Thursday, February 9, 2012

Pongal at Point Calimere - beachcombing with the camera

The sand at the saltpans
The beaches and saltpans of the region are a beachcombers' delight.  The sands were strewn with shells, and I was taken back maybe fifteen years, when the beaches of Thiruvanmyur would be like this!  Sadly, they are combed so heavily these days, that we only see small, broken shells.

On the beach sands, near the Chola lighthouse

I have not systematically looked at this whole class of snails, clams and molluscs and this trip was a first, as I looked to understand about these marine creatures.  They could be univalve or bivalve.

So, we all indulged in virtual beachcombing, photographing all the pretty, colourful, unusual, large shells that we saw.   I have tried to match my notes/names with the pictures I took - I hope I am correct, please do point out if I have wrongly identified.  (Errors, if any are mine and not Uttara's!)
The waters near the boat jetty
At the waterfront

Uttara's account, which started here, now continues:  

A dead starfish.
Wonder what they do with them?
...Then we headed further south to the boat jetty where we saw crabs and star fish left behind from the day’s catch. Later we headed further away from the fishing boats to a quieter spot where we just roamed about, picking shells of all kinds and pestering Preston uncle with questions about each one which he patiently answered. 

The puffer fish
Highly poisonous
Among the shells we found were the cockle, clam, scallop, horned, screw, murex, bonnet and olive shells. The other things we spotted were a dead puffer fish (and all puffed up too) and the mother of pearl of an oyster. That evening was extremely fun what with all the beach-combing and shell-picking.

A capiz/windowpane oyster buried in the sand.
Placuna placenta.  Some translucent varieties used to make windowpanes!  (Its a bivalve.)
From L to R - Sundial, Murex, angelwing, spotted tun

Bottom - screw shell.  Above - I dont know, but it was pretty.

Blistering Barnacles!  I learnt that these creatures are crustaceans,
and the creature kind of cements itself to the substrate, and since they live in shallow waters, they have a set of plates which cover the opening when the tide washes out.  (These are dead and so they are open)

More dead barnacles on a branch by the sea-shore.
To see how these creatures, who cannot move on their own, feed,
please click here.

Is this a razor clam shell?

The hermit

Someone found a hermit crab. It was a juvenile, a tiny red little thing in an over-sized, borrowed shell. When we held it up, it scrambled all over the palms of our hands and it took a lot to stop it from falling of. Finally we released it back into the water and watched it being thrown back and forth by the waves until it disappeared from sight.

At the saltpans

The notice that hung on the wall
at our guest house on
marine life that is protected.


We walked among the very large and small pools of saltwater that had been brought in from the sea which came in from both the south and the east. The large pools of water were separated by man-made mounds of dry soil. While there were a lot of Prosopis juliflora growing around the mudflats (some black-winged stilts were spotted here), marking the boundary, few plants grow in the area itself save for the few small bushes that grew around the mounds. On one side of the mudflats there grew the pooarasam or Portia tree also called Indian tulip tree (Thespesia populnea) which can grow in difficult conditions like near salt water and the sea coast. The land was dry and bare and in places cracked. Though proximity to water resulted in wetter soil, the land still retained its parched appearance.

Colourful spiral horn shells - all over the bunds
surrounding the salt pans.

But looks can be deceiving. While in most places, especially the mounds, it was perfectly safe to walk around, some areas were very marshy and when the earth gives way under one’s feet, it is certainly not a most pleasant sensation for most. I say this from first-hand experience. 

Is this a banded tun shell?  "Tun" supposedly
means cask or wine jar.  Tuns are typical of tropical water
and feed on other small creatures.

L - Frog shell? Or is it a broken whelk?
R - Harp shell - notice the lovely vertical ridges,
reminiscent of the strings of a harp.  The
harp shell creatures have an interesting feature.  They drop a part of their foot when threatened by a crab.  As Mr Crab munches on the foot, our harp will encircle it from the rear, cover it with mucus and sand, and then consumes it!

TL - Paper fig.  Very light
TR - Moon sea shell?
Middle - Brown banded tun
Bottom - screw shell
I had to walk the rest of the way barefoot which wasn’t so bad except there were a shells everywhere embedded in the mud and they were very sharp. You see the sea had come into the saltpans/mudflats and left behind millions of shells firmly held by the earth. The saltpans were as good as the beach for shells. We saw whelk and cone shells among others and again Preston uncle explained about them. Again on the return some of us had to do the usual feet-scrubbing before we could return to the guesthouse.

