Tidepooling with the Marine Life of Mumbai

There’s a tiny world lurking underneath the concrete mess that is Mumbai. Its beaches – always packed with people hoping to catch of whiff of the sea air, a moment of peace and their place in the sun – are home to more than just what catches our eye. If you simply wait for the tide to recede, these creatures reveal themselves in all their glory. Pearly sea anemones, green button polyps, sea urchins, sponges, corals and more. Marine Life of Mumbai (MLOM) has been working for six years to highlight this rich biodiversity with their shore walks. We speak to Shaunak Modi, co-founder of the Coastal Conservation Foundation, under whose aegis MLOM runs its program.

What led to the formation of the collective? One of the reasons for starting Marine Life of Mumbai was to introduce the citizens of Mumbai to their marine counterparts. With shore walks, our aim has been to create a community of tidepoolers in the city. It’s only when enough people know of its existence that we can start reversing the damage being done to our coastal waters and start protecting the ecosystem.

MLOM’s members have logged more than 570 species to date. Now that sea cucumbers, anemones, zoanthids, stingrays, even Portuguese man o’ war have entered the city lexicon, what are your objectives? Even within Mumbai, we have a long way to go. We wish to scale up the project to more shores. Later this year, we will be starting a long-term intertidal monitoring project in Mumbai to try and understand the effects of the recent developmental activities on the shoreline over a longer period.

Our aim is to bring the highly successful MLOM model to other geographies – starting with Maharashtra and Goa where foundational work has already begun.

You already have shore walks in Juhu, Girgaon and Bandstand. Are there more in the offing? Starting this month we are introducing two more shores – Erangal in the North and Varsoli in the South. We plan to explore more shores in the MMR region post monsoon.

What are some of the creatures that you were surprised to find on the city’s shores?
When I first started tidepooling, everything was surprising. I live in Juhu and have been going to the beach all my life but even then I had not thought of it as anything more than a commons. I wouldn’t have believed it if someone came and told me there were more than five hundred species of marine life we’re sharing space with. But once I started exploring more regularly, surprise turned to awe. Despite everything that we’ve thrown at them – literally and figuratively – these animals are still here; hidden in plain sight.

While it all has been fascinating, the most memorable moment was sitting at Juhu beach one evening looking at a bunch of cuttlefish eggs when suddenly one of them hatched and I was face to face with a new born cuttlefish. It was one of those moments that stays with you forever.

Cuttlefish inside eggs at Juhu beach. Photo courtesy: Shaunak Modi

Marine Life of Mumbai has been vocal against the Coastal Road project and the impact it will have on the intertidal zone at Haji Ali. What are the changes you have observed in the area? The Coastal Road project is a complex issue. While I understand the need for building core infrastructure in a city as densely populated as Mumbai, there are ways to build it in a less damaging way. For instance, in its original form, the coastal road in south Mumbai was supposed to be a bridge – an extension of the Bandra-Worli sealink. This, in my opinion, would be considerably less damaging to the coast and cheaper to build than what is currently being done. Then why not choose that?

We have noticed considerably more siltation on all our rocky shores right from Marine Drive to Juhu, which impacts the intertidal ecosystem negatively. However, it’s too soon to say with certainty the long term or permanent damage that may have occurred because of the project. But this is something we’re definitely interested in understanding and is where the long-term monitoring project comes in.

How could locals get more involved and try to conserve the intertidal zone in their areas? As a first step, become their voice. There are only so many people we can reach. That’s why we’re always encouraging people to start exploring the intertidal zone on their own, hoping to make it as popular an activity as birding or herping.

We’re always happy to help people identify what they’ve seen or guide them about which shore to go to and when. But it’s only when we have enough voices speaking about the intertidal that we can make a difference and try to conserve it.

The Marine Life of Mumbai started out as a volunteer-driven collective. In 2019, it became the flagship project of the Coastal Conservation Foundation, which aims to increase awareness and understanding of India’s marine ecosystems by means of research, outreach and citizen science. MLOM members upload their findings to iNaturalist, a biodiversity database, where you can explore all the species they have observed so far. On our walk, we spotted porcelain crabs, sea slugs, stone crabs, squid eggs, Conchs, anemones and more. You can follow MLOM on Instagram for new sightings, shore walks or visit their website here.

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