[Editor’s Note: Mumbai Boss published an incredibly interesting article about what the deteriorating state of Mumbai’s oceans can mean for the fish we eat from it. On the heels of the exciting news of blue whales being spotted off the coast of Maharashtra last month, headlines today have been splashed with the news of the death of 42-feet-long blue whale - the largest existing animal - that washed up on the shore in Raigad district, about 20 km from Alibaug. Rescue efforts by local fishermen as well as Alibaug forest officials eventually proved futile and the gentle giant breathed its last after 10 hours of struggle. Natural reactions elicited from it were disgust, sadness, and rampant resolutions, and even as Twitter mourned the tragic loss, this should serve as the largest reminder so far of the appalling loss of biodiversity the area - which has a history of thriving flora and fauna - that is happening as we speak. Appalling, and possibly irreversible.
In this article, Nayantara Jain, freelance travel writer/ deep-sea diver/ Managing director at Reef Watch Marine Conservation, attempts to show us the other side. Perhaps if we realized that there are still such incredible life forms in our oceans in spite of our neglect, we’d be more inspired to preserve it.]
Picture this--a young couple is out running on the beach. On one side there is the massive arch of a road called Marine Drive. On the other is a glittering, blue sea reflecting the soft orange light of the morning sun. In the distance they see the silhouettes of small fishing boats heading out to sea. Their lines will be carefully designed so as to ensure they do not trap turtles and sharks. Only large fish with healthy growth rates will suffice. Closer by, there is a lone man on a paddleboard. He starts each day on the water, clearing his mind with breathing exercises before work at Nariman Point. Sometimes, as his eyes skim the surface, the water is clear enough for him to spot stingrays, baby eels and bright crabs. On the weekend, many families relax on the city’s different beaches. They build sandcastles and the mammas hardly fret that the children might scoop up a handful of poop as they do so.
Suddenly, a girl squeals. Everyone drops what they are doing, and looks startled in her direction. She is pointing out to the waves where two dolphins soar out of the water and belly flop back in, as if competing for the bigger splash. The only person who missed this spectacle was, like the dolphins, riding the surf herself. The citizens of this Bombay love the ocean. They recognize that in every drop of water they drink, in every breath of air, they are inextricably connected and deeply dependent on the ocean. They also work, eat, sleep, travel, love, get married, have kids and grow up much like us. The only difference being that their relationship with their surroundings is not purely extractive.
Our Mumbai seems far removed from the idyllic picture above. To get our fill of all of that, we fly to the Maldives or Australia (if we can of course) or somewhere else where the water is clear and the air is clean. But it could have been different. If we had but paid the ocean more attention, and understood the greatly positive influence it was capable of having on our everyday lives, our reality could have been this fantasy. Instead, we are occupied and overwhelmed by Mumbai’s sounds, sights, crowds and heights, and we rarely acknowledge the ocean’s presence as anything more than a pretty view or a dumping ground for our garbage and our Gods. With all the toxicity we’ve injected into the Mumbai’s stretch of the Arabian Sea, you might think it is too late. I beg you to reconsider.
In the words of Sylvia Earle, a present-day Guru of ocean science and conservation, “it is the worst of times but it is the best of times because we still have a chance”. Life is incredibly persistent and believe it or not, we still have neighbours in our sea. I bring to you ten beautiful marine animals, large and small, that showing great loyalty, continue to grace Mumbai’s shores.
I. The Humpback Whale
The great whales, our mammalian relatives, are some of the most majestic creatures of the ocean. Humpback whales can be up to 15 metres long. Incredible strong and gentle, the females frequently travel between continents, nursing their babies, on an empty stomach. They are extremely protective of their young ones, they spend 12 months teaching their calf how to swim, breach, dive and communicate.
Incredibly, a part of their journey brings them right past Mumbai, and tragically, we only become aware of them when they wash up dead on our beaches thanks to ship collisions and toxicity.
Fun Fact: A fully grown humpback whale weighs about as much as four elephants!
II. Green turtles
Of the seven species of sea turtles found in the ocean, green turtles are most commonly seen around Mumbai. Like their terrestrial ancestors, they breathe air and lay their eggs on land. These large and very shy animals spend their days grazing on sea grass and algae, and come up to the surface every 4 or 5 minutes to breathe.
Fun Fact: Unlike the lethargy land turtles are famed for, these guys can swim as fast as 3 km an hour.
III. Whale Sharks
These beautifully patterned black and white sharks are named for their gigantic size, as well as their diet which, like Baleen Whales, consists of tiny planktonic organisms. Many lucky divers and snorkelers have had the opportunity to interact with them as they tend to swim close to the surface of the sea. Found mainly in tropical waters, they are known to congregate off the coast of Gujarat.
