My Garden of Eden at the bottom of the sea
First the waist strap…then pressure gauge…regulator, no wait...the inflator…and then regulator…?
It had to be the first time in my life that I was nervously revising the steps of a protocol for what was going to be a purely fun activity. Then again, when you are about to SCUBA dive down to fifteen meters below sea-level, your mind and body require preparation to resurface as calmly as you had descended; in addition to still being alive and breathing. It did not help that instead of similarly panicking, other divers aboard the boat were comparing mask designs while casually smearing saliva to defog the insides of their masks. I had to remind myself that it wasn’t the first time I was diving, and certainly not the first time at Allen’s Patches, the dive site I trained at during my Open Water Diver course only a few months before. My nervousness was probably fuelled by exactly that realisation. As certified divers, we would no longer have a dive instructor watching over our every fin. We were going to now be paired with one another, to be each other’s dive buddy.
Exhale, deflate and descend…get into dive position.
No amount of soothing boat-special lemon tea or biscuit was able to silence the noise of anxiety in my head. I looked over to Derek, my dive buddy for the day, and triggered a new line of worry. What if I lose sight of him during the dive? What if I run out of air before him? I tried to distract myself by looking into the water, it was churning and frothing on the side of the boat. What creatures will I see? Will I recognize what I see? Will I remember their names? Immediately, I began going over a list of venomous marine creatures not to touch, even accidently. The self-interrogation was finally interrupted; the voice of the lead diver was telling us to ‘kit-up’ and get into the water. Swallowing one last hard lump in my throat, I wore my mask and fins and wobbled over to the edge of the boat. Giving my buddy Derek the ‘OK’ hand signal, I slid off the boat and into the water.
If only I had known that that one motion alone was enough to clear my head and fill it with calm, I would have quite easily ignored the voice in my head earlier and joined in on the conversation about masks. I began fastening my gear, all the while making sure I wasn’t drifting from Derek. Just then, a flying fish darted out of the water and smoothly glided past us. With both fins stretched sideways, it looked like a miniature aeroplane on a runway preparing for take-off. As if making an appearance just to wish us on a good dive, it cut into the water again and was out of sight as suddenly as it had emerged. At that moment I thought to myself- if the flying fish is comfortably home being out of the water, sixty minutes underwater could be fairly easy; what with my assisted-breathing paraphernalia strapped onto me tight. It was going to be magical. Soon all three buddy teams were ready for the dive. With regulators now in our mouths, we used hand signals to check if we were all ‘OK’ to begin the dive. Since the dive hand signal for OK also happens to be a commonly used signal on land for ‘this is superb’, it was rather convenient that ‘OK’ underwater always managed to communicate both sentiments. With immediate effect, we began our descent into the blue.
As we slipped under the surface, slowly and steadily towards Allen’s Patches, the dive site roughly fifteen meters below us remained out of sight. As far as we could see in any direction, all that was visible was an empty expanse of murky blue. It began to feel a little eerie, suspended in endless water with nothing or no one else but yourself. Of course that wasn’t true, Derek was barely a few feet away. It was however precisely, how one felt wearing a blinder-like dive mask that cut off all degree of peripheral vision. I could have been ten centimetres from an eight-foot saltwater crocodile, remaining entirely oblivious to its presence until it was square in front of me. In less than a few minutes of my straining each eye, looking to find at least one animal, a small and slender silvery fish swam in front of my mask. I spun around to get a better look at it and found two of them instead of one. As more and more of them kept joining in, I realised I was being surrounded by a school of neon fusiliers (Pterocaesio tile). Within seconds I was spinning in the middle of a vortex of iridescent fish. The once vast expanse of murkiness had quickly transformed into an elegant dance of white, pink and blue right in front of my eyes. I watched in awe as they swam away in perfectly parallel lines, perhaps feeding on the microscopic plankton I should have realised were suspended around me the whole way down.
