Coral is a wild, intricate, complicated, delicate thing.
It is all at once a tiny organism and part of the largest living structure on earth. It is our greatest model of teamwork, banding together with billions of other polyps to protect thousands of kilometers of shoreline. It twists and turns and bulges and billows to build homes and hideaways for every manner of sea life, growing and morphing with the world around it.
It is brilliant and simple and strong.
Stretching 2,300 kilometers and covering an area of nearly 344,400 kilometers squared, the Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest coral reef structure and home to countless species. It is magnificence in a word. But studies suggest that in the last 30 years, the reef has lost nearly half of its coral cover.
That’s a lot.
And unfortunately, the Great Barrier Reef is not alone.
Most people in the world have never heard of Baie Ternay. It is, next to the Great Barrier Reef, a mere blip. Next to that truly great barrier reef, so large it can be seen from space, Baie Ternay is nothing. But to those of us lucky enough to have flipped through its clear blue waters, it is everything all at once.
And for me, it was a slice of home that I will have with me always.
Two years ago today, I returned from the Seychelles. Two years ago today, the adventure ended. And two years ago today a new adventure began. An adventure that has been much guided, much rerouted, and at times much overshadowed by that other adventure.
During those years abroad, I learned things that I didn’t know my education had missed. I filled gaps in my understanding and appreciation and perception. I learned patience and purpose. I learned of life and solitude and strength and independence. I learned to be kind and I learned to be human.
I use what I learned abroad on a daily basis. I use it simply in the way I exist. I use it in every breath I take and decision I make. I endeavor to maintain the positivity, curiosity, liveliness, love, and dedication with which I approached every day. Sometimes to no avail.
Some days bring me down with grey skies and moments of drudgery. But it’s the daily toil that has been brightened by the perspectives I gained and the beauties I was a part of. I learned to see the world around me through tropical blue colored lenses.
I learned respect for my neighbors and respect for my land and respect for my ocean.
Always, respect for my ocean.
The respect for the ocean came, not surprisingly, through education.
From the very first day, I have been a water baby. Slamming out the back screen door with a bucket and net shrieking “minnows,” declaring my intentions for hours of tide pool play to come.
I simply could. not. get. enough.
It was me and the beach. The beach and me. I loved the water, loved the ocean, loved it all. But I didn’t truly learn to respect it until I worked in it, until I studied it.
I can remember the day I found out I was going to work on a coral-related project. UGH. Coral? Who wants to look at a bunch of living rocks all day while there are turtles and sharks and rays galore?
Well, as I discovered in short order, I DID.
Coral is not a bunch of boring living rocks, much as it may seem compared to the colorful fish and quirky octopus flitting about. In reality, coral is what makes the world go ’round. Well, not really. That’s sort of the sun’s jobs, but you know what I mean.
Would you go in search of orangutans in Borneo without noticing the rainforests stretching around you? Moreover, would you expect to find those orangutans if the rainforests didn’t exist?
Would you hope to watch a lioness hunt if the plains of the Serengeti were overtaken by city streets?
How could you?
In that sense, coral reefs are the rainforests, they are the plains, they are the wild, pulsing expanses of life that support and shelter and feed the world around them.
You cannot have one without the other.
Did you know that coral reefs account for less than 1% of the ocean floor coverage but support about 25% of all marine creatures? Dare I ask what would happen to that quarter of our ocean life if the coral reefs disappeared.
But where do they come from to begin with?
Coral reefs begin as a polyp. A single, minuscule, soft-bodied organism. When a polyp attaches to a rock on the sea floor, it divides, and divides again, and divides again, building an army of polyp clones. The polyps join to create a colony, which functions as a single organism. Over time, this colony grows and joins with other colonies, becoming a coral reef.
Can you believe, some of the coral reefs still living and growing today began over 50 million years ago?
Not just some boring “living rocks” anymore, huh?
But guys, I don’t know if you heard. Bad stuff is happening in our oceans. There is global warming, yes, but this year our oceans are combating something more poignant.
It’s happening up and down the Great Barrier Reef.
We are in the midst of a “coral bleaching event,” taking hold of our reefs the world over. Some argue that there is nothing natural about the particularly drastic rise in sea temperature this year (ahem, it’s all our fault), but either way the result is miles and miles of ghostly white skeletal coral reefs.
Baie Ternay is bleaching and it breaks my heart to see.
This little corner of a little island in a little country in the Indian Ocean was the best of it all. It had white tip reef sharks hunting, resident hawksbill turtles meandering, seasonal whale sharks passing, eagle rays flapping, fish flitting, and corals building the phenomenal playground for it all.
Coral is, surprisingly, transparent. Ever the giving support system, coral actually gets its coloration from some “long term residents,” if you will. In a beautifully mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship, a microscopic algae called zooxanthellae lives in the tissues of the coral. The coral provides these zooxanthellae with a protected environment and some metabolic waste for photosynthesis. In turn, the algae produces oxygen, removes waste, and provides the coral with important metabolic products of photosynthesis. Yum.
It is all give and take.
Until things start to heat up.
When the ocean temperatures rise quickly, as they have been recently and have periodically done over the last several decades to disastrous ends, things get dicey. When the water warms the coral become stressed and the zooxanthellae photosynthesis activity changes. A prolonged period of environmental stress can eventually lead to the expulsion of the zooxanthellae as a coral defense mechanism.
While these ghostly white corals may appear dead, they are not.
At least not all of them.
Some corals are able to survive and recover after bleaching, depending on the extent of stress. However bleaching events can be wildly detrimental to the overall health of the reef. Much of the research I did in the Seychelles revolved around an El Niño event in 1998 which resulted in roughly 90% coral coverage loss.
Ok, so some rock-like structures die? So?
Remember the orangutans and the lions? 25% of all marine life fits into reef covering less than 1% of the ocean floor. Do we really want to give up even a small portion of that less than 1%?
Can we really afford to?
When you walk into a grocery store to a smattering of fish options or you can order your favorite sushi dish every day of the year, it’s easy to forget. This is a depletable resource, a fact which we are proving on a daily basis with terrifying speed.
It has been two years since I was underwater in the Seychelles. After all this time, sometimes I wonder how I now walk on solid ground and breathe fresh air without my gills gasping for cool water. I wish for it every day and when I am lucky I dream of it every night.
So friends, please, keep our planet healthy so it does not become simply that: a dream I am lucky to dream only in the still of the night.