We had a wonderful day with the Royal Botanic Garden’s Post Graduate Diploma in Herbology class playing with seaweeds.
The class all came down from Edinburgh on the train and we took over North Berwick’s Hope Rooms, by the shores of the West Beach. We had perfect low tide conditions, and deep pools of seaweeds, starfish and anemones to play in. A very wet afternoon ensued as the group found their pace laying out and pressing some beautiful specimens. I look forward to seeing the results at the Graduation Show in September.
The rock pools of late Spring and early summer are alive with colour. Sometimes though, deep in the clear water of still pools, you can catch the fading hues of winter glowing through to create stunning compositions of tone and texture. These images were taken at mid-day of barnacles bunched along the tide lines of the blue-green stone reefs reaching out into Ravensheugh beach at the edge of the John Muir Country Park, East Lothian.
On a recent trip to northern California, I made two stops to sate my seaweed curiosity.
‘By-the-wind-sailors’ at Duxbury Reef, Bolinas
The first was a visit to Duxbury Reef off Agate Beach in Bolinas. This is a wonderful marine conservation area of long shale reefs sheltering innumerable rock pools. My mother used to take us here at low tide to scour the pools for anemones, crabs and tiny sea creatures. This time my focus was on the flora and I was captivated by the similarities and difference to the rock pools on my doorstep in Scotland. But it was the bright blue ‘By-the-Wind-Sailors‘, a type of jelly fish which blanketed the beach, that took my breath away.
My second stop was to visit Josie Iselin, the celebrated artist and writer whose work I have long admired. I had never met her, but often look at her online gallery – a wonderful space filled with images of the things we beachcombers love most – so I emailed her and invited myself over!
Josie Iselin in her studio
She couldn’t have been more gracious and we spent a lovely afternoon drinking tea and ruminated over all things seaweed in her sunny San Francisco house looking out over the Bay. Her studio is filled with the pieces she has so exquisitely scanned, printed and published, and across her work tables were the pocketfuls of pebbles, shells, sea glass and driftwood that reflect her love of all things coastal.
Josie’s beachcombing treasures
Josie’s pictures of seaweeds are awe-inspiring; her images gloriously fresh, dancing strands of colour and light and presented beautifully in her book, An Ocean Garden. You order it from her website or, no doubt, Amazon. Inspiring!
Over the last few weeks I have been a regular visitor to the great stretches of basalt rock that reach out into Milsey Bay in the east of the town, and to the beach by the 3rd hole in the west, to watch the ebb of Winter flow into Spring. There are a few favourite tide pools that draw me in especially on the days of lowest tides with their beauty and intensity of light and life. This is not a collecting time of year, so I take photos, Some I have made into banners for this site, but thought I might post them here in their original forms.
Red sandstone rock pool
Opposite the Marine Hotel, in the low rocky outcrops of the Hummell Ridges, are shallow pools with pink bottoms of exquisite cerise Lithothamnion and rougy Hildenbrandia. Lining these pools are blankets of Laminaria and Fucus, their great floppy fronds forming a protective ridge at the each poolside’s edge, hiding within them a myriad of seaweeds, snails, crabs, shrimp, shells and sand. On the east side, between the Seabird Centre and the Yellow Man, are the dark milky bore holes of the Milsey Rocks.
These surprisingly deep craters are home to copses of kelps at one end, and crevices of purple corallines and magenta rhodymenia at the other, sheltering in and out of the orange sandstone ledges. Here the contrast between the red sandstone and greenstone is acute, borders merged by splashes of crustose algae, with iridescent blue Carrageenans sparkling in the first rays of Spring.
Walking along North Berwick beach last week I spotted a rare sight lying low along the foaming waves – a surfer. Bobbing up and down she battled the surge to gain the swells forming within the shallow bay, but after several attempts, and no decent rides, she abandoned the effort and waded off, probably down to Ravensheugh or Dunbar in search of bigger waves.
The sand however could not retreat, and great chunks were being pulled into the sea creating a landscape of soft cliffs along an ordinarily level sweep of beach. Tugging and pulling, the surf relentlessly washed forward and back, sucking the mounds from underneath, and then once dispelled, surged to nag at the old boards holding the sea back from the shore.
