Understanding the World

Secrets of the shallows: exploring incredible rock pools

A guest post by Grandpa Smith

Like many British families, we were forced to change our summer holiday plans this year, cancelling our trip to sunnier climes for something a little closer to home. Holidays abroad are always a wonderful opportunity for children to expand their perspectives and learn about the world beyond their own. Can a ‘staycation’ really offer the same opportunities? Well, it depends where you look, and how closely.

For instance, a UK beach may not offer warm white sands and inviting azure waters of a Mediterranean island, but it can give your child a window onto a world that is completely unlike our own; a world that’s diverse, ever-changing, and teeming with exotic life: the rock pool.

A child holds a jar containing a live star fish that she found in a rock pool
The chance to find a star fish – one of the biggest attractions of rock pooling

Rock-pooling is a low-cost fantastic activity from which young children will gain a huge amount of curiosity and confidence. These shallow pools of seawater, which form during low tide on our rocky intertidal shoreline, represent a great opportunity for them to observe nature and increase their understanding of the world.

It may not match a trip to the zoo for sheer scale, but here, children can observe, up close, strange new creatures surviving in harsh, transient conditions very different from their own lives. Rock pools (or tide pools) are a great opportunity for children to make their own observations, ask questions and use new vocabulary to describe the bizarre, hardy creatures that inhabit this hidden, constantly changing world.

Tools for Tide Pools

Investigating rock pools is an activity that requires little preparation. All you really need is a small net (often available from seaside shops) and a similar transparent container, (usually a glass jar) that will allow temporary investigation of any finds you make. Old trainers or ‘jelly sandals’ are a good idea for extra grip as you make your way across the rocks.

It’s probably best to go rock-pooling between late spring and early autumn, and on a day when the weather is calmer, so the water will be still. Make sure you check your local tide table to avoid disappointment.

We are fortunate to have a good choice of beaches nearby and one of our favourite spots is best visited at low tide when the fascinating world of rock pools is briefly revealed. Daisy wasn’t too disappointed about staying with her grandparents for her summer holiday – she likes to have plenty of time at the beach so the only consideration was how we’d ever get her home for dinner.

After finding a safe spot on the beach to leave our belongings (and Granny Smith) our adventure on the rocks began. First came the clambering and hopping that’s always involved in traversing the rocky intertidal landscape; the surface of the rocks were as slippery as ever, so this required concentration and balance from both adult and child.

As we negotiated the rocks, we started to notice the flashes of light as the sun and sky were reflected in the hidden pools. Finally we adopted an investigative squat as a rock pool was selected for more scrutiny.

Crabs, cockles and cowries

Daisy and I discovered that the deeper rock pools were usually more rewarding, but even these required a good deal of patience before the shady shallows revealed their treasures. While poised over our pool we took time to listen to the incredible sounds of the beach: gulls and oyster catchers, the far-off surf, the soft pop of bubbles and the shouts of other rock-poolers. We also sniffed the rich potpourri created by mud, seaweed, and the general decay of generations of various deceased crustaceans.

Slowly the rock pools revealed their secrets: tiny shrimp darting through the waving fronds, sluggish crabs lumbering through the soggy sand and stoic limpets perched on stones. Then there was the abundance of shells – some occupied, others vacant. I counted cockles, mussels, whelks, winkles, cowries, and razors.

As we moved from pool to pool we were lucky enough to spot the occasional starfish, prostate where low water had deposited them, waiting out the hours before the next high tide. We saw no jellyfish or hermit crabs on this occasion but we did discover a fat sea anemone waving its myriad tentacles at unwary passing sea creatures.

We gently picked some of the specimens out using our net and examined them in the jar, and then returned them gently to their homes.

Tapering between two barnacled rocks, the surface of a mysterious rock pool (or tide pool) reflects late afternoon sunlight - seaweed is visible at the bottom of the pool
The shallow waters of a rock pool can contain a multitude of fascinating, hardy sea creatures

Rock-pooling is always absorbing; like the prospector or gambler we are driven by the belief that the very next pool is the one that is bound to hide the big reward!

All too soon, we noticed the pools become more numerous and heard the trickle of the incoming water that heralded the return of the sea to claim its magical kingdom. So we rock hopped back, ready to share stories and photos.

Granny Smith says

  • Rock-pooling is a rich source of multi-sensory learning and a great opportunity for bonding with your grandchildren.
  • You need to keep an eye on the tide (again, check the timetable) and exercise some caution when clambering; shells can be sharp and barnacled rocks abrasive.
  • Another benefit is that the only souvenirs you can take home are memories; anything else will start to stink after a day or so!
On the horizon, the glow of late evening sunlight is visible behind the clouds, shining onto dark and glittering waves as the tide comes in across a beach
When the tide comes in, the fun has to stop – until tomorrow!

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