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Porpita porpita photographed at Girgaon Chowpatty by Shaunak Modi

Magnificent Images Of Sea Creatures From Along Mumbai’s Coastline

By Shaunak Modi

First published in Verve on April 22, 2019.

Shaunak Modi photographs beautiful corals, zoanthids and sea sponges against Mumbai’s skyline.

Driving along the sweep of Marine Drive or past the crowded Haji Ali Dargah at Worli, is there anyone who looks out at sea and wonders about the marine life along urban Mumbai’s massive coastline? Perhaps only a small group of enthusiasts and scientists attached to the Marine Life of Mumbai (MLOM) group that aims to make denizens aware of the array of saltwater creatures that live hidden from view along the seaside. And yet what we see sticking out of the grey waters of the Arabian Sea today are the ubiquitous drilling and construction platforms of Mumbai’s Coastal Road Project, the 29.2-kilometre freeway along the coastline that will endanger Mumbai’s little-known and scarcely respected corals, anemones, slugs and other organisms.

Shaunak Modi, from team MLOM, sees what most Mumbaikars miss. And he records what he sees — the diversity of sea life along the fringes of this metropolitan spread. “In the last two years, I’ve photographed the most beautiful corals, zoanthids and sea sponges — wildlife I only associated with faraway islands — juxtaposed against Mumbai’s skyline. It’s finding such beautiful animals so close to home, and their resilience to thrive in such conditions that draws me to them the most,” says the photographer who has been capturing landscapes and wildlife over the last 10 years. His work seems emblematic of the dangers that these creatures are facing. He explains: “The Coastal Road will stretch across the entire western coastline of the city and its impact will be felt differently in different places.

In areas such as Malabar Hill, Haji Ali and Worli, where the intertidal zone is being landfilled, the loss of wildlife will be the highest. In areas like Bandra and Juhu, the large-scale disruption to the tidal flow may change the beach profile drastically, as the Bandra-Worli Sea link did in Dadar. In Versova, not only will a large patch of mangroves be cut, the proposed site for the sea link entry will disturb the nesting site of the Olive Ridley turtles that hatched last March. There are colonies of corals on the entire western coastline. At a time when the entire world’s focus is on protecting corals, we’re building a road over them.”

Modi urges people to join Marine Life of Mumbai’s free walks every month on Mumbai’s rocky coast to show them just how biodiverse they are. “It’s only when we familiarise ourselves with them that we can truly learn to love and appreciate and then protect our shores and the animals that live there,” he maintains. “The first step towards conserving wildlife or its habitat is learning of its existence. Until a few years ago, Mumbai’s shores were only spoken about in the context of pollution and plastic. That narrative needs to change. Yes, those are very real problems too, but in spite of them, the marine life thriving here should be celebrated.”

His images are reminders of what the city would be losing in its march towards ‘progress’. These photographs are aesthetic representations, some of them almost abstract in their compositions, of nature’s gift to Mumbai – one that no one else seems to be concerned much about…

Arabian cowrie photographed at Haji Ali by Shaunak Modi
These are the largest of Mumbai’s cowrie snails. Cowries have bright and shiny outer shells, but can completely change their appearance by covering these with their mantles (almost like a cloak) which blends them into their surroundings.
Porpita porpita photographed at Girgaon Chowpatty by Shaunak Modi
Blue buttons, also known as Porpita Porpita, these are chondrophores — close relatives of jellyfish — and are seasonal visitors to our city. These free-floating animals live in the open ocean but are brought ashore in Mumbai just before the monsoons by strong landward winds. Interestingly, even though it looks like one animal, it is a colony of many tiny animals that have evolved to live together as one large organism, with different roles assigned to each one in the colony.
Cup corals photographed at Napean Sea road by Shaunak Modi
Cup corals are probably the most abundant of the stony corals seen in Mumbai. They grow on flat rocks along the lower edges of every rocky part between Marine Drive and Juhu. These are sedentary animals that feed by catching tiny organisms using their tentacles and bringing them to their mouths, which are at the centre of their bodies.
Feather-duster worm photographed at Khar Danda by Shaunak Modi
This feathered crown belongs to a feather-duster worm, a type of sedentary worm that lives in a tube-like burrow made of sand and slime. Radioles, as these ‘feathers’ are called, act as the animal’s gills and double up as appendages that send food down to the worm’s mouth, which is located at the base of the feathers.
Bristle worm photographed at Bhuigaon beach by Shaunak MOdi
Given how small they are, these are easy to overlook. They move with the help of the hairy bristles along their sides, which earned them their name. They’re commensal animals, meaning that they exist in symbiotic relationships with sea stars and anemones and feed on a host of organisms found in their habitat.
A pearly sea anemone photographed at Juhu beach by Shaunak Modia
Pearly sea anemones live on Mumbai’s sandy beaches. They burrow their carrot-like bodies in the sand, with only their mouths and tentacles visible above ground. Similar to corals (they’re both Cnidarians), they use their tentacles to feed on small organisms.
A mat of Zoanthus sansibaricus photographed at Napeansea Road, Mumbai by Shaunak Modi
These are possibly the most beautiful animals on our shores and a crowd favourite to photograph. They’re close relatives of corals and, like them, live in large colonies. You may see entire tide pools covered with large carpets of zoanthids. Like corals and anemones, zoanthids don’t move, and they use their tentacles to feed on organisms in the water. Some species have toxins, which under certain conditions can be harmful to humans.

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