Walking on the Sea Floor (2012)

Walking on the Sea Floor (2012)

It is 3.30 am. The road is smooth, straight and illuminated with sunken lights and pointers as if leading to a space station in some science fiction movie. On both sides of this ribbon of perfection rise stacks of twinkling lights in vertical columns as if in some fairyland. For a moment I think I am playing an X-Box 360 game or maybe I am hallucinating. After all, we are not in Chicago or Hong Kong, only in rural Gujarat in the Gulf of Kutch. We are driving towards Narara, one of the 42 islands off the coast of Jamnagar where the receding sea leaves behind exotic marine creatures for you to inspect at close quarters as you stroll on the sea bed. But you have to be there at low tide to take advantage of this unique spectacle of nature which is why we had to leave at that unearthly hour.

The stacks of lights were neither hallucination nor illusion. They are as real as our own four-wheel drive and the world class road. They belong to the two petroleum refineries that have come up in Jamnagar and Vadinar. There is even a power plant with plumes of thick black smoke curling skywards. When we reach the island we see a line of ships as if in ceremonial welcome. These are VLCCs (very large crude carriers) lining up to feed these two refineries with crude oil that comes from far. The finished products reach markets through pipelines that are buried under the sea floor. Some are also shipped, we learn later. This is a beehive of industrial activity in a coastal reserve zone. Will we be able to spot any marine creatures? Will they not be put off by the twinkling lights or the incessant traffic of crude carriers? We approach our destination with scepticism.

Narara and Pirotan are the only two islands that are open to visitors. The tide follows a twelve-hour cycle and you will have to wrap up your visit within this cycle. You can drive into Narara at low tide whereas Pirotan can be reached only by boat. You can spend a few hours on these islands, but must carry your own water and provisions as well as sun – protection accessories. There is absolutely no shelter, nowhere to sit or rest, but just keep wading and beat a hasty retreat before the tide comes back to swallow you!

Jamnagar is the jumping off point for both these islands. We had landed in Jamnagar the previous day and stayed at the magnificent circuit house, a red-brick palace with high ceilings, marble chandeliers as heavy as cannonballs and winding wooden staircases that we have seen only in old-time Bollywood movies. Pirotan has temporarily been closed to visitors, so we have to be content with Narara which is about 60 kms away.

We reach Narara just before sunrise and alight from our vehicle and pick our way through the mangroves that line the coast. We are joined by our boatman turned guide who can speak only a smattering of Hindi and no English at all. Our scepticism is compounded by self-doubt as to the utility of this arduous journey, all the way from Delhi.

But despair not! The marine creatures as well as the migratory birds that have made Narara their home don’t seem to mind, at least for now. The first stretch is dotted with mangroves unique to this part of the world, quite unlike any we see in Sunderbans or Borneo. Then you walk on firm and wet sand etched with wavy lines and patterns that no computer can hope to reproduce. You step lightly and gingerly so as not to disturb nature’s gorgeous doodle. After some distance you come to the next stretch which has ankle deep sea water and dotted with boulders. Our guide turns one of these rocks to show us its bright red underside. Creepy crawlies beat a hasty retreat, but he grabs them delicately and holds them up for us to admire, even as he reels out their Latin names with an ease that a Professor of Marine Biology in an Ivy League school might find difficult to match!

The sea floor is dotted with sea anemones, star fish, octopuses, crabs, live cowries, stingrays, sea cucumbers, corals and all those dazzlingly colourful creatures that you ogle at on the National Geographic Channel. They are hiding in puddles or behind sea weeds or under rocks. The ocean floor is strewn with sea weed that is so translucent that polythene is no match to its rich texture and fluorescent colour. These coastal wetlands are also the favourite haunt of many migratory bird species. We spy dozens of painted storks, egrets and cormorants patiently turning over the sea floor with their claws in search of that juicy worm or insect.

Our guide navigates through this maze of marine life and takes us deeper and deeper into the waters until we are almost thigh-deep. Most sea creatures appear to be shy of human presence and would much rather hide, but at low tide their options to hide are rather limited. So many pretend to be inanimate objects, but cannot escape our scrutiny thanks to our very knowledgeable and trained guide.

Fish also come to Narara to breed during winters, but now it is too dry for the fish to hang out. But we see a range of other sea life, some quite familiar and some not so familiar. From time to time, our guide picks them up and turns them over to show their rich and vibrant colours. Slender tape worm like creatures hurriedly disappear into the loose mud even if you tap a few inches away from them. “Go, go”, he mutters as he taps slightly and watches them disappear! Narara is truly a feast for nature lovers. In fact, watching marine life at low tide is in some ways better than snorkeling or scuba diving since these creatures are virtually trapped until the high tide comes in to rescue them. But that is quite a few hours away! Until then, with sun-hats, protective goggles and a bottle of water, you have all the time in the world to watch these gorgeous creatures in their natural habitat!

(Published in The Hindu on March 25, 2012)

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