The Gulf of Kutch in Gujarat is an ecological paradise endowed with marine biodiversity that is still being discovered. But few know that this diversity is accessible to the public via the Marine Sanctuary and Marine National Park, both set up in the early 1980s. On a trip from the town of Bhuj to Gondal, my husband and I would have bypassed them entirely, had it not been for the fact that I’d read that the seawater recedes several kilometres during low tide. This allows visitors to experience the drama of marine life without actually diving underwater. This unique proposition convinced me to take the 150-kilometre detour off the main highway from somewhere near Morbi. We found ourselves driving along an industrial belt, past several factories, including an Indian Oil refinery. It seemed an odd approach to a marine park, supposedly teeming with coral and sea life, including puffer fish, octopuses, stingrays, and more. Suddenly the smooth asphalt gave way to a broken dirt road, and hoardings of animals and aquatic life appeared, as did signs for the park.
The park and sanctuary are spread along the coastline and a series of islands, the most popular being Pirotan, easily accessed by boat. The park alone is spread over 163 square kilometres with extensive mangroves and a complex coral reef ecosystem with 49 species of hard corals, 23 species of soft corals, 70 species of sponges, 421 species of fish, 172 species of birds, and a whole lot of colourful algae. We were headed to the Narara Reef, which is where you can walk on the seabed and see much of this flora and fauna.
The road abruptly ended at a parking lot and an old building. It was a little past 2 p.m. and we’d just about made it in time for low tide. In the building we were greeted by a forest official who assigned us a guide and gave us the necessary permits. Our guide was Vipul, a chatty sort, who proceeded to narrate a long list of do’s and don’ts. He then showed us a row of rather well-worn sneakers, canvas shoes, and chappals. “You will be walking on the seabed,” he explained, “your shoes will tear.” I exchanged my shoes for a pair of white canvas ones, with only a few holes in them, and we were off into the mangroves.
After walking a few hundred metres, we emerged from the mangroves and saw the sea in the distance: a thin blue line that merged with the sky above. We followed Vipul eagerly splashing unsteadily in pools of water. After our initial excitement ebbed, we began to take in the vast vista of shallow water, punctuated by coral mounds and algae, with storks, herons, and other birds here and there. Walking through this could have been a bit underwhelming, which is why having a guide was imperative; hidden in the pools, swimming amongst the algae, were the treasures of the sea.
Vipul, who grew up swimming in these waters, opened up the underwater world to us. He uncovered the right rocks to reveal colourful coral and sponges, with tiny starfish, sea anemone, and sea cucumbers hidden beneath. He introduced us to hairy looking wolf crabs, an octopus-like sea creature with tentacles from the starfish family, and the fascinating puffer fish, which balloons up when threatened. And those who walk far enough and are lucky may even spot a stingray or octopus.
Vipul was incredibly knowledgeable and gentle with the marine life. We were allowed to photograph and touch what he touched, but not permitted to pick up anything else, or otherwise disturb the marine life.
We saw only one other guided group while we were there. Perhaps the lack of tourists is a good thing, with all the oil refineries and factories around already affecting the fragile balance of the region’s ecosystem.
Two hours later we walked back, with squishy feet and many photographs. It was a surreal experience to share space with marine life in its natural habitat, without actually having to go underwater. For those afraid of water and/or unable to travel to the Andamans or elsewhere to dive, this is an excellent alternative.
Appeared in the February 2017 issue as “Walking on Water”.
Narara Reef is 55 km/1.5 hr west of Jamnagar in Gujarat. The park is open mid-Oct to mid-Jun. In Dec-Jan, the weather is pleasant and there are many migratory birds. Before visiting confirm the day’s low tide timings (Forest Department, Jamnagar; 0288-2679357). Permits and guides are available at the Forest Office in Narara (permits Rs 40-50 per person; guide fee approximately Rs 250-300, depending on size of group).