Fun Fact: The largest individual ever to be measured accurately was caught off Mumbai, back in 1983.
Exceptionally charismatic and expressive, dolphins are probably the most loved ocean-dwelling animals of all. It is almost impossible to see a pod of dolphins in their gregarious play and not have your day significantly improved and your spirits lightened. Stressed denizens of this city must take a weekend ferry out or at least search keenly out of their car windows each time they cross the sealink. The mere possibility of spotting these beautiful animals is manna to the city soul.
Fun Fact: Dolphins give themselves names. One of the more recent discoveries about them is they develop their own individual whistles which effectively act as their own name.
V. Sting Rays
Tragically misunderstood, sting ray ‘attacks’ during Ganpati this year, have condemned this animals to infamy and fear. Sting rays however, do not ‘attack’! They live, quite peacefully, on the ocean floor, scouring the sand for little crabs they like to eat. They haven’t the mouth to bite humans, and certainly don’t chase us in hunger nor anger. The only defense mechanism they possess is a little barb with a sting at the base of their tails, and thus, if we accidentally trod on them, we end up with a sharp painful jab into our feet and ankles. Here’s another look at these animals, from a perspective other than their recent newspaper appearances. Hardly the malicious attackers they’re being made out to be!
Fun Fact: They are actually related to sharks and as such, do not have any bones.
Despite their blob-like gelatinous structure, jellyfish seen drifting in the currents of the ocean can be ethereally beautiful. They often possess lines of luminescence that shine through their bodies. Some have stings that can be painful, even deadly, to humans. If you are ever stung by a jellyfish, a good first aid tactic is to remove any tentacles left on the skin delicately with a pair of tweezers, and then washing the area with household vinegar. Interestingly, jellyfish may have the answer to the alchemist’s quest for immortality – these invertebrates never biologically die of old age as they have the extraordinary ability to transform its cells aged cells back to youth. They bypass death by going back into a juvenile blob-ish state to enter their lifecycle once more.
Fun Fact: Given that they are some of the few marine animals capable of withstanding very low oxygen levels and warm waters, they might be the few winners of our warfare against the Earth.
The under-appreciated barnacle is found in abundance in the intertidal zone between ocean and land. They are able to endure the extreme daily change of seawater inundation, battering waves as well as the hot and dry conditions of exposure to air at low tide. Barnacles look like tiny stone mountains with a crater like crown, and don’t look very alive. However they are small crustaceans that attach themselves to rocks and hard surfaces, and feed out of the crater-like hole on their top. Ignored as they might be to the casual bystander, scientists focusing on bio-mimicry have been trying to synthesize ‘barnacle cement’ for years. They expect it to have a range of applications from dental glue to blood clotting agents to industrial uses.
Fun Fact: A little fact that might make a little barnacle an envy of many a man: barnacles have the largest penis size to body size ratio of any living being!
VIII. Fiddler Crabs
These buff little crabs are found on Bombay’s beaches and creek edges. The males, not unlike the males of our own species, use their big biceps to attract females. You can identify them with their one oversized claw, which they often bash on the ground to get attention, or use it to fight other males to woo their lady. Efficient as always, they don’t bother to invest energy for claws on both sides – and so their distinctive lopsided bodies are easily identifiable. Like other crabs, they molt their old shells and grow new ones, as their body gets larger.
Fun Fact: During this molting they also re-grow any limbs they might have lost before. If they lose their ostentatious claw during a fight, they simply grow it again, on the opposite side.
IX. Milk Sharks
These miniature sharks don’t grow much beyond a metre in length, but have a wide distribution in the world’s tropical ocean, including around Bombay. As juveniles they come up into very shallow waters, including in tiny tide pools, and sometimes even swim upriver into brackish waters. As sharks go, they are pretty cute, with a long snout and big round eyes.
Fun Fact: In India it is (falsely) believed that the meat of this species promotes lactation, and hence their name.
X. Flying Fish
Birds of the ocean, you will easy spot large schools of fish flying just above the surface of the water if you’ve ever watched the ocean on a ferry to Alibaug. These little fish, are usually no larger than your palm and pretty defenceless against largest, stronger, faster swimming predators. Therefore, over millions of years, this entire family of fishes has developed the ability to fly and make an innovative escape. How do they do it? Their tail fin propels them out and acts as a rudder, while their wide pectoral fins flap on the surface to effectively glide over the sea. They can manage up to 45 seconds to a minute of flight before dipping back under the surface. Mumbai’s coast hosts 5 different species.
Fun Fact: They can flap their ‘wings’ (fins) to achieve elongated flights while gliding, practically doubling their speed, reaching speeds up to 60 km/h.
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