The Little World of the Rockpool

by frankbeswick

Rockpooling, investigating the contents of rock pools is a childhood pleasure that can be sustained into adult life.,

There are different ways to enjoy the beach. You can soak up sun to the accompaniment of surf, you can us it as a base for bathing or as a sports ground. You can also explore the rock pools and associated wildlife sites, finding a cornucopia of flora and fauna.You will find much that you have seen before,but each discovery is a new moment that awakens the inner child in you.

Picture courtesy of Alexandra_Koch, of Pixabay


We did not have much money when I was young, but we generally had enough for a holiday. My father took his full two weeks holiday entitlement and saved up throughout the year for our vacation. We did not go far, for like many working class families in South Lancashire we took the sixty mile journey to the North Wales coast,enjoying Prestatyn and later Rhyl.  It is not natural rock pool territory, but at Rhyl there was a damaged concrete structure, the remnants of an optimistically sited building that was smashed to bits by pounding waves.I believe that it had been isolated and abandoned when the sea wall was constructed, and the wild life took its opportunity. Fronds of green weed gathered and clung to its damaged concrete work, and pools large and small arose to form homes for wild sea creatures in the shapeless chaos that proved such a happy hunting ground for children.. I learned then that nature will always adapt to humanity's activities and that children can learn to play anywhere.

Memories tend to fuse into one big picture or set of pictures, but even now that I have attained seventy they have not faded. My parents generally rested on the beach while I and my younger brother Tony led the two younger ones, Veronica and Bernard, on rock pooling expeditions on which we clambered over the"rocks" and investigated pools large and small. Bernard, eight years younger than I, is still an avid fisherman and his interest was evident then, as he was eager to catch something. The rest of us were more eager just to see what was there. Veronica has never shown any interest in fishing whatsoever and was mainly concerned to join in with the game, though she loved the pools. From being ten or eleven I have memories of helping my only sister clamber over difficult bits.

The biota of the pools were not new to science, but they were new to us children. We revelled in finding crabs and watching the darting shrimps. Anemones clustered the sides, vying with the ever present limpets and barnacles. Just occasionally we caught a small fish and treated it as a great prize. Children have a boundless joy in discovery, for the world is new to them and rich in possibility and wonder. They invent their own names for sea creatures. The  sea anemones exposed at low tide were in my children's parlance called jelly blobs. At Perranporth in Cornwall the lower part of the cliff was smothered by them, to the children's delight. Happy days!



Rock Pool Safety

Rock pools divide into three: those close to shore and high up the beach; intermediate ones; and the further pools only revealed at the lowest tides. The pools higher up the beach are sometimes referred to as the splash zone, and you are unlikely to find many creatures in them, just the occasional small fish, but more likely trapped shrimps or prawns. These pools are sometimes near a cliff, so rockpoolers must take care if there is any danger of falling rocks. The crumbly chalk cliffs of southern England, for example, are liable to rock falls.

Suitable footgear is always necessary when crossing rocks, many of which can be slippery, you don't want to hit your head or break a bone, especially if you are in  a zone likely or certain to be covered by the advancing tide. Going with a companion makes for greater safety. You are unlikely to be in much danger near the shore, but if you are rockpooling in the furthest pools take care to know the tides. The danger of drowning is ever real. I have  only once found my path   blocked by advancing tide, but there was no danger, for I simply turned back and found the easiest route up the small cliff at the top of the beach, which was but a few yards away. Safety should be your number one priority.

Remember that some sea creatures can have sharp claws. You are not likely to meet many in a rock pool, but in Britain we have the velvet swimming crab, which has very powerful claws and an aggressive temperament. You can get a nasty nip from it. Spider crabs, found occasionally in the lower zone, can also give a painful nip.

But rockpooling should be safe for the creatures of the beach, as you don't or shouldn't want to kill them. Crabs breathe by getting their kills damp, so with damp gills they can survive in air. However, if you keep crabs in a bucket of water the crabs can soon use up the supply of dissolved oxygen and they will die. It is better to look without catching.


