Oprah Winfrey once said, “The greatest discovery of all time is that a person can change his future by merely changing his attitude”. And if there is one thing that the pandemic has shown us is that we have treated Mother Earth with little or no regard for her abundance, beauty and giving nature. Almost always, when a conversation for change is needed, the focus is on highlighting the problem or offering a practical solution. It is very rare to find a person or a collective who approaches it by focusing on changing attitude.

When I first came across the work of Marine Life of Mumbai, I ended up spending a lot of time browsing through images of the beautiful marine creatures that live on the shores of my city. I was in awe and I asked myself – if everyone knew that such magic lived on our coasts, would they willingly destroy the ecosystem out of greed and mismanagement?

Marine Life of Mumbai (MLOM) is a citizen group that over the last four years, has been making Mumbaikars aware of the marine life on the city’s shores and prompting people to think about what we stand to lose if we continue to ignore them in the face of big-city ideas.  Founded by Abhishek Jamalabad (sea_coocoomber) and his partners, Pradip Patade and Siddharth Chakravarty (oceanbanter), the group has grown into a large group of volunteers who take small groups of people for marine walks, introducing them to the marine biodiversity and inculcating a love for this urban ecosystem. Abhishek speaks to StoneMill on what drives the group and what they hope to achieve through their efforts.

A kayaking instructor, a marine biologist and an academic researcher – how did this partnership come about?
Marine Life of MumbaiMLOM was essentially born out of a simple fascination for the marine life of our city. It wasn’t for a very specific conservation goal, or for research. Pradip Patade (the watersports instructor) had been familiar with this coastline and its biodiversity for years before MLOM began, and he was trying to draw public attention to it. So our goal was pretty straightforward and non-specialist – to bring more people out on the shores to explore biodiversity with us. The team that built up as we went along was similar – a mix of people, some of whom were completely unfamiliar with marine life, just wanting to help popularise what we all found amazing.

Mumbai’s coastline is rich with a huge diversity of marine life. Do you think the people of Mumbai know enough about this diversity?
There were a handful of people who knew about it well enough before we started MLOM. I must admit I was among the vast majority who didn’t! Since we started, we’ve definitely seen that number increase. We’ve had countless people very enthusiastically joining us to explore, and several times that number engaging with us online to know more about it. A few people have also disseminated information about it in their own ways, such as print media, short films, taking their own guided walks etc. We are by no means the only ones introducing the city’s people to its marine life, but we are very glad to have been a significant part of the movement!

Why is it important for people to understand this diversity and that we need to co-exist?
When it started for us, it was only about shedding light on a very rich urban ecosystem that was (and in many ways still is) largely ignored. The city’s intertidal spaces have been sustaining small-scale livelihoods for ages, besides providing other services such as physical protection to the city from the sea. Of course, this question would bring up the topic of all the threats faced by this ecosystem in an ever-growing city. But going back to the roots of MLOM, we’ve always been mindful of the approach that worked for us personally – to simply be fascinated by it first. This has consistently been the approach MLOM uses – step out on the shore, take a look at the wildlife on it, watch it in disbelief like most of us have kept doing. We believe this is an essential first step that leads people to understand the significance of biodiversity themselves, rather than having to be told about it.

MLOM is identified as a citizen’s group and you have a team of volunteers who lead the walks, shoot photographs, all of which goes up as content on social media and your website. Please share more about this offline community you have built and what their role has been in the growth of MLOM.

Coastal Walks Mumbai Carter Road MLOM

Exploring the Coasts of Bandra

The team started growing rather organically. When the 3 of us started MLOM, we used to ask participants on our walks if they wanted to join us in adding something to MLOM. We ended up getting a lot of people, some of whom helped streamline social media, some helped lead the walks, some wrote, some photographed, some made art, and some put together the website we have today. Besides these, many participants began exploring on their own, adding valuable data to our biodiversity database, and introducing even more people to marine life and to MLOM itself. So the offline growth of the community has sort of snowballed along the way, occasionally adding new aspects to the project, and it continues to do so.

Please share some of the reactions of participants, especially new ones, when they join you on informative coastal walks, ever since you started in 2017. Have any of them on to become seriously involved in marine life conservation or awareness after being part of your walks?
We have been conducting at least one walk per month, barring the monsoon months, ever since we started in March 2017. Of course, our walks were on a hiatus during the 2020 Covid lockdown, but we conducted a few virtual walks during that time (available even now in our Instagram highlights).

“Most participants say what we ourselves felt when we started out – that they had no idea that the urban shores so familiar to them could host such biodiversity.”

It introduces people to an entirely new world that was always hiding in plain sight. And yes, some of our participants do become seriously involved in the subject – personally, as a marine biologist who used to focus primarily on research, I can say a few of our volunteers are now as serious about coastal biodiversity research and conservation as I am!

The work by MLOM has been recognised by iNaturalist.org – a joint initiative of the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society. Please tell us more about this recognition, what it meant for MLOM and how it has impacted your outreach.
iNaturalist is a community-run biodiversity database portal, supported by CAS and NGS, that is open for all to use and has several projects from all over the world. We started a project on this platform not knowing how far exactly it would go, but at some point along the way, the team that runs iNat globally noticed a lot of information coming in from Mumbai, and it happened to be our project. They featured our project in a blog post on their website, which meant a great deal to us! We were already being helped by many global experts who helped identify and verify our records, and this recognition only spurred on some more interest in our work.

I came across mentions of conversations on careers in marine biology, coastwise photography awards 2020, film screenings, photography and documentation initiatives that MLOM has undertaken. Please tell us a little more about these initiatives and what they have done to advance your efforts in education and awareness.

