A sea anemone writhes. Tiny fish dart into the shadows. A crab looks right at you from under a pebble. Nothing quite captures the imagination like a rock pool. Peering through the glassy water into an entire world in miniature is thrilling, and not only for young minds. Each pool is like a soap opera of activity, ever changing, and different tide and tide again.
Whether you’re a dedicated rock pool enthusiast or fancy a quick look as part of a day at the beach, this blog post should be your starting point. Bringing together the best content the RSPB has to offer on rock pools, you’ll know what to look out for, where to find it, how to get the most out of your rock pool experience, and what to do if the weather changes your plans and you have to postpone rock pools for another weekend.
What should I bring?
To ensure you have the best time possible, we’ve created two handy checklists.
Essential rock pool checklist for guaranteed fun:
Optional rock pool extras for double the fun:
Make a Bottle Scope
All you need is a plastic bottle (you may even be able to remove one from the beach!), clingfilm, an elastic band and a penknife. Carefully cut both ends off the bottle and cover one end with clingfilm, held in place with the elastic band. Then wrap the whole lot up in black tape to block out the light. Pop the clingfilm end into a rockpool and peer down it to examine the marine life inside. What can you spot?
Where should I go?
There are loads of great rock pooling opportunities on beaches across the country. Find one of our reserves near you, or head to one of these fantastic locations close by for a rock pool ramble or just a day at the beach! Here’s a mix of rough and ready reserves and some of our more equipped ones. Some with rock pools nearby, and a few with a more beachy feel. Always check the reserve site before you visit for up-to-date information and a full list of facilities.
The rock pooling really shines on the west coast of the UK, and England is no exception. But there are places on the east and south coast if you go looking. Northumberland being a notable example of some of the most beautiful coast in the UK.
Walberswick near RSPB Dingle Marshes, Suffolk
We have fantastic reserves just about everywhere, and some of my favourites are in East Anglia. Unfortunately, rock pools aren’t as common here, but Walberswick is a lovely day out and not only close to Dingle Marshes but RSPB Minsmere – a gem of a reserve for all ages. There are great facilities and other things to do in nearby coastal towns and villages, plus Minsmere has some of the best cake I’ve ever eaten!
RSPB Titchwell Marsh, Norfolk
A seemingly endless strip of sand lapped by the North Sea. As you walk through the marshland to the beach, look out for avocet families with fluffy chicks, or even an elusive bittern.
St Bee’s Beach and RSPB St Bee’s Head
The Northwest. Rocky, unspoilt and beautiful. There’s plenty of choice on the Cumbrian coast for stunning beaches with rock pools, but make sure you get to RSPB St Bee’s Head for a seabird sighting before you head to the pools. Facilities run by the council.
Ness Beach and RSPB Labrador Bay, South Devon
The Northwest is great, but for rock pools I’d have to pick the South West (plus I’m a soft southerner). Surfing draws me down here regularly, as does the bird life with star species being Cirl buntings and choughs. Ness beach is a little spot accessed by a smugglers tunnel, and close to RSPB Labrador Bay, which offers spectacular views of Lyme Bay and others. Facilities are close by but not on-site, however.
RSPB Marazion Marsh, Cornwall
Overlooking the mystical St Michael's Mount, this little reedbed fronts a strip of Cornish sand lapped by gentle turquoise waters. Home to more than 250 bird species (incliding Cetti's warbler, sand martins and chiffchaff) and 18 mammal species.
RSPB Arne, Dorset
Has a small, sheltered sandy bay in the calm waters of Poole Harbour, with plenty of bird life. Look out for rare sand lizards among the coastal heather, and Dartford warblers atop gorse bushes.
In my opinion, Scotland’s coast is unmatched. It’s huge for a start, and then there’s everything from the almost Mediterranean feeling beaches of the Western Isles, to the rugged beauty of the north east coast.
Stonehaven town and beach near RSPB Fowlsheurgh, Aberdeenshire
Feeling ready for an adventure? Good. This east coast Scottish reserve is nestled between several wild feeling bays, and once you’re done exploring there, the town of Stonehaven will have all the facilities you’ll need. Plus more rock pools!
