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Show notes (Edited)
0:05 Lalitha Krishnan: Hi there, thanks for listening in to Season 4 episode 26 of Heart of Conservation. I’m Lalitha Krishnan, `bringing you stories from the wild that keep us connected with the natural world. You can read the show notes for this podcast episode on my blog Earthy Matters. Today I’m to speaking to Shaunak Modi. Shaunak is the co-founder and director of Coastal Conservation Foundation and a key member of Marine Life of Mumbai. He speaks of being a nature photographer in the past tense but I keep seeing his splendid photographs on social media. Do check them out.
Shaunak has worked in the wilderness travel space where he founded his startup, Naturenama.
I’ve been wanting to have you on Heart of Conservation for so long. Finally, it’s happened. So, thank you sincerely for making the time. And a very warm welcome to you.
Shaunak Modi: Thank you Lalitha for having me.
0:15 Lalitha Krishnan: Shaunak, you studied amphibians but your work and passion now have taken you to the source – the ocean. Tell us how that happened.
0:24 Shaunak Modi: OK. I didn’t study amphibians, I studied herpetology at Bombay Natural History Society (BHNS). That was another lifetime it feels like now. I have been going to forests for more than a decade now. And, there was a little hesitation whenever I came across a snake. What I realised was I would need to know them better I would need to not have that discomfort and I wanted to learn more about them. That is why I studied herpetology. So, that’s how that happened.
Then for a very long time, I was associated one way or the other with the wildlife community. I have been doing photography for a very long time. I also had a news website called ‘Project (lost in translation)? where I used to share wildlife news. That went on for almost 6 years before I shut it down. After Project Bhiwan, I was also working. I was in the wildlife travel space, that was where my work was; along with which there was a whale stranding that had happened in Mumbai and that was my introduction to the sea.
A lot has happened since and I’m sure we will have that conversation later in the podcast but that is how I am where I am today.
1: 40 Lalitha Krishnan: Alright, thanks. It’s very interesting to me to see that you’ve plotted a map of whale strandings. I’m not sure if this is the first of its kind in India of stranded/beached marine life. Why don’t you tell us more about this map?
1:58 Shaunak Modi: Yes. So, in fact, that was what I was talking about earlier. In 2016, there was a Bryde whale that had beached on Juhu beach. I was there. I had spent a considerable amount of time on the beach that night because 1) out of the fascination of seeing a whale for the first time in my life and 2) because there was some crowd control that needed to be done and I was just helping with that. And, you know, when a creature of this size washes ashore, you would expect it to cause, you know, to be a topic of discussion. Especially in a community of wildlife enthusiasts and conservationists. But what I realised back then was that beyond the news that is 24 hours or 48 hours after that beaching, there was not a blip. I did not hear anything about it in the conservation community, largely the terrestrial conservation community. That’s when I realised that if something like this can happen and go without being noticed, I just wanted to see how often it happens. I started following news articles and news stories about whale and dolphin strandings happening across the country and I started mapping them. I did that for a year and realised that there was a considerable amount of activity that was happening. What I did not know is that the marine biologists and the marine scientific researcher community were already mapping this. So, clearly, I was not the first one to do it. There’s a wonderful website that has been documenting sightings and strandings for a very, very long time. It’s called the Marine Mammal Research and Conservation Network of India. And, the website is marinemammals.in. It’s been there since 2008. And, there is a database of strandings that is happening there. But, like I’m saying, you know, there’s sometimes a sort of echo chamber when it comes to conservation because there is so much to be done, so much happening that within the terrestrial conservation community, talk of anything beyond forests and big cats rarely makes a blip. That was exactly what I was going through. I was in an echo chamber of my own at that time and I had no idea these things existed. So that’s how I started mapping it but eventually, I realised that it wasn’t really a useful thing because this website already had all that data. But what that did was also sort of, inculcate this interest in me to know more about this ecosystem and this habitat that I had no idea existed.
4:54: Lalitha Krishnan: It’s amazing what’s out there and how little we know. There are apps where citizens can report road kills of all wildlife. We have, correct me if I’m wrong, around 6000km of coastline. Do you think a similar app can be created for marine life? Especially for marine life?