Further towards the West, once the tide had retreated, I came across great heaps of seaweeds, tangled and tossed into huge pyres and hanging from the highest rocks. These mangled mountains must have contained thousands, if not millions, of seaweeds, from giant kelps and big bands of fucus to mats of shiny laver and tangles of mermaids’ hair. What an extraordinary testament to the flora beneath the waves.
Lastly, at the lowest ebb of the tide, I came across a rare harvest; with tons of sand pulled back into the deep, there lying exposed were a plethora of golf balls. I started to gather one or two (good for backyard practice) and soon realised they were in every nook and cranny, some even came with the stipes of young seaweeds attached. The most interesting one however was an old specimen, brown with microscopic algae, its shiny surface of tiny pockmarks echoing an age gone by – it was probably played about 30 years ago… I guess golfers have found this stretch of the course difficult for a long time.
On Sunday I walked out to the long reefs of red rock that extend from the flanks of the baleen Seabird centre at the western edge of Milsey Bay. Churning white horses cover them at full tide on a windy day, but left on their own when calm returns they reveal worlds of aquatic beauty in the pools and crevices carved into the rocky beds. Closer to the shore, the flat outcrops are blanketed by a tight weave of Fucus spiralis and green gutweed (Ulva intestinalis). As the reef stretches out to sea, it changes to a moonlike topography of crustaceous life; from the tiny silvery eyes of a thousand pinpoint barnacles, to scores of domed limpets and black-eyed snails, edged by reef river beds of sea mosses, Corallinaclusters and banks of Pepper Dulse (Osmundea pinnatifida).
Deep rock pool
Crater-like holes are the refuge of tiny capricious crabs that scuttle the sandy bottom of their domains, clutching their protective shells tightly, beachcombing for tide-borne treasure. Luminous eyes of a wandering sea green fish watch from the shadowy fringes of Ulva latuca, while tiny flat speckled sea bugs dart back and forth across their aquaria home.
I had come to this side of the town’s beaches to find the elusive Lithothamnions glimpsed on a earlier foray. Indigenous to Scotland, and residing primarily along the rocky outcrops of the East Coast, they are distinguishable by their calcareous forms and brilliant purple and pink hues resembling splatters of dripped paint.
Red rock and purple Lithothamnion
Some Lithothamnions are crusty, with microscopic volcanic-like protrusions, covering loose stones and rocks in the deeper pools. Others splay out like lichens, on smooth, flat rock pool bottoms, always just under the lowest surface water. Set against the red-orange stone, their vivid pigmentation creates a startling abstract expression of colour, light and form at the base of these shimmering pools.
Walking down to the beach the other evening, I found the tide at its lowest ebb, the sands drawn smooth by the ocean’s pull, and an ethereal glow infusing water’s edge to grassy shore. Opaque hues of iridescent blue and ribbons of red and gold fanned across the shimmering panorama/canvas. Funnels of light poured through the backlit clouds, illuminating and shifting colours, pushing and pulling shadows and shades to dance across the expanse. Yellow lichened rocks sparkled in the warming light and the Bass glowed luminous across the white-licked waves. The lapping tide arrested its movement and a golden peace descended; all breath expelled into gossamer air – the sea, the sky and the earth resting for a moment to let the tide turn.
Returning from the shore, I watched the trickles of tidewater heading home, carving tracery fingers into the soft sandy banks and fringes of pools to leave transitory motifs of their passing. Sometimes these look like silhouettes of ancient forests; hills lined with gnarled trees, limbs and branches stretching into rivulets of sand. Sometimes like the stream beds of dry deserts, pummeled, molded and then swept away by the wind.
The sands, newly washed clean, started to shift with life again. Wiggles of worm casings spiraled up across the wettest shores, tiny flies emerged from crusted pockets of sand, and the dunes released sprays of summer swallows in hot pursuit. The sandpipers resumed their tide line inspections and the gulls called out cacophonously for a final hunt.