On Newcastle’s Rockpools with Bastian Fox Phelan

“Instead of accepting ‘you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone’, get out there and learn what’s around you, learn about local ecology and why it matters”.

As we begin the long, slow process of leaving lockdowns and reconstructing our lives post-COVID, it’s interesting to observe that for many people, the pandemic has led to an increased appreciation for the natural world. Beaches and bushwalks have all been packed with people desperate to get outside after so many months of being cooped up at home, and what they are discovering is that there has been a world of wonders in their own backyards this whole time. Bastian Fox Phelan is one such person for whom the pandemic has ignited a new and deep level of connection with the environment, but as a writer and researcher, they have been able to document their experience and find meaning within.

Bastian’s search for a place to de-stress and fuel their interest in ecology took them to the rock platforms of Susan Gilmore Beach, nestled in the headlands along Memorial Drive and named for the eponymous shipwreck of 1884. They would spend many hours exploring and then learning about intertidal creatures such as anemones, limpets, urchins, and periwinkles. The tiny things that so many of us overlook, visible only for a short time each day. This has inspired them to write about their experiences and observations in an eco-memoir PhD project, the first chapter of which has recently been published.

Here Bastian talks about their journey into the low tide zones of the beach, the extraordinary things that are to be found there, mindful exploration, and how ecological awareness begins at home.

Susan Gilmore Beach Rockpool

Where did you grow up and what are your earliest memories of the sea?

I was born on Gadigal land in Sydney and lived in the Inner West until I was nine, and then my family moved to Wollongong, Dharawal land. I’ve been living in Mulubinba Newcastle, on the land of the Awabakal people, since 2017. I have memories of going on the bus to the beach as a child in Sydney and poking at oysters on the harbour shore. We used to visit my grandparents in Swansea pretty often too, and I remember walking along Awaba Lake Macquarie with my aunt, looking at shells. I’ve always had a lot of curiosity about the world. I don’t think I ever grew out of the habit of asking endless questions.

When did you first venture down to the Newcastle rockpools?

Around the end of August 2020 — a bit over a year ago. Adjusting to the new reality of the global pandemic and lockdowns was challenging. I found it hard to go back to socialising and being around people when the first lockdown lifted. Call it re-entry anxiety. I started looking for places I could go that were not too crowded and I was drawn to the southern end of Newcastle beach.

What were some of your early discoveries there?

The sea hares! They are incredibly charismatic. One minute I was staring at some algae, the next minute the algae started moving! And then I realised that I wasn’t looking at bits of brown seaweed, those were Walking sea hares (Aplysia juliana). I observed them all through summer and was sad when they started to disappear. After a year of observing rock pools, I’ve come to understand that rock pools have their seasons, too. I saw my first spring sea hare a few weekends ago and was overjoyed. I missed them.

The wreck of the Susan Gilmore, 1884

Where are the best local places to rockpool?

There are so many good places in Mulubinba Newcastle! Anywhere that has a rock platform, from the Cowrie Hole down to Burwood beach. I also find lots of interesting things on the beaches. You just have to look closely. The rocky shores provide a structure for plants and animals to cling on to and call home, so you can find many different things on the rocks, under the rocks, and in the rock pools. The lower the tide is, the more you’ll see. When I’m rockpooling, I feel like I go into an altered state. It’s like mindfulness meditation. You won’t get as much out of it if you take a quick look and move on. You have to stay for a while and give it your attention.

Susan Gilmore is one of the lesser-known, more isolated beaches along the coastline here, but it’s one of the first places you visited and it’s also somewhere that you often return to — what is special about this place?

I like the rock platform between Susan Gilmore and Bar Beach as there’s lots to see, and it always looks a bit different. I saw a Southern fan worm (Sabellastarte australiensis) here, but I’ve never seen it again and I can’t find the rockpool I saw it in. It’s a mystery. This area is only easily accessible at low tide, and it’s important to check the conditions before heading out. 

What have been some of your favourite discoveries?

I am very drawn to anemones — their fleshy columns and tentacles seem so alien, and I love how they squish themselves into the tiniest cracks in the rock. The Southern Fan Worm was a special find. They are commonly called “feather duster worms” because that’s what they look like. They have a cool trick where they can retract their feathery gills instantly.