5:21 Shaunak Modi: See, again, the equivalent to a road-kill for marine life would be strandings and since this website already exists, I think it’s a great national database. There are a lot of researchers who are a part of it, there are a lot of people who contribute data to it. Rather than having another app, it would be great if people would contribute to this website. No one really owns this data so to speak. But it does help to keep everything in one place. There is no point having different silos-so to speak- for something like this because it’s always very helpful if everything is being co-related in one place. This website is a great place instead of an app. Hopefully someday if something happens an app can be made for this website perhaps–I don’t know—that would depend on the people who are in charge.
6:20 Lalitha Krishnan: Yes, I feel there are too many (apps) for birds but you’re right. If it’s all in one place then it would make absolute sense and accessibility also would be easier for everyone involved.
6:33 Shaunak Modi: For sure. eBird is a great example of that. I mean there is so much data that one gets by just by visiting ebird. You can search by species; you can search by national park or you can search by your own neighbourhood and see which birds are found there or documented from there. And, it’s not like eBird is saying, “We own this data.” You know, the data is still contributed by people, by citizens, by enthusiasts and wild lifers. It’s great that something like this already exists. It makes sense not to add more to it.
7:07 Lalitha Krishnan: Yes. So, CCF’s flagship project Marine life of Mumbai has become very popular. What exactly is the focus here and what citizen science activities do you’ll undertake?
7:23 Shaunak Modi: I’d like to say something here CCF, that’s Coastal Conservation Foundation came much after MLOM was there. Marine Life of Mumbai, for the first three years of its existence, was a collective. We were a bunch of people who came together from various backgrounds and we started working in different capacities doing different things with the single aim of basically sending out a message to … Our aim was to do outreach and familiarise the people to a very lesser-known side of Mumbai. So, outreach, again, was the main objective of the project.
So, it was started by Pradip Patade, Abhisek Jamalabad and Siddharth Chakravarthy in 2017. They started conducting shore walks. It’s basically like a nature trail but 2on a beach, during low tide so you can see the animals that live there. Along with shore walks, they also started uploading photographs to social media and that’s how a lot of people came to know that animals like this live in the city, with whom they share their natural spaces. That’s been one of the main aims of MLOM. It continues to be one of the main aims but what started happening was that we were collecting so much data. Because there were a lot of wildlife photographers even in the group. We were constantly taking photos.
8:50 What we started realising is that the things we were photographing were not documented before. So, we decided to have an open-access database. That is the second side of Marine Life of Mumbai, the first being outreach. The second is data gathering. So, we have a project on our website called iNatularist.org It’s a global database of enthusiasts, researchers, scientists…I mean it’s a mixed bag of people who are on the website. What we decided is, again, like I told you earlier, is instead of having our own database hosted on our own website, we started contributing all of our data to that website. So, we created a project there called Marine Life of Mumbai and started uploading everything to that and started getting help from across the world trying to ID things. If not help we started getting pointers as to how we should click a photograph, what we should look for in an animal to ID it… we got a lot of help from the scientific and non-scientific community from across the world. That was again, 2018; the start of 2018 was when we started uploading our data there and today, we have more than 41/2 thousand observations of about 500 odd species., just from the Mumbai metropolitan region. That’s where we are.
10:21 Again you asked what the aim of Marine Life of Mumbai was? One is to familiarise the people with the marine life of the city and the second was to document it in a structured way and also have all of this data that we have accumulated open access so that anybody could make use of it.
10:40 Lalitha Krishnan: So, this outreach programme and data gathering, the documentation… Do you think all this is the secret of MLOM’s success? What do you think? Also, you mentioned around 500 odd species, right? Tell us some of this.
11:00 Shaunak Modi: If you’re going to ask me what the secret of MLOM or what its success is, I would flat out say the people. After the three of them started MLOM, people started gathering. Some stayed, some didn’t. But there was a very strong group of about 13 people. We were all just enamoured by our shoreline. We come from various backgrounds. There are editors, there are scientists, there are artists, there are water sports instructors; I come from a travel background… All of us are from various backgrounds but we were just united by our love for marine life and curiosity. We were just curious about the shoreline. That’s what brought us all together. For me, that would be the main reason why we succeeded. Because everybody was giving it everything they had and that’s how you end up with something so nice.
