A passion for nature

Tag: marine life

Bewitched by the natural treasures of the sea

After having forsaken snorkelling during winter, a strong hankering engulfed my soul to get back into the water and become immersed once more in the wild riches of the sea.

I had also become consumed with the wish to snorkel by a pier because such places provide shelter for an abundance of marine life. Thus, it was against this background that I found myself bobbing in the chilly waters of the Firth of Clyde by Portencross Pier in North Ayrshire. 

I chose a low spring tide, which would make it easier to dive down and witness creatures that would otherwise be hard to reach in deeper water. The visibility was reasonable and on flicking my flippers I soon reached the first of the steel piles that supported the T-shaped pier end.

Mussels and barnacles clung tenaciously to the upper parts of the stanchions. They are resilient creatures, enabling to withstand the rigours of storms, fierce currents and crashing waves without becoming dislodged from their holdfasts. Barnacles could easily be mistaken for molluscs, but curiously they are crustaceans and relatives of crab and lobsters.

While the barnacles and mussels on the upper pier supports were fascinating, my main interest lay in the deeper water below, and as my body rode the undulating waves, I peered down into the murky green depths. Just within the range of visibility, an orange glimmer shone out. I dived down and steadied myself by holding onto the pier support. Before me lay the most exquisite creation, a cluster of orange-tinged fleshy lobes. Surrounding each lobe was a soft, opaque furred fuzz that on closer inspection comprised of miniscule stalks tipped with white.

This was a soft coral known as dead-man’s fingers, so called because it is said to resemble the swollen, decomposing hand of a dead person. Each ‘finger’ consists of a colony of tiny organisms, called polyps, set upon a shared gelatinous skeleton to form a greater whole. Each polyp has a mouth surrounded by tiny tentacles, which trap tiny food items in the water column. I imagine the name ‘dead-man’s fingers’ arose from times past when people searching for survivors from shipwrecks became overwhelmed by the stress of the occasion, sending their minds spinning into overdrive and suspecting the worse.

Then, I snorkelled under the pier where on several of the supports lay a bewitching cornucopia of colour comprising large colonies of plumose anemones. Their beauty and form were breath-taking, elegant orange-brown anemones featuring long, slender tubular body columns with flickering tentacles that brimmed out over their tops like large, intricately frilled umbrellas. As a biological comparison, these anemones were single polyps, while those that form dead-man’s fingers are integrated polyp colonies that act like one organism.

I snorkelled for a while longer, but the wind was picking up and the sea rising, so I swam back to the shore. On pulling myself out onto a flat rock shelf, I barely noticed the cold such was my excitement at having glimpsed these wondrous marine creatures.

Spiny squat lobster

Marine heaven in Fife

With mounting anticipation, I kicked my flippers and glided towards a cluster of rocks by the low tide mark. The excitement was fuelled by the knowledge that this section of the shore by Elie in the East Neuk of Fife had previously delivered wondrous marine life encounters – but would it do so this time?

The rocks came into view, the water was thick with soup-like plankton, which impaired visibility, but it was good enough to enable a thorough investigation of the area. A mysid shrimp flickered into view, a small crustacean about a centimetre long, with a distinctive hump-back profile. These shrimps are the bread and butter for many of the larger creatures here, a vital part of the food chain.

I tried to photograph the shrimp, but the camera auto-focus had difficulty in honing onto such a small beast, so I gave up and resumed my scrabbling around by the rocks. A movement – and then a pair of long claws materialised by a rock cleft – a spiny squat lobster! I’ve snorkelled this section of coast many times previously, yet this was a creature I had never seen before. The sea is an Aladdin’s Cave of natural treasures and now it was revealing another one of its magical secrets.

With rhythmic movements of my hands, I steadied my body against the gentle surge of the sea and watched spellbound as this fascinating crustacean crawled onto a patch of sand, where it began to feed. Using its long pincers, it scooped sand into its mouth where it gleaned algae, detritus, and other food items before spitting-out the remaining sand grains.

The spiny squat lobster is a most attractive creature, with a flattened body about 3cm long, and claws that are the same length again. The abdomen was intricately patterned with kingfisher-blue stripes, whilst the tips of the legs and claws were tinged with red. Despite the vibrant colouration, the creature blended superbly with the environment, and it seemed that the blue stripes mimicked the patterns of light that rippled across the seabed.

Another similar animal appeared, which was greener in colour, and which I identified as a common squat lobster, a different species.  Witnessing two types of squat lobster over a short period was a real nature jackpot, and I watched enthralled as the animals went about their business.

I moved on towards another group of rocks where I glimpsed a pair of red antennae poking out from a shallow crevice. It was a lobster, a much larger creature altogether, and which is such an important quarry for creel fishermen.  It was spooked by my approach, so it emerged from its shelter and scuttled over the seabed to find a deeper hole to seek refuge.

In this marine heaven, pearly coloured sea squirts adorned rocks and hermit crabs side-stepped comically over the seabed. My mind buzzed with happiness at the vibrancy of life that unfurled before me, and which acted as a telling reminder of the importance of protecting our precious oceans.

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