Soon the coral reef below us slowly came into view and adrenaline started pulsing right through me. Seeing the reef come into focus reminded me of a wonderful article I had read in the National Geographic Magazine about the sheer diversity of organisms one could find concentrated in just one cubic foot on a coral reef. David Liittschwager photographed more than a thousand individuals of fish, algae, crustaceans, polychaete worms, arthropods and several other bizarre looking creatures; “it was like finding little gems”, he said. With similar expectations, I descended closer to the reef. I reached the bottom, silently priding myself for the good timing and control over my buoyancy allowing me to stop just short of touching the reef. Following the dive protocol, check time, check air, adjust weights, and check with buddy…OK? OK! After identifying a few landmarks to remember the location of the anchor, it was time to start exploring.
From a first quick scan of the reef, it was evident that the large formations I had seen from above were actually large stands of dead coral and slowly eroding rubble. Dead white branches of a once colourful Acropora, were now covered in a thin layer of hairy strands, swaying with the mild surge of the water. This was turf algae, growing over standing calcium remains of coral polyps that bleached and died years before, during the El Niño of 2010. It was saddening to see so much dead coral, triggering visuals of how this reef must have once looked, now reduced merely to evidence of a mass dying episode. Not surprisingly though, the coral colonies now lifeless, still supported plenty of life; they were still home to several of Liittschwager’s little gems. The turf algae in front of me were not growing wildly, but in small and neat patches, all cropped roughly to the same height. I was looking at an algal farm, maintained by tiny but feisty territorial Stegastes damselfish. Coating the rest of the rubble was a pinkish purple layer of calcareous algae. And camouflaging well with the algae was a shrimp, too small and too quick for me to carefully observe.
Soon enough, it seemed as though the reef had come to life; there was so much movement, colour and moving colour. It was becoming increasingly difficult to decide which way to move or which crevice to look into. Derek was not looking as lost; in fact he seemed to be rather focused on one particular Porites coral boulder. Strangely, he was snapping his fingers as though trying to grab the attention of the motionless boulder. On closer inspection I realised that his dialogue was not with the coral but with numerous brightly coloured thumb-sized tufts sitting on it- Ah, Christmas tree worms. There was an amazing assortment of colour on that one boulder- yellow, red, orange, blue, pink with white and white with purple. A type of tube-living polychaete worm, Christmas tree worms (Spirobranchus giganteus) feed and breathe through feathered spiral mouthparts, the only part of their body that extends out of the tube. I could understand Derek’s fascination since these worms when inspected too close, such as with snapping fingers, tend to instantly retract their Christmas trees back into their tubes. Leaving him to his game, I carried on.
This part of the reef at about thirteen meters deep sloped down further to meet a small round patch of sand at roughly fifteen meters. Compared to hard-bottom corals, these patches can harbour a completely different assortment of creatures adapted to life in soft and loose sand. I decided to move along this coral-sand edge, to get the best of both habitats. To my delight, in an instant there appeared a fish I had not seen before. At first, I was convinced that I was following a drifting brown leaf, until the leaf suddenly became still and looked at me with small red eyes. It had a peculiar unicorn-like extension from its head. What a sight! I thought to myself before I realised I had finned too quickly and was in fact hovering right above the fish, sandwiching it between the sand patch and my head. Before I could move away, it looked at me again with its small red eyes as if to say ‘Hasta la vista’ and plunged head-first into the sand. It vanished in a fraction of a second, only to appear again out of the sand, three feet away. Stunned, I could not wait to find out what it was that I had seen.
I checked how I was doing on my air consumption, exchanged an OK with my buddy and moved along the edge, thrilled to see a species of Goniopora coral along the way. I remembered this one distinctly because of what my dive instructor had once shown me such a colony could do. Goniopora, unlike most hard coral, has numerous long and slender feeding polyps ending in tentacles that look like petals of a flower. Together they gracefully sway with the movement of water, as though waving at you like a crowd of eager fans. They are interesting to observe because they exemplify the idea of communication in colony-living animals. If you were to touch even one of the polyps ever so slightly, right in front of your eyes you could watch as the extended polyps disappear in concentric ripples from your point of contact.
