‘Living Coasts’ is a photographic response by Yuvan Aves to the Maps of Disquiet’s curatorial prompts about individual and collective reimaginations of urban spaces and contemporary counter-hegemonic practices that is sustained through photography. It is an excerpt from Aves’s larger collaboroative research project – Madras Naturalists’ Society’s ‘Tamil Nadu Coastal Project’ - that aims to assess the status of Important Coastal and Marine Biodiversity Areas (ICMBAs) and other biodiversity hostspots along the Tamil Nadu coast. Developed through close interactions with fishermen and other communities, the project actively uses tools and platforms of ‘Citizen Science’ to collect, collate and disseminate information on ICMBAs in order to strengthen and develop conservation efforts in the region.

Collaborators: Aswathi Asokan, Anooja A, Nanditha Ram, Rohith Srinivasan, and Vikas Madhav.

Brahminy Kites, found at their best near coasts and mangroves, need fish and clean water to thrive. At Pamban (Ramanathapuram district, Tamil Nadu), these birds are as bold as bulls. They plummet down to pick Matthi (Sardine) fresh off the baskets as they are loaded into vehicles, and also catch them in-air while they are being yanked off the nets by fisherfolk

Hermit crabs are fascinating creatures, occupying shells of gastropods to protect their soft bodies. Different species of hermit crabs look out for and use different kinds and shapes of shells, for instance- Long-legged hermits (Clibanarius longitarsus) use long cone shaped shells of Girdled horn snails and mudcreepers, while tawny hermit crabs use more rounded shells like those of moon snails and Babylon snails. Many marine hermit crabs form friendships with sea anemones. Sea anemones feed on what the hermit crab hunts and scavenges, while the anemone stinging cells protect the hermit from predators

Olive Ridley Sea Turtles return back to their place of birth, or Thaai mannu as local fishers refer to it. They have a strong instinct to journey back to where one hatched, emerged and was born, to have one’s own offspring. Chennai’s coasts are important nesting grounds for these turtles around the months of January to April. The Students’ Sea Turtle Conservation Network (SSTCN) monitor, collect and release turtle hatchlings safely back into the ocean, apart from conducting turtle walks for students

Ghost Crabs are found in abundance in Chennai, scuttling about on the shore and into their carefully crafted burrows at the smallest disturbance. Beach sand has very little microbial life in it and if not for Ghost Crabs — the principal beach clean-up squads – beaches would be less livable places for numerous life forms, including us. Paa nandu, karuvaali nandu, kuzhi nandu are some local Tamil names for ghost crabs. Their meat is used as fish bait; it is also strewn on the shore at low tide to lure lugworms to the surface.

Known locally as Aazhi by artisanal fisherfolk, Oysters are handpicked to eat the flesh or be sold to prawn hatcheries. In coastal landscapes, they function as biostructures and natural breakwaters protecting shorelines, as foraging ground, and as water purifiers- saving coastal wetlands from suffocation by algal blooms and eutrophication. Although the biodiversity oyster reefs can host is comparable to corals, the importance and presence of these reefs is highly understudied in India.

As the tide recedes, an Olive Sea Snail emerges from the sand and smells out an exposed Clam, wrapping around the bivalve’s jelly foot. It engulfs its prey- whatever it can digest- drowning it in its own slime before eating it.

‘Koondhal Kanavai’ or the Marbled Octopus is often seen drifting or propelling itself horizontally or vertically towards the seabed, when then its body quite looks like a head with long braids of hair streaming over and around it. Its vernacular name evokes a poetic metaphor, comparing the swimming of the animal to a woman’s flowing hair. These words have roots in this land and are evocative of the ecology, culture and society in ways in which a borrowed and foreign language cannot be. When the words for creatures and places vanish, they take with them the connections, allusions and relationships they vocally hold.

Sperm whale bones are frequently washed ashore along the Alamparai coast. The nearshore ocean here has deep canyons, which is an ideal habitat for these deep-sea cetaceans. Fisherfolk call its fat Panavai ,whose fat fibres are as thick as cotton threads.

The Sponge Crab has nail polish pink pincers and deep black eyes, which can host algae, soft corals, sponges, sea squirts, anemones and other creatures on its carapace. It is a living substrate, carrying on its back a mini-world underwater. This crab is found commonly along the coast of Kovalam and nearby, where the ocean bed is coralline and rocky.

