Exploring saltwater puddles along the sea shore is an ageless pursuit. For the past 7,000 years we have been poking and probing for living treasure among the sea weed and of these natural aquariums.
Shell remains at Neolithic sites show the first Britons spent hours, weeks, months . . . even years paddling in and probing along the tidal zone. They were searching for food and perhaps it is the vestigial memory of this primaeval preoccupation which explains why to this day children of all ages find the lure of probing the crevices in these shallow waters so irresistible.
There is no shortage of opportunity. Along the coast, wherever there are rocks, there are pools: each replenished twice a day by the incoming tide. Every influx brings in fresh oxygen, nutrients and new occupants. Thus what is barren one day could be teeming with life the next. This means every fissure in the stone is potentially a rich hunting ground for scavengers and opportunists, all intent on snatching morsels brought in on the currents.
Rock pools are thus one of our richest, yet most unpredictable, habitats. Those closest to shore are only submerged for a few hours a day so not surprisingly tend to have less variety. All the same, most will contain small crabs, anemones, molluscs and sea weeds like bladder wrack.
Further out, the fare becomes richer, with starfish and sea slugs picking their way across rocks and sand, while those that are on the edge of the surf even at low tide can contain big fish, trapped by the receding water in surprisingly small pools. Here they lurk in the tangled forests of weed amid eels, spider crabs and lobsters, waiting for the next tide to provide an escape route.
The child within means few people need encouragement to search for life amid these aquatic jungles – but for the young there is the extra excitement of novelty and the knowledge their sharper eyes and smaller fingers mean they will be first to spot a prize.
Another great joy is that there are no rules you have to follow. To start with you need no permission. Put crudely, everyone has the legal right to take fish, shellfish or bait in the inter-tidal zone. That said, there are a few guidelines worth sticking to. It is a good idea to wear shoes to avoid painful cuts on shells and rocks. Also, check tides and begin a couple of hours before low water. Slowly move out and then, as the sea begins to return, walk back rechecking pools as you go. It is easy to lose track of time, however, which can lead unplanned wading through surging currents, so keep an eye on the hour.
On a practical level, nets and a bucket will help hugely in catching and examining interesting specimens. A snorkelling face mask gives a clear view below the surface, while a magnifying glass and jam jar will help you examine catches. Be careful with the last however – they give clear views but can smash to leave a hazard for others. Better still, with a little forethought before your trip you can get specialist equipment (the Natural History Museum sells a Pond and Rock Pool Kit online – see www.curiousminds.co.uk).
Cheap digital photography has also opened up exciting possibilities – particularly if you have a viewing chamber. Obviously salt water doesn’t agree with most cameras, but you can buy special plastic bags and casings for existing models and if you look around you may be still be able to find a disposable film version for about £10. For regular beach goers, the range of affordable, genuinely waterproof, models is increasing (prices start below £100).
In the old days, of course, children would frequently take their catches home in buckets. Today this is generally frowned on (although still perfectly legal) and some conservationists even urge explorers to leave everything exactly as it was found. At times this can be a little extreme, even to the point of returning upturned stones to exactly the same position. Although not a bad idea, the puritanical tone fosters a sense of guilt and ignores the much greater environmental benefits of rockpooling.
The joys of exploring nature by dabbling in seawater stay with a child for life, and many a great zoologist’s career was sparked off by childhood holidays. In the same vein, there is nothing wrong with taking a few inert items such as shells, pebbles or flotsam home as momentos, although remember that nature and wildlife will recycle whatever is left.