, Digital Camera and Camcorder, Digital Zoom X 8 and Waterproof up to 3 Metres - Blue

Waterproof Camera
Waterproof Camera

Zoggs Junior Reef Explorer Snorkel And Mask

Good for exploring rock pools
Snorkel and Mask
Snorkel and Mask

How to Explore the Rock Pool

Apart from following the safety tips mentioned above, here are just a few simple tips to make your seashore rock pool experience enjoyable.

  • A good tip is not to cast your shadow over the pool because the animals will hide, thinking you are a dangerous predator.
  • Be as quiet as you can.
  • Have your plastic bucket/box ready with sea water to put your animals into.
  • If you pull aside seaweed or rocks to have a look at creatures, do so very gently and once you have looked at the animals, put them back carefully.  

Some Very Interesting Web Sites

about rock pools
  • Here's where you can find the Top Ten Rock Pool Sites in the UK. Click here
  • A fascinating film about rock pool life  made in New Zealand by Ashwika Kapur, Centre for Science Communication, University of Otago. Click here.
  • Lots of rock pool films made by the BBC Wildlife Dept.  In fact, explore this whole section as it has some great videos.  Click here


Enjoy your day on the beach, and especially if you have the opportunity to explore those fascinating rock pools! 

Skegness - It's So Bracing
Skegness - It's So Bracing
Updated: 06/18/2014, KathleenDuffy
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frankbeswick on 07/03/2016

Certain shells are more common on the West coast, such as razor clams, but these are found in beaches rather than rock pools.

I can recall taking you rockpooling on Welsh beaches when you were little, with you and our two brothers clambering over rocks as we sought interesting pools. Our parents took the chance to take it easy, as they left the rock pool expeditions to me. A much deserved rest!

Veronica on 07/03/2016

East coast Britain has no shells on the Norfolk coasts at all. It was always disappointing for the children that there were no shells although the rock-pools on the Norfolk coasts are wonderful.

Kathleen ...I love the Skegness railway poster; social history in a nutshell .

frankbeswick on 07/03/2016

West Britain has rockier shores than East Britain has, so the west is where the best rock pools are. North Wales has many rock pools.

blackspanielgallery on 07/02/2016

We have no rock pools here simply because we have no rocks. This area is flat alluvial soil and the beaches are sand. I have seen pools in the sand but they are subject to drying out between tides, so the species are limited.

KathleenDuffy on 06/13/2014

I do so agree with you Frank!! Yes, we can still wonder and delight. And there's always things to learn - that's the joy of it all! :)

frankbeswick on 06/13/2014

Absolutely right about snorkel and mask, Kathleen.

Has it not occurred to us that everyone responding to this article with such innocent enthusiasm is young at heart? Maybe our bodies are not what they were, but we have not lost our inner child. We can still wonder and delight!

KathleenDuffy on 06/13/2014

That rock pool sounds amazing Frank! Definitely sounds good for the snorkel and mask.. :)

frankbeswick on 06/13/2014

My first encounter witht rock pools was not on natural rock, but on a broken sea wall on a beach in Rhyl. They were just as good as natural pools.

However, if you want great rock pools, try Woolacombe Beach in Devon. There is one there big enough for a canoe to be floated.

KathleenDuffy on 06/13/2014

It sounds great! Thanks for your comments Mira. :)

Mira on 06/13/2014

Thanks, Kathleen! :-) I'll have to go back to that place :-)

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