Each decorator worm home is a murmuration of matter of all kinds of odds and bits - living and nonliving. Shell fragments, barnacles, gastropod eggs, tunicates, algae, tiny crabs, soft corals, sand grains and tube worms are just among the multitude of things they carry- a shard of sheer multiplicity, of many things having unexpectedly come together.

Golden Tunicates glaze themselves over almost everything. Unlike their motile tadpole-like larvae, these sessile beings are found hitchhiking Gastropod shells, sponges, rock, crab carapaces and even ropes, drift metals and ships. They are hermaphrodites and among the simplest organisms with notochords or primitive spinal cords. All along Chennai’s coast tunicate presence is abundant.

Wandering gliders are monsoon chasers, migrating passively on seasonal winds over the oceans, wandering across the world. In the month of October, they surf in great numbers in the southern states of India as a million golden flashes and will eventually fly down to Africa. Migratory birds like the Amur Falcon, Bee-eaters and Pied Cuckoo are known to follow these dragonfly swarms on their journeys, sustaining on them. During this time, one can see them in very large swarms especially above beaches.

Blue buttons are tiny coin-sized see-through polyps related to jellyfish. They get washed ashore in large numbers after strong weather events due to changes in the winds. They come as colonies, where some group up to play the role of tentacles, stinging and reeling in Copepods, while some do the digestion and distribution of food. Others harden up and create a float on the water surface.

Humpback dolphin: Locally known as ‘Vedan’ (translating to ‘hunter’ in Tamil) or ‘Saami Sura’ (God shark) in Cuddalore, Humpback Dolphins are friends and benefactors of fisherfolk. Their presence indicates the congregation of fish near the shore. Sometimes they even lead fishermen to fish schools further out in the sea, or follow boats to fish themselves. If caught in nets, they are released immediately. There is a long-standing and strange symbiosis between these dolphins and artisanal fisherfolk in some parts of Tamil Nadu. In other parts like in Palk Bay, where fisheries are stressed, dolphins and fisherfolk are often in conflict.

Pazhaverkadu - the original non-anglicized name of Pulicat - means ‘old jungle of roots’ in Tamil. The name refers to the vast expanses of old growth Avicennia roots which existed in abundance here. Mangroves were the architects of this bioregion as their root systems stabilized the soil, and provided breeding grounds for numerous marine fauna which subsequently brought bird life and supported fisherfolk. However, very few patches of these mangroves remain today due to large-scale deforestation over the centuries.

Coastal sand dunes over time create small freshwater bodies right by the ocean. These swales, in places like Mudaliarkuppam and Azhagankuppam, are within a few hundred feet from the ocean. They host hardcore freshwater life like frogs, damselflies, diving beetles and water scorpions.

Spinifex grass is a vital architect and hydrologist and physician of sandy coasts. Known as ‘Ravan’s Moustache’, it grows as a field of spiked maces that binds sand, creating undulating dunescapes over centuries and fetching freshwater right beside the ocean. The prickly female grass is a safehouse for skinks, crabs and fan-throated lizards that scamper in for cover.

Gadilam river’s estuary in Cuddalore, hosts vast expanses of Oyster reefs which also act as foraging grounds for thousands of waders every winter. The ambient sound here is ever of sharp bursting bubble-wrap – clap… clap… clap… clap… clap – clapping oysters spitting out water.

Inhabitation - Artisanal Fishers - Local knowledge

The coast has dozens of micro-economies dependent on different microhabitats and lifeforms. Here a lugworm catcher shows his catch. He collects them from the intertidal zone by strewing crab meat on the sand. He sells them as fish bait to other fishers.

In October the Thendi vellam (South-North longshore current) switches to Vanni vellam (North-South longshore current). This changes the nature of the ocean and the people’s engagement with it. During Vanni, starting October uptil nearly March, fisherfolk use Periya valai (Shore seine) to catch fish like anchovies, sardines, silverbellies, perch, etc which come nearshore. About 50 - 80 men set up the net and draw it in over hours

Coast to coast there are rituals practiced by local fishers. This is from Goonangkuppam, Pulicat. These clay idols mixed with sea sand - Kadal dhevathaikal - are made before the fishing season to appease the ocean spirits and give them a place to reside. In turn they ensure safe journeys into the sea

In Poigainallaur, Nagapattinam, artisanal fishers have had the tradition of protecting and growing coastal sand dunes, which shield their groundwater from sea ingress. Sand dunes create fresh groundwater very close to the tideline, and people are hence able to practice agriculture about 100 metres from the sea here.

