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Hope floats

The mangroves that dot the 15 km-stretch from Airoli to Navi Mumbai along Thane Creek act as lungs to a burgeoning metropolis and remain one of the last surviving bio-diverse havens, blessed with rich flora and fauna. C Gangadharan Menon goes on a walk-through of these fragile, floating forests

The first time I spotted these remarkable floating forests was probably how a bird would have viewed it, from the sky.

The airplane from Kochi was flying over the Arabian Sea, and as it approached Mumbai, it moved westward.


Crass commercialis-ation threatens Navi Mumbai's mangroves;
The White Cheeked Bulbul is a common sight



That's when the blue sea ended and the green sea began. The airplane flew low over kilometres of verdant mangroves that stretched from Airoli to Navi Mumbai.

I carried that spectacular bird's-eye view of this green paradise for a couple of years until I saw these at eye-level.
 
My first encounter with these mangroves was when I participated in the Mumbai Bird Race, an annual event organised by the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS).
 
We had driven down to Airoli, near Mulund, and soon after crossing the bridge over the Thane Creek, we ventured into lush mangrove territory.

Since we did the trail with a group of birders, we spotted several species of birds: godwits, flamingos, red shanks, spot-billed ducks, herons, marsh harriers and prinias.

Nature's Reserve
A rich but increasingly fragile eco-system survives along this 15 km-stretch. Discovering it along with Julius Rego, the coordinator of the Navi Mumbai Chapter of BNHS was fascinating as it was insightful.

Typically, when one sets out on a nature trail with an ornithologist, bird-spotting takes centrestage. Likewise, while exploring specific terrain with a butterfly expert or with a botanist, it's usually rare for the expert to go beyond the obvious.
 
But Julius was a generalist, who was passionate about every specie that existed in these floating forests: birds, insects, butterflies, moths, reptiles, flowers, plants and fish.

According to him, until a couple of decades ago these mangroves and creeks stretched up to the Parsik Hills, 10 kilometres to the east.


Julius Rego, the coordinator of the Navi Mumbai Chapter
of BNHS, with a group of budding naturalists


Catfish would swim all the way up to the shoreline near the hills to lay their eggs, far from the prying eyes of man.
 
Today, the entire stretch has been filled in as industries and residential complexes have claimed these marshes. The catfish have had to find new breeding spots in the few remaining creeks along the stretch.

The Green Trail
Our entry point was Ghansoli from where we moved on to Khopar Khairane and then into Navi Mumbai. All along, creeks crisscrossed the mangroves alongside walkable tracks.

The area was densely populated with many plants that are special to the mangroves, including the Salvadora (or the Meswak as it's locally called).

Julius explained that there is a curious relationship between this plant and a bird species. Wherever this plant grows, its feathered friend, the White-Cheeked Bulbul is usually spotted along this belt.

We also spotted numerous species of butterflies, moths and bugs. Some of the butterfly  species had exotic names: Plain Tigers, Blue Tigers, Peacock Pansies and Grass Yellows. It's also home to a unique moth called Tussar Silk Moth.

This beautiful moth has a see-through circle in the centre of its wings. We also saw painted dragonflies and an unusual bug called the Spittlebug.

It makes a covering that has the look and texture of human spittle, and hides inside it from predators. The monsoon was just over and all the monsoon plants had begun to wither away.
 
These will make way, eventually, for other plants who have been waiting for their turn, staying dormant through the rains.

At Ghansoli and Khopar Khairane we saw the omens of what the future has in store. In patches, humongous quantities of debris had been dumped filling up vast stretches of these mangroves.

Julius pointed out that unlike normal landfilling, which can be done in a year; filling up a mangrove takes upto four years.

But the work of the land sharks is in progress. We suggest you rush to witness the spectacle of these magical mangroves before they disappear from the backyard of Mumbai.

All in a lifetime
Moths are born without a mouth. They survive only for as long as there energy that is stored in their bodies at the time of their birth, which is a mere 14 days! Because they are so short-lived, their life has a tremendous sense of urgency. Seconds after they emerge from their cocoons, they begin looking for a mate, and the moment they find one, they start their mating rituals!

How to get there
15 kms of these mangroves stretch between Thane and Vashi, all along the creek. The best entry point is Airoli. Take the Eastern Express Highway till Bhandup. Then take a right under the Mulund Flyover to reach Airoli. Go eastward and take a right to Ghansoli. Ghansoli is after Khopar Khairane, which is followed by Vashi.
 
How to plan your trip
Ideally, the trail should be done over a weekend. On a Saturday, visit Airoli and Ghansoli. Keep Sunday for the Khopar Khairane and Vashi belts. It would be practical to connect with Julius on 9820074639 or Rahul on 9594929107 during work hours for details about the next conducted tour by BNHS. Email: cecbnhs@gmail.com.

Best time to vist
Now until the end of winter.

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