Here and There in the Fresh Sea Air

After Christmas excesses it is good to walk and with our lovely coast there is variety and interest always.  A walk round La Hougue is always a pleasure although I see that with the passing of years – we have been here for nearly twelve years – the most seaward stretches of that circuitous wall are narrow.  Time’s coming when I think it will be sensible to go with a companion.  I love going to Pointe de Saire because this is a honey-pot for shell collectors and it is rare that I do not find a wentletrap or two when I rake over the shell-rich deposits which get left in drifts against sand waves and banks.  The point is a place of high energy; the rise and fall of the tides, together with the rip currents which run round that headland and through the channel between raised areas of granite outcrop are continually lifting and redepositing the shelly sands and gravels.  Bedforms are reconfigured and new shapes are created and strandlines are recast in diverse patterns.  Garlands of shells lie in the narrow and shallow runnels between sand waves and ripples.  The sea is the ultimate sorter, it is a subtle process.

Just before New Year we shared a delightful interlude with Tanou and Jean-Pierre.    They are great gamers, of the Scrabble, Barbu and other card games ilk.  We were invited to late afternoon tea with goodies that they had bought at one of the excellent Christmas Markets that take place in Alsace.  In recent years similar events have started to take place in the UK.  The Natural History Museum hosts such a seasonal market and an ice rink is installed alongside and the sight of skaters as I hasten to catch an Underground train after an afternoon meeting of the Conchological Society is one of those key moments with which I associate the impending festival.  Walking home from their home, ‘La Bouillote’ :D, we pass a house whose front garden features small trees which have been garlanded with baubles and an engaging sign on the gatepost which reads: “Here lives a happy retired person”.

Walking back to my parked car after an expedition to Pointe de Saire I was looking for possible new sources of shell-rich strandline to browse.  There were certainly distinct drifts of seaweed, with the sea’s most recent delivery of shells, to scan for unusual species.  But what I noticed in particular were the right (i.e. convex, lower) and the left (i.e. flat, upper) valves of Pecten maximus scattered across the upper shore, like so many open fans.  Lovely.

Splashes of Pink on a Grey Day

Six days into the New Year and still it rains.  The outlook from the house is a grey one but I must be undeterred to take myself out for fresh air and exercise.  So the day after our Baie d’Ecalgrain jaunt I make a short trip to the north coast of the Cotentin and park by the blockhaus site at Neville sur Mer.  I’m to see what sort of strandlines there might be there.Blog-NevilleHeadland2

The tide is coming in and washing before it tangles of fucoids and kelp.  Little else.  Even looking at the strandlines at the top of the beach they are remarkably clean of other detritus.  Which is a good thing, in a way.  So little in the way of plastic, decaying organic matter and nothing to excite the attentions of a hopeful beachcomber.  So I walk the waterline eastwards and the upper driftline back.  Two solitary fisherfolk and a walker or two are the only other human presences on that windswept beach.  Nearing the end of my walk I catch sight of a splash of pink.  Blog-NevilleScallopIt is a Pecten shell, chipped at the edge but a bright item to enliven an otherwise drab substrate.  The pink matches the other splash of pink that caught my eye this morning as I walked across to the storeroom to look for some ingredients.  The camellia which I potted last year, because it was clearly failing in the flowerbed where all the Hellebores are, has rallied: the leaves have re-greened and there are a few buds and some flowers already open.  I now think I will pot the other two camellias to keep on the terrace too.Pink-Camellia

The following day I choose to investigate my beach pockets at Pointe de Saire and Nick accompanies me.  The wind has come up but the rain holds off for the duration of our ‘balade’ across the middle of the day.  My so-called beach pockets appear to have been swamped by sand.  It is evident from the sweeps of sand creating irregular sand waves and ridges that large amounts of sediment are being moved around those rock outcrops where the beach pockets occur.  The fresh deposits of colourful shells are not where they ought to be, but I find them.Blog-PointeDeSaieShellline  At the foot of a slope before the shore flattens out to the area of gravels and shallow standing water there are two of three sweeps of shelly material containing lots of whole shells.  This is where I place my kneeler and look for all the usual suspects which are markers for the possibility of a wentletrap.Blog-PointeDeSaireWentletrap  I find the Calliostoma top shells first then Trivia and just as Nick strolls up I say to him that I am finding all the indicators that I am searching in the right place, sweeping my hand gently over the surface to turn up shells just below the top layer as I do so, and there lying on the surface is a large white wentletrap absolutely on cue.  I have written elsewhere on my blog about wentletraps, check out this post of June 2013.