RSPB Balranald, Isle of North Uist
Scotland's western coasts are gilded with talcum-white coral sand, lapped by invigorating azure waters dotted with intriguing islands. Balranald is on one of them.
Taeth Crigyll and RSPB South Stack, Angelsey
Seabirds, windswept coast and great facilities at South Stack make it one of the most engaging Welsh reserves, and the nearby bays and beaches mean there’s a ton to do. Wales is a top choice for a family holiday in general if you’re not lucky enough to live there already.
Ballycastle Strand and RSPB Rathlin Island
The castle and beach at Ballycastle Strand is pretty epic, and Rathlin Island only makes the whole experience more special. The ferry ride, the views of the Mull of Kintyre, the seals, seabirds and waders – everything. It’s a not-to-be-missed reserve for the UK and a seafaring adventure for the family.
What am I looking at, anyway?
It can be really satisfying to identify wildlife, but also really fun to find something you’ve never seen before. Don’t worry if you don’t know what something is though – discovery is its own reward. Whether it’s a regular rock pool pal or a rare visitor, everyone has a favourite. Here are some creatures sure to get you and your gang excited.
Crabs, hermit or otherwise
Anna, Nature’s Home managing editor has a lot to say about hermit crabs, “These property-ladder climbing little masters of disguise are fun and fascinating to watch - so it’s little wonder that we find hermit crabs so beguiling. I’m putting them at number one for sheer personality. Look for shells moving in a jerkier way than you’d expect from a mollusc.
A lovely description, and hermit crabs are incredible, but where’s the love for the humble shore crab? Infinitely entertaining and accessible, crabs have it all to captivate young ones. Pinchy, scuttly, characterful, and catchable for a close up look. Watch out for the pincers and try to pick up the crab by the leg sides of its shell from above – the widest bit. Don’t keep them too long though; they have important crab business to attend to.
“Our most common starfish has five arms covered with white pimples, and can reach 30 cm across. Its suckery little feet can prise a mollusc shell apart enough to slip a bit of its own stomach in and secrete enzymes to liquefy the shellfish inside... but if needs be, they can survive several months without food (though they'll shrink).” Anna says.
I haven’t seen a starfish for a while in the UK. Other species to look out for are spiny starfish, cushion star, bloody Henry starfish, and brittle star. See if you can find all five of this summer!
Regularfish (blenny and goby)
Several species of goby can appear in rock pools, and they’ll stand out from the crowd being little tiny fish. The real star here though is the semi-amphibious blenny, that will slip and crawl over rocks between pools, or hide up in some wet seaweed until the tide returns. Entertaining survival techniques.
Shells glued to rocks, aka limpets
According to Anna, “The king of the clingers, the rock-pool VIP… Limpets boast the strongest muscle tissue of any animal, holding on with an incredible force of 75 lbs per square inch! They use a sharp, rasp-like tongue, hidden somewhere under there, to graze algae off the rocks, along with seaweed seedlings. Their shell shape is affected by wave flow, how long they spend out of water and how stressed they are - a relaxed and well-fed limpet has shallower contours. See? They’re fascinating!”
Anenome (beadlet anenome)
“Out of water, they’re a strange mound of reddish jelly up to 5cm across. But those below the waterline send forth an impressive crown of 192 waving, fluttering, sticky-tipped tentacles, arranged in six circles. It can sting its tiny prey, but is harmless to humans. It can tolerate very warm water and can even survive being temporarily dried out - and its mouth is also its bottom, and ejects ready-made babies out into the water, where they land on the rocks and set up home. I adore everything about this bizarre animal.”
Well that does sound bizarre. If that doesn’t blow your kid’s mind I’m not sure what will.
Look at the weather! What now?
Surprise surprise, it’s raining – again. One option is to listen to these wise words, “There’s no such thing as inappropriate weather, only inappropriate clothing." – Alfred Wainwright. Or not if it’s really pouring. Don’t worry either way, we’ve got just the thing to bring a rock pool inside. Let’s craft some rock pool wildlife and bake a rock pool cake!
