Waves bringing ashore beach treasures
At this time of year, I like to go to my local beach early. It’s a small grey-sand cove on Cornwall’s south coast and on a still day the water can be as clear as glass. As the tide ebbs, with its hiss of backwash, it leaves a delicate summer strandline that meanders across the beach. Along it lie scraps of red seaweed fading in the sun, perhaps a crab shell or moon jelly nestled among all the other traces of life offshore – some more and some less mysterious.
In winter I often go after gales. With the sea still wild, the air is filled with spray, and the sounds of the wind and water are amplified by the tight curve of the cove. The sea floor shelves steeply here, which means bigger waves that leave glistening heaps of seaweed strewn across the beach. Devil’s apron, red rags, egg wrack, beautiful eyelash weed, landlady’s wig are all left on the shore with fascinating finds often tangled among them.
Barnacles and boring molluscs
Some of my favourite finds are common enough to be seen all year round, including acorn barnacles. Many years ago I read that if you listen carefully, you can hear the creaking sound of their doors closing more tightly as you pass them by at low tide; and recently I finally heard the sound for myself. Abundant on our rocky shores, the barnacles lead extraordinary lives. Once the drifting larva finds somewhere suitable to settle, it cements itself headfirst to the surface, builds walls and a trapdoor, and at high tide delicate, feathery limbs emerge from their apertures to sweep the water for food.
Mermaid's purse (dogfish egg case)
Washed up on the same beach a few months later, I found a mermaid’s purse with the yolk inside still visible. This one was the eggcase of a dogfish or small-spotted catshark, our most common shark. I tried reattaching the purse’s wiry tendrils to some seaweed, in the hope that the embryo inside might survive. Assuming it did, in about six months’ time the purse would have no longer contained a yolk but instead be filled by a curled-up pup that would eventually emerge through a slit at the top.
Once I found hundreds of by-the-wind sailors. Recently stranded, many still had their blue, jelly-like base and tentacles, and on some the sail, too, was rimmed with iridescent blue. Each tiny sailboat, no more than an inch high, is actually a colony of hydroids. They live in vast flotillas on the open ocean and the blue pigment protects them from the sun. Previously, I’d only found their intricate skeletons, made from chitlin – the same substance that forms insects’ wings.
Almost as familiar are keelworm tubes, the chalky white scrawl often seen on washed-up pebbles, shells and fishing gear. Like the barnacles, each tube has an aperture and at high tide the tubeworms extend crowns of elegant, often colourful tentacles to feed.
They are sedentary and unable to leave their tubes, but gregarious, as the larvae congregate to form colonies.
It was a while before I realised the holes I sometimes find in clay pebbles are bored by the same creatures responsible for the thumb-sized hollows I see at the base of chalk and sandstone cliffs. Deep inside one I glimpsed the white shell-tips of a piddock. This ‘boring mollusc’ drills holes with the toothed front of its elegant shells, drawing in water to increase pressure. Never able to leave its burrow, it’s bioluminescent, which is unusual for a mollusc. The Romans used to eat them raw and, in 77AD, Pliny the Elder wrote that piddocks “shine as if with fire in dark places, even in the mouths of persons eating them”.
Empty eyeballs and full purses
Sometimes I have no idea what something is. On one occasion I was way out on the rocks looking for fish bones scattered by seagulls when I spotted what I thought might be a jellyfish. It was rubbery, though, and the wrong time of year for jellyfish to be turning up. So I took a photograph of it and walked away, with no idea how I might find out what it could be. Then halfway back to shore it dawned on me – it was a fish eyeball, picked clean and dropped by the gulls.
Skulls and bones are trickier to identify and usually I need help. The slender, elegant one on the right is a guillemot skull. At first I thought it was from a gull, as a friend of mine had one that looked similar. But looking online I couldn’t find a close enough match. As I’d found the skull on St Mary’s, I contacted the Isles of Scilly Seabird Recovery Project. After sending them a photograph of it, with two pence coin for scale, they told me that it actually belonged to a guillemot, a summer visitor to Cornish cliffs.
Fish Eggs and sea grapes
Sea grapes sometimes wash ashore in spring and summer. These near-black spheres are cuttlefish eggs, stained with sepia – their mother’s ink (and also the name of this species of cuttlefish, Sepia officinalis). It’s the same ink that Leonardo da Vinci used to jot down ideas in his notebooks. Occasionally an egg misses the inking and it’s possible to see the tiny white cuttlefish growing inside, although sadly I’ve never come across one of them.
Dark mermaid purse
The dark, horned mermaid’s purses are the eggcases of skates and rays. They all differ slightly depending on which species laid them. The Shark Trust (www.sharktrust.org), which runs The Great Eggcase Hunt, has some really useful resources online to help identify any you encounter and recording your finds on their website can help locate possible nursery grounds and contribute to shark conservation.
Common whelk eggcase
Another eggcase that survives long after hatching is the common whelk eggcase. These form when whelks gather to spawn. Each small capsule contains hundreds of eggs, although the first whelk to hatch in each pouch then eats the rest. When the eggcases are yellow, they often contain live whelks. Another name for the eggcases is ‘sea wash balls’, as sailors once used them for washing.
Pink sea fan
Gorgonians and gastropods
The skeletons of pink sea fans, or warty gorgonians, used to be a rare find for me. That was until a friend showed me how often they turn up tangled among the balls of fishing line and other debris that litters our beaches. They’re ‘horny corals’ and despite their plant-like appearance, are actually animals. When washed up, the chalky outer layer, originally pink-orange, has usually worn away. When they’re alive underwater, anemone-like polyps emerge from warty bumps on the branches and wave tentacles to catch drifting plankton.
That elusive find...
There are many things I have yet to find. One is a violet sea snail. Occasionally washed up with by-the-wind sailors – as it preys on them – these colourful gastropods spend their entire lives on the open ocean, suspended by a raft of bubbles they create by agitating the mucus on base of their bodies. These altogether odd creatures remain high on my wish-list, as do many of the other wonders that we only become aware of when they wash up on our shores.
Lisa Woollett is a photographer and author of the award-winning Sea and Shore Cornwall: Common and Curious Findings (2013) and Sea Journal (2016)
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