What You Will Find

You rarely find a novelty or a rarity, but especially for children each pool is a new experience, and this is so for those who have retained the inner child in us, retaining which is the way to remain young at heart despite the failing of our bodies. There are some creatures that I have never seen. For example, I have never come across a hermit crab. Maybe they are hiding from me. I have found one dogfish [cat shark] and that was on a beach in Donegal fifty years ago. Shrimps and prawns can be found in abundance, darting to the safety of rocks or weeds from our probing nets.  Shore crabs are also evident, waving their claws in self-defence. Seeing any of these species is a great experience for a young child, and I  admit, I still love the experience even at seventy, though I can no longer spring from rock to rock. 

The jewels of the rock pool are the anemones. At low tide they are variously-coloured, water-filled blobs, purple, red or green against the rocks to which they cling. But as the tide surges over them they open up and begin to wave their tentacles in their urgent search for prey. Sea anemones are not plants, though they superficially resemble members of the plant kingdom. Anemones are animals and so they consume others. 

Generally rockpools are places where you can find shellfish. Mussels are regulars in the pools in the middle zone and are available for picking in many places [with due care for water quality, toxic algae and local regulations. ] I have never found oysters in rock pools, they prefer sandier ground. There are large beds of them on the extensive Laefan Sands in North Wales. But only people with extensive knowledge of the sands and the tides should walk these dangerous places. Stay safe!  Limpets and barnacles commonly smother rocks in pools that are regularly exposed. They are so familiar that they are like old friends. Winkles occur in profusion on rocks and wooden structures, providing pickings for shellfish hunters seeking a free meal, and occasionally we find a whelk shell washed up, reminding us that there are shellfish in deeper waters.

Rockpools are magical places where children can experience nature safely and adults can indulge the inner child that keeps them young at heart. There is a joy in the moment of discovery, however small and insignificant the creature might be. Stay young, keep searching!


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Updated: 10/15/2020, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 04/05/2022

I am not familiar with the book that you mention, but I am well-familiar with Adam Nicolson. I have read his book Sea Room, and I watched his television series in which he travelled the British Isles. One incident stuck in my mind. On the [predominantly Calvinist] Isle of Lewis some smug, young Calvinists asked Adam whether he was saved, and appeared visibly shocked when he humbly said that he did not think so. But I got the feeling that he was the humblest person there.

DerdriuMarriner on 04/04/2022

The library system here catalogues The Life Between the Tides by Adam Nicolson as its only rock pool-related holding.

The online catalogue summary describes a different approach to educating us about rock pool fauna than the Buttivant book in that Life Between the Tides is a bit fanciful by giving information while the author imaginatively interacts with literary figures and scientists, all of whom were interested in rockpools. It indicates that Nicolson builds rock pools along coastal Scotland.

Is the book or its author and his rock pool-building familiar to you?

frankbeswick on 10/31/2020

Picking winkles is time consuming, so their following is limited.

DerdriuMarriner on 10/29/2020

frankbeswick, Thank you for the practicalities and the product.
The Buttivant book is exactly one of the kinds of books that appeals to me so I look forward to ordering and reading it.
The internet indicates that winkles are delicious but with a "limited following." Why is that so?

frankbeswick on 10/12/2020

Yes, you came over the rocks with your brothers because you wanted to join in, and you liked the pools. As you were an infant I had to help you at times I don't think that mother enjoyed beaches very much except for walking on them. Note that after we grew up she never chose a beach holiday.

Veronica on 10/12/2020

I have never liked beaches but I used to go with my sons when they were little. Going to the rockpools was the only thing that I liked.

frankbeswick on 10/02/2020

Well said. They must have been young crabs, hence were too small to be noticed at first..

blackspanielgallery on 10/02/2020

One must be careful picking shells. One of my brothers picked up about a dozen beautiful shells only to find live hermit crabs when we got home. Just because it looks empty it may still well be a creature's home.

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