While I hovered above the coral with folded arms, admiring its beauty, I noticed that the coral and its immediate surroundings had suddenly become rather dark. It took a few seconds to realise that something was moving right above us, casting an extremely large shadow. But in the time it took me to recover from the shock and look straight above, the creature was already gone. I continued to rotate in speeding circles looking for where the animal might be, only to see Derek point somewhere into the distance and wave his arms in repeated wing-like motions. Sifting through my mental database of underwater hand signals, my heart sank as I realised I had just missed seeing a Manta ray. As though the feeling of missing out on seeing something as spectacular as a manta ray wasn’t sad enough, it was made worse by the fact that I was the only person in the group who had.
My spirits were somewhat lifted when I saw a school of parrotfish. As absurd as it may sound, I remember thinking once before that watching parrotfish defecate provided the perfect dose of daily drama. Parrotfish are herbivorous and known for their enormous parrot beak-like teeth. Since they feed on algae that grow near coral, they often tend to ingest pieces of calcium carbonate as well. It is therefore a beautiful spectacle, watching a well-fed parrotfish excrete a jet of what looks like thick white smoke as it darts into the water column. Often, even after the parrotfish has well left the scene, one can continue to observe a slow trail of snowy sand particles fall back down to the reef.
My cruise along the reef continued to be eventful. I followed a hermit crab, that seemed to be struggling to carry the weight of the Trochus shell it had made its home, until it brought me to a highly active cleaning station. There, an otherwise large and daunting Grouper fish was goofily sitting with mouth wide open getting cleaned by hungry cleaner wrasse. I also managed to see one venomous creature, the gorgeous common lionfish (Pterois miles), with venomous spines disguised in orange-and red-striped tassels. In one of my jaunts into the sand patch, I was drawn to something like a shell, round and sparkling white in the sand. On its other side it had a smooth and dark eye-like pattern. I wondered if this was the Shiva’s eye, one of the things divers loved to take back home as souvenirs. It was an apparatus that a kind of shelled mollusc must have kept fused to its foot, to use as a trapdoor for protection. It was beautiful, but I resisted the temptation to take it with me.
I casually checked my air consumption and dive time, quite sure that there was plenty of both left. To my surprise, it had been fifty minutes already and I had enough air only for another ten. Where had all that time gone? I quickly looked around for Derek, starting to worry that there wasn’t enough time for us to swim back the entire distance we had covered from the anchor. I barely moved a few feet forward when the anchor immediately came into view. It was not possible, and yet there it was. The sand patch I had been skirting around had turned out to be no more than ten meters across. I was dumbfounded; we had spent an entire hour moving around in a smallish circle quite literally the size of my terrace back home.
Back to the surface, back to reality
The duration and depth of our dive required us to halt our ascent for about three minutes at five meters below the surface of the sea. This safety stop was standard procedure to make sure we were rid of as much nitrogen from our systems as possible. The safety stop also offered an excellent opportunity for reflection. With nothing but the sound of my own breathing to keep me company, I silently meditated in a kind of animated suspension. As I bobbed around mid-water, I tried to recollect each of the truly magnificent creatures I had just seen. In an effort to try and describe every colour, texture and form, I found myself at a loss for words. Was it possible to explain the beauty and splendour of a coral reef to someone without failing miserably? Was it possible to find so much life packed together in any other part of the earth?
As we completed the rest of the ascent to the surface, I looked down one more time at what already started to seem like a dream. Allen’s Patches, there it was. I could not help but wonder who Allen was, whether he was the first to find these reefs and what they must have looked like when he did. While many creatures still lived there, so many have died and so many forcibly removed, consumed or thrown away. Scientists predict that another El Niño is approaching, oceans will get warmer and we may lose more coral to bleaching. With reefs rapidly losing vast expanses of coral to climate change and fish in numbers unimaginable to exploitation, do they stand a chance at survival? In our lifetime, is there the faintest chance we will ever get to see this magnificent Garden of Eden in its prime?
Never to be nervous again, I break the surface and hope for the best.
Winner of the M. Krishnan Memorial Nature Writing Award 2015