Country diary: Swimming in the sea through a roiling shoal of silver sprats

Hayling Island, Hampshire: Screaming gulls and children, beaching baitfish – and something is bumping my leg

As we arrived at the beach, the setting sun blazed orange, backlighting the sail-shaped Spinnaker Tower, which stood proud on the horizon. It was the perfect evening for a swim, the calm, dark sea reflecting like quicksilver. As we slipped in, two swallows swooped low above our heads – a welcome distraction from the water’s gasp-inducing chill.

All was quiet as we struck out on a loop of the bathing area. On the return leg, a lone sandwich tern was startled by our flotilla of fluorescent tow floats and flushed from its perch atop a marker buoy. As I followed its flight path, I noticed a frenzied flock of herring gulls and black-headed gulls hover-plunging close to shore.

As we swam closer, the gulls’ screeching cries merged with the screams of a group of children engulfed by the pulsating bait ball of sprats that had drawn the birds’ attention. The term sprat is applied to various species of small forage fish, but these were true sprats (Sprattus sprattus). They’re easily mistaken for juvenile herring (Clupea harengus), but can be distinguished by the sharply toothed keel along the belly and grey, rather than blue, dorsal colouration.

As I waded through the shallows the baitfish began to surge around me, wave after wave of them washing up on the beach. There was a splash behind me and something large bumped against my leg. Then another splash. A spined dorsal fin momentarily broke the surface, as a European sea bass (Dicentrarchus labrax) burst through the shoal in high-speed chase. In late summer, sprats move into coastal waters to spawn and it’s not unusual for them to be herded into shore by these predatory night hunters.

By the time I navigated a path through the roiling sea of silver, there were already hundreds of beached fish. Most were flapping and gasping, but some lay still, smothered by their shoal mates. I scooped up handful after handful, their slick-scaled bodies slipping through my fingers as I returned them to the sea, but it was a sisyphean task – as soon as I released one batch, another wave of thrashing sprats was deposited on the sand.

• Country Diary is on Twitter at @gdncountrydiary


Claire Stares

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Country diary: Swimming with the starlings
Hayling Island, Hampshire: Their communal bath is such a frenzy of activity that it feels as though I’m watching them on fast forward

Claire Stares

22, Nov, 2022 @5:30 AM

Article image
Country diary: only the adolescent seals still hang out here
Hilbre Islands, Wirral: Visitors hoping to glimpse grey seals will find only a few stragglers. The rest are off to their breeding grounds

Ella Davies

05, Nov, 2018 @5:30 AM

Article image
Country diary: seals' woeful cries cut through the noise of the wind
Rathlin Island, County Antrim: Seals gather at the toe of this boot-shaped island; at the top of the boot, fulmars hang in the air, almost within reach; to the west: 2,000 miles of ocean

Vivien Cripps

23, Oct, 2018 @4:30 AM

Article image
Country diary: a brush with the fantastic foxes
Airedale, West Yorkshire: Our regular walks had been short on stars, until the foxes put in a guest appearance

Richard Smyth

19, Jun, 2020 @1:29 PM

Article image
Country diary: a heron he would a-wooing go
Wolsingham, County Durham: Ready for courtship, he’s immaculately turned out, wings folded like a butler’s tailcoat

Phil Gates

16, Dec, 2020 @5:30 AM

Article image
Country diary: long-tailed tits swirl high like leaves
Harlech, Gwynedd: They rank by weight as the tiniest of British birds, though that disproportionate tail gives a slightly false impression of their size

Jim Perrin

14, Mar, 2020 @5:30 AM

Article image
Country diary: geese and gulls face off over nesting sites
Emsworth, Hampshire: Canada geese have repeatedly exerted their dominance over this pair of seabirds

Claire Stares

03, May, 2019 @4:30 AM

Article image
Country diary: nature shakes and shimmers in this watery world
Slapton Ley, Devon: After drawing for an hour I have only a page of scribbles – pathetic attempts to describe this place

Sarah Gillespie

28, Dec, 2020 @5:30 AM

Article image
Country diary: savouring the swish of waves and skylarks' song
Bude, North Cornwall: Whatever your direction of travel here, the path will be rich in nature and history

Virginia Spiers

18, Jul, 2019 @4:30 AM

Article image
Country diary: Clever corvids with cravings for cockles
Warblington, Hampshire: The crows had shellfish grasped in their bills, which they dropped on to the rocky beach below

Claire Stares

25, Mar, 2022 @5:30 AM