On Konkan Tides

The sun hid behind the wavering leaves – light glimmering through a break in the woods, dancing upon the tumultuous sea. Two fishermen sat on ragged rocks, dangerously close to the rising sea, their fishing lines cast unto the furious waves. Any number of fishes caught would make a delightful feast. Two women gathered Hermit Crabs of just the right size to prepare dinner – their coastal village a few yards from the rocky shore, near a sandy beach opening into the Arabian Sea. We’re in Konkan – where the union of land and the sea reflects in ecology and culture since time immemorial.
Two fishermen
Stretching for over 500 km between Mumbai and Goa, the Konkan coast was formed when Madagascar split with India millions of years ago. But it was not until the indigenous people settled on this coast that it was called Konkan. The name is an enigma in itself, for there is no concrete theory on its etymology. This mysterious land arrested between the majestic Sahyadri and the mighty Arabian Sea contains a world of its own. And within this world lie several other worlds – the world in-between, which are neither here nor there.

Standing atop the hillock – the undulating terrains west of Sahyadri which tumble down into fertile coastal plains – you can see the land unfold until your eyes greet the rivers that originate in the mountains, seeking the warmth of the sea.

From such estuarine ecosystems to the most sought-after white-sand beaches, the lesser known coral reefs, black and red rocky shores and mangrove belts, Konkan is the queen of all coastal ecosystems one can dream of. We sailed on the stranger tides for two days, exploring and discovering things we never expected to find – so strange that we forgot the thin line the divides land from the sea, and sea from the sky.
Vashishti Estuary
I.
We floated frictionless upon the sky – the thin line between water and air disappeared in front of our eyes. Tall mangrove trees rose above as mighty sentinels guarding its banks. Their reflection so clear, there was no distinction on what’s real and what’s not. No waves disturbed the placid waters of the estuary as it followed into the sea in a large expanse hugged by acres of piling mangroves.
Mangrove forests
This large estuary is the mouth of Vashishti River – one of the few to originate in the Sahyadri ranges and spill into the Arabian Sea. It is one of the few remaining wild and untamed mangroves. Save only regions with coastal villages, its banks remain rather unknown to man.

The network of mangroves is so dense, it is impossible to peer a feet into the banks, except in places holed by Otters and jutting rocks. While we sailed in the world in-between, our guide manning the propeller – his eyes searching for large ghostly-white ancient predators – a wedge of Intermediate Egrets took to air – flying directly above it – a mugger.
Mugger Crocodile
This creature has called Konkan its home since the separation of Africa from India. It has seen the landscapes change – and has adapted with it. It took to the water as soon as it felt threatened, passing directly under the boat, its powerful tail propelling silently a feet below us.

The mangroves are one of the extraordinary ecosystems. Very few trees can balance the fine line between two ecosystems. Although we did not step in this part of the grove, our smooth sailing allowed us to witness some magnificent moments. Many imprinted on us forever.
Flock of Little Cormorants
Just as this ecosystem is crucial for the survival of crocodilians, it is for the survival of our kind as well. The major occupation in this region is agriculture. This being the dry season, the fields were empty. It was the waters that were busy with activity, as small ships with ingenious, cheap technology fished for sand from the bottom of the estuary.
Sand dredger
Long bamboo poles attached to a pulley with a bucket at the end were hauled by men – making sure not to dive in, probably by the threat of the crocodiles. As they busied themselves on this age-old tradition of sand dredging, we wondered how it affected the fauna of the place. The activity disrupts the benthic habitat which takes time to resettle, and kills many organisms as by-catches. It also removes a significant amount of sediments, which is probably refilled by the river. We wondered whether there is a cap on such an activity, for it has destroyed many mangrove ecosystems near my home.
Little Heron
We spent quite a few hours on the boat, scanning the dark banks for any activity, from an elusive, not-so-commonly- seen Little Heron to the bold Marsh Crocodiles of varying sizes, and other creatures that are more home here than the sewages of the cities.
An Intermediate Egret at home
The mangroves, an important but neglected ecosystem, have been one of the most destroyed landscapes along the western coast of India. On the way back to the jetty, we explored these few remaining old tidal forests on foot. We usually see stunted mangrove trees which almost resemble shrubs, but some trees grow large and big, supported by a dense network of roots, which is an independent ecosystem in itself. They serve as a nursery to a variety of creatures, from baby sharks and crocodiles to nesting birds.
The Deep and Dark Woods
One of the exuberant moments on our mangrove trip was that of a surreal forest at the edge of a road that runs parallel to the creek, when the sunlight reached the dark waters of these tidal forests – a flower of Sonneratia glowing in the golden light, leaves rustling in the cool, salty breeze, and water rising and falling – our earth’s way of telling us she’s alive.
The Sandy Shores
II.
The shores remember the footprints we leave in the sand. They remember the impressions of a creeping Hermit Crab, a nimble stampede of gulls, driftwoods that once sailed with the wind and settled onshore. The eternal roil of sand with sand has produced some of the finest sandy beaches along Konkan.