12:03 And if you were to ask me about species, I would like to be clear here that these are not species that are washed ashore dead or stranded like the dolphins or the whales we spoke of earlier. Our work is mainly in the intertidal zone. That is basically the part of the shoreline which is underwater during high tide and exposed to air during low tide. And, this is a highly dynamic ecosystem where you have a lot of animals that live right here.
So, you have, from the smallest ones being snails and clams that people are familiar with, you have octopuses, you have cnidarians(??) like zoanthids. Cnidarians are the same group of animals in which jellyfish are. So, you have zoanthids, you have coral—you have a lot of coral in Mumbai. This is something that no one really thought of you know, earlier? You have all sorts of things—the smallest animal being a few millimetres to the largest one being a couple of feet large. You find a lot of stuff here.
13:14 Lalitha Krishnan: It’s amazing that there was no record in the public domain of the marine life of Mumbai before MLOM started documenting it. What is the most amazing thing you have photographed on Mumbai’s shores? Or what has been the most fascinating thing you’ve seen?
13:33: Shaunak Modi: OK. There has been some research done from the city. One of the oldest and seniormost marine biologists in India, Dr Chappgar was based out of Mumbai and there has been some work done but all of that exists in scientific journals. What I meant when I said there is no work in the public domain is that there was nothing accessible to the people. People did not know. So, if you were to ask anybody about the wildlife of the city, the first thing people would talk about was Sanjay Gandhi National Park which is great because here you have a city which is filled to the brim with people and then you have a park right in the middle of it where leopards roam. You don’t see this everywhere in the world you know? That’s great and you have a lot of wetland spots where you have wetland birds which come every winter. You have some spots where you can see a lot of wildlife in the city but there is something that has been completely ignored all this while and that was the marine life. Again, it’s because this is so unfamiliar. Not a lot of people thought that they should go out looking for marine life.
So, ever since I was a kid, I’ve lived in Juhu OK? It’s a suburb. An area very close to the Juhu beach—that’s a very famous beach in the city—and I had never thought that there would be marine life here. In fact, the first time I saw, came across the Marine life of Mumbai’s Instagram account, and then shared some photographs taken in Juhu, there was disbelief. “No this can’t here”. Because, you know, in Mumbai, in the last 20 odd years, there has been such a strong narrative around the pollution and the sewage and the dirt and the beaches being dirty….the beaches need cleanups. While all of that is true, despite all the stress that the ecosystem is under, there is a thriving ecosystem right there. And that is the fascinating thing for me. These are not ideal conditions. And this is not a beautiful island on the Pacific where you walk on a very clean white beach and you happen to come across a coral reef or a coral.
15:57 Here there are areas, I don’t know if you are familiar with it, we have a very old dargah in the city called the Haji Ali dargah. It’s a little bit into the sea and there’s a pathway which leads to the dargah but on either side of the pathway is a rocky shore. And on some days when the tide is low enough and you go there—in fact, I have taken a video because I find it extremely fascinating—that you look down and you see corals; and you look up and you see the dargah. And you look in another direction you’ll probably see 1000 people walking to and from the dargah. Where else would you find something like this? And all this while, it’s sort of being hidden in plain sight. So that is the mind-blowing part for me.
16:53 Again you asked me what I find fascinating or what is something I have photographed that has been fascinating? If you had asked me this last year, or before last year, I would have said that I happened to be walking on one of the shores and I happened to walk by a shark which was in a tide pool.
Lalitha Krishnan: Did you say tidepool?
Shaunak Modi: A tidepool, yes. OK, it’s not a large shark, it’s called the Arabian Carpet Shark. It’s a smaller species of shark that are found in the shore waters. But even then, to walk and reach a place where there is a shark in the water, it’s not something you say every day. It’s not a sentence you would say every day. But that was before last year.
Last year, between the lockdowns in the city we happened to go to Juhu beach which again, is a very crowded beach and just by the tideline, there was this bunch of black grapelike things. This is something that is seasonally found around this time in the city – a lot of cuttlefish which are similar to octopuses and squids. It’s an animal; they come and they lay their eggs on the beach. So, if you happen to walk on the beach when the tide is low enough, you can actually just walk up to those eggs. So last year a group of us happened to walk and we saw these eggs and we waited there. And there was this moment when I was taking pictures of the eggs and I am looking down at it, shining a light on it and this tiny baby which has not even hatched yet looked back at me.
