The sea that laps against and sometimes batters the colourful coast is home to a wealth of marine life.
Where the cliffs at St Bees Head enter the sea is one of the only examples of a true rocky shore in Cumbria. Sandstone bedrock and tumble down boulders the size of lorries provide a strong foothold for a huge variety of species. From the foot of the cliffs, proceeding down shore, barnacle encrusted rocks give way to boulders that hide colourful anemones, crabs and other crustaceans, beautiful sea slugs with their exposed brightly coloured gills and shanny fish, guarding broods of eggs stuck to the walls of safe crevices between rocks.
The lower reaches of this rocky shore remain submerged most of the time, allowing a great diversity of seaweed to flourish , including meters-long kelp that can form kelp forests. Green sea urchins graze upon the kelp, which adhere themselves to the rocks with a complex root-like structure called a holdfast, allowing them them to cling on through the roughest of weather. The holdfasts in turn provide shelter to even more life: individual kelp plants have been shown to support thousands of individuals from a variety of invertebrate species.
Mud, glorious mud
These rocks and the boulder and cobble “skears” seen further down the coast provide perfect habitat for brown crabs and European lobster, which are fished for with pots. Further offshore, the seabed become dominated by mud, which harbours its own diversity of burrowing mud shrimps, anemones, urchins, bizarre looking spoon-worms with bright green proboscises and phosphorescent sea pens – colonial animals related to corals. You may also see small fishing vessels heading out to sea from the colourful coast, for the mud is home to the Dublin bay prawn, known to most people as scampi or langoustine!
Keep your eyes peeled
On a clear day, and with some luck, you may spot cetaceans such as harbour porpoise and common or bottlenose dolphins swimming past St Bees Head, dorsal fins occasionally breaching the waves as they surface for air. Grey seals also frequent the coast, brought in by the fish that are attracted to the good feeding around the rocks of St Bees Head, and are inquisitive creatures that you may find watching you on the shore, just as you watch them in the sea.
The Irish sea is also home to two giants of the marine world, the basking shark, which is the second largest shark species in the world and the leatherback turtle, the very largest species of turtle, able to tolerate the colder temperatures of the Irish sea because their tremendous body size allows them to maintain an elevated body temperature. The basking shark is a filter feeder, drawn to the Irish sea in the spring and summer in by abundant zooplankton, which in turn feed on the seasonal phytoplankton blooms in the Irish sea. The leatherback turtle also visits seasonally, but it is attracted by the wealth of jellyfish the Irish sea provides in the summer. Spot either of these giants from the colourful coast and you have had a very good day!