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The many unexpected creatures you see up close when you are walking in water

The shallow end of a pool has its own share of non-human visitors

Ranjit LalA white-throated kingfisher would take a quick shower at a pool in Goa (Credit: Ranjit Lal)

“Can you be a heroic lifeguard and yet not know how to swim?” I asked a couple of friends recently.
— “What?”

“Well I am one! In the last six weeks or so I have rescued any number of ants from a watery grave in the swimming pool!” I shook my head. “They should be thankful evermore but they’re so stupid. They flounder about on the water and then clamber on to your hand looking grateful. You place them carefully – or sometimes flick them – out and what do they do?”

— “No idea!”

“They trundle straight back to the edge of the pool and fall right into it again. It’s as if they like being rescued by a heroic lifeguard: Or, are attempting suicide!”

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Both the girls pounced. “How do you know? Maybe they simply just wanted to go for a swim in the morning, just as you do! You must have exasperated them! Every time they jump in they’re thrown out!”

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— “That pool must seem like the Pacific Ocean to them! Would you jump into the Pacific?” Alas, they weren’t convinced. “Well, all you’ve really done is to spoil their morning swim! Really!”

Hmph! Girls I tell you!

As I mentioned, I can’t swim, but for the last six weeks or so, I have been walking up and down the shallow-end of the pool, for 45 minutes starting at 6 am. You would imagine a chlorinated, fumigated swimming pool would not be the kind of place where you’d find much life, but that’s clearly not so. Some creatures took to the water, others stalked just above the water-line waiting for live tidbits to come their way.

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There was one little regular, about the size of a san-serif capital I (in Roman type, probably font size 12, bold) which had two fine stalk-like oars sticking out of its sides – facing frontwards. With flicks of these, it would dart over the surface of the pool so fast it seemed to vanish in a blink. Like so many other insects it knew about the physics of surface tension. As did a spider I saw, skating over the surface at speed. (Just the other day, I came across a seven-legged little spider.) There is a rather heavy looking dark-brown cricket I’ve come across, which normally stalks along the water-line rather menacingly, but is quite capable of a brisk freestyle if it somehow falls in. One guy I met had one leg missing but didn’t seem to miss it at all. On a previous occasion some years back, a yellow wasp landed on the water, to cool off, and on seeing me, crawled up the back of my neck to sunbathe and stung me and I wasn’t even trying to rescue it.

What was far more impressive however was the rather stocky, heavy looking brown beetle I met, virtually every day that was basically a submariner. When I first spotted it, I thought my eyes and the water were playing some kind of parallax trick on me: that it was on the surface but appeared to be underwater. That was not so. The guy – or lady – was actually under water and seemed perfectly at home. I looked carefully at it and then noticed that it seemed to have a silver bubble stuck under its bottom: A bubble of air: Its oxygen supply? I knew there were spiders which built webs underwater oxygenated by the air-bubbles that adhered to their hairs, which they rubbed off on site. So, maybe, this chunky little beetle was doing the same sort of thing. And believe me – there is oxygen or air dissolved in water. Glance at your body or legs as you walk through the water and you’ll notice a silvery sheen – comprised of tiny, beautiful little air-bubbles adhering to you, exactly like the bubbles in a bottle of soda or glass of water (left for a while). Other little beetles preferred being out of the water and one stunning little fellow, smaller than a lady-bird looked as though it were made of copper. On some cloudy mornings, there would be the discarded orange-gold wings of termites floating on the surface.

Then there were birds. You got a good eye-level look at the ones hopping on the grass, making you feel rather like an anorexic hippo peering over the water’s edge. I met the magpie-robin really close up as well as strutting mynas. At a pool in Goa, a white-throated kingfisher would perch on the stair-rail every morning, and would take a quick dip or two before departing for the day’s work.

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Ironically, in the water, you could also learn all about flight — lift and drag. Draw your hand through the water, held flat and it’ll go through easily. Tilt your hand slightly upwards, or even gently cup it and draw it through: it’ll begin to rise or lift but will slow down, and you need a little more thrust to push it through. Just like a bird or aircraft’s wing!

Here in Delhi, there were parakeets, hornbills, barbets, woodpeckers, tree-pies, bulbuls, and of course the ubiquitous rock doves hanging about in the trees surrounding the pool. Koels would call frantically and dash across like bank robbers just after a heist. Overhead, a lapwing would occasionally fly across, still screaming hysterically and, on one occasion, I spotted a white ibis hurrying by.

Also from Ranjit Lal |Where have all the birds gone?

As for mammals, on a couple of occasions, monkeys had a quick dekko before being shooed off (they swim well).
I still can’t swim. But hmm…while I can walk in water, maybe it’ll be worth taking coaching classes from those little guys that walk on water… Now that would be something!

First published on: 07-09-2022 at 13:00 IST
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