MLOM Mumbai Marine Life

Biodiversity at the Mumbai Shores

The webinars on careers and other topics were actually done by audience requests and suggestions, during the lockdown. We put together groups of panellists for each of these webinars with the aim of having our audience’s questions answered. Before Covid happened, we had a few in-person meetups, where we brought subject experts and mixed audiences together to facilitate the exchange of knowledge most people don’t have direct or easy access to.

Coastwise is an annual festival we have been a part of for the past 3 years, along with Mangrove Foundation and WWF-India as our co-organisers. It is a festival that celebrates our little-known coastal biodiversity and has a range of workshops, contests and activities.

MLOM’s own documentation initiatives revolve around our iNaturalist project, our website, and our social-media-based science communication.

I understand that as a group, you have been able to document 341 species of flora and fauna (identified by CAS and NGS) found along Mumbai’s coastline for around 3 years. What are your personal feelings on being able to identify and document this diversity?
I think it stands at around 458 species right now! CAS and NGS are just the organisations that support the platform, they don’t do the identifying– that work is done purely by volunteers like us who use the platform. So it is a sort of global community effort with experts and passionate enthusiasts helping each other out, with the outputs going far beyond themselves. We at MLOM didn’t expect species counts like what we currently have, and it wouldn’t have been possible (or at least not as easy and fun!) without the iNat community and the many people who join us on our walks. Considering how difficult it was to get even basic data of this kind before, we are quite thrilled at what we’ve all been able to do and hope that it only keeps continuing.

Coastal Conservation Foundation was born after 2 years of MLOM and goes beyond Mumbai and the awareness efforts. Can you please take us through the journey and why you felt the need to take this step?
Coastal Conservation Foundation MLOMThe MLOM project ran (and still runs) on voluntary efforts. It is a citizen collective, with a fluid team of people picking and playing their own roles in it, and it has never been dependent on any sort of funding. All of us involved in MLOM see merits in this and intend to keep it this way.

However, some of us in the core team wanted to expand beyond what this open model could do, such as take on more systematic collaborative projects etc. We set up CCF as a means to do that since it would be a registered organisation. Along with the additional projects we’ve been able to undertake, we also hope to expand to other activities and regions that were beyond the capacity of MLOM.

There is a lot of talk about the plastic and pollution in our oceans but not as much on the beauty that exists within these oceans. Do you think there needs to be a shift in gears as far as the focus of the conversation is concerned?
While we haven’t advocated for a shift in gears in the narrative per se, we as MLOM have chosen to take the alternative approach. We feel there is enough information easily available about the threats and the need for conservation, but too little about what actually lives in these spaces. We started out with a simple fascination for the marine biodiversity here, and we would like to have our audience have a similar introduction. We’ve always felt that you need to really fall in love with something before moving to the next steps. So, rather than advocate for conservation and better management, highlight the threats etc., we choose to instead show our audience what exists here in the first place. People tend to put the pieces together and develop their own perspective once they are hooked onto something amazing, which is how it was for us as well.

Your focus has been on creatures in the intertidal zones, and that is the same space that is being landfilled for city development. This disrupts their habitats significantly. Does MLOM work towards spreading awareness regarding this as well?
As I mentioned in the answer to the previous question, we have on the whole focused on showing people the biodiversity here. The development and other alterations happening to the space are very visible and are amplified really well by the individuals and organisations working with us, so we have chosen to focus more on our direct aims. Between giving people a first-hand experience of the habitat, and the open-access documentation platforms we use, the vast majority of audiences understand things themselves, without having to be told about it. That said, some of our citizen-driven work has indeed been used as a base by others who are more directly involved in conservation practice.

It is said that awareness is the first step to conservation and that it is every citizen’s responsibility to be part of the conservation efforts – please share a few impact stories of the work you have been doing at MLOM.
It’s hard for me to pinpoint particular impact stories, actually! The entire course of our work has been a continuous (still ongoing) process of learning bit by bit. Our open-access data has been used by students, conservationists and educators, and our walks and other outreach initiatives have reached people of various ages and backgrounds. A lot of media persons have covered our initiative, not just by getting to know our work but by actually stepping on the seashores with us and experiencing it for themselves. Personally for me, however, the most impactful moments are when we introduce a newcomer to this world of intertidal wildlife, and when we witness the moment that person gets hooked!

Do you feel you have personally grown because of the work you do with MLOM?
Definitely. Before MLOM, I used to focus mainly on pure research, and hardly dabbled in outreach at all.

MLOM has made me see the importance and the sheer joy of involving a large community in understanding more about wildlife.”

It has also opened my eyes to the wide gap that lies between research and public knowledge and has made me engage in all of these activities with enthusiasm. I have now been largely focusing on improving my own outreach skills as a result, and I’m loving it.

What is next for MLOM?
MLOM runs as a sort of free-flowing model, and it will continue to do so. We have been derailed a bit by the long lockdown last year and another one now, so a lot of our audience has been missing the usual activities. We hope to get back to that in full strength, and as always, are open to new team members and their ideas! Through CCF, we have conducted a few educational activities and hope to do much more on that front, along with research.

Our Interview Takeaways

Marine Life of Mumbai Tips Conservation

Ever thought that a simple walk on the beach can open a whole new world of marine flora and fauna? Check out Mumbai’s rich coastal biodiversity at @marinelifeofmumbai or visit marinelifeofmumbai.in!

Published On: May 7th, 2021 / Categories: Community Drivers, Interviews /