Lalitha Krishnan: What a thing to happen. Fantastic.
Shaunak Modi: Yes, from within the egg. I have a photograph of it. I am not doing the sighting justice just by talking about it but something in me sort of changed at that time. And then, a few minutes after that, we saw some of them hatch. And when the tide came in, they just went into the sea. So again, not a lot of ecosystems…there aren’t too many times when you get to witness something like this. And when you do, it sort of changes you in some ways, you know? It’s a very personal thing, it may not mean the same to someone else but to me, that is the most fascinating thing and the most amazing thing I have photographed and seen in the city.
19:32: Lalitha Krishnan: That’s the most amazing thing I’ve heard happen to somebody on the shores of Mumbai. That’s your reward I think for being persistent, doing what you do to conserve the shoreline. It’s truly amazing. It’s also amazing that all of this marine life exists and survives when we can barely handle bad air quality. So Shaunak, is there a good time or better season for spotting marine life?
20:11 Shaunak Modi: I think other than the monsoon months, once it starts raining there’s not much point in going tide pooling, because you won’t see too much. But other than that, I think the shores are open throughout the year.
There are a lot of changes that happen seasonally. There are some things that you will only see in winter for example, the cuttlefish eggs that I spoke about. Similarly, there are squid eggs that happen during the winter months. So, those are seasonal. Other than that, I think, pretty much throughout the year, you can easily go tide pooling and see a bunch of animals. But along with that, you need to remember that a large part of the shore will open up only for a few days a month.
There is something called Spring tides and Neap tides. Neap tides are essentially the time of the month when the difference in the high tide and low tide is very less. So, a large part of the shore will probably be underwater. And during spring tides, the difference between the high tide and the low tide is much greater. So, the days of spring tide is when we go for tide pooling. So, I think other than that, seasons don’t really matter but you need to have a good tide. Any tide which is below, maybe 0.07 mts. on your tide chart or the tide app that you may check is a good tide for Mumbai.
20:30: Lalitha Krishnan: So, one should actually check the tide chart to have a better idea.
Shaunak Modi: Yes.
21:26 Lalitha Krishnan: OK great. What photographic equipment does one need for intertidal photography?
21:42 Shaunak Modi: I am so happy that you asked me this. Nothing. Your phone is enough. Again, it depends on the kind of photographs you want to take but we regularly have participants on your shore walks who have brought just their phones and taken beautiful photographs. I am also, increasingly taking more and more photos with my phone…unless you want a really macro photograph of a really tiny animal, you will need an SLR with a microlens but other than that, a point and shoot camera or your mobile phone are good enough. These days you even get macro lenses just for your mobile phone, you know, the clip one ones. So, with that, you can come out with really, really great photos and videos. So yeah, I don’t think you need much.
22:27 Lalitha Krishnan: That’s heartening to hear. Who wants to lug around stuff when you can do so much with so little? Perfect.
22:38 Lalitha Krishnan: I liked exploring the interactive map on your CCF website with all the popup photos and information. What is the CCF team busy with these days?
22:52 Shaunak Modi: Yes. So, that was part of the Confluence exhibit we did with Mumbai Water Narratives. The whole idea was to do a virtual shore walk for people. This happened during the lockdown so anyway, we could not go out, nor see the shore. So, Abhishek and Sarang, who were part of this project decided to do, a virtual shore where all three types of ecosystems that you find near the intertidal were close to each other and you would find an illustrated map – done by Gaurav. And, you click on an animal and you get more information about it and also the photograph. Again, the idea here was to familiarise people who are one, either not in Mumbai or at that time, could not go to the shore to see and probably learn more about what this intertidal zone is or what type of marine life Mumbai has, and things like that.
And what we are busy with now?
