A cold and rainy day in March saw me exploring a beach on the west coast of Ireland in Galway Bay, between Galway City and Salthill. Braving the inclement weather were joggers, plugged-in to headphones and clutching water bottles, as they ran along the promenade at the top of the shore. One or two individuals strolled with raincoats flapping and umbrellas braced against the wind. I had the seashore itself more-or-less to myself.
It is a sheltered, gently sloping, sandy shore where coloured pebbles accumulate at the top of the beach. Line after line of boulders, like loosely constructed groynes, stretch from high to low water mark dividing the shore into sections. They remind me of the stone walls that seem to proliferate in countryside and hill slopes all along this coast. Each beach section is like a field where mid- to low-shore rocks anchor a crop of seaweed – a profusion of vegetation that drapes each boulder and spreads out to blanket the surrounding sand.
The cloud-filled sky and persistent rain make the beach seem, from a distance, dull, almost monochromatic and melancholic – but that is an illusion. Close up, the limestone and granite pebbles provide a mosaic of many colours, intensified by the wetness. The seaweeds are made up of many types with a range of hues. Golden yellow fruiting bodies, and fronds in shades of olive, mark out the dominant Egg Wrack (Ascophyllum nodosum). Finely-branched red Wrack Siphon Weed (Polysiphonia lanosa) contrasts with the Egg Wrack on which it grows epiphytically. Darker greens and browns are typical of the smaller Bladder Wrack (Fucus vesiculosus). Short curling clumps of greenish-yellow early-stage Channel Wrack (Pelvetia canaliculata) are distinct. Both limpet shells and mussel shells show patches of dark brown encrusting algae (probably Brown Limpet Paint, Ralfsia verrucosa). The seaweeds splash colour across rocks, pebbles and sand. – and the rocks themselves originate from different locations, sedimentary or igneous, with their own subtle colouring, texture and patterns.
How different this scene must look when the tide is in and the seaweed can float upright and sway in the waves. It really must look like an underwater field. The Egg Wrack (growing up to a metre and a half long) has egg-sized and egg-shaped air bladders, one formed every year along each frond, to aid buoyancy. The much shorter Bladder Wrack has small rounded air bladders in pairs either side of the midribs to help it float.
When the intertidal shore is submerged, acorn barnacles (Cirripedia) and edible mussels (Mytilus edulis) attached to the rocks can filter food particles from the water. The huge numbers of large limpets and common periwinkles living amongst and feeding upon the seaweed, and grazing red and yellow biofilms that encrust the rocks, can move far more easily and for greater distances when buoyed up by water and there is no danger of dessication – although they can be active when exposed to air at low tide if conditions remain cool and moist.
COPYRIGHT JESSICA WINDER 2014
All Rights Reserved