A blue button nestled in the sands. Photo by N. Aditya Madhav.

A Coastal Diary: Metaphysical and Metaphorical Musings

Intertidal, as Yuvan Aves says in his bestselling book, Intertidal: A Coast and Marsh Diary (2023), “is the part of the shoreline that appears during low tide and is hidden during high tide.” And more importantly, “In some places it is thin, in others it is vast. It can also be a metaphorical and metaphysical space.”

Capturing the magic of these liminal spaces is what Yuvan does best. Intertidal features musings about life in the coastal city of Chennai between 2020-2022, and explores everything from deep contemplations on nature; the adaptability of this organic and dynamic world we live in; breaking free from cycles of abuse; and tender observations on creatures great and small.

Part memoir, part meditation, Yuvan leads us into a world of careful and devoted observation. Yuvan’s stories chronicle his life: starting with his difficult and violent childhood, running away to a school that became his haven, his deep love and connection with nature, and the gradual shift into an introspective adulthood. He shares with us the art of composting, of re-making a life from ruins. His journey through grief and trauma, and discovering art, activism, and beauty along the way is both compelling and inspiring.

The worlds that he explores in Intertidal are many: overlapping zones of enquiry, sensorial, visual, and auditory—from crabs on the shore, to banyan trees and frog croaks. Each entry is a map to a treasure chest, to a secret garden of delights. It is also a call to action, to speak against the erosion of the intertidal, the rampant destruction of wetlands, and the growing industrial pollution and toxicity.

He also unflinchingly tackles themes of community, symbiosis, healing, and change in a variety of ways. One of the loveliest parts of the book features Yuvan’s revelations about the power of working with children in nature, and how teaching them how to navigate and protect this beleaguered planet, has helped him heal.

Above all, this is a book that has a visibly beating heart, written about and with a profound love for this home that we share. Yuvan’s writing is full of acceptance, realism, hope, and quiet warmth. We can’t recommend it enough.

The following excerpt is from Intertidal: A Coast and Marsh Diary (2023) and has been shared with permission from the author and publisher, Bloomsbury Publishing. It discusses blue buttons (Porpita porpita), often found along the coast of Chennai.

A glimpse of the cover of Intertidal: A Coast and Marsh Diary (2023) by Yuvan Aves.

Neelankarai Beach
20 January 2022

Millions of blue buttons, sea swallows and other floating creatures have washed ashore on Neelankarai Beach. Kilometres of strandlines are made of the small, shrivelled sea creatures. I walk along their disintegrating remains and inspect the different species. I call up and check with other friends and confirm that they are being seen all along Chennai’s coast.

What is common to all these creatures? They make up the neustonic community in this ocean. All of them live at the surface of the water. A world of beings that have adapted to live on this thin film, this meagre stratum, which is totally different from the water below or the air above in its physicochemical properties. What has dumped them all on the shore?

What brought me first into regularly walking the coast was the blue button (called netti in Tamil). In January 2019, I was out surveying shorebirds at the Adyar Estuary with a group of birders. It was low tide at the time and a similar mass beaching of blue buttons had happened. I left the birds and crouched along the intertidal. I held them unknowingly and after a while their tentacles stung mildly, like salt on a bruise. A blue button is not a single creature. Each seemingly dime-sized organism is a free-floating carnivorous creature-village made of polyps. Polyps themselves are small, jellyfish-like beings. These too are a puzzle between singular and plural, queer creatures, beyond the scope of our pronouns.

The blue button’s physiology is communal. On it some polyps group up to play the tentacles, stinging and reeling in prey. Some make up the oral chamber beneath, through which if you look closely, you see some remains of tiny crustaceans. Some do the digestion and distribution of food. And some harden up and create a float at the centre which holds up the blue button to the sea surface. There are rings on the float which grow just like and resemble tree rings. A ridge for monsoon and a furrow for rainless winter or harsh summer, perhaps. The blue button’s back is possibly a calendar of seasons, as felt in the open seas.

Floating blue button schools in the open sea also host a larger community specifically adapted to live among and feed on them. The sea swallow (Glaucus sp.) is a blue and white sea slug which looks like a piece of sheet lightning floating in the water. It catches and climbs on surface tension like it were monkey bars. It eats blue buttons, stores their nematocysts (stinging cells) and acquires their ability to sting. Sea slugs in other habitats too show the ability of absorption from their food. Back on Kovalam Beach where ulva seaweed grows on the edges of groyne rocks, you sometimes see—if you look arduously close—the elysia slug. It is small, flat and green like a rogue piece of seaweed. It eats these plants, stores their chloroplasts and begins to photosynthesize.

