Life is short, life is very short. I like life, I like it. I feel like that even if it ends of being short I got lucky because life is an amazing gift when you think about what you get with a basic life –not even a particularly lucky life, or a healthily life. If you have a life it’s an amazing… Here’s your boiler plate deal with life, this is basic cable, what you get when you get life: you get to be on Earth – first of all, oh my God, what a location! This is Earth, and for trillions of miles in every direction it fucking sucks so bad, it’s so shitty that your eyes bolt out of your head cause’ it sucks so bad. You get to be on Earth and look at shit – as long as you’re not blind or whatever it is – you get to be here!
-Louis C.K, Oh My God
Out here in the great cosmic dark there are countless stars and planets, some far older than our solar system. Although we cannot yet be certain, the same processes which lead on Earth to the origin of life and intelligence should have been operating throughout the cosmos. There may be a million worlds throughout the Milky Way galaxy alone which are at this moment inhabited by other intelligent beings. What a wonder, what a joy it would be to know something about non-human intelligence… And we can. Here is an exotic, inhabited world mostly covered with a liquid. We seek the dominant intelligence that lives beneath its fluid surface. This ocean of liquid water, kilometers deep, is teeming with strange forms of life. There are communities of transparent beings, there are societies of creatures which communicate by changing the patterns on their bodies, there are beings that give of their own light, there are hungry flowers that devour passers-by, gesticulating trees, all manner of creatures that seem to violate the boundaries between plants and animals. There are beings that flutter through the ocean like waltzing orchids. These are a few of the species that inhabit the water world called Earth.
-Carl Sagan, Cosmos
Off the coast of Belize, beyond the little islands where puppies gnaw on coconut husks and where you are so far removed from your homeland that a nuclear bomb could have exploded there and you would not have known the difference, lies the second largest coral reef system on Earth (although coral reefs comprise less than one percent of the Earth’s crust, they’re home to nearly one-third of the world’s fish species). The Belize Barrier Reef is bursting with life. Beneath the skyblue waves, dazzling coral gardens flourish upon the seafloor and support a diverse array of strange, spectacular, and sentient creatures.
Corals are colonies of tiny polyps – animals with tentacles that vary in size and function. While hundreds to hundreds of thousands of miniature polyps can join together to form coral (the living coral grow on top of the calcium carbonate skeletons of their dead predecessors), larger individual polyps may attach to rocks and live as solitaire entities known as sessile polyps (the sea anemone is one example of such). Similarly, jellyfish start out as sessile polyps, but later transform into free-swimming medusa. (All jellyfish are also considered gelatinous zooplankton, a word derived from the Greek zoon, meaning “animal,” and planktos, meaning “drifter” or “wanderer.”) Extensive connected networks of corals are called coral reefs, the three main types of which are fringing, atoll, and barrier reefs.
There are over 70,000 species of coral on Earth, and many vary drastically in their characteristics. Hundreds of coral species – of different sizes, shapes, and colors – can thrive in a small section of reef, creating a smorgasbord of surreal patterns produced by breathing polyp colonies which bring the entire reef to life. Brain coral is a type of stony coral which resembles a giant brain enveloped by an olive-green cerebral cortex. Gorgonian sea rods branch upwards like aquatic cacti with slender arms that sway gently in the current. The massive blade corals are hollow and shaped like pitcher plants, tremendous cauldrons, and upturned bells. In the shallows, some sections of the coral garden have been trampled upon by human visitors and weathered by the elements, thus, swaths of dead coral fragments littering the seafloor have accumulated like rubble or shattered tombstones in submerged reef graveyards.
In deeper parts of the reef, the coral gardens lie entirely intact and untouched. Colorful coral species proliferate along the reef walls and glow brightly in trenches. Divers are surrounded by a living world of fluorescent and breathing polyps which induce a psychedelic and hallucinatory sensation, as though you were swimming through a dream. Upon the seafloor the coral structures rise up like great pillars and enormous mushrooms, and along the shelf of the reef the formations resemble castle towers or grails bedecked with gems. Denizens of this coral city of Atlantis include enormous loggerhead turtles that speed through the water like submersibles. Moray eels, nurse sharks, and sting rays glide and taxi through seafloor crevasses with such hurried intent it is as though they were late for their appointments on the other side of town. Barracuda, jacks, and tarpon – massive, silver fish – jet through the water like apparitions and torpedoes. Shrimp, wrasse, lobsters, clams, and sea snails seek coverage in the protective ninches of the coral, and at night octopi and squid emerged to hunt with their lurid green eyes and color-changing chromatophores which pulse across their camouflaged and shape-shifting bodies. The reef is a place of supreme beauty where saltwater species which have managed to survive for hundreds of year millions of years (jellyfish were around 500 million years ago) by virtue of perfecting their evolutionary skills demonstrate just how awesome life is on Earth, which is in of itself an absolute and mind-blowing miracle.