Nature Diary: Gylly Beach, 3rd October

IMG_0656“So you go to university in Falmouth? You must spend all your time on the beach then!” and variations thereof is a frequent response from others when I tell them about my university hometown. Sometimes I reply with an exaggerated ‘yes’, as if non-sunny days and other activities that can also fill your time during the Summer don’t exist, which probably leads to the image of me turning into a dreadlocked surfer tanned as a sweet potato for two thirds of the year (which to be honest a lot of students do tend to become). Or probably not, but either way, it makes it clear we’re not your average university.

In reality there aren’t quite so many beach days for the aforementioned reasons. Yet the ones you do have fix in the memory through sheer good-times value, and looking back on each year, it can seem like whole weeks were subsequently spent on the sand. But moments like sunset barbeques, playing a slightly out-of-tune ukulele and burying your mate up to their neck are just one element of what makes our local beach, Gyllyngvase, such a fantastic student retreat. What really made me fall in love with of it was the fact it contains the best rockpooling known to man.

It’s ecstatic enough just turning over rocks, uncovering biological treasure in a game that never fails to excite with age. It was always rockpooling that struck me as the main reason humans would want to get sunburnt, sand stuck in their clothing, beaten up by waves and the various other niggling hazards that come with a trip to the beach, and it was certainly mine. But today’s game was enhanced. One of the first sausages to christen our disposable barbeque that late lunchtime made a post-abattoir bid for freedom, and ended up coated in sand. So, heading off towards the barnacle-crusted swathe of rockpool with this greasy prize in my hand, the typical beach day of a student ended, and that of the naturalist begun.

In the sunlight, a Cornish rockpool is as dazzling as any coral reef. Shades of pink, silver and gold dazzle from a bewitching array of weeds, algaes and kelp. These crown a sandy-bed that could almost be a smuggler’s abandoned haul of galleons and pearls. Lighting this further is a liberal sprinkling of yellow and scarlet daubs of limpets and beadlet anemones, and the occasional flash of life of a goby or prawn fleeing your presence.

Unless you can grab it in time, this is likely to be the most you’ll see of a rockpool’s otherworldly denizens. But placing a BBQ-refugee sausage in the edge of the pool sets off the reverse reaction. This is standard practice for those versed in the art of crabbing, but it certainly isn’t limited to crabs.

The first on the scene, unsurprisingly, are the prawns. Just as they are quick to mine your toes for bits and grit if you leave them still in the water for long, with rapid enthusiasm they are drifting effortlessly towards the meat, waggling their mandibles approvingly over its skin.

Then, tiny earthquakes appear in the sand. The granules give way, collapsing into the ground, revealing grey, striped shells shifting uncomfortably from their resting places. A thin proboscis seemingly guiding this strange water snail towards the sausage like a fleshy GPS gives it away as a dog whelk. The proboscis is essentially a morbid bendy straw, sucking up the fleshy insides of terrified limpets once it has carved its radula through their shell like an underwater Texas chainsaw massacre. As several gather on the sausage, they prove that getting into soft processed meat is obviously not a problem.

Lacking the confidence of the whelks is the hermit crab. It’s been sat only a couple of inches from the sausage, but has decided to take a highly xenophobic proceeding to things. What appears to be an empty shell occasionally jerks as if bolted with electricity, and rust orange legs begin to move out in stop-motion jerks. Occasionally even its comically oversized claws and half-psychedelic, half-manic eyestalks follow its limbs. But it would always decide otherwise, and shoot back inside it’s mobile home rather than fear a nibble.

The hermit crab’s introvert personality was not shared by literally the only other creatures in this rockpool with a backbone – the fish. The common gobies are numerous, yet hover awkwardly above the feeding prawns and dog whelks like the que for the self-service checkout at Tesco at 5pm. Only occasional and brief chews would be managed by these characters at irregular intervals, and it wouldn’t be long before they gave another bulky invertebrate priority dining.

Far less polite is the biggest customer so far; the blenny. Like a piece of seaweed animated into exuberant life, he fans out of the dark crevices at the edge of the pool, striking as a supermodel in a murk-green tutu, and as imposing to the neighbours as a mafia boss. At first he skulks calculatedly around the pool edge, eyeing the meat hungrily through gold and chocolate eyes. Content the time is right, he drifts in hypnotic glides towards the sausage, and in a bolt of fins, collides head on with the meat for the first bite.

It’s like dealing with a miniature shark. He may be no more than a few inches long, but he’s incredibly powerful, and as I grip the other end of the meat it feels like a game of tug-of-war. Obviously the rubbery skin of ASDA price value sausages was not quite what he was expecting, and the blenny engages in a frustrated dance in the water in his attempt to pull it free – it is hard not to sympathise with him. Yet come free they do in great, fatty chunks, and once the blenny has had his fill, the sausage is left with perfect, orbital bite marks.

Oh, I do like to be beside the seaside. As long as there’s a fab rock pool and some raw meat to hand. Because that stuff’s just as exciting as any waterhole drama on the Serengeti.

To learn more about the wonderful tidal life that adorns the West Country, please visit the excellent Cornish Rock Pools blog.

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