If you were told that you can spot sundry marine creatures on the greasy Juhu-Chowpatty stretch in Mumbai you would be right to be sceptical. I know I was. Nonetheless, at 5 pm on a Saturday, my colleague and I met members of Marine Life of Mumbai (MLOM), a collective of ocean enthusiasts who’ve taken the city’s shores in their stride.
“We’ll be covering three different kinds of beach habitats—sandy, muddy and rocky,” explains Shaunak Modi, with the air of someone who’s made the effort to study his hobby. Modi, who runs a travel business, also helps rescue and research marine animals. Not everyone in MLOM’s 12-member team come with a background in marine biology. But that does not hinder the initiative founded by Pradip Patade, Abhishek Jamalabad and Siddharth Chakravarty in 2017.
On the beach, Modi points at what I’ve always assumed to be wedges of gunk—scraps of plastic, dirty rags, shells stuck around fine, branch-like structures. Turns out, these ‘reef systems’ indicate the existence of subterranean shell-binder or decorator worms, named so because of a tube-like structure they create with certain secretions around their burrows. These reefs attract snails that lay eggs and trap other organic material, which in turn provide the worms sustenance. At Juhu, it’s natural that the system would also trap man-made waste. Our walk begins on an ominous note with Modi pointing out that the worms, which feed on organic waste, are indicators of pollution.
The revelation has us paying closer attention to the ground. The number of tiny snails I suddenly spy make me watch my step, like a Gulliver in the land of Liliputs. “It’d take a lot more to hurt them,” Modi laughs. What we see next is part of an organism—the tips of siphons, an appendage in aquatic molluscs—squirting water. Once you focus on the action, it’s like walking through a maze of mini-fountains.
We soon reach an area populated with shells of that typically feature on the enthusiastic vacationer’s mantel. Some are bivalve shells (two valves, hinged together), while others are perfect cones. The shells, in purples and whites, are just the kind you’d pick up on a whim. But don’t. “There’s a popular saying: ‘If it’s a cone/leave it alone,’” Modi reveals. While usually, they caution against venomous gastropods known as conus, we discover the other reason for the saying when we spot teeny claws poking out of a cone’s furrows. The hermit crab is a frequent usurper of these shells.
Moving on to the muckiest part of the beach, towards the jetty, we spot smaller soldier crabs, and their quirkier cousin, the fiddler crab. The orange-bodied creatures, that scramble faster than eggs, are distinguished by the disproportionate claws of the male. At this point, I’m thrilled to spot the mudskipper, an amphibious fish commonly known as walking fish or goby. On a closer look, the goby, with its close-set googly eyes, reminds you of a cute cartoon fish, the sort to make haters sigh. Far more sinister looking is the burgundy anemone, with its flower-like body quivering in the pool of slush inside the sewage pipes.
Shoes caked in filth, we make our way to the craggy edge of the beach. The rocks here have shells of oysters that have lived and perished on them. Others sit with yellow-orange-green sea sponges plastered to their edges. Limpets, chapatti-shaped sponges, mollusc eggs, barnacles and mating snails dot the rest of our trail. Meanwhile, the sight of youngsters hunting crabs makes for a jarring diversion, and the mood lightens only when my partner gets her feet tangled in a fish net. (Greater karma, we joke!) Soon, we approach the area famous for a bioluminescence phenomenon in November 2016. This is also where the MLOM team spotted an octopus in April, we learn. “Sometimes the sea throws up these surprises,” says Sejal Mehta, a consulting editor who has honed her sea-spying skills over walks across Haji Ali, Carter Road and Girgaum Chowpatty.
We see none, but that’s okay. The beauty of such walks, I realise, is not so much in a grand parade of creatures, but the awareness of a vibrant, chaotic and complex microcosm, existing within metres of your favourite roadside Chinese stall.
To sign up for the walk go to www.marinelifeofmumbai.in or follow @marinelifemumbai on Instagram.
Sohini Das Gupta travels with her headphones plugged-in and eyes open. While this doesn't stall the many accidents that tend to punctuate her journeys, it adds some meme-worthy comic relief. She is former Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.