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Selsey, A Window From The Shore

Updated: Feb 18


Sea View from Selsey RNLI, flat seas and fishing boats early morning
Selsley, East Beach

Who does not appreciate blue seas and warm sunshine on a summer’s day? You may choose to sit and take advantage of the sunshine and cooling onshore breeze, dipping your toes occasionally or entering the water for a spot of your favourite hobby from kayaking, swimming or SUP. For most of us whether you get your toes wet or go for a full swim it is easy to overlook the busy and beautiful world below the surface.


Temperate waters mean seasons underwater just as on land. During the year the water warms up and cools down and life responds, the experience of exploring in February is very different from May and then September. It never gets tired and there is always something new. A snorkeler, diver and freediver, I am lucky enough to spend plenty of time in the underwater world off Selsey. Let me open a window for you by sharing some of my observations from above, below and within.


If you are familiar with Selsey you will know the RNLI station at East Beach; this is where our journey begins. Sitting on the sea wall and looking out to sea you can see the fishing fleet and if you let your eyes look to the right you can see the Mixon marker offshore. We wait for the winter storms to pass and the water colour to begin to change. Whilst storms are violent and lots of things are swept up on the shore, under the water life is almost sleeping…. waiting, fish have moved into deeper water to shelter.


 

Close up of tube worm, filter feeding
Fan worm feeding

Then the weather changes, cold, calm and settled and our window opens. Slipping below the water the pebbles from the beach give way to sand, gravel and shells. It is early and the weed growth has not begun so we can see the life clearly - at first glance the sand looks barren, but slow down and look closer. Sand Mason worms poke out of the sand looking like miniature trees with no leaves, instead bits of small shell cling to them. Hollow tubes emerge from the sand at regular intervals, these are the homes of the fan worms. They feed by extending what look like a delicate feather duster to catch the particles in the water. It is great to be in the front as there can be fields of them stretching into the distance; super sensitive to changes in the water column, get too close and they withdraw into the protection of their tube.


Larger rocks and objects offer flashes of colour with boring and encrusting sponges covering surfaces in yellow, white, orange, red and pink. Fish are scarce this early, but anemones, crabs and nudibranchs can be found. The dahlia anemone has an amazing range of colours, whilst the snakelocks anemone moves about gently with the water. There are several species of crab at Selsey including small hermit crabs moving about their business, to red eyed velvet swimming crabs and small edible crabs tucked into their burrows and holes. Nudibranchs are the slugs of the sea, but very different to the slug you find in your garden, they are beautiful with delicate colours and patterns and coils of nudibranch eggs lie like ribbons on surfaces.


 

Close up of head of white nudibranch with yellow tips
Nudibranch

Spring brings an explosion of life on land and this is reflected in the underwater world but with a time delay. It takes a while for the sun to warm the water up but as it rises marine life is triggered by the changes in temperature. Food sources increase as weed responds and grows just like the trees and plants on land, whilst the spring plankton bloom fills the water with food. Fish come in to breed and it gets busy under the water.


This is an amazing time to explore the Mixon Hole. The marker you see from shore sits on the shelf at about 6 metres but a clay cliff wall drops to about 25 metres. The shelf gets covered in red weed, hydroids and bryozoans, which often bush like in nature offer places to tether eggs and shelter juvenile fish. You need to move slowly and let our shy residents reveal themselves, blending into the background and well camouflaged there is so much to discover.


An early notable resident is the Lumpsucker, a depth loving fish that comes to shallow water to breed. Lumpsucker gives you an idea that this might not be the most beautiful fish in the sea, but the father is dedicated. His mating colouration gives him a vivid pink to orange belly, making him a little easier to spot as he stays with the eggs until they hatch. Keeping them safe you can watch him fan his brood.


 

Male lumpsucker in mating colours sitting with eggs on Mixon Hole
Lumpsucker on Mixon Ledge

Wrasse swim past with bits of red weed in their mouths, busy nest building. Crabs huddled together with the males sitting on top of the females for protection as they moult ready to mate. Velvet Swimming crabs develop attitude standing up on their back legs to scare you away from their lady. Cat sharks lie tails entwined with the current flowing over their gills.

Look over the edge of the shelf and shoals of fish can be seen including bream, bass and bib. The clay wall is full of holes and edible crabs like to take advantage of the spaces. Smaller piddock holes cover the wall and you can find snakelocks anemones holding on, the further away from the sun they are the lighter in colour they become, fading from green with purple tips to white with a darker almost deep blue tip.


Coming closer to the shore you can find cuttlefish on their own or in pairs as they mate and lay their egg clusters amongst the weed. Armies of hermit crabs march about and spider crabs surprise you as they stand up. Their weed covered bodies a perfect blend with the seabed where they sit often with legs tucked under them. Your presence often sensed by them before you spot them, they need to let you know they are there. Evidence of Nudibranchs are everywhere, and this is the time you can spot them in groups.


Fast forward a couple of months and the water is now alive, it moves not just with wind and tide but with the amount of small and young life. The sandy areas of the seabed are alive with gobies and blennies darting about as you swim over. Occasionally you disturb the young flat fish and perfect little plaice and dab swim off in front of you.


This is the time to move slowly and look under, in and around. Let your eyes settle and you can see the delicate long-legged spider crabs, so fine they closely resemble the weed you see all around you. Bootlace weed grows tall from its anchor point on small pebbles and rocks and tiny fish play amongst the weed. From the surface your only clue to the amount of weed is the darker patches on a sunny day in a blue sea as you look down from the wall.

This is the time when snorkeling and freediving comes into its own. If you lie still on the surface, you catch sight of shoals of small fry shimmering as the light shines off them swimming close to the shore. Swim along the length of the groyne and discover young blennies and shannies sunbathing and playing. Shy and nervous if you stay still, they will study you as you watch them. Inside holes older family members relax and if you look closely, you will see little faces that peer out at you. Shore crabs and prawns can be found on the sides and tucked into holes. Prawns are difficult to spot against the barnacles encrusted groyne but flashed of yellow and blue on their legs can give them away, spot one and you will find more!!


 

Two Shannys inside a hollowed groyne at days end
Shanny Time

Swimming to the end and then between groynes at the end of a hot sunny day as the tide is falling is my favourite. Pipefish lie in shallow water half in and out of small patches of weed. A relative of the sea horse their long thing bodies are topped with a head with a snout. Wrasse will shelter in the weed swimming around the end of the groynes and I have even seen young eels emerge to find food. Wait until the sun starts to sink and watch the life retire for the day, entire families of shannies move inside hollowed out groynes.

As the sun sets, I close this window on our underwater world. There are lots of ways to get closer if you wish, but if you prefer staying on land now when you now look out to sea you have an idea of the world beneath the surface.


 

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