22:54 So CCF essentially was started by a few members of the MLOM collective. It was started to scale up MLOM’s work and have a more sustained impact. That is what we are working on right now. The main focus areas, for us, is outreach, research, education and citizen science. And within that, we are taking the work that we have done as a collective—that’s MLOM—and we are trying to scale it up to different cities, scaling it up to different audiences. We are constantly trying to find newer ways to get more people, to appreciate, and become ambassadors for marine life. That’s pretty much what we are doing.
24:38 Lalitha Krishnan: I enjoyed reading the water narratives project e about the old water fountains of Mumbai. We’ve always seen it but one never thinks of it. And, also the bhistees as the water carriers were called in a time before pipes. We so take tap water for granted. Tell us about your other two projects the Coastwise Marine Festival and Inhabited Sea.
25:11 Shaunak Modi: Sure. Yes, I’ll start with Inhabited Sea. It’s a wonderful project. I had an opportunity to work with a great group of people. What we were doing is essentially documenting Mumbai’s waters, basically the coastal areas and the sea in different ways, different aspects. There were architecture students, architecture professors who were doing it from their perspective. There’s Nikhil Anand whose project it was- he’s a professor at the University of Pennslyvania- who was looking at the artisanal fishing that happens in Mumbai. Sejal and I were representing Marine Life of Mumbai and of course, we were documenting the biodiversity bit of it. All of our projects are on a website called Inhabited Sea.org That was that project.
26:03 Coastwise is something we came up with. We’ve done 3 editions of this festival so far in three years. It’s a festival that is co-organised by CCF, the Mangrove Foundation which is a foundation of the mangrove cell of the Forest department of Maharashtra, and WWF India. So, the idea here was to again, create a festival that sort of familiarises people with different marine ecosystems. While our work at MLOM has mostly to do with the intertidal zone, as an extension, of course, there is marine life-but here, the idea was to do it at scale. So, we have a month-long festival in February. We do it every year when we host different events. Like there’s an art workshop, a photography workshop… Of course, the theme of all of this is to do with marine life in some way. We also host an annual photo competition which is a marine photo competition for photographers from across the country. We also do flamingo boat rides, mangrove walks… we also do walks at the fish….. centres in different cities. We started this a couple of years ago and started just in Mumbai and it has sort of grown. We’ve had more states, we’ve had our partners in different states come and be partners in the festival. And we’ve had ………………..(lost in translation) walks in Chennai. We’ve had shore walks in Goa as part of the festival. This year unfortunately we’ve had to delay the festival because of the current third wave that’s happening but hopefully, at the end of the year, we’ll have the festival with even more states. That’s what Coastwise is.
27:56 Lalitha Krishnan: There’s so much one can do with people from so many different fields coming together. Really interesting. I hope you get more people joining you next time.
Your website has a lot of resources as well for those who are interested. Would you like to talk about that?
28:13 Shaunak Modi: Sure. On the MLOM website, we have a Tide Chart. Of course, it needs to be updated for 2022—I’ll do it soon—but that has the low tides and the high tides for each month of the year so that people can plan their shore walks around it. We’ve also created small guides for different shores in Mumbai where it has illustrations and information about the most common animals you ought to see on the shore. So, anyone who wants to explore can download them, make use of them. We also have a lot of photographs that we’ve taken and under those photographs, there’s information about it. About what the animal is, where it is found, what its habitat is. This is also something that we do on our Instagram and Facebook accounts. We have a post every week about a different animal. We talk about what makes it interesting, where it is found, again, what its habitat is, how big is it? Things like that. All that can be found on our website, it can also be found on our social media accounts and that’s part of the digital outreach
30:11 Lalitha Krishnan: Fantastic. Do you have any advice for young or old citizens (because I think we are never too old to learn) who have never seen the marine life of Mumbai?
30:24 Shaunak Modi: Just pick a day with a good low tide. There are a lot of apps today which tell you what time the low tide is. An hour before that time, just go out on the shore. Whether it’s Juhu beach, Girgaon Chowpatty, whether it’s Carter Road in Bandra, it’s Bandstand in Bandra, it’s Haji Ali, just go out and look down. And, all of this marine life is right there.
