• Thursday, July 07, 2022

Sejal Mehta Speaks about "Super Powers on the shore" With Frontlist Media


on Jun 09, 2022
interview

Sejal Mehta is a journalist, editor and children's book author. She has worked in the magazine industry and written for newspapers and publications for the last 17 years, including Lonely Planet, National Geographic and Nature inFocus.

For the last two years, she has been part of the core team at Marine Life of Mumbai, an initiative documenting and creating awareness about Mumbai's coasts. Her forte has become making science palatable and fun to lay audiences. She has been speaking about the intertidal to adults and kids for two years, and has found an engaged audience, ready to convert to tidepooling on their own.

The book “Super Powers on the shore” was illustrated by Jessica Luis.

Frontlist: For the last four years, you've collaborated with the Marine life of Mumbai team, a citizen-led initiative dedicated to documenting and raising awareness about the city's marine biodiversity. How was the experience, and what new information did you learn that you'd like to share with us?

Sejal: The experience was revelatory, and was not limited to Mumbai. The book is largely shore agnostic, concentrating on the abilities of the animals rather than the places they’re found at. Earlier, I always thought only of charismatic creatures when I thought of wildlife – I absolutely adore watching magnificent big cats, elephants, the giants of the forests, these animals make my heart sing. And for years I didn’t look beyond them. Walking along the shore brought my attention to smaller creatures, some of whom are as tiny as your fingernail! And each of these small creatures build their tiny worlds around them. Because of this experience of walking along shores, I am now cognisant of the smallest creatures, the ones on our beaches, the spiders in our homes, bats in our cities, they all interest me now. I love the big creatures still, but my wildlife lens, and hence the ability to feel empathy, has become more inclusive.   


Frontlist: You have a knack for making science appealing and fun for your audience. Have your discussions with adults and children about the intertidal zone inspired anyone to go tide-pooling on their own? Could you kindly tell us how your efforts resulted in a change in the environment?

Sejal: There is so much happening all around us that we don’t engage with simply because we don’t understand it. For example, I write in the book about creatures who survive with these interesting abilities – regeneration, defence mechanisms, sonic abilities – and I’ve written in a way that might make it easier to relate with, and ultimately engage with. My editor, Manasi Subramanium helped with the book structure, and the illustrations, done by Jessica Luis, brought an endearing quality to the science.

I have had notes and messages from people who have gone tidepooling on their own, and that’s the idea – for people to find a new way to engage with nature. Like birding, herping, wildlife safaris, this is just one more way to view wildlife, and enjoy a day at the beach. 

Frontlist: What is it about marine life that has piqued your interest? And which sea creature would you most like to empathise with or admire?

Sejal: The book focuses on marine life that lives on shores and in the shallows. The intertidal zone is so fascinating – it’s the space that is visible at low tide only, and then as the water flows in, the animals and everything else is no longer accessible on foot. It inspires a lot of curiosity about its functioning. I never tire of saying this, I love cnidarians – a group that holds jellyfish, coral, sea anemones and the like. They’re gorgeous, and they have stingers – dangerous and beautiful all at once. 

Frontlist: Superpowers are fictitious superhuman abilities. How do the marine animals relate to the word "superpower" in your book's title?

Sejal: It was a way to make the science in the book come alive. While speaking with scientists about the animals, I would always think of superpowers in the way they were described. For example, sea stars (also known as starfish) can regenerate themselves from just an arm, provided some of the tissue from the central disc still remains. This immediately made me think of Deadpool, a fictional character appearing in American comic books published by Marvel Comics. A cone snail harpoons its prey, bringing to mind Hawkeye, again from the Marvel universe. The parallels just fit, and so the idea around superpowers to tell science stories came to be. 

Frontlist: You explained how people have always wanted to harness nature's forces, and how they have been successful and failed at times. Could you tell us a little more about it?

Sejal: It is to say we are constantly trying to mimic nature in our technologies. Biomimicry is being used in so many ways. New research is helping in facilitating a camera based on the eye of the mantis shrimp that can help in the detection of tumours and cancer cells, and even assist in surgeries. The razor-sharp efficiency of a peregrine falcon has inspired military aircraft and so on and so forth. We have also attempted invisibility based on the camouflage of the cephalopod but of course not with the same results. 

Frontlist: "Humans have been gatecrashing wildlife parties for ages," you remarked. Might you give us a quick overview of the situation and how humans can reduce their impact on marine life?

Sejal: 😊 That’s actually a remark not on our impact, but on our thirst to understand nature. I meant that we are curious about the workings of the natural world – with our cameras and our research for understanding and protection. The line where this is used – we are on a boat, eavesdropping on the dolphin communication patterns. That was what I meant, not necessarily in the negative manner.

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