Paper craft first, baking later
Make your own paper octopus, urchin and crab, plus loads of other fun things to do, inside and out, on our Pinterest page!
All that handy work has made me hungry!
Rock pool cake without the sand
It’s all about the decoration for this cake, and you can apply this design to almost any cake – or giant biscuit for that matter. It’s easy, and fun to make as a family.
For the cake
For the buttercream
For the decoration
Try the RSPB’s Wild Challenge this summer – kick off your go-for-gold with rock pooling. All you have to do is register online and tell us what you saw when you went rock pooling. It’s easy, and there are tons of activities to do all year!
Rock pooling as a child has stayed with me for life. It is utterly engrossing for a young person, and one of the most accessible ways to get up close to wildlife.
Connect with nature this summer and get your feet wet in a rock pool!
I've recently become a dad, and that means rediscovering all the old baby-books regardless of whether they're charmingly retro or just mindnumbingly dull.
One that I quite like - and my son puts up with - is Peebo! It's all about what one baby sees when sat in different situations through an ordinary day.
It's an old one, so old that the pram looks like a bucket on wheels and the mum heats her iron by the open fire.
A page in this book that has really stuck with me is when the baby is watching his sisters trying to catch things in a local pond:
Here it's presented as completely normal for these two young girls to wade into a public pond with their skirts tucked into their knickers to catch fishes using a homemade net.
Thinking about the reality of doing this, all these millennial thoughts went through my head:
What about all the rubbish and broken glass in there? What about diseases in the water? Is it legal to catch fish at the park and take them home? Shouldn't they be wearing some special gear for that kind of activity?
Then I stopped and thought, What has happened to me? When I was 10, I swam in our town's brackish boating lake in my pants, regardless of swans. I dug my feet into the squishy sediment on the floor where the crabs I fished for nipped at my toes. Now, I was silently judging the images in this old fashioned baby book for not doing a health and safety assessment?
The concerns I felt for these fictional children were probably justifiable, but don't they illustrate a more sterilised way of living? A more sterilised way of thinking? Shouldn't I instead be focusing on the joy that kids get from splashing around and exploring this underwater world?
The summer is here now, and while I don't advocate climbing into public ponds in this way, searching rockpools and ponds with your eyes and a net or even a jar is a wonderous thing when you're a child.
Yes, be safe and yes be sensible, but if you get the chance, try to remember the wonder to be found when out in nature and try to pass that on to a child who could miss it without your guidance. You never know, you might even lose yourself in the moment.
Join our Wild Challenge this summer.
Recently, native English speakers have been adopting Scandinavian ideas to improve their well being.
Hygge: a Danish word referring to a feeling of cosiness or contentment.
Lagom: a Swedish word meaning 'just the right amount' or 'in balance'.
Just in time for spring, we've discovered gökotta. It's a Swedish word meaning 'rising at dawn to listen to birdsong'. Obviously we at the RSPB are most excited about this.
Early starts can be something to groan at, especially when you've got kids to get ready, but the stillness of early mornings mixed with the symphony of a dawn chorus is a true wonder of nature.
And unlike many wildlife spectacles your kids don't need to be quiet because the birds are making such a row anyway.
This Easter, experience a dawn chorus by throwing open the windows and listening from your bed, or get wrapped up and go for the full gökotta experience.
Either way, experiencing it counts towards your Wild Challenge, so why not take one step closer to your bronze, silver or gold award?
Despite their small size, wrens have a loud and distinctive call.
The science of the dawn chorus
What we call the dawn chorus is predominantly birds calling in the early morning to defend a breeding territory, attract a mate or calling to others in a social group.
They choose the early morning because the stillness of the air before the sun starts to warm it means that sound travels more clearly.
It's not just birds that choose this time of day to broadcast their messages. In the tropics some monkeys and apes use their position in the tops of trees and the cool, still air to make themselves heard 20 times further than at later times in the day.
Studies have shown that birds respond to recorded song with responsive or competing calls. So once one bird starts in a given area, it may well set off a cascade until they're all at it!