Do marine animals have superpowers? If you look at the intertidal zone—where the ocean meets the land between high and low tides—through Sejal Mehta’s new book, Super Powers On The Shore, you might actually be convinced that they do.
Mehta, a journalist and editor, has brought her experiences and observations from tide-pooling trails and walks along different intertidal zones in India to life in the book. But it is about more than just intertidal zones and tide-pooling here. It’s about some fascinating characters—and creatures—like the decorator crab (also known as the velcro crab), which is a master of disguise and camouflage, or sea stars that have regenerative capabilities, and many others.
“Nowhere else does saline water go back and forth, wetting the shore and then going back. Not just once, but several times a day. Nowhere else is there harsh sunlight during the day and cool moonlight. It’s a very hard space,” says Mehta, who, for the last four years, has been walking across different shores in India with the team of Marine Life of Mumbai, a citizen-led initiative that documents and creates awareness about the city’s coastal biodiversity. “It’s a very specific zone and hence the animals that live here are also truly strange and bizarre. They have these superb abilities. I think that was the first thing I thought (about intertidal zones): ‘My goodness, this is quite special’,” she says on the phone.
Like many other species and terrestrial creatures, life is tough for marine animals too. A combination of chemicals and trash is slowly choking waters around the world. Human disturbances, microplastics and other marine debris have affected hundreds of species. Climate change and rising sea levels are expected to have a significant impact on intertidal zones too. What Super Powers On The Shore does is make you think about the resilience of creatures that otherwise do not get enough attention.
“My absolute favourite creatures are part of a phylum called Cnidaria—these include jellyfish, coral, sea anemones, zoantharians, Portuguese man o’ war, to name just a few,” says Mehta. “I fell in love with these at sight—perhaps something about their breathtaking beauty (those tentacles!) coupled with stinging cells that can make your day go rapidly downhill if they wished. They seem so effortlessly cool.”
As you read along, you learn more about coasts and how they shapeshift over time. Mehta describes them as a gift, our “arsenals and allies”. Her writing in the book is an engaging mix of pop culture, science and keen observations. It was a process that required time and a lot of research. Sometimes, Mehta had to read through several scientific papers just to write a few lines.
A chapter on animals like sea squirts, some species of crabs and the starfish—that can regenerate in different ways—gets a funny reference to the superhero movie Deadpool. Creatures like the puffer fish and sea urchins that possess strong defensive mechanisms to ward off predators are showcased in the chapter Defense Against the Dark Arts. No prizes for guessing that reference. It is a style of writing that also makes the book easy to understand, even for casual readers who might not be that interested in the environment and conservation.
Take the hermit crab, for example, which Mehta calls the official mascot of the intertidal zone. She weaves in the narrative of the hustle and bustle Mumbaikars face in crowded local trains while talking about it. “The hermit crab’s life seems very much a struggle to me—they exist in large populations, they don’t have a hard carapace as they’re not true crabs, so they have to depend on using abandoned shells they find. They literally stagger across the intertidal with these shells on their backs. Then they outgrow those shells and have to find larger ones. So, a bigger, better real estate proposition is always on the horizon. Just like us,” Mehta adds.
You don’t necessarily have to be from a coastal city or live near the ocean to relate to the book or understand more about the life forms that inhabit intertidal zones. As Mehta says, the book is “shore agnostic”.
“Some of the animals I talk about in the book are not found here,” she explains. “At the beginning of the book, and also towards the end, I have talked about having your own patches,” she says, referring to “patch birding”, a term suggested by naturalist and birdwatcher Ramit Singal during a talk at the Karnataka Bird Festival in 2018. “Like, it doesn’t have to be the ocean. I hope that the book will point people in the direction of smaller creatures near their own house. Be it birding or just looking in your own backyard. It could be the garden where you go running, a beach walk or even a plant on your windowsill. Basically, anything that becomes your patch. You don’t have to conserve it. Just watch and engage with what happens to it over a season. Then, you start thinking about the conversation.”
There is an entire world out there waiting to be explored. It is just a matter of finding and observing it.
The hermit crab
Hermit crabs occur in sandy- or muddy-bottomed marine waters. They use empty shells and other hollow objects to protect their bodies. Mehta calls this crustacean the “mascot of the intertidal zone”.
These deadly predators—which fall under the genus Conus—use a poisonous harpoon to catch fast-moving prey. Mehta writes in the book that the venom of a cone snail has at least 500 different components. It can design a different type of venom every time, depending on its predator.
One of the many “tidal phoenixes” from the book, sea stars—also known as starfish—are echinoderms that can actually eject their own stomach while eating a prey. Some species can grow an entire new body from a detached or severed arm.
The puffer fish
It is known for its ability to inflate itself when disturbed. As Mehta explains, certain species are highly venomous, containing a type of nerve poison that is more potent than cyanide. Some species of puffers are also known as blowfish or swellfish.