Mermaid’s Purses, Egg Wrack Bladders and other Red Herrings

After a too long interval of activities which have kept me grounded in my houses, Nick and I took the opportunity to make a trip to the coast for some walking.   As we stepped out of the car near our chosen beach we were a bit non-plussed to see a view that suggested that it was already high tide.  However as we walked down some steps we could see that access to upper shore was still available and the morning’s strandlines were still in place.   We chose Baie d’Ecalgrain because it is on the West Cotentin and I was keen to see if there would be interesting material mixed in the strandlines of seaweed, driftwood and other detritus.  Blog-EcalgrainPebbles14The south and southwest coasts of England have been receiving assorted exotica and long haul drift items – like Velella, and plastic containers such as fish boxes and other substrates to which are attached several species of goose barnacle.  Columbus crabs, non-native to the northeast Atlantic, live in the goose barnacle colonies and in consequence sail the high seas.  The plastic items also have attached non-native bivalve species such as ChamaThree species of these ‘Jewel Box Clams’ (worth checking out this link to see variety of images) were found on one item which helpfully had the name of the Florida-based fishery to which the fish box had belonged!  Clearly a long haul stranding.

But there was none of that.  Instead along the strandline at the foot of the cliff I found the usual suspects: bottle corks and tops, pine cones, feathers, mermaid’s purses, cuttlebones, limpet shells, and bits of seaweed, particularly fucoids.  One species in this group of algae, Ascophyllum nodosum  carries particularly large air bladders and when these die and start to dry out they turn a kidney red colour.  Blog-EcalgrainPebbles12There is something that I have been searching for ever since I discovered the delights of beachcombing and that is a Sea BeanHow I would love to find one.  A friend in Dorset has found three on the beach at Kimmeridge in the past two weeks.  Rarely do they get carried so far up the Channel after they have survived an Atlantic crossing.  Sea Beans and Nickar Nuts do get stranded around the coast of Cornwall more frequently but they are still rare finds.  So when I spotted the Ascophyllum bladders my hopes soared for a fleeting moment before I realised that the shape was too oval for the bean. Blog-GouryColoursRedPebble I also had a moment or two of expectation when I spotted the occasional round and russetty red pebble lying in the weed and detritus tangles.  But as of the moment the search goes on.

What the shore at Baie d’Ecalgrain does have to offer is a wonderful colour range of stones in a wide range of lithologies.  I picked up one or two but there would be far too many eye-catching pebbles to weigh down my rucksack so I contented myself with some pebble photography of which a small selection are presented in the gallery below.

Beachcombing: a Dialogue with the Sea

It has been my delight to walk strandlines throughout my living memory.  I have found some ‘treasures’ for sure, but there are others, as illustrated in The Essential Guide to Beachcombing and the Strandline, that have eluded me.  The possibility of filling some of these gaps is a reason I will never tire of walking a strandline where I find one.


This Guide to Beachcombing has been written by Dorset residents Steve Trewhella and Julie Hatcher, people with a complementary range of expertise in marine biology,  scuba diving, outreach, photography and a solid commitment to conservation.  They are seasoned and highly knowledgeable beachcombers and have shared so much of their knowledge and enthusiasm in their book: a beachcomber’s compendium which offers a well-informed insight into the processes and materials that contribute to the formation of strandlines: the ephemeral drifts of rejectamenta that the sea has deposited for us to find.

The opening sections introduce the strandline and give advice on how to get the best out of beachcombing.  For members of this Society, walking the strandlines is a familiar activity and indeed, regular recreational beach walkers will recognise many of the items described in the book.  From the outset the value of reporting and recording sightings is emphasised.  I thought the information in these opening section would be familiar territory for me until I  met the concept of ‘water parcels’.  They are discrete bundles of water with properties, determined by slight variation in temperature, which differ from the surrounding sea.  Think of them travelling through the water as clouds float through air.  This phenomenon helps to explain an intriguing feature of strandings; how two or more long-haul drift items may wash ashore on a UK beach within metres of each other, having travelled thousands of miles together.