Lying among the masses of sea swallows in Neelankarai I find a couple of purple storm snails (Janthina sp.). They blow a bubble balloon which keeps them afloat by the surface near their blue button prey. Then there are by-the-wind sailors—a living sailboat with tentacles below and sail above to be wind-steered on the waters. Another polyp-made marine pilgrim. There are also hordes of goose barnacle lattices sticking on thermocol bits, table tennis balls, drift footwear, drift ballpoint pens and liquor bottles.

Fish like trevallies take refuge under the floating blue button schools when young, and the masses of stinging tentacles give them protection from predators. Experiments have been done where the fish and blue buttons are separated, but when put together again each fish will return to its respective partner button. Young fish form relationships with specific buttons and hang around under them. Fisherfolk say that the pomfret (vavval meen in Tamil) when young spends time under orange sea nettle (manja sori in Tamil) schools and that it’s their thai veedu (maternal home). They say that the jellyfish don’t harm them alone, but that is possibly because the pomfret young have protective mucus lining.

These surface communities are bound to increase in their numbers and beachings with sea surface temperatures rising, making waters conducive for proliferating jellyfish and jellyfish-like creatures. Though some young fish take refuge under them, large amounts of jellyfish—ocean jellyfication—threaten fish populations. In some of the shore seines cast by Neelankarai fishers in the past few weeks, anchovies and sardines came mixed, stung and mutilated with large numbers of sea nettle, and it was impossible to separate them. About four hours of work by more than fifty men goes to waste when sea nettle groups float nearshore.

For the first fifteen days of January, winds have been shoreward and strong from the Bay of Bengal. Has the downwelling it created cast out these creatures en masse from the ocean? In December 2020 just after Cyclone Nivar we saw blue buttons in Chennai, and larger strandings were reported in other parts of the Tamil Nadu coast. Sometimes they strand after a storm. Sometimes they strand inscrutably, to keep us guessing why. Far away on Australian beaches too man-o-wars are stranding en masse all through this week, and an earthquake near New Zealand is thought to have caused it. Maybe the quake’s wave energy travelled to this coast, or maybe these creatures indicate seismic activity from somewhere else.

Between June and August 2019 marine activist and distance swimmer Ben Lecomte was swimming through the Great Pacific Garbage Patch1. There are large garbage patches in all five ocean gyres—the North Atlantic Gyre, the South Atlantic Gyre, the North Pacific Gyre, the South Pacific Gyre and the Indian Ocean Gyre. These are places where surface currents meet and concentrate all the garbage released by humans into the coastal waters of the earth’s oceans. Ben, and the marine scientists he was helping, found that as they neared the garbage patch the blue button neustonic community rapidly increased in density. There was as much blue button and associated life here as debris in each cupful. Pelagic birds and sea creatures ate plastic which looked like the blue button. It is possible that once upon a time, only this blue floating community lived densely in the gyre. This was their stronghold, till polymer trash began to gather. When currents deviated or were disturbed for different reasons maybe some blue button communities were pulled from the gyres and beached on the shores. Now they always beach along with floating garbage. I am certain that if we check the Indian Ocean Gyre—another garbage patch—we would find a thriving blue button refuge amidst deadly plastic squalor.

Today the wind is absent. Longshore currents are absent. Stubby waves roll in slowly, one by one and far apart. The sea is sleepy and silent. A gull flock lazily bobs on the water 10 metres from the low-tide line. Neelankarai Kuppam’s fisherfolk return from the Thiruvanmiyur kallu. Their nets bring large rabbitfish (ora meen), butterfly rays (kuruvi thirukkai) and torpedo rays (thimilai). Two men dance as their hands untangle them, as the rays expel their last electric bursts. I try to wash off the sand from a torpedo for a picture and get a small shock. I remember Palayam Anna’s story about giant devil rays (kottan thirukkai). He said they were terrible creatures and that he hated them. I told him how they were harmless plankton feeders which swim gracefully like large flying eagles. He said, ‘All that is fine. But have you seen a bear rubbing its back on a tree? Like a bear, the devil ray will come to a boat or the anchor rope and give itself a nice scratch. We sit there being tossed from one end to another. I have been toppled over once.’

It is overwhelming, the stories the ocean keeps bringing. Day by day it becomes vaster, more wonderful and mysterious. These are important experiences we need as human beings, psychologically, spiritually, collectively. While accepting the John Burroughs medal in 1952, Rachel Carson prophetically said, ‘Wonder and humility are wholesome emotions and they do not exist side by side with a lust for destruction.’

With my friends and fellow nature educators at the Palluyir Trust, I have begun what is to be a year-long coastal curriculum for children of the fisher community at Urur Kuppam and Olcott Kuppam, in collaboration with Prem, a friend and phenomenal teacher from the community. Their home beach near the Adyar Estuary is the primary learning space. It was our first session today, about finding and grouping coastal biodiversity on the dockyard, and beached blue buttons graced our class.

1Amanda Heidt, ‘The Constellation of Creatures Inhabiting the Ocean Surface’, Scientist, January 2023.