“Is this a class or a fish market?”

On 27th December 2014, a pleasant Sunday morning in Mumbai, I decided to join a friend for his field work. This is a little unusual. When I say field, I and many of the people I know, usually imagine it as some kind of forest-studying animals. This friend counts the number of boats arriving at Sasoon Dock, which will enable him to determine the fish stock coming in the fishing boats. So I joined him at Sasoon Dock. I must warn you that there aren’t going to be any pictures on this post as photographing is not allowed on the dock. To say that the fishing dock is a chaos is an understatement. Sasoon Dock is one of the busiest docks of the city and was built in 1875 (quite old, huh!) by a gentleman named Albert Abdullah David Sasoon (and hence the name).

“Sassoon Dock
What a place!
So many fishes!
So crowded!”

It was 7 AM in the morning and the fisher folk were already up and about, making sure their stock got sold fastest and in maximum price. There was just so much diversity of fishes in their baskets. Fishes, crabs, prawns, stingrays. I was lucky enough to see a hammer-headed shark (unlucky for the shark because it was dead). Walking around the dock seems like a challenge to your whole existence (No, this is not an exaggeration. Try walking on the edge of the dock with hardly 6 inches space to place your foot while a super pissed fisher woman pushes you because you aren’t walking fast enough while balancing yourself and trying not to fall off in the water).

While I tried walking in a place where it seemed impossible to accommodate a fly, the local fisher people gave me passing looks of anger, amusement, pity, ridicule and disbelief. The entire one hour at Sasoon dock seemed like a second just passed. I was so numb by so much chaos but was enjoying every second of it. Not to mention, the smell was mind numbing as well. Especially for me as I have never eaten fish in my life, except once when a well-meaning aunty in Kerala fed me fish trying to convince me that it was a vegetable. (I smelled of fishes for good two hours after I had said good-bye to the place. I like to believe that I stopped smelling of fish after that).

Having never ever been to any fishing market, I never quite understood the feeling when the teachers in the class used to yell at us naughty students in the class, the statement “Is this a class or a fish market?”. Teachers, take a bow. Sasoon dock felt like I was an ant in this giant world. With all this, the friend, walking ahead of me (totally comfortable with chaos and adept at walking amidst busy and angry fisher folk) explaining different types of fishing techniques, fishing nets, fishing boats, etc. while I tried keeping up with his pace, understanding what all he said, asking him too many questions (some inappropriate for the place, i.e. “Isn’t it illegal to fish XYZ fishes?”).

While walking, we kept talking, my mind struggling to concentrate between staying alive and grasping all the knowledge that my friend had to offer. Once I almost bumped into an 8-9 ft long and narrow lorry carrying fishes that an old man was pushing amidst the crowd, but an attentive young fisherman held my hand, fairly amused at my inattentiveness, his friends laughing at my expense. The floor of the dock was all wet (obviously) and the water was pushing its way through my sandals and my socks; wetting my feet.

The walk lead to a beautiful open place where we could stand peacefully, watching the open sea that gives us bounty of fishes to eat and livelihoods to so many people who brave the storms to go out in the waters to bring us food.

We stumbled upon a chai-wallah (Tea seller) and stood sipping the tea watching Gulls and Terns foraging in the open seas along with the men in boats, both communities aiming at the same goal: catch the most. The morning scene was beautiful. On one side, there was a busy chaotic fish market selling fishes and a part of the dock which was comparatively new, was relatively empty, fishermen standing in small groups, chatting, discussing their day to day lives and enjoying the morning sunlight. Mumbai had a pleasant weather compared to cold Ahmedabad. Mornings gave a feeling of chill but failed to trap us in sweaters (thankfully!) Eventually said goodbye to the dock, carrying with me lot of memories and fish smell.

Camp Life at Beyt Dwarka

Marine camps are conducted by Centre for Environment Education (CEE) Sundarvan at Beyt Dwarka, an island on the western most tip of Gujarat. Beyt stands for an island in Gujarati. Beyt Dwarka is 27.4 sq. km. island of mainly scrub vegetation surrounded by a bounty of marine shore biodiversity. It experiences tropical maritime climate. Storms and cyclones are a part of Beyt life in monsoon. While summers are characterized by scorching heat which starts by the end of February, winters during the months of November, December and January are full of tempestuous winds.

The tents for the camps are raised on a long stretch of sand at the end of the island called Dunny point. Dwarka, even though separated from Kutch by the Arabian Sea, was better connected historically to Kutch than Saurashtra, as the fishermen and traders used the sea route to reach Beyt. Hence people of Beyt Dwarka speak Kutchi which is a dialect of Gujarati. In Kutchi language, a heap of sand is called ‘Duno’ and over the period of time, this stretch of sandy land started being called Dunny point. This stretch of land forms its own separate island as it separates out even from Beyt by the sea during highest of tides on New moon and full moon days.

Basic tents made up of gunny bags are raised by making structure of long and strong bamboos to stand the wind. There are about 10 tents. Right after the tents, there are separate toilets cabins, made with gunny bags again, for girls and boys. Toilets are made by fixing commode in sand using sandbags and make-shift septic tank. There are no bathrooms. The sea functions as bathroom.

