Rockpooling on the Isle of Wight

On a warm summer’s day, nothing beats a family trip to the beach. But did you know that there’s so much more to do than just swimming and sandcastles? When the tide starts to go out, rock pools are left behind and inside them you’ll find all sorts of strange and fascinating marine wildlife. Here on the Isle of Wight, our beaches at St Helens, Compton and Culver are some of the best places to go to discover just what crazy creatures and slimy seaweed live in these tiny worlds.

What lives in a rock pool?

Carefully lift aside any loose rocks and seaweed and you’ll find all sorts of wildlife. If you look very carefully you might spot tiny little fish that are cleverly camouflaged against the rocks such as blennies and gobies. You can tell them apart by their dorsal fin: blennies have one, whilst gobies have two. Brightly coloured sea anemones are easier to spot. They stick themselves to rocks and shells and wave their tentacles at you. If you prod them they’ll squirt water at you, but you might not want to do that as they only have one opening so everything they eat, and all that they digest, has to go in and out the same way. Brittlestars look like little skinny starfish and use their long legs to help them filter food.

You’ll also find lots of creatures in shells. Whelks and periwinkles are sea snails, and like their land based cousins, have swirling shells to protect them. In pointy shells stuck to the rocks like glue you’ll probably find barnacles and limpets. They might not look like they move but if you had a long time to watch, you’d see them move ever so slowly.

Multiple limpet shells stuck to a rock

There are lots of other weird creatures too: sea squirts that feed by taking in water through a tube; tiny crabs that are small enough to fit in the palm of your hand; shrimps and prawns that are almost transparent and sometimes swim backwards; miniscule squat lobsters that are only about 6cm long. And if you’re very lucky, you might even see a delicate little seahorse floating about.

Slimy seaweed

Although the slimy seaweed might be hiding the tiny rock pool creatures, it’s also interesting too. Different types of seaweed prefer different depths of water, so you might find some attached to the rocks, or it might have been washed ashore. They range in colour from bright greens to purply-reds and dark browns, and although they are attached to the rocks by their ‘holdfast’ like the roots of a plant, they actually take in their food from the water. Channelled wrack can live up to eight days without water, whilst bladder wrack has little round bladders that help it to float upright under water. Gutweed is hard to miss: it’s bright green and looks like intestines.

Will you find some bladderwrack seaweed?
Girl inspecting some seaweed on a beach
Will you find some bladderwrack seaweed?

Where to go?

A yellowish winter sun bathes Red Cliff and Culver Cliff in an eerie light

Culver beach

It’s quite a walk along from the car park at Yaverland (chargeable and non NT), but the ledges of rock at the base of Culver Down are great for rockpooling. At low tide, Culver beach is a wide expanse of soft golden sand, so it’s easy to walk along, but please be aware of the changing tide when you go exploring. There are toilets (non NT) in the car park at Yaverland and access to the beach is by a slipway.

The beach at Compton, Isle of Wight

Compton Bay and Brook

At the base of Hanover Point, where Brook and Compton beaches meet, millions of years ago a forest once stood. Now the ledges of rock formed from the fossilisation of the forest, are home to rock pools and sea life instead of the dinosaurs that once roamed here. You can park in either Brook or Compton car parks (free for NT members) and head along to beach at low tide. Access from Compton is via steep wooden steps but from Brook there is a ramp onto the beach. There are also toilets in Compton car park.

How to look after yourself and the rock pools

Before you head to the rock pools, there are a few things to remember:

  • Please wear footwear suitable for scrambling over slippery rocks – old trainers or wellies are ideal
  • Some people like to use nets with long handles, but these aren’t really recommended because they can harm delicate animals
  • Please put rocks and seaweed back carefully where you found them, and the same way up as before
  • Try to avoid handling any creatures more than you need to for identification, and always return them back to their rock pool homes afterwards
  • Avoid getting caught out by a rising tide and getting too close to the base of the cliffs as there can be rock falls.

So why not see if you can find the slimiest seaweed, slipperiest fish or biggest crab in one of our rock pools? You’ll also be ticking off No.37 on your 50 things activity list too. And if you return everything to its home before you return home, then you’re helping to protect the delicate wildlife that lives here.