It’s a Sunday morning on Mumbai’s Juhu beach. Enthusiastic day- break joggers have gone home and the long stretch of sand is largely empty, save for a few hawkers and strays who are curling up on the warm grains, too languid to stir from their place, even as we walk around them.
We have come here for a marine walk. To get to know the rich sea life that inhabits the shores of this vast city; the original residents of the megapolis that, though was formed of seven islands, is still a large island flanked by the Arabian sea.
We are ensconced by an expansive biodiversity of marine life, and in intrinsic and essential ways, more than we know, and care to acknowledge, our lives, ecosystems and our very survival hinges on respecting these life forms that create an invisible synergy between our lives, quite like the delicate dance of the moon and tides.
Though the rambling curve of Juhu beach is divided into the sandy part that begins somewhere near the Ramada Plaza hotel, the muddy section that snakes alongside Juhu Tara road, and the rocky portion that forms the backdrop of a native fishing community on the outskirts of Khar, -this demarcation is fluid, seamlessly flowing into each other. Just as our walk is getting into the rhythm of the sand, our feet feeling its shifting quality, it starts getting heavier and we realise that the loose sand has given way to a denser, cloying variety that sticks to our shoes and soon we are wading into an inlet that leaves our footprints in the mud along the shore. Gradually small pebbles get under our feet, we feel their crunch and roundness beneath our shoes and soon we are up against the big rocks.
We notice all this because we are walking gingerly, for when we move with awareness and look beneath our feet at the immense variety of life forms that permeate the waters, we are mindful of where we place our step, of what we step on.
Glinting on the shore, against the shimmering sand is a spectrum of bivalve molluscs and gastropods, with shells in colours and patterns so mesmerising that they are miniature masterpieces under the sun. In fact, sand is formed as the waves break these shells over time, and pound them into the proverbial million pieces like a clear night sky scattered with stars.
So many shapes, structures, shades and symmetries. We flit from one to the other, holding a magnifying glass and admiring the way nature has created such complex rhythms, such intricate systems, such sheer diversity- all working in complete and cohesive harmony to produce a symphony in the sea. We hold each gently, on the palm, for we now experience its life, its contribution to the whole of creation, its innate strength to survive over thousands of years, and yet these life forms look so fragile, so vulnerable in their beauty.
The ethereal sunset shell, a bivalve, whose outer lilac casing is designed to form the slanting rays of the sun; the turban shell whose spiral turns are akin to the human headgear; the Olivia which is slender and conical with a slit towards one end, quite like a lady wearing a shimmering slit gown; the Ambonium that is a bright red and is also called a button shell and it is indeed as cute as a button; three types of Donax, pearl white and pretty; my favourite, the window pane oyster whose shell is translucent and gossamer, like a glass painting, stained with hues of blue and purple, used to decorate chandeliers and as we hold it up , its timeless colours sparkle in the sunshine; the Psomania, with its sheen of white flecked with pink; the blue barnacles, immortalised by Captain Haddock to Tintin as he thundered, “billions of blistering blue barnacles!” Yes, they sting!
The hermit crab borrows the discarded shell of other molluscs and moves around in them- the original recycler! We see colonies of hermit crabs all in a variety of shells scurrying across the sand bed and marvel at the way Nature has a way of valuing and reusing everything She designs. And how wonderful Her mechanisms of coexistence are. For instance, the Decorator Worm gathers discarded shells, sticks them together with its saliva and makes tunnels to house itself! And all that in a space of a couple of inches. We see the Kavdi, a common sea shell that we have all gathered as children, the inside edge having teeth like structures. This was used as currency hundreds of years ago.
We watch the pink sea anemone sway its tentacles like a bevy of dancers synchronising to a beat. And on the boulders, we find oysters embedded in the rocks, the bivalves opened out like a fan. Climbing the rocks, we dip into the waters and discover the first multicellular animals in the world – the sponges, in a burst of colours -orange, yellow, blue and sapphire green- which have a singular opening through which they take in whatever food the current brings in, and the outgoing current carries away any waste material that they expel.
We have not only travelled to the outer reaches of the beach, but also to the edge of time. Overhead, the Terns, on white wings fly across the silent sky.
And we know we can go forward only by taking care of our marine life, helping preserve what was gifted to us, honouring all life forms, respecting the balance through which Nature functions, and understanding that we are but a mere part of the big picture, a speck in the ocean of time.