Conus shell.  The creature inside this is venomous
and its sting is unpleasant, and shoots out on a proboscis
at the narrow tip of the cone.

L - I dont know/Forgot
R - vase shell.  Common on the eastern Indian coasts,
despite their small size, they are predatory!
A scallop bivalve, next to a very small spiral horn.
Very common on our beaches

When we returned, the light had faded from the sky. We gathered in the entrance lobby to begin talking about what had been done that day and what there was left and even some random stuff. Vikas, Vishwanath, Kedar and I mostly yelled at and fought with each other. Then began the daily list-making ritual with the usual “Order, order!” and “Disorder, disorder!”

By the boat jetty, on the last morning
A crab eyeballs us, looking
quite angry!
The morning of our departure, Hemal, Raji and me took an early morning stroll down to the boat jetty.  As we neared the beach, we came across a rundown, abandoned petrol station!! Really!  I wonder if it was for the fishing boats?

The fishing village was a hive of activity.  Motorbikes and cars whizzed past us, and we wondered what the excitement was all about.  We arrived to see the auction in full swing - last evening's catch was being sold.  Fisherfolks on cell phones, deals being struck, profits made.  It reminded me of an article I read in The Economist long ago, of the positive effect of the cell phone on the fisherfolk of Kerala.  Maybe this was the reason for traders coming in by car, having heard of a good catch that morning?  We didn't find out.

R - A lovely Murex turnispina,
quite common for our waters

During our four day Pongal stay, we found that the price of fish and prawn rose significantly, almost from meal to meal.  There was some joking as to how local demand was raising the prices, but it turns out, that the number of fishermen willing to go out to sea through the festival drops off, and this results in supply dropping substantially.

Sting rays, at the bottom of a freezer box.
According to the poster in the guest house, this is a protected species.

We wandered around, as fishermen repaired their nets, emptied the morning catch, their wives busy cleaning out the ice boxes.  Seeing our cameras and binoculars, one woman wanted Raji to take a picture of her.  Now it has to be understood that my dear friend Raji wants as little to do on such trips other than stopping and staring, so she quickly got out of this duty by asking the woman jocularly whether she wanted to become a TV star.  the lady in question gave a disarming, paan-stained grin and went off.

We got talking to some young men who had just returned from the sea.  Kodiakarai is approximately 50-60 kms from the tip of Sri Lanka, and we are always reading in the papers about fishermen from either country being arrested by the opposite coast guards, for straying into their waters.

An octopus was in their catch.
Among the most intelligent of
Just that weekend, 13 fishermen from this very village had been freed.  One of the young men, more a boy actually, told us that he was one of those who had just returned!  He also proudly said that it was not the first time he had been taken in by the Sri Lankan Navy.  "They lock you up for a week, take all your money, and then send you back", he said in Tamil, with a shrug and a bit of a swagger.

As we wondered why they had to take these risks, one of the older fishermen remarked as to how the size of their catch is falling - there is just not enough fish, and how they need to go further and further.  Sounded familiar - Downeaster Alexa from Billy Joel.

I know there is a 47 day ban on fishing or a fishing holiday around Chennai/TN coast, but that seems to be not enough?  Sustainable fishing is the mantra of the government, but is it working on the ground?  I dont know.

I also found it sad to see "unwanted" fish just being brought in, in the nets, dead and of no use.
More beautiful univalves.

A lovely, abandoned sea fan

On our way back, we saw a cheerful and noisy bunch of rosy starlings in the undergrowth, and its amazing how their chatter can lift one's spirits.

As we got onto the southern most end of high street, we saw various other fellow MNS members sprinting, and so followed suit.  and this is what we saw!

No marine creature this - a retreating wild boar.

Some strange thing
we came across.  (Not the pen!)
That was Hemal's touch of
scientific observation.

Lets hope that we learn and understand about sustainable living, sooner rather than later.
Signing off with this absolutely fantabulous specimen of a Murex (?).
Photo by Mr Ramanan
Up next - Mangroves at Muthupet.


  1. unknown spherical skeleton is a sea urchin

    1. Thanks Injamaven! I have made the addition!

  2. oh! so many and so much information. Lovely, enjoyed it all.I have not seen a murex(?) with something in it so far!

    1. None of these shells had any creature inside, except the one with the hermit crab. It would be nice to find them "alive".

  3. Loved all the pictures. A very informative post!. Now I will be able to identify at least some shells I come across.

    1. Anita, given my aging memory, I decided this is the best way to remember them!!

  4. Amazing & incredible sea specimens ! The last one is truly breathtaking.

  5. Love this point calimere series!