On a walk in the intertidal region of the Marine National Park at Narara reef in Gujarat, I saw a live puffer fish (family Tetraodontidae) for the first time. I’d only seen it in restaurants in Japan, where it is called fugu. It is famously poisonous. One of these small fish contains enough tetrodotoxin to kill about 30 adults! But the neurotoxin is not genetically programmed into the fish, apparently the protective poison is accumulated from its diet.
The tiny thing was swimming at a leisurely pace. Our guide picked it up, and it came up almost as big as his hand. I was amazed by its big eyes; apparently puffer fish have very good vision. Inflating rapidly by ingesting water seems to be its main defense mechanism. It deflated to normal size and swam away as soon as it was released. Which of the over hundred species was it? An inventory of this region mistakenly calls it Tetraodon lineatus. It doesn’t look like this purely African species. Distribution maps and pictures eventually led me to the conclusion that this is the Takifugu oblongus.
Like many others, I must have discovered Dylan Thomas’ poem in my teenage years. In those days it was a sort of a secret anthem on how to live for a cryptic club. The anthem adapts to circumstances. On a late afternoon walk through the Marine National Park in the Gulf of Kutch, I thought about the poem again. People I knew in Wuhan were already in lock-down, and in February it was already clear that the pandemic would strike some time, but that was not what was uppermost in my mind.
We strolled for more than a kilometer out to the waterline. The tide in this gulf is spectacular, and the receding sea had left pools in which we could see sponges, puffer fish and crabs. Over the years I’d discovered that I was similar to a migratory shorebird, like the common greenshanks (Tringa nebularia), which visits these pleasant coasts in winter, striding through tide pools, stopping to inspect things, turning over little stones. The sun was about to set. “Time to go back”, said someone. “Just a few minutes more”, I said, trying to prolong the pleasant day, raging against the dying of the light.
The poem is about living right, as all teenagers know. It is not about dying.
There was only one kind of dark egret wading through the tidal waters in the Gulf of Kutch. That was the western reef egret (Egretta gularis), which would stir up the water delicately with its long toes, before becoming totally still and gazing down at at. The thing about traveling with expert bird watchers is that you get to learn little snippets like the fact that there is a “morph” of the bird with white feathers. I’d seen and read about birds changing colours around their breeding season, so I didn’t pay it much attention. It was only later that I read a report which made it clear that the different “morphs” of E. gularis are like human skin colour, fixed at birth and unchanging. So it makes sense that someone would write a long article about how to tell the difference between the white morph of E. gularis and the little egret (Egretta garzetta). So next time I see a small white egret I’ll carefully look to see whether the beak and the forehead are in a line, and whether the back of the head is blunt. If it is, then I know it must be E. gularis. But if the head is more rounded then it has to be E. garzetta.
I watched one hold its body quite still as it gazed intently into the water. Occasionally it would move its head forward a little, and I would wait for it to strike. But it didn’t. I was surprised later to see a paper which had studied these motions of the head to determine how the bird corrected for refraction of the image of its prey in the water. Apparently, this slow forward motion of its head scans a range of angles, allowing it to determine the true position of the prey. At the moment it decides to strike, its beak moves in a straight line towards the prey, piercing through the water to catch it with slightly parted beaks. I wish I had managed to catch it in action.
I thought I was not much of a beach person until a few years ago, when I realized that I actually like beaches which are long and shallow, on seas which are not dead. There are beaches which fit all these descriptions along the Gulf of Kutch near Dwarka. Due to its peculiar shape, the Gulf of Kutch has huge tides twice a day. On one of the days I was nearby, the sea level changed by 8 meters between high and low tides at the end of the Gulf. The coastal shelf is very gentle, so this allows you to walk kilometers into the sea at low tide.
At the Marine National Park near Dwarka, I went for such a walk. This is what I enjoy about beaches, being able to walk for long times at the place where the water and land meet each other. Such places around India are full of hermit crabs which have donned the shells of dead sea animals. Every shells that I saw was on the move. I’d first noticed these zombie shells in the Andamans, where I fell in love with beaches.
I made my way back to the tide line when the horizon started tilting up to the sun. The tide was beginning to turn and I was keen to get away from the slippery rocks and corals while there was still light. The long shadows of the evening threw the tracks of the hermit crabs into clear relief. They seem to be constantly on the move, foraging for food, and occasionally searching for a better shell to move in to. I thought it was a day well spent, doing little other than turning rocks over to inspect whatever is hiding below it.