I have always had a fascination with marine life and growing up on the Isle of Wight meant I spent most of my childhood at the coast exploring the beaches and spotting wildlife.
The coastal environments around the Island and the Solent are just incredible. From the saltmarsh and mudflats to the rocky shores and seagrass meadows, these unique habitats form part of the intertidal zone (the area of the shore that is exposed at low tide and subsequently covered back up again at high tide) and they provide a home to all kinds of weird and wonderful seaweeds and marine creatures.
The rocky shore during a low tide is a particularly good place to spot marine wildlife, and you only have to look in a rockpool to see just how many different species can be found in one small space! It can be a harsh environment however, so anything that lives there needs to be tough enough to survive in the extreme conditions (exposure, wave impact, weather and fluctuating temperature and salinity levels). Each species has a tolerance level of how long they can last in shallow or no water while the tide is out, and this will determine where on the shore you might find them. This is called zonation and affects seaweeds as well as animals, which is why you only find certain species at certain places on the shore.
Anemones are my favourite creatures to find, there is something so alien like about them, but at the same time they really are quite beautiful. Whilst they might look like a plant, they are in fact an animal, closely related to jellyfish and corals. Three species you might come across include the snakelocks anemone which has bright green and purple tentacles, dahlia anemones (named after dahlia flowers) which come in a wide range of colours and then you have the more common beadlet anemones who are one of the toughest creatures around and can spend hours exposed out of the water thanks to their clever design.
One the best things I’ve ever found were some candy striped flatworms (pictured above) last summer at Bembridge. I had never seen them before, and it was fascinating watching the way that they move. I’ve also been lucky enough to find pipefish (a close relative of the seahorse) and stalked jellyfish which cleverly attach themselves onto blades of seagrass. Not forgetting all of the amazing species of crustaceans (such as crabs and shrimps), molluscs (shellfish and sea slugs), the fish and even just the range of colourful seaweeds I’ve come across.
I’m always keen to learn more so since 2011 I’ve been helping out with intertidal surveys on the Island run by the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust. These involve surveying areas of rocky intertidal shore and recording the different species found. It is a brilliant citizen science project that not only collects important data, but also helps to raise awareness and educate local people on the importance of these habitats. You can find out more about the surveys here: Intertidal Surveys | Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust (hiwwt.org.uk).
Not only is this a hobby, but understanding more about our marine habitats really helps me in my job as a Ranger. Our over-wintering birds rely heavily on the intertidal zone as a food source, and it becomes a lifeline for them during the cold winter months. Our dark-bellied brent geese love to eat seagrass and green seaweeds like sea lettuce, whereas our wading birds such as oystercatcher, curlew and redshank will feed on crustaceans and worms, digging their beaks into the exposed sand and mud during low tides.
Whilst at first glance seaweed may not look that interesting and even though many of the rocky shore creatures are small, they all play an important part in balancing the marine ecosystem and deserve just as much appreciation and respect as our bigger more well known wildlife. Next time you take a trip to the beach, see if you can spot any marine wonders of your own, and have a think about how everything connects together in the delicate balance of the natural world.