The Marine Conservation Society (MCS), under its Beachwatch initiative, runs a rolling program of beach cleaning events -The Great British Beach Clean- surveys of what washes up or is left on our beaches. Organised by the MCS and manned by volunteers, it’s a really practical way to contribute to marine conservation without getting your feet wet.
I joined the event locally in September. It was a bit blowy and rainy but we managed to collect quite a lot of stuff.
Volunteers on the sandy beach at Lowestoft, bin bags and litter-pickers in action.
My eyes were opened to what I rarely notice on my frequent beach walks. Here are the results of our morning’s work. If you’re interested in finding a local event, the MCS search page is easy to use.
You can support marine conservation even if you live miles from the coast simply by joining the MCS. Your subscription will help the sum of effort to care for our Blue Planet.
Not everything in conservation goes smoothly. As I am learning, sometimes there can be unexpected failure.
In October 2017 I signed up to a marine conservation project set up by the organisation of Capturing our Coast, The project, Spermwatch, involves mapping out 150 metres of beach in three consecutive segments (transects), walking along them at the low tide line on specific dates, counting lugworm sperm puddles, noting these findings and other observations, then submitting them online through a simple survey tool. The project aims to collect as much data as possible to assess which environmental factors influence lugworm spawning, about which little is known. Lugworms are an important food source for fish and seabirds.
I had seen fishermen many times on our local beach, so I felt sure I’d have success, as fishermen use lugworms as bait, don’t they? This was, as I found out later, fallacious logic. And I am not a fisherman.
I set up the transects with the help of a mapping app on my phone, printed and laminated all the information I needed to take with me, checked the low tide times and listed the dates I could manage to do the survey. I was really quite excited.
A lugworm sperm puddle is a whitish puddle, looking very similar to a bird poo. It would be found near a lugworm cast, an extrusion of sand from a lugworm burrow, on the surface of a sandy beach. A cast looks like the squiggly pile made by a cooked strand of spaghetti dropped to the ground. My Italian heritage well qualifies me to use this simile. I’ve dropped a lot of spaghetti in my time. The male lugworm comes to the surface to deposit his sperm near the entrance of a female lugworm burrow, to be washed in by the rising tide to fertilise her eggs. All very courteous, no touch, and reminiscent of some courtly fin-de-siecle salon dance. Only with sperm.
My first survey date happened to fall on a weekend when one of my sisters came to visit. I informed her the night before that we would be going on Spermwatch -hastily explaining what it was, before she repacked her bags to escape from some dark rural Suffolk ritual she’d never heard of. The next day my long-suffering and loyal wife, sister and I set off to the beach, on a cold and windy morning. We looked, and we looked, and we looked. Nothing. Zilch. Not a sausage. Not a single cast or sperm puddle. Not even a bird poo.
We returned to the warmth of home and hot tea, wondering if maybe male lugworms don’t like cold and windy weather. I’m sure I’d think twice before emerging from my safe tunnel to ejaculate on a cold beach. It’s understandable.
So, comforted by this explanation, I planned the next survey. Even more exciting as I would be doing this Spermwatch with my friend Jonny. We’re Mates you see.
Jonny and I set off along the beach at the appointed time, and again, by the end of the first transect, nothing seen. We approached the fishing line of a fisherman, stretching obliquely across our path. As we needed to walk right up to the line and continue the other side of it, and as, presumably, fishermen don’t like seeing people appear to be about to snag their lines, I went up to the elderly man at the mechanical end of the line (the rod I am told -I am not a fisherman) to explain our purpose. He was very old and it was very windy, and it took some time before he understood my explanation of our intentions -very carefully phrased in polite terms, and avoiding all use of the word “sperm”, in case Jonny and I should otherwise find ourselves having to explain ourselves to the local police.
“Lugworms!”, he exclaimed. “You won’t find any lugworms ‘ere. No lugworms between North Norfolk and Ipswich. I’ve fished this beach since the 1950’s. Terrible fishing, Look, all I’ve caught is a coupl’a small dab”. He pointed to two very unhappy looking, small dab listlessly contemplating their demise in a bucket of seawater. “Its all the fault of the Common Market”, he went on. “The Dutch came in and took all the fish away….” his bitter tirade against all things European continued. I managed somehow to close the conversation and escape, thanking him for his time, and leaving him to collect more small fish in the cold.
Jonny and I abandoned the survey and I sadly concluded there was no point in continuing the project. I love the beach and continue to walk there most days with our dogs. Still no lugworm seen. But at least I’ve avoided the headlines in the local press: “Retired local doctor with Jonny claims to be seeking sperm on beach”.
My friend N and I had promised each other a day out in North Norfolk. N lives up that way and knows a thing or two about places to go. In late November 2017 we finally managed to rip a day out of our breathlessly busy lives to meet and travel up to the coast, for a look around and a spot of marine birdwatching.
