Rock stars: a glimpse at the wonders of our rocky shallow shores

Grab your snorkelling gear and ignite your child’s passion for exploration this summer
Female ornate wrasses hang around in groups often guarded by the solitary male. Photo: Desirée Falzon

If you’ve read the last issue in this series, you might be wondering why we’re plunging into the sea in this article too.  Obvious really – we’re an island, so, as holiday places go, there’s kilometres of shore to explore. Then, of course, there’s this heat, which makes the sea a compelling destination. But, most of all, if we’re talking nature, a rocky shore is a completely different animal from a sandy one.

The splash zone

Let’s start from the shoreline itself. That pleasant, splashy sound as waves lap against the rocks defines a habitat that pushes the limits.

If you’re a living thing that has made a home of the splash zone, you will need an arsenal of tricks to (a) keep you from being swept off your feet by pounding waves and (b) keep you from drying out or gasping for air when the oxygen-carrying water recedes.

Sea slaters avoid pounding waves in a rocky crevice. Photo: Desirée Falzon

Children are fascinated by small animal life around them. This is where the rocky shoreline has the advantage over a sandy beach. In between swimming time, look for sea slaters with your child. Notice the incredible speed with which they scurry away – an adaptation that keeps them out of trouble from pounding waves. See the way they seek out little crevices and how their little bodies mould into the rock profile.

Then there’s the marbled shore crab whose enviable ability to walk sideways, backwards and forwards with slick agility too often turns them into children’s playthings. Turn a potentially fatal attraction into lifelong admiration: tell your child about the crab’s amazing ability to shut its breast plates and keep oxygen-rich water over its gills to allow it to breathe above the waterline.

Marbled shore crabs can breathe in and out of water. Photo: Victor Falzon

Beautiful blennies

Check out rock pools for the peacock blenny, a small fish whose ability to breathe out of water for short periods and its arm-like fins allow it to escape a drying pool and skip into another that has more water.

These curious small fish are great subjects for engaging children as they can be found at safe depths for early years. Many can be tempted with food scraps. Just dangle a lazy hand with a morsel of bread and see who comes along for a nibble. And there you have a ticklishly fun way of getting your child to love and not be afraid of animals in the wild.

Stay in the shallows and discover the wonderful variety of colours and patterns of our different shallow-water blennies, from the flame red of the black-faced blenny to the golden yellow of the smallest of our combtooth blennies.

Invest in an underwater writing slate and keep your child’s interest in writing, art and science with this fun tool. Draw and note what you see and look them up back home. There’s nothing quite like sharing an exciting experience that will mark its place on the canvas of your little one’s childhood memories.

Tropical hues

Venture into the sea and lead your child through the maze of nooks and crannies between submerged rocks.

One of the most common fish you will meet on rock patrol is the ornate wrasse, a fish that spares no effort in artistic creativity with its blue and yellow tropical hues.

This fish marks its coming-of-age by changing sex from the younger female to the older male and reordering its stunning pattern into a completely new design. Females forage for small invertebrates in groups, while the solitary male guards his harem during the breeding season.

Female ornate wrasses hang around in groups often guarded by the solitary male. Photo: Desirée Falzon

Shady goings-on

To many, the shadier rock crevices or overhangs are no-go areas, but overcome your fears and be rewarded with some of our most dazzling creatures. Colonies of orange coral extend their arms to catch plankton, often surrounded by a kaleidoscope of encrusting red algae.

These shady rock faces are great places for a spot of competitive exploring with your child. See who can find the first nudibranch, relatives of land slugs but in outrageously cake-icing colours. Or spot the goldfish-like cardinal fish in hollows such as the mini caves under rocks.

If you are an early bird, look among the shady moonscapes created by crumbling cliff boulders that end up on the seabed. This is the hunting ground of the octopus, a master of disguise with an ability to blend with its background in milliseconds.


Our rocky shores are teeming with variety. Some hang out in large groups like the monochromatic damselfish or the alga-grazing salema. Others forage alone or in small groups, like white sea bream.

This article grazes the tip of the iceberg of our fascinating marine biodiversity. The gateway to unlocking this treasure trove lies in igniting your child’s passion for exploration. With each shared adventure, your definition of variety will grow as you snorkel through the fascinating windows of life on our rocky shores.

Desirée Falzon is a naturalist and field teacher with BirdLife Malta.

Damselfish gather in large groups, filter-feeding plankton from the water column. Photo: Desirée Falzon

Join BirdLife Malta

For more nature experiences for you and your children, join BirdLife Malta’s family events at www.birdlifemalta.org/events or become a member and join their family of nature lovers at https://birdlifemalta.org/become-member/.

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To view all the articles in this series, click here. For more environment-related articles, follow this link.

For more Child stories, watch this space.

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