For a while I had been dreaming of visiting India’s only Marine National Park in the Gulf of Kutch, Gujarat. The dream came true last winter when I visited the region.
Theoa is 27 km from Jamnagar. When Paresh, the forest guard and I left Theoa Guest House in the morning on our motorbike, the air was cool. We were on National Highway (NH) 27 in a very short time and in just 15 minutes covered the last 18 km to reach Narara Island, the entry point to India’s one and only marine national park declared by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 1980. The deputy conservator of forests had already made all the necessary arrangements. After a small introductory session over hot freshly brewed tea in his office, we set off. We put on the canvas shoes supplied by the park staff, folded our trousers upto the knee and followed Haroon, my tour guide.
The research I had done on the Narara Island and the Marine Park echoed in my mind as I followed Haroon. The island is situated on the southern shore of the Gulf of Kutch between Jamnagar and Rajkot district. There are 42 islands in the region with area ranging from few hectares (ha) up to 7000 ha. Among these islets Narara and Pirotan are the most important. At present a total area of 928.53 sq km of this park is under the Jamnagar circle. The history of scientific investigation about the unique biodiversity of this area is a century old. In 1909, the then Maharaja of Baroda Sri Sawajirao Gewkoad appointed James Harnel, an eminent marine biologist from Sri Lanka to document and protect the biodiversity of the islands. Astonished by the huge range of organisms, Harnel even wrote in his report that he ‘had never seen such a rich marine biota in so confined a place’. For the first time in 1980 a detailed discussion about the ecological importance of this region was held in a seminar in Sasangir. The same year the Gujarat government declared an area of 457.92 sq km as a marine sanctuary.
After we crossed the sand dunes and reached the shore, I realised that it was entirely covered with mangrove forests just above the sapling stage. Haroon explained that it was the result of social forestry, only few years old, hence young. There are two dedicated ranges for mangrove research and forestation. The entire south shore of Gulf of Kutch (from Okha to Dwaraka in the West to Jodia in the East) has green mangrove forests. Though there are six endemic mangrove species, Rhizophora, Avicennia and Ceriops are the three that dominates this area. After my visit I looked up online and found that in the past Jamnagar had around 500 sq km of mangrove coverage but by 1975 it was reduced to 139 sq km and in 1985 it was further reduced to only 33 sq km due to unchecked deforestation.
After the setting up of the Marine National Park, indiscriminate deforestation has stopped and plantation programme in the coastal area has improved the ecosystem of the area. When I looked up the Indian State of Forest Report, I found that the total area of mangrove forest in Jamnagar has increased from 150 sq km in 2005 to 173 sq km in 2015. Apart from keeping the coast line soil erosion in check, the mangrove forest has helped in controlling the salinity, increasing dissolved oxygen content, and reducing water pollution (mainly from oil spills) in the creek areas.
Soon Paresh and Haroon were sure-footedly wading through the creek waters. They had reached the other side of the shore while I struggled with all the equipment and the force of the strong currents, even at low tide. The next few hours were spent in the blissful envisions of the marine world. The multifarious world underwater revealed to me was a delight and astonishment to say the least. There were beautiful multi-coloured corals, starfish, algae, crab, snails, sea urchins. But, I was still looking for the magnificent octopus. As always the marine environment abounded with winged creatures big and small from plovers, sandpipers, gulls, terns to the endemic crab plover.
Just before we reached the shore, Haroon ecstatically pointed to an octopus resting in the creek water with all its limbs spread out. The sight of the octopus thrilled me so much that I requested him to pick it out. When he tried, it ejected a black ink like liquid and tried to escape. Eventually the beautiful creature could not escape the skilled hands of Haroon and draped itself gracefully for a couple of good frames.
In the far horizon, I saw indistinct presence of few large ships that carry crude oil to the refineries—Reliance, Essar, Indian Oil Corporation etc. The west coast of Gujarat is gifted with natural ports, and hence favourable for the growth of heavy industries. Large industries like oil refineries, fertiliser, cement, salt, ship breaking, and heavy chemicals have flourished along the south coastline of Kutch over the ages. The repercussions of these industries have also been felt affecting the biodiversity and made environmentalists anxious about the region’s safety. Redemptive steps have however been proposed among which few are:
- Since 1983, every year plantation of new mangrove saplings has been started. Total area covered with mangrove plantation is 2402.36 ha till 2015.
- Forest Department is trying to increase security patrolling by appointing more forest guards.
- Through the Integrated Coastal Zone Management Project, with financial help from World Bank and Wildlife Trust of India, coral transplantation process has been started. The project started in 2007 and will be active till 2017.
- Awareness programme is in action in 58 coastal villages through a project titled ‘Mangrove Yatra’.
- Hatcheries have been established in Madhabpur and Positra to increase the number of sea turtle.
- If any endangered species is entrapped in the fishermen net, they are being relocated to the sea with financial compensation to the fishermen. Instances of paying even INR 25000 for a single whale shark may be cited in the recent years.
Time will show how long these steps would be able to keep the unique marine ecosystem alive. However, it is doubtless that there is no other part in India where the beautiful world of marine can be explored so inexorably without diving deep into the ocean.