Arms flailing, we desperately tried to keep our balance in an increasingly futile attempt to avoid getting our feet wet. “We’re going to be walking a couple of kilometres into the sea, there is no way to avoid getting your feet wet,” said our bemused guide, Vipul, before going back to overturning rocks looking for the treasures within.
Admitting defeat, we sloshed about the puddles in our borrowed sneakers. All around us, as far as the eye could see, were the glistening waters of the Gulf of Kutch’s Narara Marine Sanctuary. The water was shallow, lapping our ankles, and pockmarked by algae covered green-brown mounds that emerged like tiny underwater hillocks.
A rich ecosystem, Narara, and the islands around were designated as a Marine Sanctuary, India’s first, in 1982
Narara is part of the protected Gulf of Kutch, an archipelago of 42 known islands, of which 33 have coral reefs. Interestingly, this area sits cheek by jowl with the Jamnagar oil refinery (also the world’s largest refinery). As if to remind us of this peculiar dichotomy, we spot crude oil tankers in the distance, beyond the storks and egrets poking around for prey in the clear waters.
A rich ecosystem, Narara, and the islands around were designated as a Marine Sanctuary, India’s first, in 1982, with an intent to protect and study the coral reefs and the life they support. Despite the looming threat of increased industrial and commercial activity, it is ecologically thriving, teeming with all sorts of life, from a plethora of coral and sponges, to various types of crabs and starfish, jellyfish, octopus, and pufferfish.
Narara truly unique is that every day at low tide the water recedes an incredible 9 kilometres, exposing the coral
What makes Narara truly unique is that every day at low tide the water recedes an incredible 9 kilometres, exposing the coral and forming small pools and channels of water between them. Trapped within these pools and channels, until such time as the tide comes back in, are incredible riches of the sea.
Vipul, our guide, grew up here and now works with the forest department, showing tourists around the waters of Narara. “We used to swim in these waters as children, I know this place like the back of my hand,” he says, pointing out various colourful coral and sponges.
For anyone who has never been diving or snorkeling, Narara is a revelation. A window into an otherwise unknown and inaccessible world
For anyone who has never been diving or snorkeling, Narara is a revelation. A window into an otherwise unknown and inaccessible world, one where you can see oddities like sea cucumbers and underwater life like octopus and stingray, the whole sanctuary is a mystery unveiled.
Like excited children, we rattle off a wish list, confident that Vipul can make it happen. We want to see Pufferfish we declare, and Octopi… and Stingray! “We will do our best,” laughs Vipul, “but don’t forget, this is [just like a] safari – what you see is dependent partly on our spotting skills but largely on luck and mother nature.”
The guides work in pairs, so whole Vipul stays with us, giving us information about Narara and the marine life and over 150 bird species that depend on the ecosystem, his companion moves quickly ahead, expertly scouring the pools for the more exotic ‘sightings’ like turtles or Octopi. We keep our eyes peeled at the pools but besides small fish darting around we don’t spot much. Thankfully Vipul clearly knows what he’s doing, his trained eyes picking up things we can’t recognise, and it’s not long before we see our first crustacean, the furry wolf crab, a curious little fellow unlike any crab we’ve ever seen, which gets its name from the brown, hairy spines that cover its body. A little distance away is a wonderfully bright sponge, part orange, part purple crowned with a perfect little starfish.
In a small pool, moving ever so slightly is an overgrown wormlike sea cucumber and darting around under the fluorescent green algae another crab, this one with a large blue pincer which waves at us threateningly as we inch closer to get a better look.
Vipul is in full form now, as he points out more interestingly shaped (and coloured) coral. The Marine Sanctuary is home to over 50 species, and we spot, with Vipul’s help, an elegant brittle star, a close cousin of the starfish, with 5 delicate swaying arms, camouflaged magnificently amidst the brown-grey coral.
With an expert eye and practiced hand, he delicately pokes and prods, but we still haven’t seen the star of the show. It’s now getting uncomfortably hot under a blistering afternoon sun, but Vipul is unfazed. Just as we’re about to head back he lets out a triumphant whoop!
In his hand is a spiny balloon like creature, a pufferfish! Our first! The pufferfish is considered to have developed the ability puff up several times its size, by ingesting large quantities of water, as a defense mechanism against predators. In Japan, pufferfish is considered a delicacy but needs to be prepared by trained chefs as it contains a toxin which is fatal to humans. Vipul gently releases the pufferfish into the water, not wanting to keep it out for too long, and it darts off emitting jets of water, quickly returning to its normal size.
As we return slowly to the coast and huff and puff past the thick mangroves that line the shore, forming a natural barrier from the sea, we hope that in the tussle between development and nature, the marine sanctuary of Narara survives and thrives.
Know Before You Go
Narara is located in the Gulf of Kutch in northern Gujarat, an hour away from Jamnagar. The area is isolated and you will need to arrange your own transport. Before visiting make sure you contact the Forest Department (0288-2679357) to check the tide times – you can only walk among the corals at low tide. You also need a permit to visit which can be obtained right there at the sanctuary before you go in. While a guide is not compulsory, we can’t recommend it enough – without the guide you are unlikely to spot anything.
The sanctuary is closed in the monsoon.