Stretching for miles at an end, these sandy shores are one unique habitat colonized by curious organisms – and one of these, a representative of the sandy beaches of India – are the Sand Bubbler Crabs.
Sand Bubbler Crab - Scopimera sp.
This dweller of the world in-between – that is the inter-tidal zone – is the commonest crustacean of sandy shore habitats. Their colonies stretch for several miles, with different species inhabiting different stretches of beaches. The common name – Sand Bubbler Crabs, is because they filter organic matter from the sand brought inshore by the high tides, leaving behind tiny balls of sand; but they are also opportunists – feeding on dead, near-dead and decaying animals that wash ashore or drop from the sky.

When the sun was high up in the sky, reflecting in the shards of mirror-like sand particles, I hunched and laid flat on the ground by the burrow of one Scopimera, who was eager to be out of the burrow to feed, but was shy enough to scuttle inside at the slightest movement. As I shared some quite time with my muse, a few others stared out of their burrows, their stalked unblinking eyes peeping above the surface. I turned to look around for another, a tiny fellow carrying a load of a rather large prey – a honey bee.
Scopimera feeding on a Honey Bee
It wasn’t so surprising to see a crab feeding on this bee, what was surprising was that it was half alive, but the sting had disappeared. It is most likely that the crab scavenged it rather than hunting it down. I also came across a 1965 manuscript, its first lines complaining of the paucity of information on the habits and behaviour of shore crabs, and particularly Scopimera – which is absolutely true.

According to the authors, Scopimera proxima usually have burrows closer to the High Water Mark, which is where I found them residing and feeding.

A few yards ahead of us, just along the curve on the shore, a hundred-strong flock of gulls sat by the sea-side. They had been pushing farther as we approached with caution. We then moved around a dune tall enough to hide us, as we slowly inched closer.
Heuglin's Gulls
They took to the air as we peeped from around the dune, their noisy squeaks filling the air. These are Heuglin’s Gulls. They come down to peninsular India during winter. By the beginning of March, they will begin their journey northwards – to Ladakh and further north in the Russian tundra, where they breed.

Such migratory birds are commonly seen during winters in Konkan, for the shores provide some of the best resting and feeding spots away from the frozen north. We decided to sit out over the large driftwood as they vanished from this shore.

As evening approached, we saw them return in their hundreds to their roosting place.
Returning to the roost
They flew upon the sea and towards the tall cliff on the other side of the shore. These gulls have been coming here every winter, from the old ones to young parents, and their young who made the journey for the first time. They may have seen a number of sunsets as they passed along the coasts, but it was the most spectacular sunset I’ve ever witnessed.

The red-sand shores are not as widely spread as the white-sand beaches. Over here, too, the Sand Bubbler Crabs were common.
The red-sand shores and a Scopimera
The sands here are coarser; and the closer you go the sea – which entered the bay into a wide-rounded curve – small pebbles and broken shells of snails and oysters replaced the sand.
A Pond Heron hunts along the red bank
The red-coloured rocks are Lateritic, and are supposed to be less fertile with less water-holding capacity. Hence the mangroves did not crowd the shores, and grew further away in the muddy soils. Regions with lateritic soil are excavated, often illegally, to make bricks. Illegal brick industries along the southern coast of Maharashtra are rather booming – although the government has put a cap on excavation along rivers and other coastal ecosystems. This business has replaced farming in many villages, since they provide quick money and requires lesser efforts – but the damage done to the landscape is rather disheartening and irreparable.
The rising tide
III.
High tide is upon us. We scampered over the rocks and reached for the hill before the sea devoured the shore.

Three hours ago we were exploring this rocky shore when the sea level was at its lowest. Jumping from rock to rock, avoiding deep pools and patches of sharp barnacles, we were out on a rather flat rocky terrain jutting out of the sea.

The sea was slowly gaining its lost tide, rising a few millimeters at a time, devouring islands dominated by barnacles. These creatures are common along inter-tidal regions, where they feed by scooping in organic materials inside their hardened shells, and cover the openings during the low tide.
The little Skull Island?
During a high tide, this rocky shore is entirely submerged underwater – and serves as a shallow pool for many marine creatures. As the tide recedes, those who get caught in the trenches in the rocks remain until the sea returns for them. These are called inter-tidal pools, or simply tidal pools. The entrapped creatures mainly constitute to the inter-tidal biodiversity of rocky shorelines.
Tidal pool
These ecosystems are both – unique and diverse. We were spellbound by the richness of this ecosystem – its colours, its completeness. This is the world within a world I introduced to you at the beginning. A world disconnected from the larger world, yet whole. Such ecosystems are called microhabitats.

