The Anemone Within

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I confess, I’m a big fan of sea anemones. You know the things, they look like blobs of slime-jelly in the rock pools. But, believe me, there’s a lot more to them than the inert lump of goo they resemble.

So I was delighted when I found out that Rob Durrant (the Rob Durrant – all will become clear…) was talking about all things to do with cnidaria (that’s sea anemones to the likes of us).

Rob Durrant is with Coastwise, a fantastic North Devon organization of enthusiastic volunteers many of whom spend their time seeking out and documenting the wildlife in our rock pools. Many of the national records that exist for what lives in North Devon rock pools come from this one group of dedicated individuals.

Coastwise, when they can take some time away from their rock pools, also run a series of talks each year on coastal issues and, last Tuesday was the turn of Rob Durrant and the sea anemones to take centre stage.

Rob spoke very  convincingly about the wonders of the sea anemone. They are not fixed to the rocks, as we think, but can travel, albeit slowly, across rocks and through the water. They are by no means passive, inert beings, but constantly punch above their weight in the rock pool world by capturing and devouring sizeable fish and crabs using their sticky tentacles both as bait and a trap. And if a neighbouring anemone annoys them they will strike them with toxin-filled tentacles – starting a slow-motion tentacle-waving battle that can last for days. Ok, so it’s not exactly going to be the next Rocky sequel, but it is strangely absorbing to watch.

We get sea anemones all around our coast, but I would argue that North Devon is an anemone hotspot, with a rich history of anemone-fanciers. It all started with a chap called Philip Henry Gosse – the original sea anemone expert. Based in Ilfracombe in the mid-nineteenth century, he made a meticulous study of the local sea anemones and wrote the first guide to these fascinating creatures. He also invented aquariums presumably  so that he didn’t have to stand in the cold to study  his rock pool wildlife. His work made him the godfather of rock pooling and the rest of us are following in his learned footsteps.

But our prowess in all things cnidarian is not just historic. As I said, Coastwise volunteers are busy documenting the rock pool species we have and they often find rare and important species living in our waters that we may well have overlooked without their efforts. And then one day in 2014, Rob Durrant hit the jackpot. He found a completely new variety of sea anemone right here in Hele Bay. Not having a name, he called it the Fairy Anemone and, being only 6 mm tall, very delicate and nearly translucent, the name is fitting. The find got national and international publicity for the fairy anemone, for Rob and for North Devon as whole. Yes, even Philip Henry Gosse would have been very proud, although I imagine he may have been just a little bit envious that he didn’t find it first…

Many thanks to Coastwise for their hard work and to the Fairy Anemone for choosing North Devon as its home.

Gudrun Limbrick
Visitor Services Officer

To find out more about Coastwise, please visit:

To find out more about submitting records of local wildlife:


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