The Anti-Little Mermaid

(This is part two of Containment Issues. Go read part 1 if you want some background on this adventure, or keep reading if you just want to see some sea critters.)


You know that scene in the Little Mermaid where Arial shows us her collection of Whosits and Whatsits galore, and her twenty Thingamabobs? It’s generally understood, even by the particularly young audience of that movie, that Arial is fascinated with the things she collects because they represent a whole facet of her world that she knows nothing about: land. Maybe I know some things about the way oceans work a little better than Arial understood the function of a fork, but there’s still a huge difference between seeing an ocean in a textbook, and digging your toes into the sand. In this metaphor, I am Arial’s opposite- thrilled and giddy about the everyday occurrences of the tide pools, the critters that live inside them, and the way their little ecosystems survive and thrive; little havens safe from the violently crashing waves.

We’re back at Piha for the second installment of Containment Issues, and if you think I had trouble containing my excitement for part one, you have a whole other think coming.

tide pool lion rock at piha new zealand beach

The thing about all the scary, dangerous rocks at Piha is that while they’re busy endangering the lives of unassuming swimmers, they’re also harboring other forms of life in droves.

Keeping in mind that my experience with oceans prior to this trip was extremely limited- meet the first sea critter:

barnacles on the rocks in tide pools piha new zealand

(You thought I was done taking pictures of the ground, didn’t you? I’m just getting started!)

Barnacles! Barnacles are everywhere, and they are so weird. They’ll grow on anything that stays still long enough, and they look all spongy and squishy but they’re just not. They’re hard- so hard that, combined with the next critter I met, they’ll cut right through the soles of your shoes if you’re not careful. What’s the next critter, then?

barnacles and mussels on piha beach sea life

This blog post should probably actually be titled, “Taking Pictures That Could Be Desktop Backgrounds” – alternatively, “Taking Pictures of the Ground part 2”

Mussels! I’ve seen mussels before- I’m a pretty huge fan of boiling  and steaming them, and grilling them is pretty excellent too, but this day was the first time in my 22 wise years (sarcasm) that I had ever seen mussels as they are in nature. They kind of stick themselves to the rocks so that their razor-sharp lips point directly up into the unsuspecting bottoms of your feet. These particular ones are small, but the Green-Lipped mussels in New Zealand (the kind commonly eaten) are the length of my hand! The little critter inside a Green-Lipped mussel is as big as the critter and shell combined of the mussels I’m used to eating here.

Next Critter:

sea anenome in tide pool piha new zealand adventure

“Poke it!”… “I’m not poking it. It’ll bite me!”…”It won’t bite you. When are you ever going to have a chance to poke an anemone again?”

Its an anem- aneon- ame- an anemone! I totally sympathize with Nemo, nobody could be expected to spell that without a ‘proofread’ button. Apparently this is the Disney movie reference blog post… I was a little fearful of the anemone situation based on my knowledge of how they eat… by trapping and killing their prey with stinging nematocysts that emit bursts of venom to anything touching their little tentacles, and then digesting it. I didn’t feel like any of my fingers needed digesting, so I wasn’t about to go sticking them were they didn’t belong. There were several minutes of reassurance (and laughter) before I decided that maybe, maybe, it would be okay if it was just a quick poke, so I did- and watched the anemone curl in on itself until it looked like a squishy little stress ball! It may have even been worth the stress of potential finger digestion.

seaweed growing in tide pools in new zealand

Ever seen anyone get excited about seaweed before? You’re about to!

You’ll recall the previous post about the growing of Mermaid Hair- here we have a different variety which is cultivated primarily for use by younger Mermaids, as fashion trends dictate large, flat strands of hair rather than smaller cylindrical ones typically seen with the older set. These are still very young Mermaid Hair Plants, and will continue to grow until they are long enough for the Mermaids to harvest. The exact length depends on the particular preference of the Mermaid, although longer lengths are typically associated with a higher level of patience, as this type of Mermaid Hair Plant is a very slow grower. It is particularly sought after for its very vibrant spring greens.

If you see a Mermaid Hair Plant on the beach, be sure not to disturb it- the Mermaid is probably waiting for you to leave so they can come up to retrieve it at high tide.

Here, with my bright pink flippy floppies and toes as reference, you can see the danger that barnacles and mussels present for those who wish to climb around on the rocks. It’s the only way to get to more awesome sea life though!

hot pink flip flops explore barnacles and tide pools

Flippy Floppies: Commonly called “Jandals” by the Kiwi population, who will give you a funny look and ridicule you for calling them anything else

If I had planned this trip better, (who am I kidding, I couldn’t have planned for this- neither of us had any idea it was going to be so epic…) I would have worn my water shoes. They have very dense soles. I did, in fact, wear them the next time we went, but that’s another blog post.

Here’s what the mussels and barnacles look like when they’re all grown up:

mussels and starfish at low tide

Unfortunately, you can’t eat the mussels once they’ve left the water because they emit poison to keep themselves safe from predators… like pink-haired seafood loving adventurers…

That’s about the size of the ones you can buy in the grocery store. Also, you’ll note in the upper central third of this photograph- my first real life encounter with Starfish! Stay tuned, cause this adventure is about to get more Starfishy than anyone could have anticipated…

But first!

kina sea urchin submerged in new zealand tide pool

I didn’t say all the critters were cute critters… some of them are downright frightening.

