India Today


Sejal Mehta makes science fun and accessible in her book on creatures who live between land and sea

- —Victor Shahed Smetacek

This book is about the lives and abilities of the little-known, small creatures that can be found, if looked for, in the intertidal: the stretch of ocean shore between the high and low tide levels. This boundary between the two realms of our planet—land and ocean—rolls back and forth with the tides to the tune of the moon, as much a time-setter for the creatures living there, as is day and night for us. It is a very tiny strip of the planet but is and has been the threshold for organisms crossing from one realm to the other. The peculiarit­ies of the organisms adapted to the intertidal are fascinatin­g, because evolution has selected them for survival in both realms, which makes them closer to science fiction than to us.

As a retired professor of marine biology, I didn’t know what to expect when I took my first random dip in the book, but soon found myself reading on until I reached the end of the chapter. What fascinated me was the multi-faceted experience of having one’s attention dragged hither and thither, between prose and poetry, conversati­ons and lectures, now dealing with the predilecti­ons of the particular creature under examinatio­n, then musings of the author interspers­ed with resonating quotes from other authors, and much more, all told with excitement. For me, this was very different fare to what I have

been used to.

Science abhors emotion, but by dint of objective observatio­n, scientists find out stories about creatures that can titillate the imaginatio­n, if told in a lively manner. I appreciate­d the emotional way in which the observatio­ns of scientists, familiar to me as a specialist, are related to an audience of interested onlookers. It’s like making bland western food into chatpata chaat. The Bollywood song-and-dance interjecti­ons are incorporat­ed here as well. For me, the book is very feminine, very Indian, in a very appealing manner. This old fogey enjoyed the experience of reading it and gaining a glimpse of my successors on this planet.

The stories told are more or less accurate even if the facts are dramatised to make them appeal to an audience, already jaded by horror movies of predators lunging out of the dark. By and large, the author has been careful about getting the facts right. However, the biolumines­cent organism Noctiluca is portrayed as potentiall­y dangerous, which is inaccurate. The magical phenomenon of biolumines­cence that lights up the beaches in a phosphores­cent glow on certain nights is well portrayed in the figure. But the dead fish are totally misplaced, Noctiluca is innocuous; portraying it as venomous, “taking life after life” is wrong. Nobody should feel even a semblance of threat casting a shadow on the pleasure of swimming in biolumines­cence. I hope this dire warning is corrected in the second edition; and yes, I do hope this book makes a second edition and that Sejal Mehta writes more books appealing to those looking for solace but also excitement and inspiratio­n in the natural world.

(The writer is a retired professor of ocean ecology based at the Alfred Wegener Institute Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research, Bremerhave­n, Germany)

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 ?? ?? SUPERPOWER­S ON THE SHORE by Sejal Mehta PENGUIN VIKING `499; 256 pages
Clockwise from top: an octopus, a luminous jellyfish and a blue button jellyfish
WONDROUS BEINGS Clockwise from top: an octopus, a luminous jellyfish and a blue button jellyfish
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