Strandline Shells on Swansea Bay

Seashells on the beach at Swansea Bay

Shells drift lines on the beachSeashells in situ on Swansea Bay strandlines or drift lines are mostly tiny immature common cockle shells but there are many other species of bivalve and gastropod mollusc shells too. I noticed mussels, tellins, and oysters, winkles, top shells, netted whelks, sting winkles, slipper and common limpets, and I am sure there were many more types. There were seven drift lines of shells lying parallel to the water line and decreasing in the number of accumulated shells sequentially up the shore. Each line represents the highest reach of the sea on a series of subsequent falling tides that were decreasing in reach each time.

It was interesting to see that wave-worn pieces of black coal and dark clinker from industrial plants across the bay were scattered amongst the light coloured shells together with a fair number of burial-blackened periwinkles. Many of the shells were fragmented and the accumulations included the calcareous tubes of marine worms. It would be lovely next time to take a sample home and sort it through under a binoc. I am sure that it would reveal much more information.

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Seaweed Strands with Crinkled Kelp

Thick mats of seaweed wash ashore on beaches along the Jurassic Coast. Dead seaweed is often automatically viewed as horrid, unsightly, and a nuisance – but if you pause and look, there is beauty in it. There are many types of seaweed to be discovered in the masses on this strandline. Their fronds intertwine in a kind of accidental natural weaving. Each species has its own characteristic shape, texture, and pattern. Their combined presence forms greater abstract designs of infinite variety, the individual fronds making strands or threads as in a tapestry. The puckered patterns of the crinkly Sugar Kelp stand out as the most decorative features of the assemblage. The colours change from deep olive brown to golden yellow and cream as the algae decompose. The textures range from leathery to satiny, from slimy to crispy depending on moisture content. Opaque and hardening on exposure to air; or translucent and soft when floating in shallow water rock pools.

Hill End to Spaniard Rocks & Back: Step-by-Step Part 5

The next stage of the walk from Hill End to Spaniard rocks saw an even greater reduction in the numbers of washed up starfish, and correspondingly greater concentrations of seashells in the strandlines, mostly empty shells of the bivalve Pharus legumen. The fine black detritus arranged itself in elaborate patterns mostly to do with the drainage of water back down the beach.

The sample of the fine dark particles that I took at the time, turns out to have a very interesting composition now I have had a chance to examine it under magnification back home. There is a fair proportion of small dark decaying wood fragments but most of the black material is composed of minute shiny hard  particles of coal (what you might call coal dust). The coal is not difficult to account for since coal mining and its export from nearby docks was a major industry in the past. There are many ways the coal could have been accidentally deposited in the sea. Together with the coal dust there are various seeds that I am not able to identify and, most surprisingly of all, what seem to be myriads of delicate fish bones. In fact, so many small threadlike rib bones that the dried sample seemed to have a fibrous texture. Amazing.

Hill End to Spaniard Rocks & Back: Step-by-Step Part 4

As I walked further along the beach from Hill End to Spaniard Rocks, I realised that there were maybe four or five strandlines lying parallel to each other and to the water line. Each line of mainly organic debris was slightly different in its constituents. Similarly, there were changes in the make up and proportions of the animal and plant debris in the strandlines in a linear way as I walked from south to north along the shore. The starfish became less numerous and the numbers of bivalve molluscs and their shells increased,

Most noticeable was the way in which the darker particle component of the strandlines became separated out on the up-shore side of the lines, and formed patterns contrasting with the yellow sand on which it lay. Sometimes there were branching lines of clear spaces, like rivulets running through the black stuff. Sometimes, the black pieces followed and echoed the shallow ripple marks in the sand – either as parallel lines or cross-hatching designs full of beautiful natural abstract compositions. In other places, small obstacles such as seashells had formed little dams to impede the flow of lighter, darker, material as the water that carried it swashed and backwashed over the beach, and this had created distinctive patterns as the water flowed around the barriers.

I was curious about what made up the fine black material responsible for the patterns. I took some samples to look at under the microscope when I got home.

Hill End to Spaniard Rocks & Back: Step-by-Step Part 3

The sky became bluer and the vast expanse of low tide sand seemed superficially at least to be featureless – but peering into the distance, towards Burry Holms, there was an unexpected dark line. Viewed through the zoom, it turned out to be something interesting on which dozens of young gulls and a few crows were having a great feast.

During the early hours of the morning the sea had brought in a sad harvest of seashore creatures now lying dead or dying on a bed of broken plant stems and fragments of blackened driftwood. Most of the animals were common starfishes (Asterias rubens) but rayed trough shells (Mactra stultorum), the elongated Pharus legumen, common whelks (Buccinum undatum), and the occasional masked crab (Corystes cassivelaunus) were also present. What had caused this mass stranding event I do not know but it happens every now and again. I have photographed similar multiple deaths on this beach before.

You can click on any picture to see the whole gallery in enlarged format

Hill End to Spaniard Rocks & Back: Step-by-Step Part 1

This is the first part of a walk I took along the beach on April 7th, 2017. It shows the images in chronological order, step-by-step as I progressed along the shore. Starting at the Hill End car park on the tip of the Gower Peninsula, I took the short path through the dunes to Rhossili beach and turned right (north) towards the Spaniard Rocks which lie near the tidal island of Burry Holms. The tide was out and the beach had been scooped into hollows by the retreating waves. The sand was covered with fine black coal particles, plants stems, and wood fragments with many seashells and dead starfish making patterns on the shore. Young gulls and crows were feasting on the strandline debris.

You can click on any picture to see the whole gallery in enlarged format.