30:49 We do walks every month. You can come and join us. We will show you around, we’ll explain what you’re looking at. Again, my personal goal is to make tide pooling a—and this is also what other people in the group want to do—our goal is to make tide -pooling like birding. People wake up on the weekend, pick up their cameras, binoculars and go birding. We would like to make tide pooling that. It’s an activity that you can do on your own, it does not cost money, you don’t have to travel for it. There are no tickets to be bought. You literally have to put on your shoes, go out on a shore, look down and you will see much marine life. It’s not limited. We have a 71/2 1000 km coastline in the country. And, there’s marine life everywhere. So, it’s one of those ecosystems where you don’t really need guides.
Of course, there will be times when you don’t really understand what you’re looking at because here you have plants that look like animals, animals that look like plants…it’s a mixed bag of things. I think it’s a great activity to do on your own. I would request people to go out and if they’ve seen something they don’t know what they see, they can send it to us, they can send it to me personally. I will help them ID, explain what they are looking out for. Yeah, just go out and go to the shore.
32:19 Lalitha Krishnan: It’s a whole different world from what we’re used to. Most of us are not used to it.
32:26 Shaunak Modi: You know Lalitha, there’s actually a reason why it’s gone like this for so long. Because there is no familiarity. This is why, as part of MLOM’s education pillar and now CCF’s education pillar, what we’re doing is also constantly going to schools and colleges, and giving presentations to very young students. If you look at other countries, for example, Australia. There’s a very strong beach culture in many of the cities there, right? Even in parts of the US, it’s like that. Even in parts of the United Kingdom, it’s like that. And, you’ll find this on a lot of pacific islands also. It’s not limited to these developed countries. Here we don’t have that.
For a very long time, even for me, I would associate Juhu beach with food. It’s not the kind of association that you’d make with an ecosystem. So, we really want kids to have a different mindset about it while they’re doing it/growing up. So, we take them on the shore, we show them all of this. We do presentations with a lot of photographs, with a lot of videos. We want to sort of pass on the message to them that there is something that is beyond our forests. I love my trips to the forests but you don’t always get a chance to do that. You probably take one or two holidays a year. Most of us do at least. But here you have an opportunity to –even if you have an hour or even half an hour before class—and you’re close to a beach just walk down. You’ll definitely see something. That’s the idea we want to familiarise people with. That this really exists and exists everywhere. And we want people from other cities to have their own MLOs. By MLOs, I mean Marine Life Of… and their own city. It’s not that we want to go there and create, we want them to have that. We’ll of course help them. We made some mistakes in the last few years and we’ve learnt a lot. We’re ready to share all of that information with them but it would be nice if groups or individuals or organisations came forward and sort of want to create their own collectives in their own city.
34:45 Lalitha Krishnan: And take ownership for what’s theirs. It’s their land, their backyard.
Shaunak Modi: That’s exactly why we don’t want to do it. It’s not our backyard. So, while we may be able to do it, we really need a partner who is local, because that is how these things should be.
35:07 Lalitha Krishnan: That’s really great. Shaunak, we are almost at the end of our conversation but before I let you go could you share a word or two that’s relevant for you that will improve our seaworthiness.
35:23 Shaunak Modi: I think we should start respecting the sea. There’s a lot that’s going wrong right now with our seas. We always hear about the sea in a negative way. We hear about it more in a negative way than a positive way whether it’s climate change or rising sea levels. There’s a lot that’s happening. Not a lot of it is easy to change or alter or reverse. But I think a good first step would be to respect the sea. Because we are if the sea lets us be. That’s all I would say.
36:00 Lalitha Krishnan: Thanks, Shaunak. That was poignant and relevant, and so interesting. Thank you so much.
Shaunak Modi: Thank you. This was a lovely chat. So much fun.
36:17 Lalitha Krishnan: I hope you enjoyed listening to Shaunak Modi as much as I have. Do check out CCF links and the whole transcript for this podcast right here on Earthy Matters. You can listen to Heart of Conservation on many platforms. You can also write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m Lalitha Krishnan signing off. Till next time stay as safe as possible please and do subscribe for more episodes.
Birdsong by hillside resident, the collared owlet.
All photos including podcast cover photo courtesy of Shaunak Modi. Artwork: Lalitha Krishnan
Disclaimer: Views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the podcast and show notes belong solely to the guest featured in the episode, and not necessarily to the host of this podcast/blog or the guest’s employer, organization, committee or other group or individual.