The tidal pools were teeming with activity, from a tiny striped shrimp feeding on the bottom, to bizarre crabs with hues of blue and red, and fishes of vivid colours I’ve never seen before in this part of the world – from electric blue, to those matching the rocky bottom, to the ones of maroon and orange shades – all of them seemed happy where they were. And indeed they should be, because these tidal pools also serve as a safe nursery away from large predators.
A certain Goby
This fish is probably a Goby, a common resident of tidal pools. There were Sergent Major (Abudefduf saxatilis), Target Perch (Therapon jarbua), Blue Damselfish (Chrysiptera cyanea?) and several other Butterflyfishes, and transparent shrimps decorated with thin black stripes, studded with pearl-like spots. One of the spectacular pools had some vivid animals thriving in it.
A tidal pool habitat
The red medusa-like creatures are Sea Anemone. This red-form is supposedly common along the western coast of India. It was the first time I saw them. The fluorescent greens are Zoanthus. They both come under phylum Cnidaria – comprising of the Anemone, Jellyfish, Corals, and Zoanthus. They live in symbiosis with Zooxanthelle, small flagellate protozoa, from which they derive some of the nourishment. These cnidaria are also filter feeders, and the very many tiny tentacles of the Anemone help in capturing tiny prey – mostly planktons.

There were three types of Sea Anemone that we saw that day. One of the largest was the size of my palm. This organism had nestled into a cup-like grove in a rock, attaching itself to the bottom; its countless radial arms spread wide open.
Sea Anemone in a tidal pool
The tidal pools are ideal for filter-feeders because many smaller organisms get trapped in these lost worlds – serving as an endless source of food for the Anemones, until another high-tide brings in another shoal of nourishment.

Some of these inter-tidal ecosystems also had Hermit Crabs feeding on the algae, as well as Sponges growing on top of Zoanthus, Patellas, tiny Sea Fans and fishes that always remained just far from our reach.
Metopograpsus sp.
Along the outer edge of the rocks, where the sea batters the shore throughout the year, were crabs feeding on algae. These crabs in the genus Metopograpsus are common along the rocky shores. They are extremely elusive – rushing for cover as soon as they sense movement.

We, too, sensed some moment above us, as a large shadow swooped past the rocks. It was the hunter of the sea, soaring above the late afternoon sun – a White-bellied Sea Eagle.
White-bellied Sea Eagle
This eagle was later joined by another, and they flew together – probably a pair – until one separated and flew beyond the hills to another shore. We climbed the hill as the sea level steadily rose. One of its companions gave us company until the sun dipped itself for the day. And we spent another fine evening by the residents of the sea, watching fishermen fishing by the rocks.
The foothills of Sahyadri
IV.
Land by the sea always carries the memories of the sea in its air and in its soils. The foothills of the Sahyadri lie closer to the Konkan coast as we move down south.

While we were travelling down to the coast, we crossed a large river that had reduced to just a trickle. But the area around was lush green. A Pied Kingfisher hovered and swooped into the stream. Far above, a large bird of prey scanned the surface for prey.
Eurasian Marsh Harrier, male
This male Marsh Harrier swooped and soared again and again, as it scanned this lotic ecosystem.

At a village near the Shore of Vashisti River, we saw a flock of Common Woodshrikes as they went about hunting for insects.
Common Woodshrike
One of the males separated from the flock and sat by the path, looking at us curiously. This bird was rather friendly, as are the people is this part of the world.

Our journey ended with the setting sun. The Konkan tides revealed an immense treasure hidden away from unseeing eyes. It is perhaps the reason why it still remains untouched.

The train slowed down to a halt. We all sat silent – absorbed in the immense riches of Konkan we had been witness to.

7 comments:

  1. Nice to see these great shots from you. Thanks for sharing.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Your posts are amazing Aniruddha! How have you managed to learn the names of so many species? Lovely pictures too ... I just hope it does not disappear in real life.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you Bernard! It's just by interest and curiosity that I find their names out. :)

      Delete
  3. Hey Aniruddha,

    Amazing pictures and write up's !!

    We miss you here in Canada.

    I am sure you will do well where ever you go.

    Best wishes,

    Amit Ambegaonkar.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I am a Kokani from the area where these amazing mangroves dwell in Vashishti river. Yours is by far the best article written on the region with amazing pictures. Cheers!!

    ReplyDelete