Almost every Chennaiite has a seaside story to tell, finds Geeta Padmanabhan

If you were to write a book on Chennai’s beaches, lack of material isn’t likely to hamper you. You could chronicle their historic past, engaging present, uncertain future. You could describe their bio-diversified riches, their constantly changing coastline. You could write the biographies of people whose statues stand guard at the Marina, follow the trail of temples, churches and memorials along the watermark, gather a schoolbook of general knowledge — what was the Marina beach before Madras harbour was built? What is the shape of Elliot’s beach?

Or ask the scores of beach-lovers for story bytes. “I landed in Chennai in 1998, beaches were my favourite weekend destination,” said Peter van Geit, Chennai Trekkers Club. “I would swim in the green-blue waters, sail a fishing boat in the sea, collect beautiful shells from the sandy beaches of Mahabs, gaze at the moonlight reflected on the waves, sit at the edge of the broken bridge to watch the Adyar flow into the sea. Camping on the beaches between Kovalam and Mahabs, I would lie on my back looking at the stars, listening to the gentle waves lapping the shore. But those beautiful beaches are deteriorating — we see shocking scenes of black waste water from the Cooum flowing into the green ocean, tourists burying the sands under layers of plastic, stinking drain water flowing out of fishermen’s villages, the decline of the Olive Ridley turtle... A few CTC volunteers and I began handing visitors garbage bags, requesting them to join us in cleaning up. This year, a 5,500-strong army was present during our 4th Chennai Coastal Clean-up. Chennai beaches will always remain in my mind.”

“I’ve always been drawn to the ocean,” said Supraja Dharini, conservationist.

“In my mind beaches remain pristine habitats for tiny molluscs, bivalves and gastropods — happy in their homes in the inter-tidal zone. Nellore, Elluru and Odisha have wide, sandy, sea-turtle-nesting beaches with sparse human population, making coastal observation easy. When I go for a turtle walk or survey along Chennai beaches, I cry in silence at how people treat them. Education has not taught us that actions on land affect life forms in the ocean, our lives are inter-connected.”

Radha Rajagopalan, ex-student, Besant Theosophical High School, has a lot of memories built around Elliot’s beach. “Thirty years ago, when we moved to 32nd Cross Street, Besant Nagar, people thought we were crazy. Why a ‘remote’ place surrounded by sand, we were asked. We were on a beach without fancy walls, lights, pavements, but had company — crabs routinely turned up on our premises. The sound of the waves was loud, clear, soothing. We heard its rhythm all night. The waterline would sometimes extend to half the beach after the high tide. Someone built changing cottages — quite glamorous before they fell apart. I remember picking butterfly shells, you hardly see them now, only garbage. Besant Nagar water tank was considered a unique piece of decorative architecture. Cozee was there, and its only competitors were the thenga-manga-pattani-sundal chaps and mobile ice-cream vendors. The church was a peaceful place 20 years ago. The Velankanni festival was fun — cousins from Nungambakkam and T. Nagar would come to buy glass bangles from the stalls — where have they gone? Then Ashtalakshmi temple brought bus-loads of tourists. The beaches became commercial nightmares. I really miss the quieter, less-crowded shoreline that allowed the mind to unwind.”

In Cheyyur beach, microbiologist T.D. Babu finds an undisturbed and unpolluted coastal expanse with high sand dunes that touch 12 ft. at places. “The sand dunes protect the hamlets along this coast from natural disasters, but have been flattened between Neelangarai and Mamallapuram,” he said. “In the estuary near the Periakuppam village I saw oyster shells, reflecting the healthier condition of the estuarine aquatic ecosystem in this area. The dead sea-fans, gorgonians (soft coral) and hard corals indicate the rich, healthy bio-diversity of the sea. I spotted palm and mangroves, the predominant tree species here.”

I grew up in San Thome-on-the-beach, said theatre-person Yamuna. “In those days, we had something to boast about. Our Marina is the second longest beach in the world. Everything happened there: from romance to a family treat with mouth-watering sundal. All that still goes on despite the markets, garbage and noise. I wonder what its claim to fame today is.”

Activist Shuba recalled her annual school excursions to Mahabalipuram 25 years ago. “We explored the shore temples, ran on the beaches, visited the lighthouse and felt humbled by the feat of men who achieved so much with so few resources. We groaned then, but I am so glad we did it year-on-year. Today, there are fewer temples and more people showering beaches with litter. People assembled on the Marina for meetings, to listen to leaders, protest peacefully, but the beach was not ravaged. Today 10 people assemble to have fun and the beach looks ruined. Can beaches be fenced to keep people off the bay? ”