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Usan V

Exploring Usan is much more than just trawling rockpools and endless screes of shingle. I am passionate about many of the indigenous animals I encounter along the way, sometimes unexpectedly. I can remember one particular incident whereupon stepping over a rockpool, I noticed what was probably the largest Goby I have ever seen. It must have been about 12 centimetres long and in possession of the most expressive eyes. I crouched near to him a while and we looked each other over suspiciously. This was in the dark before I made my way back to the car, and made the experience all the more memorable. I was not aware of this fact for many years, but seashore animals may not be completely nocturnal, but they are certainly more active at night, presumably because many of their most prolific predators (seabirds, seals and otters as well as others) are asleep.

                On the precipitous rocky shore of Usan, as darkness falls, you are instantly aware of being massively outnumbered by the population of local crustaceans. They seem to tumble away from you with every footstep. Hermit crabs retreat into their borrowed whelk shells and roll with a "plop" into a weedy pool. Green shore crabs scuttle and scatter and squeeze themselves into any available stony space, only the largest males making any attempt at self-defence waving their two inwardly curved pincers above their shells. Edible crabs (or Partans) tuck their legs and claws in and do not budge, only showing their black-tipped claws as a last resort. The adults are mainly to be found firmly wedged under the largest boulders or inaccessible in the cracks between outcrops of andesite. All this movement of the myriad varieties of crustaceans away from my stomping boots occasionally make for some disconcerting experiences when an unseen crab or perhaps even something larger shifts its body deeper into a crevice to escape my intrusion. Your imagination can run as wild as the creatures that strive to evade you.

                      The velvet swimming crabs (or Devil Crabs) are a favourite. Exuberantly fierce they will come at you through seaweed and boulders to defend their territories, claws waving and mouthparts bubbling defiantly. If you try picking one up using your thumb and forefinger on each side of the sharp edges of their carapace, this old trick is foiled. Whereas most crabs cannot reach you with a canny pincer when upended in this fashion, the velvet crab can, and I discovered this the hard way, only narrowly missing procurement. They can also swim, at speed. The adults can only really be caught with a net or in a pot. The "velvet" in their name is derived from the soft brown hair that covers the carapace. Adult males have bright red eyes and their claws and shells are edged with deep blue-purple stripes.

              Spider crabs are also to be seen but are comparatively placid and sluggish. Squat lobsters (much smaller than the fished variety) are also quick, and at breeding times in the spring and high summer, they appear in bright orange and electric blue, shooting through rock pools like mantis shrimps. I have never seen a lobster onshore here, even in the deepest potholes on the lowest tides (and I have looked) Sea Otters do not seem to frequent this area either, but it is used, at least for hunting, by Grey Seals. One evening, when the sea was rough I was close to Pebble Rock, watching the swell come in, often uncovering fresh shining-wet nodules of agate when I suddenly saw a black shape amidst the foam. A young black-eyed seal pup was at my feet. Quickly realising that it would rather brave the maelstrom than spend any more time with me than was necessary, it dove straight back into the thrashing spume. A spooky moment.

                 Pink and red sea anemones are everywhere here, and often I accidently touch them when searching under boulders or in holes. They feel almost human in their fleshiness, and appear carnal somehow. Inflamed, sexualized flesh, but cold and able to sting, although I myself have never suffered this. In summer, the green Snakelocks anemones also appear, albeit more rarely. They are generally larger and braver with their heads of tentacles seeking prey even in daylight. If they, in common with the rosy variety, are uncovered by the tide they fold themselves into their bases and these bizarre masses of green and yellow are unnerving if accidently handled. Heavy tides occasionally tear them from the rock and they cannot reattach themselves.

                  In the early spring sea lice have their mating season and the seaweed on the shore becomes a mass of these writhing leggy creatures. Often during summer in the same areas the blubbery carcass of a grey seal, decapitated by a boat propeller, is washed-up and you may find yourself trudging through a rasping midden of fly maggots. Of course, agates can still be found even amidst all this crawling chaos.

     The most sinister find I have ever made at Usan was during the summer of 2015 near Elephant Rock. There, amongst the wet shingle, I picked up a false human tooth, or at least I THINK it was false. Later, while I was rinsing the evening's finds I managed to accidently wash it down the drain. Perhaps this was for the best.

               The eggs of many sea anemones are also seen smeared under flat stones or in copses of seaweed. These can appear very "alien" and unusual on occasion. They are composed of generally light-coloured transparent "strings" of tiny capsules. Some are very tightly wrapped amongst the aforementioned shingle in pools at low tide, but others appear almost to be items of sea-weathered clothing. On the first page of photos from Usan, you can see one of these "strings" attached to a rocky outcrop only accessible during a Spring tide. So far I have yet to see another.

               As I have said before, agates CAN be found amidst all this bustling sea-fauna, but it would be a great shame if we as collectors, limited our interest to gemstones alone, and did not appreciate the wonderful and fascinating animals that make their homes around them.


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