This year I toddled off for my holidays in early July. I rather innocently termed this break my ‘summer’ holiday, as it happened to fall at a time of year when the earth’s axial tilt during its annual orbit of the sun produced longer daylight hours and historically higher average temperatures.
Sadly, I decided to go to West Wales and the number of sun-kissed days was minimal to say the very least. My overriding memory was sitting on the open deck of the Skomer ferry, in shorts and a gortex jacket, head pulled down inside the collar, breathing into my chest in a fruitless attempt to keep warm in the heaviest rain I have ever experienced.
Looks like I chose the wrong summer month to take a beach holiday, I should have booked October!
For the past three days I have spent each lunchtime and afternoon with picnic, daughter and snorkel on Exmouth beach, making the most of the splendid sunshine; temperatures into the high twenties and more time spent splashing about in the waves chasing sandeels than the rest of the year put together!
Indeed, much of East Devon had the same idea as me and the beach at Exmouth more closely resembled the Monaco Riviera, than good old England! People lay strewn across the beach, the sun beat down and baked the golden sand and the air was filled with a din of engines that sounded like a Grand Prix was being held around the Pole Sand; The only grit in my Indian Summer sandwich.
With heatwaves an all-too transient phenomenon in high summer, let alone October, everything was put on hold at home as the beach shelter was dragged out from under the stairs, picnic box dusted down and filled with portable offerings, and the swimmers dug out from the back of the drawer. This was too good to miss.
Unlike the summer, where water temperatures are several degrees cooler and a normally warm air temperate exasperates this difference, my two-year old daughter was comfortable in the water for far longer than her dad and we spent most of the afternoon wading about in the rockpools on Maer Rocks looking for creatures. Bit of a busman’s holiday for me as I do exactly this activity as a core part of my ranger work 9-5, but I do it because I love it and to see my own child enthralled by a beadlet anemone and giggling hysterically at a hermit crab made for a perfect day.
The heatwave was also good enough to coincide with some of the lowest tides of the Autumn too. This meant lower parts of the shore were accessible for a few hours and new pools and kelp beds were within reach. In Ellie’s eyes we hit the jackpot when I turned a rock and beneath it lay three small common starfish. Each was about 5 centimeters across and we studied them for so long, the tide began to rise before I could persuade my daughter to return hers under a crevice and go back to the rug to warm up!
While she huddled under a towel with Mum, I put on my snorkel and short wetsuit (typical boy, I feel the chill) and dashed back in to watch the incoming tide from underwater. This is something I have been meaning to do all year, and the Autumn is definitely the time of year to experience this thrill.
I first went for a bit of a drift, riding the strong current down the beach over kelp beds dotted with golden sandy banks. Even on an incoming tide, the current of the exiting Exe is hard to subdue. Pale sand gobies sat prominently on the sun-dappled sand in small groups, heads raised as they pushed themselves up on their pectoral fins. As long as I didn’t make a swimming stroke I could drift overhead without them shooting off. A flounder spotted my approach and flapped-up a cloud to disguise its escape, however by moving very gently, I was able to find it again lurking under a stout kelp frond. Its two bulging eyes circled about wildly, to get a fix on me, before I let go of the kelp and I carried on along my leisurely drift.
Looking directly ahead, shoals of sandeels and smaller silver fish, possibly young whiting, darted on the edge of visibility in the clear water. To get anywhere near these fast moving fish I needed to paddle strongly and I was enjoying being carried along too much to bother with all that effort! All this took place in water no deeper than 4 or five feet, often considerably shallower. There’s no point going deeper than this, as the interesting stuff to see, within range of water clarity this close to the estuary mouth is in the shallows.
I turned and front-crawled my way back up the beach against the current to my start point just off Maer Rocks and held on to a large Lamanaria kelp to fix myself in position. While doing this, I likened myself to a big grey seal, settling myself in position for an afternoon snooze. However, compared to the seal, I was a wallowing lummox.
As the tide rose, so sand gobies flitted about on the seabed below me, nodding and posturing to each other as they dashed over the sediments in search of food. Hermit crabs trundled along the edge of the rock next to me, not venturing too far out into the open, lest they were spotted by a passing cuttlefish. I stayed there as long as I could, the sandeels remaining stubbornly on the periphery of view, before running back up the beach to share my experience with the family.
If the last 7 years as a ranger has taught me anything, its that you have to seize the moment when wildlife watching, and this weekend was certainly a case in point. Now, where did I put those dust sheets and paint roller… back on with the DIY!