A man shows the mole crabs he has caught in the waves at Valmiki Nagar beach. A mole crab catcher strolls in the waves and feels the stirring of the creatures under the sand. He plunges his hand into the sand to catch them quickly before they bury themselves in. He sells them as fish bait to other fishermen while they are also part of his regular diet.

Artisanal fisherfolk use a variety of nets for specific catch. They have different nets for Sardines, Anchovies, Mackerel, Squid, Crabs and several other species. Such targeted fishing reduces bycatch and makes their relationship with the ocean more conscientious and sustainable.

Olni is a thermohaline circulation fisherfolk identify, which brings colder waters from deeper parts of the Bay of Bengal towards the East coast. When it is strong it pushes up sea urchins, jellyfish and other free-floating creatures and casts them on the shore enmasse. Observing this, fisherfolk make it into the ocean to take advantage of the fish shoals strong Olni brings

Fisherwomen pick up Matti/Wedge clams (Donax cuneatus) during low tide at Edaiyanthittu. These are the most common bivalves on Chennai’s shores. They are locally cooked and eaten, and are part of their daily diet.

Fisherwomen enter the Odiyur lagoon to handpick crabs, prawn and oysters from the oyster beds and seagrass meadows found here. They collect their catch in their Pari (straw basket) and sell them on the roadside. About a thousand women are dependent on oysters in this large coastal wetland.

Fisherfolk’s routines are deeply in tune with the lunar phases. The ocean near the new moon and full moon has greater circulation and hence more benthic species come up to the surface during this time. Catch is lesser near half moon phases, when the ocean is clearer and calmer. Fisherfolk know that in clear water, fish shoals are shy to come to the surface to feed. But in murky waters, they feel more confident to do so. At night, fisherfolk tell if the water is turbid or not by looking for the presence of Kamaru (bioluminescent plankton- Noctiluca scintillans) which prefer nutrient-rich murkier waters.

Fisherwomen cleaning the day’s catch and selling it at Neelankarai beach. Often in artisanal fisherfolk communities, the women are a keystone part. They sell the fish and are incharge of the economy of their community.

Fisherfolk in North Tamil Nadu classify the ocean bed into Tharai (sandy bottom), Parai (rocky bottom), Seru (muddy/slushy). Different shores have different habitats and associated biodiversity. Along Kovalam, Painted Rock Lobsters (Panulirus versicolor) are commonly found in the rocky ocean bed. Fisherfolk however, say that they have greater demand when sold outside the state.

During the month of Aadi (mid-July to mid-August) the Southwest monsoon flushes sediment from all the rivers emptying into the East coast. Fisherfolk call this Aadi Vandal Thanni. This blocks the estuaries and river mouths all along the East coast, and traps marine life. However, if fish are trapped for too long they suffocate and die en masse. Fisherfolk take advantage of the situation but quickly use an excavator to open out the blocked mouths consistently during this month to save fish stock. Here fishers cast nets in the blocked mouth of Kovalam creek

Coastal sand dunes over time create small freshwater bodies right by the ocean. These swales, in places like Mudaliarkuppam and Azhagankuppam, are within a few hundred feet from the ocean. They host hardcore freshwater life like frogs, damselflies, diving beetles and water scorpions.

The different names of winds by Palayam - a fisherman elder

Threats - Erosion - Exhabitation - Resistance

About the artist

Yuvan is a writer, naturalist, educator and activist based in Chennai. His interests include reimagining an Earth-centric and child-centric education in schools, the reciprocity between languages and ecologies, and ground-up processes of change and politics. He writes on topics at the intersection of ecology, education, and human/more-than-human consciousness. He is the author of two books, recipient of the M.Krishnan Memorial Nature Writing Award and the Sanctuary Asia Green Teacher Award. He is currently traveling and documenting stories of biodiversity, people and change along the Indian coastline.

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