There is a short section entitled ‘Keeping Safe’ which advises on the subject of tides, weather, unstable cliffs, soft muds and sinking sands. A mobile phone should form part of one’s kit and hands should be washed after poking amongst detritus and decaying material. However one glaring omission in the safety section is the matter of dangerous debris.  Stoppered plastic and glass containers are often washed in with their contents.  This may be seawater but could equally well be something hazardous or toxic. Other potential dangers are explosive items such as marine flares, and sharp objects.  This is all the more important if you have young children with you.

The contents pages indicate the exhaustive coverage of  what you may, or may not, expect to find washed up on a beach.  A short introduction to beaches leads into seaweeds then  molluscs right through the range of organic items that fetch up on the shore.  I was particularly taken with the section on Mermaids’ purses:  egg cases of twelve elasmobranch (sharks, skates and rays) species are illustrated.  Many people have heard of Mermaid’s purses but fewer have probably heard of a Mermaid’s glove (a sponge).  Collectables such as jet, amber, seaglass, desirable driftwood pieces….. all these are described and illustrated.  Sea beans, or drift seeds, are unusual and highly prized and I learnt about the Outer Hebridean folklore surrounding Mary’s Bean, a protective talisman.

However this book also deals with the downside of beachcombing and what the sea is saying to us.  Carcasses, skeletal remains, oiled birds, live and dead strandings of cetaceans and turtles tell a sorry story.  The tides dump tons of detritus: plastics, fishing litter, land-sourced and sewage related detritus and the economic consequences and the problems for wildlife are only too evident.  This is a necessary part of the dialogue the oceans have with we landlubbers.  It throws our non-biodegradeable rubbish right back at us.  Unfortunately all to often marine animals ingest plastics such as bags and, increasingly, balloons which end up in the sea.  They become ensnared in netting, the unnecessary loss of life is very sad.   Concluding sections in the book give a more positive perspective:  the strandline has its own ecosystem of plants, insects and arachnids and supports a variety of coastal birds.

The guide combines the attributes of a concise yet comprehensive treatment of beachcombing and strandlines.  A stellar feature of the book is the profusion of excellent photographs which accompany descriptions of the common and rare beach finds, natural and man-made.  What a useful book this would be to have on the bookshelves of houses in coastal towns and seaside holiday homes.

Postscript: At the time of writing this review the western and southwestern seaboards of the British Isles and Ireland are being pounded by persistent westerlies and southwesterlies, with sea states reaching high numbers on the Beaufort Scale.  News of strandings, seemingly with unprecedented frequency and abundance, are being reported on the newsfeed of the Facebook page linked to Steve Trewhella and Julie Hatcher’s book.  Four species of goose barnacle attached to floating substrates were cast ashore over a November weekend in Newquay.   Three Jewel Box Clam species (Chama) have been identified on plastic Stone crab pot, probably drifted from Florida, which fetched up on Praa Sands in Cornwall.  Most spectacularly a huge piece of flotsam, a section of a US spacecraft, measuring about 10m (32ft) by 4m (13ft), was spotted floating at the sea surface between Bryher and Tresco.12278723_1098281743529312_5533964571901374062_n Just failing to make landfall off the north end of the islands, it was towed ashore by local boatmen. They said “We’re grateful for all those who helped in its recovery, it was a great example of the community working together.”  What a pity no-one in that community thought to suggest that hosing the item off, there and then, might result in a lot of useful and interesting biological information being washed away.  As Steve commented on the Essential Guide’s Facebook page, “I’m afraid the ‘ authorities ‘ felt the need to steam clean them (the goose barnacles) all off , including numerous other species which would have settled, a one-off chance to study growth rates and potential invasive species on an object with an exact date of entering the Ocean…..”  Let’s hope that Steve and Julie’s guide finds it way into wider and wider circulation.