marine wildlife

‘Waterproof fish’: Look beyond the venom of these monsoon visitors to Indian beaches

This year, the stings of the Portuguese Man O’War are in the news in Mumbai. But there is more to these tentacled creatures.

Iridescent, shimmering, tentacled. When you see it on the beach, it looks harmless, even inviting. But beach regulars know better than to trifle with the Portuguese Man O’War, commonly known as the blue bottle.

On a marine shore walk, I kneeled down to document a specimen that had washed up at Mumbai’s Juhu Beach. Immediately, one of the beach photographers – part of the team that roams the beach to take and print sunset photos of tourists – came rushing over. “Haath mat lagana, zor se shock lagega,” he said. “Don’t touch it. It delivers a nasty shock. Most people don’t know any better.”

When asked what name he knew it by, he said: “Waterproof fish. It stays alive even outside the water. Zabardast hain. It is amazing.”

A Portuguese Man O'War swept ashore a beach in Mumbai. Photo credit: Sejal Mehta
A Portuguese Man O'War swept ashore a beach in Mumbai. Photo credit: Sejal Mehta

Every monsoon, a strong southwest wind creates surface currents on the Indian ocean and a variety of marine life rides them to the shores. Around the beginning of June, small white discs with blue-green tentacles, the size of Rs 10 coins, wash up on the beaches. These are Porpita Porpita – a name so nice, you got to say it twice.

Commonly known as the blue button, they are siphonophores – marine animals belonging to the phylum Cnidaria, which includes corals, jellyfish, hydroids. They lie strewn on Indian beaches like tiny blue and white suns, warning fishers that the sea will soon be too choppy to head out.

Close on their heels comes the Portuguese Man O’ War, which is not a jellyfish, as commonly believed, but a siphonophore with the scientific name Physalia.

A blue button lying on a beach in Mumbai. Photo credit: Sejal Mehta
A blue button lying on a beach in Mumbai. Photo credit: Sejal Mehta

Life out in the deep seas seems otherworldly, filled with wandering creatures with superpowers that are hard to fathom – bioluminescence, advanced sonic capabilities, camouflage, shape-shifting. In that, the Man O’ War is a warlord of substantial proportions. It earns its name from its crest – a gas-filled chamber, which looks like a warship floating on the high seas. It uses this transparent bubble, which is anywhere between 4cm-13cm long, filled with part carbon monoxide and part atmospheric gases like oxygen, nitrogen and argon, as a sail to navigate its path on the ocean’s surface.

See a video of these creatures moving on the water to the soundtrack of the GoT Winds of Winter and you will see the name fits like a glove. Each specimen is actually an army in itself – not a single animal, but a colony of organisms that are incapable of surviving individually and coming together to form a superorganism.

Below the crest, a cluster of small blue, green, purple protrusions form its digestive organs, while the long tentacles play the feelers and tasters, and the tiny pinkish organisms form the sex organs.

What the tentacles of the Portuguese Man O'War look like in a macro photograph. Photo credit: Shaunak Modi
What the tentacles of the Portuguese Man O'War look like in a macro photograph. Photo credit: Shaunak Modi

Found in Indian, Pacific and Atlantic oceans, the Man O’War exist in warm, tropical and subtropical waters, and are always on the move.

On the beach, it is easy to avoid getting stung by not touching them. But in water, their tentacles swirl and spread out, growing up to 12 metres long – 30 metres in the specimens found in the Atlantic Ocean – making it difficult to dodge a sting if you happen upon more than one.

The tentacles are covered in beads of cells, which can pack a walloping sting, with a force that is 20 to 50 times their size and can inject venom through clothing and even surgical gloves. The venom, which is a neurotoxin similar to that of snakes, continues to fire on contact even after the animal dies. A sting can cause swelling, nausea, extreme pain. In fact, octopuses have been documented using the tentacles of dead Man O’ Wars to ward off predators.

The late BF Chhapgar, an author and one of India’s first marine biologists, describes the Man O’War sting “like being struck with a red-hot whip, which also carries an electric current. Its venon is as potent as a cobra’s; it requires just 0.037ml of venom per kilogram weight of a human to kill. We should thank our stars that it cannot inject as much venom as a snake, just enough to kill fish, otherwise no one would dare to swim in the season when the animals abound.”

A view from a beach in Goa. Photo credit: Sejal Mehta
A view from a beach in Goa. Photo credit: Sejal Mehta

This year, reports of Mumbai residents getting stung by the Portuguese Man O’War have dominated the conversation about them. While the numbers seem larger this year, this is not a novel phenomenon, neither is it cause for alarm. These stunning animals come to our shores every single year. Unfortunately, our welcome has become increasingly more plastic over time, especially in Mumbai. But they still come, like clockwork, washing up on piles of our filth, on the trash that marks our tide lines, waiting for the water to take them back into the depths.

While there is no clear research on how long they can live outside the water, if they are not swept back in the next tide, they dry out and perish on the sand.

Waterproof fish. But only just.

If you come upon them, make sure you keep your distance, are not barefoot, and avoid swimming in the water. But there is absolutely no harm in admiring them from afar, and hoping that our filth does not stop their passage back into the water.

The author is a member of the Marine Life of Mumbai, an open, citizen-driven initiative to explore and understand the coastal biodiversity of the Mumbai Metropolitan Region.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

Play

This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.