Tents for the participants
Kitchen and dining space

Camps start from the end of November and usually continue till the end of February. These are the best months as the temperatures are tolerable as compared to the scorching heat of summers and stormy winds of monsoon. The sea water is clear and the shores host an array of migratory birds during these months. Batches after batches of students of schools, colleges and universities, science clubs, sports clubs and families arrive in the camps. A typical batch spends 2.5 days at the camp.

 Arrival is usually arranged by Sundarvan which is to board a ferry from Okha, a nearby town in coastal Gujarat. Most groups are lucky enough to see dolphins while they arrive at Beyt in the morning. They are greeted with basic vegetarian breakfast and tea. If the batch is of younger students, they are given bournvita as well. It is difficult to get milk at Beyt and hence milk powder is preferred. After coming, they rest for a while and then based on the time of high tide, are made to bathe in sea water. As soon as they arrive, they are given clear instructions on the basic rules of the camp. Then through next two and half days, they are taken for reef walks, bird watching and plant diversity trek to Hanuman dandi, games on the beach, sessions on adaptations of marine biodiversity, tides and ebbs, waves and star-gazing. Campfire is lit on one of the nights. At sunsets and sunrises, yoga and meditation are conducted.

Beach cleaning exercise done by the students of Mahatma Gandhi International School
Students of Mahatma Gandhi International School learning about mangroves
Visually challenged girls of Pragnachakshu Mahila Seva Kunj learning about Rock Oysters
Preparing checklist on the last day of a batch

Reef walks are conducted in the inter-tidal zone, the zone between the highest and lowest tide, when the tide is at its lowest. Beaches to most participants mean sun and sand. But here at the walk, they see the bouquet of life-forms exposed by the receding tide. Marine creatures like Carpet anemone, Sea-cucumber, and Flatworms are mostly new to the participants and organisms like starfishes and octopus are fascinating as these are often only have been seen by them on TV or studied in text-books.

A live shell
Carpet anemone
Species of Cushion starfish
Sea Cucumber, the vulture of the sea world

We commonly see birds like Eurasian curlew (Numenius arquata), Western Reef egret (Egretta gularis) , Grey heron (Ardea cinerea), Gulls (Larus spp), Oriental Darter (Anhinga melanogaster) Ruddy turnstone (Arenaria interpres), Sand plovers (Charadrius spp), Crab plover (Dromas ardeola)  and other small and big waders. What we see on field is discussed in detail during the talks on adaptations of different animals to adapt to the marine life, beaks and feet of birds customized to hunt and feed on the platter of the sea food, how the tides and ebbs affect the life of the creatures that live on the sea-shore or the inter-tidal zone and how the climate change affects the sea life. Students are often amazed to find the connections that everything is linked and that deforestation is equally damaging to the seas as it is to the land.

Sand plovers and Terek sandpiper
Oriental darter
Ruddy turnstone, commonly seen wader near camp-site
Grey heron

Participants show their creativity in making sand-castles, some of them are inspired to write beautiful poetries and some love to sketch and paint. Once in the water, it becomes difficult for the instructors to pull them out after the swim! At camp-fire, we all sing, some of them dance, and we laugh at some great and some poor jokes, recite poetry, perform skits and mimicry and in all enjoy each others’ company.

A fort and a fortress. Entry only through tunnel. Creativity by the student members of Narmada Nigam Community Science Center
Up so high!

The activities are hence a mix of knowledge-based sessions, physical activities such as treks and exercises and fun at games and campfire. Being away from civilization and a life away from social media, students realize the importance of friends. The basic life at the camp makes them understand the difference between ‘needs’ and ‘wants’. Kids often go back with the understanding for core human values, dignity of labour, respect for each living being and survival with bare essentials.

The camp activities and facilities are designed in such a way as to give the most basic survival training to the participants of the camp. Here, one has to wash their own dishes, share toilets, eat the most basic food and live without electricity. While drinking water is provided from filtered drinking water (using Reverse Osmosis) cans brought from the mainland Okha, the nearest town or from Beyt, this water is strictly for drinking purpose only. Washing face, brushing and bathing is not allowed using this water. At Beyt, one has to make friends with salty water and sand. You brush your teeth with salty water of the sea, bathe in sea and whenever you want to sprinkle water on your face, you rush to the shore and use the sea water. Sand is going to make its home in everything you possess. Your clothes, pouches, watches, books, mattresses, sleeping bags, phone crevices and even in your headphones. Not to mention how close friends your body and sand will become. You eventually start smelling of the sea and tasting of salt. Soaps will not foam and hence you will eventually give up bringing a bucketful of sea water and trying to bathe someplace private. For instructors, there are VIP tents. The only difference is they get their own toilet, which is a relief as participants stay only for two and half days but instructors stay on for weeks and many a times for months altogether.

Tent of the instructors. There are two tents in this. One on the left was my home during my days at Marine camps.

Life at Beyt Dwarka, even though full of hardships is made memorable with the care of fellow colleagues, friendships, beautiful and mesmerizing rising and setting sun and ever powerful and welcoming sea. The shore life never disappoints you. Each batch of students is different and more often than not, instructors end up getting attached. More philosophical beings say that one should look at the batches as one looks through binoculars. You watch and focus, but not click as on does in a camera. Let them pass. By the end of camps, the instructors, too, go back wiser, kinder and more patient and hoping to return for the next season for new picture and awaiting new adventures.