In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
-Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Kubla Khan
The paperweight was the room he was in, and the coral was Julia’s life and his own, fixed in a sort of eternity at the heart of the crystal.
-George Orwell, 1984
In the course of our mosquito studies we had found that each different species had its characteristic flight habits. Some kinds were found only near the ground, others only high in the trees; some that were most common high in the trees in the morning or afternoon would come down near the ground during the midday hours, showing a sort of daily vertical migration. While I was explaining this to my friend, it struck me, that this is just the way animals act in the sea. Most life is near the top, because that is where the sunlight strikes and everything below depends on this surface. Life in both the forest and the sea is distributed in horizontal layers.
-Marston Bates, The Forest and the Sea
It is my pleasure to share with you the following pictures that I have had the privilege of taking while diving in Belize last month, but first, a glimpse into my writing process, or lack thereof. I often fail to live up to the writing responsibilities I have bestowed upon myself because, as my mom says, I lack discipline and courage, and this is a tragedy of the highest order of magnitude and biblical proportions for I am depriving humanity and posterity of my ingenious insights, exceptional writing capabilities, superlative stories, and the potential game-changing impact they would have on the fate the Earth, not to mention the literary world which is currently suffering for want of good writers who have important things to say. (That was a sarcastic remark, for I have read and can list myriad books authored by living geniuses whose writing accomplishments I shall never hold a candle to, The Invention of Nature, about the stupendous naturalist, scientist, and explorer Alexander Von Humboldt, being one of them). The initial part of my writing process is writing notes in the notepad that I keep in my pocket or accessible whenever possible. Because it is not waterproof, I didn’t bring it diving with me, but once I got back onto the boat I would saunter over to my backpack, take out my notepad, and jot down the things I had shelved in my brain while diving. Thus, I had recorded the thoughts (which, in the case of my diving experiences, are just a few descriptive words of what the things I saw reminded me of or how they made me feel) for later transcription which doesn’t always happen as demonstrated by the conniving pile of sneering notepads that are stacked on my desk conspiring against and derisively mocking me for not transcribing the snide little bastards. In the rare event that I actually transcribe onto my computer the notes pertaining to something I want to write about, I can then proceed to write about it, which is precisely what is going to happen right now. One more thing: I would like to express the guilt I have about my journal entries and how I spend my time and resources in life in general. I come to the altar as a sinner (mea culpa, or whatever). I am painfully aware of and readily admit the hypocrisy inherent in my decisions and actions. I incessantly rail against the way the elite are satanically ravaging the natural world and are oppressing or killing, at this very moment, innocent, defenseless, and voiceless civilians whom weep in agony in a world of rubble, and then I spend two thousand dollars on a ten-day vacation in Belize and a much greater amount of resources sustaining my luxurious and decadent lifestyle in heavenly Northern California. I realize the contradiction here, and for this I am sorry to all those I am hurting as an American taxpayer not revolting against the despicable policies of my own government. If there is justice in universe, unless I change my ways, then I will have hell to pay in some form or another, in this life or the next, and fully accept the retribution awaiting me. Now on with the writing…
What follows are slideshows of photographs taken on my second trip in as many years to the magnificent Belize Barrier Reef. I feel no immediate need go back (although I hope to do so one day), because I have seen all that I wanted to of the reef for now, and would like to explore other reef systems on Earth while they and I still exist. Rather than lament the grim prospects of survival that coral reefs are facing worldwide (that comes later), this blog entry will celebrate the uncanny and surreal beauty of these breathing underwater ecosystems that are teeming with life. The first slideshow features wide-shots of various parts of the Belize Barrier Reef (Lighthouse Reef, Glover’s Reef, and Turneffe Atoll). In these photos I have tried to capture the scale of the reef and present a panorama of the diverse coral formations that comprise it. Coral reefs are like forests in that they are conglomerations of interconnected organisms (in this case coral colonies) which support an abundance of other wonderful creatures and are dependent on sunlight for survival. They are highly active marine environments that are pumping and reverberating with observable lifeforms as miniscule as the tiny polyps of branching sea whip corals that close shut upon the brush of your fingers, and larger than the blacktip reef sharks and giant groupers that drift along the wall of the living reef. The wall gradually descends into an indigo and sunless abyss where very few coral species can live because the planktonic zooxanthellae (algae) which grows in symbiosis within most coral species cannot photosynthesize due to the lack or absence of sunlight in the fathoms of these deeper realms. (P.S – I have no idea what I’m talking about.)
