Forty years ago today I was happy with my head in a rock pool and beach-combing in South Wales. Today I’m happy with my head in a rock pool and beach-combing in Orkney. Back in 1976 I found part of a sea urchin’s shell and noted it down in my nature notebooks. It was probably a Green Sea Urchin (Strongylocentrotus droebachiensis) shell rather than the Common Sea Urchin (Echinus esculentus, which means ‘Edible Hedgehog’) shell but I forgive myself the misidentification, given the one book I had on the sea shore only had the one species in it. I find it more difficult to forgive myself the incorrect use of ‘were’ rather than ‘where’. Still, I learned the difference eventually.
Today we’re walking around the base of the Castle o’ Burrian on Westray at low tide while I take photographs of Dog Whelks (of which, much, much more later) when I see it; A huge, pink, spiny Urchin on top of a rock, a good four feet out of the water. “What on Earth is that doing there?” I ask with a voice unable to contain my excitement.
It’s just perched there; a perfect specimen. It even has all the spines still on it which usually fall off soon after it dies. I want to take it home. We try to pick it up incredibly gently but it’s stuck to the rock. I pull but it’s still stuck. This one is still alive! Given that Common Sea Urchins often live in seas up to 40 metres deep it’s very curious that this one is in perfect condition, still alive and well out of the sea because of the low tide. It’s massive and must be ten years old.
I decide to put it back in the sea, even though I think its chances of survival are slim. It must have been out of the water for a while and the wave action of the incoming tide may well spell its doom. Still, I have to try. I place it in a nearby rock pool and hundreds of tube feet emerge. It is incredibly beautiful, delicate and decidedly other-worldly.
My eyes are stuck to it just like it was stuck to the rock and I am now, officially, twelve years old again.