Sea Urchin! This particular variety of sea urchin is called a Kina, which is its Māori name. It’s a delicacy, apparently- but I think I’d have a hard time getting past it’s prickly exterior. Kind of makes you wonder what that first person was thinking when he said, “Hey, wonder what it would be like to put one of those spiky things in my mouth! Gosh, I hope we don’t die!” …what pretty colors, though! 

Here’s another face only a mother could love:

new zealand sea crab in tide pool

One of the biggest critters we saw… Definitely not a thing I’d want to poke…

Crabs! Crabs come in all shapes and sizes, and this particular fellow was pretty large. They’re also very quick and very skittish, and so difficult to photograph. this was actually not the first crab I saw, it was just the first time one didn’t run away for long enough to document its existence. Maybe he was feeling photogenic. Maybe he was having a good….exoskeleton…day…?

And now for something completely different!

small blue starfish in new zealand


Starfish! Of all the critters on this adventure, the starfish were the biggest deal. I knew they existed, because I kept seeing them in far away, difficult to get to places, and I really wanted to get close enough to photograph some. Enter, our little cerulean friend! She (he?) was in a tiny tide pool- fitting, for a tiny starfish. I didn’t even know starfish came in blue, and yet there we were! I took so many pictures. Just to be sure, you know? And this- this most glorious of starfish-finding moments- was only the beginning.

constellation of eleven legged starfish new zealand

Very important fact of the day: A group of starfish is called a Constellation!

Oh. My. Goodness. Everyone. Google has just informed me that a group of starfish is, in all actual and very serious fact, called a Constellation. As far as trivial facts you’ll probably never use goes, that’s pretty excellent. I, however, really could have used that knowledge when I ran into this situation, just at the cusp of low tide on Piha:

starfish covered rock 1

first photo: pretty average looking rocks covered in mussels, barnacles, and something…orange? Also check out those sea caves in the background!

At first glance, it’s nothing more than a pretty picture… but what happens if we maybe get a little closer?

starfish covered rock 2

are those…?

YES. Yes they are, friend. Just as I though that I was done, that Piha was done teaching me about tide pools and ocean life like a grade school child learns about sentence structure, here we were. Faced with a person-height rock covered from tip to toe in starfish! I am so done. I was having such a hard time thinking of anything that could possibly even begin to top this experience. It’s like the mermaids were whispering around (because of my interest in their hair-plants) and they told the starfish what a nice surprise it would be for a poor, land-locked American if they all gathered themselves up on one single solitary rock at low tide so that said American could freak out and take lots of pictures on her first whole day on a beach. Then, they had the little blue starfish keep watch, and they waited.

rock full of starfish new zealand

Feel free to have yourself a game of ‘count the starfish’- I lost track, those legs are tricky. I’m just going to stick with ‘a lot’ if anyone asks…

Naturally, I had to document my presence at this moment:

selfie at starfish rock piha adventures

AHHH (you can even sort of see the sunburn setting in…)

While I was taking photos, the tide started to roll back in- and it rolled very quickly indeed. After a few last-minute shots, we scurried back up onto the beach via some more tide-pool laden rocks, and decided- as the sun was starting to head for the western horizon, to head home. Not before I took a few last minute photos though.

tide pool at piha new zealand.

I feel like I could fill a ocean studies textbook with all the photos I took on this trip. I just want to stare at it and count all the critters! I didn’t even talk about the limpets, snails, and mollusks!

Piha was beautiful. If she were human, she’d be flipping her hair in the wind right now. She behaved perfectly, and I have not a single, solitary complaint about my visit- (my subsequently peeling nose might have some other thoughts, but I care not. It only happened once.)- and I still basically want to live here.

piha beach new zealand

The day summed up- Tide pools, rocks, beach, ocean, and the scenic cliffs in the distance.

And finally- one last shot of the Mermaid Hair Plant forest:

piha and volcanic rocks beach new zealand

I can identify volcanic rocks when I see them now too! But we’re getting to that adventure…

It’s still really difficult for me to comprehend that everything in this photo was covered by water just a few hours later at high tide. I can’t deny it- I nearly got stranded a few times (and by stranded I mean I almost had to get my shoes wet in order to get back to dryer land…).

So there- we’ve reached the end of part 2. There’s still a whole ‘nother post’s worth of adventure to cram into this day! That’s for next week, though, and if you are a little bit tired of ocean-based photos- ( one, gasp! and two, you might consider reading about someone else’s non-island based adventures….)- don’t worry! Next week’s installment of the Containment Issues saga takes us up into the hills surrounding Piha to see my very first southern hemisphere waterfall! And no, the water doesn’t flow in the opposite direction.

In the more recent news of someone who is retroactively blogging about her visit to New Zealand, My working holiday visa for this coming year was approved this week! I’ll be traveling back to this wonderful place at the end of September, and this time not only am I allowed to work and make money- I can stay for a whole year! Piha, darling, I’m coming back for you! Let’s just hope I can get caught up with the old adventures before new ones begin!


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