At the start of the school summer holidays, I compiled a summer holiday bucket list, basically a list of things that I’d like to do with the bairns over the seven-and-a-half week school break. Now, here we are, almost at the end of the holidays, and we’ve ticked off hardly any of the things on this list. Granted, we did have two weeks on Harris where we ticked off their bucket-list experiences, but that said, the holidays are passing quickly, and before we know it, it’ll be back to 9 am starts and early bedtimes once more.
One of the experiences on the bucket list was a rock pooling session at Leebitten, Sandwick. This is arguably one of the best spots to explore rock pools in Shetland, and rock pooling is great fun for both children and adults alike as you’re never quite sure what you might find. RSPB Shetland often do rockpooling sessions, and it’s worth keeping an eye on their Facebook page for more information about these days.
Leebitten is a fantastic spot for rock pooling as, when the tide goes out, a vast area becomes semi-submerged by the outgoing tide, trapping a considerable variety of species inside a plethora of colourful pools.
At the outset, I should say that when rock pooling, be mindful that you are entering a habitat and that any creatures that you do find should be observed, handled gently and released back into the wild. It’s also important to wear wellie boots and keep an eye on younger children as some of the pools can be quite deep and the ground is very uneven.
We set off from armed with small fishing nets, jam jars, kitchen sieves and a plastic crate to examine our finds in. The tide was at its lowest point as we arrived, and the rock pools were glistening in the late morning sunshine. As we began to peel back layers of seaweed and upturn rocks, the noisy Arctic terns provided a raucous musical backdrop overhead as they fished out at sea.
These are my ‘field notes’ from what we found in the pools:
These delicate little creatures are easy to miss and fascinating to observe. Related to starfish, their fine, hair-like legs appear gossamer thin. They earn their name because they can shed legs if they feel threatened in any way. They are very delicate, so be very careful to collect them carefully or simply observe them in the water without disturbing them. They use their legs to filter feed, raising them into the current to absorb nutrients.
Green shore crabs
These are the most common crabs found on the seashore, and we found an abundance of them. We also found one small brown crab in the furthest reaches of the pools, but generally, they were all green crabs – one that we found was carrying lots of eggs, ready for spawning, that bulged from her stomach in a large orange mass. Incredibly, the female crab can lay up to 185,000 eggs that she carries in this orange sac on her underside.
We found plenty of hermit crabs, living within various discarded shells, ambling around the rock pools. They’re a delight to watch as they carry their shell home on their back and scuttle around the pools, covering inside the shell when they sense danger. Hermit crabs will inhabit discarded spiral shells, and they are constantly on the lookout for a better shell to call home – sounds a lot like us humans, who are obsessed with the property market too!
Butterfish are small eel-like fish that are reddish-brown and allegedly take their name from the fact they are difficult to hold – like butter! We found and successfully captured two of these nimble little fish. Butterfish are a favourite snack of the Eurasian otters found around Shetland’s shoreline, feeding either side of low tide. Butterfish are common in rock pools and shallow waters.
Better known locally as scaddyman’s or scabbyman’s heads in Shetland, sea urchins are often seen in rock pools or clinging to the side of piers around Shetland. We didn’t find a living example in the rock pools, but we did find the empty, spiny shell of one. These are edible and thought to be a delicacy, particularly in parts of Asia.
We saw several anemones clinging to the rocks within the pools, their shocking red manes hanging out and swaying in the water until they are disturned, and they quickly retract inside, leaving just a shiny red pore on the rock face. Be careful not to touch anemones as they can sting.
These are commonly found on beaches above the high-water mark – turn over a stone, and they’re likely to spring out at you – and provide an important food source for many birds. They’re not the most interesting species on the beach, but they are a valuable energy source for birds like the turnstone that are often seen feeding on the beaches.
Sea spaghetti and seaweeds
The rock pools were full of every kind of seaweed that I can’t even begin to identify without a ‘Dictionary of British Seaweed’ – if such a book exists. However, our favourite was the long strands of sea spaghetti that grew from a mushroom-like base. Sea spaghetti can grow to several metres in length and is particularly striking in rock pools. Apparently, this stuff is a delicacy to eat, although I wasn’t sold on it, if I’m honest. Please remember that if collecting sea spaghetti, don’t cut all the fronds from the plant; leave a good chunk of it to grow on. Seaweed is a plant, after all, and cutting all the strands will damage the parent plant. Other seaweed highlights included the striking lime green sea spaghetti, and the usual kelps and bladderwrack were there.
All in all, rock pooling is great fun - for both young and old. So why not give it a try?
Until next time, enjoy these last precious weeks of the holidays!
A little about Laurie
Hello, and welcome to my blog. I hope that you find what you're looking for, whether you are planning that perfect holiday or maybe you're from Shetland and looking for some inspiration. Hopefully, there is something here for everyone.