I love finding goose barnacles washed ashore on bits of wood. In the Middle Ages, people actually thought they were goose eggs. Sea urchins are extremely cute. They hold rocks and shells above them with their tube feet, possibly as sun protection. Look up ‘urchins wearing hats‘ if you want to see more. Like other echinoderms, including sea stars, urchins are radially symmetrical, which means their bodies don’t have a left or a right, a front or a back. Most animals, including humans, are bilaterally symmetrical. 

Seeing an octopus is always a highlight. When you observe an octopus, you can feel it watching you, too. They are incredibly intelligent animals. I’ve only seen common Sydney octopuses in the rock pools, but I am mindful that blue-ringed octopuses live in the rock pools too, so I don’t poke around or stand in rock pools. I just use my eyes.

The animal that I’m most obsessed with is chitons. I never knew they existed before I started rockpooling. These marine molluscs have been around for 400 million years and haven’t changed much. I love the patterns on their shells and girdles. Their shells are made of aragonite, a carbonate mineral, and they have hundreds of tiny aragonite ‘eyes’ embedded in their shell which allows them to detect shadows overhead. When they see a shadow they cling on tight to the rock. It’s handy if you’re trying to avoid getting eaten by birds and fish.

Have you learned anything interesting about the history of this area through your travels?

There’s a beautiful virtual reality experience, Niiarrnumber Burrai (Our Country), which introduces you to several of the places that have been officially dual-named with their Aboriginal names, like Whibayganba (Nobby’s Head).

There are also some great stories on the Hunter Living Histories website, like this one about the Bogey Hole.

Bogey Hole, date unknown.

How do you go about researching your findings?

I use an app called iNaturalist that allows you to upload observations of plants and animals. The inbuilt computer vision suggests IDs for you to choose from, which then get verified by other users and upgraded to ‘Research grade’. Before I started using iNaturalist I didn’t know much at all. I don’t have a science background — I dropped science after Year 10 because I was more interested in humanities. Almost everything I’ve learned about local ecology has come from using iNaturalist. It’s really fun and easy to use, and quite addictive, and you get to contribute to citizen science. I love the idea that my gallery of observations could be contributing useful data to scientists working in this field. You can follow me at @rockpooling

What’s your preferred platform for sharing your findings with others? Is there much of a rockpool community out there?

I share some of my rockpooling adventures on Instagram – you can follow me at @rockpooling there too. It is very encouraging to see how many people are interested in intertidal life. 

I’ve also been collaborating with my husband, Carlin McLellan, on a new podcast and website called Sounds of Newcastle, where we invite people to experience different places in Mulubinba Newcastle through immersive field recordings, images and words. It’s like accompanying us on a nature walk.

You’re now writing about rockpools and identity, could you talk about how this project came into being and what we can expect from it?

I’m currently doing a PhD in Creative Nonfiction at the University of Newcastle. I’m writing a collection of eco-memoir essays about Mulubinba Newcastle, especially the liminal places like the intertidal zones of the ocean, river, lakes, and wetlands. My first chapter is about rockpooling and it was recently published by Sydney Review of Books. You can read it here.

Neptune’s Necklace colony
School of toadfish

At this point in time, with all the challenges we are facing from climate change, what are your thoughts about the future and how do your experiences on the beach factor into your outlook?

I used to feel a lot of climate grief and anxiety about the future, but now I feel more hopeful. We are absolutely going to see a lot of changes in our lifetimes. During the recent heatwave in Canada, more than a billion intertidal animals may have cooked to death. For me, that is a reason to care more, love more, get more involved. Instead of accepting “you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone”, get out there and learn what’s around you, learn about local ecology and why it matters. We are animals in this environment, too. If we’ve lost our connection to the living world, it’s time to pay respect to the people who’ve maintained that connection, the traditional custodians, and begin learning, with humility.

All rockpool photos by Bastian Fox Phelan

Categorized as Seafolk
Heath Killen

By Heath Killen

Heath Killen is the founder and editor of On A Floating World. Born and raised in Newcastle, he is passionate about the coastline and waterways surrounding his home. Elsewhere he helps people develop brands, campaigns, and projects based on their passions.