One reason why I love coral such much is because of how strange they appear. Different coral species compete for space and sometimes merge in such a way as to give the impression that they’re the giant faces of grotesque, muppet-like sea creatures that, while benign, seem humorously startled by your presence. Whilst diving one is surrounded by these bizarre coral formations that are reminiscent of Gary Larson animal caricatures or a SpongeBob SqaurePants cartoon backdrop. Swimming though these aquatic dreamscapes is like swimming through a Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, or Yves Tanguy oil painting – rich in color and fantastical in shape so as to induce the feeling of a flying dream or mild hallucination. Some coral species are florescent and glow bright blue, red, or yellow. Upon closer inspection of one can see thousands of tiny coral polyps extending their tentacles to catch floating zooplankton. Nature expresses itself in replicative patterns, and many coral species resemble mushrooms, moss, and lichen (which is a combination of fungi and algae) found in forests, while other coral resembles anatomical features such as the cortex of the brain or the ventricles of a heart. Isolated colonies of sea rod coral rise from the sandy seafloor like cacti in an underwater desert, the skeleton structure of sea fans parallel the vein patterns of leaves, tube and basket sponges are filter feeders that look like carnivorous pitcher plants, and lengthy sea whips hang from coral walls in great tangles resembling willowy liana vines. In other words: things look like other things.
While coral reefs and the behavior of their animal inhabitants exhibit many similar characteristics to the flora and fauna of tropical forests, they also remind me of ancient temples, medieval castles, European fortresses and cathedrals – an encastellated kingdom where singing mermaids collect human artifacts and mermen kings are armed with golden tridents that can magically fire destructive energy bolts. Although they are natural and free-forming, coral patchworks are like organized underwater cities, bustling with caravans of blue tangs commuting through coral highways as though they had some important fish meeting to attend on the other end of the reef. Spotted-eagle rays and alien-eyed loggerhead turtles shuttle themselves over the reef with flat-headed remora hitchhiker fish in tow. Moray eels weave lithely through coral crevasses where armored spiny lobsters and Caribbean-accented channel crabs filter sand through their mouths in a relentless sift for food. In this phantasmagoric kaleidoscope of life where sunlight shimmers though the prismatic water like sequins, rainbow parrotfish dart from coral to coral, pecking at the polyps with their beaks like birds. The incredible flying fish soars above the surface of the water, gliding further than any dolphin can ever dream of jumping. There are camouflaged fish that have evolved to disguise themselves in the small coral colonies or seaweed patches in which they ride out the entirety of their beautiful and seemingly simple lives.
Coral reefs are extremely delicate ecosystems, their survival is dependent on innumerable variables remaining constant in order to maintain the conditions necessary for life in a healthy reef. Occupying a slim echelon in ocean, these vast organisms, magnificent unto themselves, harbor forms of life that are so remarkably stunning and unique that they take the breath away. The beauty and wonder possessed by coral reefs and the diversity of creatures they support lies almost beyond the realm of comprehension. As they continue to decline worldwide, their future is not promising. Time is running out to save the coral reefs and arrest the ecocide humankind is perpetuating against the seas. If they disappear into extinction, this planet will have lost one of the greatest and most fascinating jewels to have ever graced the solar system. Alas, the sad truth is that as with the death of a family member or friend whose presence we failed to cherish in life, humanity will not realize how vital the coral reefs are nor understand how much we love them until they’re gone forever. May they rest in peace.