N is in the crystal business. Not the kind for telling your future, nor for health-giving vibrations through the ether, but the sort you fill with your favourite poison to enjoy with good food and company. He has a crystal barn. Not, as I had first thought, a magical barn built of crystal, filled with hard-working elves packing his wares in gossamer and feathers, to be delivered to his customers by hummingbirds, but a simple wooden barn housing his stock. I was so disappointed. Especially about the elves.
I had already seen the crystal barn (I can verify the absence of elves), but on the way to the coast we dropped in on his retail outlet (one elf there). By the time we finally reached the coast it was definitely already time for lunch. We dropped into a lovely pub in Snettisham, the Rose and Crown. It’s a very quirky building where a trip to the gents involves a very long and circuitous walk that seems to never end. I got lost on the way back (not difficult) and had to ask directions from a waitress. What an idiot, I expect she thought.
Here is a fun picture hanging in the gents -charming and innocent. No doubt in our stiflingly regulated and PC age all these men would nowadays be arrested for indecent exposure as a minimum (“I was only cleaning the mud off me balls, your Honour” -concluding the evidence for the defence).
The food was excellent and I feel compelled to share the place with you here.
Replete and refreshed, we made our way to Hunstanton beach, where, N confidently assured me, there would be flocks and flocks of interesting birds to see. On that day we were experiencing the first really cold snap of winter 2017, and a freezing steady Arctic wind blew directly at us from the North, with nothing to break its flow between the North Pole and us. You could smell the polar bears on the breeze. The car park was sheltered, but as we topped the bank between the car park and the beach, the blast hit us. I am not a cold weather creature. I am a Mediterranean mammal and really dislike the cold.
Just to make things worse, it was high tide, and other than one oyster-catcher, which N saw but I missed, and a few shivering gulls in the distance, there were no birds whatsover. Not a tweet. There wasn’t really much of a beach either -the long languorous sand flats were all submerged. I just had to imagine it all. N was really very disappointed, and I felt quite sorry for him. He had been keen to share this place that he loves with me.
It was far from a wasted day though. Apart from N’s excellent company (he never runs short of stories and anecdotes which warmed me on that day better than a St Bernard with a barrel of brandy), there were some really unusual things to see.
First I’ll share some images of the landscape which may give you an inkling of the weather that day. The tall building is the old lighthouse -now a holiday cottage for hire.
A panorama of where the flocks of birds should have been
An egg case -a dogfish or possibly a ray egg case.
I spotted a startling pattern of circles in the sand:
What could have made them? Small alien spaceships? The devil and his family out for a stroll? Very light horses? I stood and observed for a few minutes and then the penny dropped: the steady wind was blowing the stiff grass leaves towards the land, and with slight variations in its direction from time to time, the grass leaves were swinging round, causing the tips to describe an arc in the sand. Perfect circles were drawn by the wind using grass as a compass and pencil.
The most spectacular sight of the day was an apparent double sun in the sky. I blinked and for a moment wondered if N and I had been transported to a planet around a binary star in a parallel universe. Maybe it was such a lovely day that we had died and gone to heaven. But blinking several times confirmed that Hunstanton, after all, was still there, and so were we.
Which one is the real sun? Answer below…
The real sun is on the left
This meteorological phenomenon is a sun dog -also known as a parhelion (not to be confused with parahelion or perihelion). It’s an illusion created only in very special weather conditions, by ice crystals in the atmosphere refracting sunlight. A very simple Google search reveals loads of information about them.
The day was rounded off by a phone call from my friend B who was looking after our dogs for the day. One of our dachshunds regularly subluxes (partially dislocates) a joint in one of her legs. By adapting a technique I used to use for treating a similar problem in the arms of toddlers, (pulled elbow, or slipped radial head), I have discovered how to fix the dog’s leg, and the adapted technique works.
Pooch just had to have this problem on a very rare day without me around. B noticed she was limping and unable to use one leg. The last time she did this we had just arrived at a hotel in Crete at midnight. On that occasion I had a Whatsapp video teleconsultation with our house sitter, managed to explain the technique, and Pooch was successfully treated -after 20 attempts. On this occasion I was driving at dusk on winding B roads in North Norfolk -conversation strictly on hands-free of course. It happens that B is a radiographer so she is familiar with techniques of reducing a joint dislocation. Luckily for me, and luckier still for Pooch, instructing her was a breeze and success came on the second attempt. Much to B’s relief, and mine.
We had our fun dog back again, after seeing a possible dogfish egg case and a sun dog -all in Sunny Hunny**. Ever get the feeling there is a theme to your day?
*”Limpets” is in the title because it kind of works there. In fact we didn’t see a single limpet that day. Keep it quiet.
**Hunstanton -the only East Coast resort that faces West.