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Mumbai’s Living Beaches

Mumbai’s Living Beaches

Sea sponges – Marine Drive

Photo: Sarang Naik

In beautiful contrast to the uniformity of the buildings lining Marine Drive, a mix of sea sponges in several hues and forms grow on the rocks just below this familiar promenade. These sponges are animals, but like the buildings, they too are homes to a group of Marine Drive’s denizens – a variety of snails, sea slugs, crabs, brittle stars and other shore creatures.

Sponges, crabs, sea stars, octopuses and corals – that’s right, these and a few hundred other species of marine life live right here, in Mumbai’s intertidal zone.

Over the last two centuries as the seven islands turned into Bombay and Bombay turned into Mumbai, the city has lost its connect with the sea. Unlike many coastal cities, the sea isn’t as integral a part of Mumbai’s culture (other than fishing) as one would expect. The sea is discussed when there is either an impending infrastructure project or when the rough monsoon sea returns trash we’ve thrown into it. The rest of the year, a majority of the city forgets about the sea.

Mumbai has three types of shores - sandy beaches, rocky shores and mangrove mudflats. One wouldn’t believe that there are corals across our western coastline. The presence of reef fishes in tidepools suggests the possibility of a reef close by.

Our coastline faces an ever increasing anthropogenic pressure. Between rising sea levels, poor water quality and reckless development, we must not forget that our shores aren’t just sand, rock and water but home to hundreds of species that call it home.

Zoanthids – Napean Sea Road

Photo: Shaunak Modi

As the tide recedes far beyond its average limit on a few days every year, a wonderland is revealed on Mumbai’s shores. These forbidden kingdoms are carpeted with soft hexacorals of a bright green and blue kind, called Zoanthus sansibaricus. These mats are not just awesome to look at, but serve as habitats in themselves, housing a variety of creatures that roam among the polyps.

Blue Button – Haji Ali

Photo: Abhishek Jamalabad

Though a pelagic species, the blue button or blue dollar Porpita porpita has enchanted many onlookers in Mumbai. Year after year, usually with the monsoon winds, these strikingly beautiful relatives of the jellyfish wash up on beaches. On the lesser-visited rocky seashores such as Haji Ali, large, deep tide pools hold some of them alive (like this one) until the tide carries them out again.

Cup Corals – Marine Drive

Photo: Abhishek Jamalabad

Multiple species of cup corals (Rhizangiidae, a family of stony coral) have been recorded on every single rocky seashore on Mumbai’s western seaboard! These corals are listed alongside the tiger under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972; and the Coastal Regulation Zone Notifications of 2011 and 2018 recognise their habitats as the highest priority (CRZ 1A) areas.

Elysia Hirasei – Haji Ali

Photo: Shaunak Modi

At just half a centimetre in length, Elysia hirasei, a tiny sacoglossan (sap-sucking sea slug) is found in shallow tidepools, feeding exclusively on algae. It isolates and stores the algal chloroplasts (photosynthetic cells) and can switch from active feeding to photosynthesis to survive during times of food shortage. Hence, it is often referred to as a ‘solar-powered sea slug’.

Maroon Stone Crab – Haji Ali

Photo: Prajwal J. Ullal

A resident of the rocky shore near Haji Ali, this maroon stone crab Menippe rumphii is a member of the family Menippidae. It is a stocky crab, usually found under stone and rubble on rocky and sandy-muddy beaches. Unlike other crabs, the maroon stone crab stays motionless when disturbed; it simply tucks its limbs under its body to merge seamlessly into the surrounding rocks.

Pearly Sea Anemone - Juhu

Photo: Sarang Naik

It’s not just Mumbai’s rocky shores that house so much wildlife, but the sandy shores too – we’ve all taken strolls here and missed seeing much of it. In this picture, a pearly sea anemone Paracondylactis sinensis, one of the biggest found on our shores, lies on the lower part of a sandy beach, backlit by Mumbai’s bright lights.

Brittle Star – Marine Drive

Photo: Abhishek Jamalabad

Like Mumbai’s nightlife, the watery doorstep of the city also comes alive after hours. Strange, fantastic creatures crawl out of their hiding places as dusk falls on the city’s little-known rocky seashores. This brittle star, with its prickly snake-like arms, is just one of hundreds of species found here.

Sea Whip – Marine Drive

Photo: Abhishek Jamalabad

Like a tiny forest on a snowy night, the polyps on a sea whip (a kind of soft coral) receive a blizzard of food in the form of drifting bits of organic debris. Fascinating creatures like these outline the deeper rocky outcrops of Mumbai’s shores, seemingly as oblivious of the city as most of us are of them.

Squid Eggs – Carter Road

Photo: Abhishek Jamalabad

For certain species, Mumbai’s shores serve as a link or a sort of launchpad to oceanic life. Squids, for example, aren’t seen very often in the shallows, but their eggs certainly are. The embryos in this clutch, which already resemble miniature squid, will soon develop, hatch and then spend their lives as vital members of deep-water ecosystems.

Mudskippers – Thane Creek

Photo: Sudhir Gaikwad

Mudskippers are muddy shore specialists most commonly seen in mangroves in Mumbai. They belong to Gobiidae, one of the largest fish families. Even though they are fish, they can live and breathe outside water. You can spot them skipping on mud (hence the name) and if you’re lucky enough, see them in a territorial display, like in this image.

Cratena Sea Slug – Haji Ali

Photo: Abhishek Jamalabad

The Cratena sea slugs, tentatively thought to be a complex of multiple species, are undeniably charismatic creatures found in tide pools all across the city’s western shores. Like most others of their kind, they derive their stunning colours from their (literally) stunning food – the stinging polyps of certain hydroids (such as the ones in the above image).

Sea Fans – Marine Drive

Photo: Pradip Patade

Popularly known as sea fans because of their resemblance to Japanese hand-held fans, these soft corals are found predominantly in tropical waters around the world. Their fan-like body branches out, giving the impression of a tiny tree growing in the intertidal zone. They use their polyps to catch free-flowing organisms in the water around them.

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol XXXXI Issue 6, June 2019


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