Rockpooling guide for families

A boy with a fishing net among the rockpools at Birling Gap, East Sussex

Ranger, marine biologist and rockpooling fan Kate Martin shares her top tips for a day out discovering the fascinating creatures found on our shores, one of our 50 things to do before you’re 11 ¾.

When to go

You can go rockpooling at any time of the year but the best time is late spring to early autumn as this is when the weather is at its kindest.Our seas tend to be at their warmest in September and coldest in March.

Watch the weather

It’s best to go rockpooling when the weather is dry and calm, as this will keep the surface of a rock pool still, making it easier to see into the waters beneath. It will also help you keep warm and dry.

Where to look

Often rock pools closest to the beach are full of green seaweed called gut weed, which looks like intestines! These brackish pools (a mixture of seawater and freshwater) aren’t good for rockpooling.
Most rock pool creatures are marine animals and need full seawater. Pools closest to the sea edge are better – look at these first and move inland as the tide comes in.

What’s that swimming about?

You can start investigating a rock pool by seeing what’s swimming under the surface. You might see small fish such as a goby, butterfish or blenny. If you’re lucky you might spot a pipefish, which looks like a swimming shoelace and is related to the seahorse.
Prawns and shrimps are also common inhabitants of rock pools. They move very quickly and often swim backwards when you least expect it.

Dwellers in the depths

At the bottom of rock pools you might see a starfish or its skinny, spiny relative, the brittlestar. Sea hares (a type of sea slug) can often be found munching on seaweed. Their colour depends on the seaweed they feed on.
Look carefully and you might see a sea anemone waving its tentacles gently at you. You may also get a glimpse of a shell moving on legs – a hermit crab that’s made its home in an old periwinkle shell.

Hidden creatures

To get the best out of a rock pool you need to get your hands wet. Turning over seaweed can bring sea mats, sea squirts or sponges into view. You may also find the white swirls of tube worms such as keel worms.
Pick up rocks and you may see a green shore crab or porcelain crab scuttle out. Look out for edible crabs, which often look like pebbles, and squat lobsters. Beware of the red-eyed blue velvet swimming crab though, as it can nip.

Taking a closer look

A bucket lets you contain rock pool creatures for closer inspection. Remember to let them go again where you found them after a short time. Place the bucket in the water and see what swims in or push it gently through the water to scoop up a critter you’ve found.
Using a net isn’t recommended, as many rock pool creatures are small and delicate and being tangled in a net can cause them harm.

Don’t forget to check the rocks

Take time to look into the crevices between rocks where you may find stacks of periwinkle shells sheltering from the sun and wind. You may also see mussels, their shells tightly closed waiting for the tide to come in, and the white shell of a dogwhelk.
On more exposed bits of rock you may find limpets and as you clamber away from pools you will no doubt comes across scratchy barnacles.

Good rockpooling guides

A good pocket sized ID guide is handy to carry with you. Seashore (published by Collins Gem) is very clear and has great pictures but there are plenty of others available.
There are also online resources such as The Marine Life Information Network, the Marine Conservation Society’s website, which has some great resources and spotting guides, and the BBC’s rock pool page.

Stay safe and warm

Make sure you wear shoes with a good grip when rockpooling. Old trainers, wellies or wetsuit boots with a thick sole are ideal. Flip-flops are useless!
Rock pools can often be in quite exposed places and you might get chilly standing around so take a warm jumper or a coat with you. A small travel first aid kit to deal with cuts and scrapes from tumbles on the rocks is also a good idea.

Be aware of tides

It’s really important to check tide times for the area you intend to explore – the last thing you want is to be caught out by a rising tide. The best time to set out is at low tide as this is when the greatest number of rock pools will be exposed.
To find out tide times you can buy a local tide table, usually from a shop near the beach. You can find daily tide times for your location from websites such as Tide Times. The BBC Weather website also has a five-day tide timetable.

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