CORAL REEF 911
RACHEL EVANGELINE BARHAM
“Remember what we talked about? Go get your jammies on.”
“Oh, okay! Do we have paper?” He was stalling, like all kids do before getting ready for bed.
“Yep – everything’s ready. The faster you get your jammies on, the faster we can get to it.”
As my four-year-old nephew runs upstairs, I crack open an after-dinner IPA and head for the family room at my in-laws’ place. My father-in-law has a baseball game droning in the background. The big plush couch is a little too deep, and I arrange a couple of pillows behind my back so I can reach the coffee table. As I take the top off the indigo marker, the little padded footsteps crescendo down the stairs. My nephew has a real name but goes by “Beanie.”
“Auntie Rachel, what are you drawing?”
“An angelfish. Can you pass me the yellow marker, please? It’s over there.”
“Here you go.”
“Thanks. What are you going to draw?” The paper is used on one side, recycled from my mother-in-law’s editing work.
“A shrimp, and a dolphin . . . and this is a vampire squid. Have you ever seen one?” He keeps up a gentle narration while he draws a coelacanth and writes its name next to the creature, spelling the word correctly. I can’t take credit for how smart he is, but I definitely hooked him on drawing coral reefs. I hope it’s not a phase. At least for now, “Let’s draw a coral reef together after dinner” is an incentive, the way screen time is for most kids. I don’t even care that most of the creatures he’s drawing don’t actually live in coral reefs.
“What’s that, Beanie?” I know the answer but I can’t resist hearing it again.
“The shrimp, it’s his birthday – they’re all wearing party hats, see? I want them to celebrate their birthdays.” This is why he won’t eat shrimp.
The first time I saw a coral reef for myself, I emerged from the water as an evangelist. I had a plan: humans would start phasing out all non-essential plastic as soon as possible, reserving the world’s supply for two purposes: vital medical uses, and snorkeling equipment for every human being on earth.
My epiphany was in October of 2008 after my husband and I won a cheap Bahamas vacation at a charity auction. Freeport, Grand Bahama, isn’t exactly a tourist mecca. After several devastating hurricanes decimated that industry, the rather sleepy residential island has become one brief stop for cruise ship passengers. Downtown has a small complex of luxury hotels, restaurants, and casinos. Besides that, the island’s undeveloped natural spaces have built a modest economy of ecotourism.
One day we took a guided tour with a handful of other tourists to Peterson Cay. We navigated a two-person kayak out to this little sandbar that has a tree or two and therefore is designated as a national park. (Our year-old marriage survived the two-person kayak, but I do not recommend it. Separate kayaks, like separate bathrooms, save marriages.) When we arrived, I sunscreened up and eagerly entered the warm and impossibly clear water. I wasn’t three feet off the beach – my knees still scraping the sand in the shallow water – before I started seeing wonder upon wonder.
Movement caught my eye: gobies, the size of a Thai chili pepper, were so perfectly camouflaged against the speckled buttermilk-colored sand that they were invisible until they darted away. A forest of fan corals veined in fuchsia, purple, and egg-yolk yellow became more dense as I navigated into deeper water. Near the water’s warmer surface, long, sunlit silver razorfish idled nonchalantly even as I got close to them. Small flat fish in brilliant blue and yellow with little sparkling stars on their backs; black spiny urchins from the Halloween aisle; enormous parrotfish with colors that rainbows dream of: not even thirty feet from the shore is this universe of color and cooperation that I never knew existed.
I had no idea at the time how much I was grieving my father’s sudden death just three months before. In hindsight, I can see that my coping strategy was to keep very, very busy and distract the grief away. Emotions that I didn’t recognize flared up as I tried not to think about it. We’d fought, not gotten along, our entire lives, up until just a couple of years ago, and now I’d never be able to live into that new, welcome phase of our relationship. That just wasn’t fair. We had only sparred because we were so much alike. My most complicated relationship had just been changed from experience to memory, and I wasn’t prepared. I missed him. I even missed fighting with him, dammit.
My father passed down to me his unquenchable curiosity and chronicling of all living things. Both nature and nurture I think it was: genes and instruction. Not that I wanted to hear the instruction, because I knew everything. But he always had a captive audience on our long car rides through the expanses of my native Mississippi. Maybe he’d gotten me up way too early to go fishing before the humidity reached pressure cooker levels, or maybe my brother and my mother were also in the car, driving to a dead little town to see old people for Christmas. On daytime drives, any animal or tree or duck was worth turning around for. We’d arrive late wherever we were going because we had to see a waterfall or a cloud or a field where he once got a turkey. After dark, he spun story after story through the firefly-lit miles, and we’d pull over sometimes to look at the stars or call owls. Back on the road, we’d strain to see whether that yellow flash in the dark was a reflector or a critter’s eye.
What was the fighting all about? Just bickering, mostly, that got out of hand. One of the things we fought over was his double standard. If he made the whole family late, that was just because you only live once and there was something interesting to see. If I did the same thing, no matter what the reason, he verbally reduced me to the size of a cockroach, my selfhood to a cinder. I’m not sure anyone else in his life had ever fought back until I came along. If it wasn’t about the remote control or him drinking straight out of the milk carton, it was a never-ending debate over going to sleep and waking up and when it was or was not acceptable for me to do these things.
Wherever we lived was an uncurated natural history museum. Twigs with a bulbous insect gall sat alongside rich brown turkey feathers, beards, and feet. Here was a raccoon’s jawbone in the same Styrofoam cup with a deformed acorn and a monarch wing. Wrapped in something’s soft pelt was a hummingbird nest next to a fish bone shaped like a crucifix, all in a pile of leaves. Open the freezer and you’d likely discover, between a container of homemade gumbo and a bag that said “squirrels ’n’ broth,” the colorful corpse of a warbler that had met its death in a window strike. Antlers were everywhere. Ever my father’s offspring, I remember dragging a deer trachea around the yard as a toy before retiring to my room where I kept a box of “Things That Once Were Alive But Now Are Dead.” Butterflies, mostly, that I’d collected over long hot childhood summers from the metal grates of 1970s Buicks. I was probably Beanie’s age then.
A purported grownup now, I, too, had a warbler in the freezer. It was what humans have named a yellow warbler. Indeed, he was the yellowest thing in the world. I don’t know how he died, but I found him in our yard. On his breast were brilliant red streaks so tiny it looked like they had been painted on with a two-bristle paintbrush. It is a rare gift to have something so tiny, so subtly beautiful, in the palm of your hand, even if that gift was its last.
Despite the fighting, so much about my father was pure goodness. Sometimes, he demonstrated, you have to poke nature a little to get it to do its thing.
He would disturb a mother killdeer, that denizen of parking lots – so I could watch her do the broken wing routine. She pretends her wing is injured and scoots away from the nest, offering herself up to the predator to save her babies.
It turned out that our snorkeling guide was a kindred spirit.
Ben was a soft-spoken white British man in his late 60s who had moved to the Bahamas as a teenager. Swimming kept him in great shape, and his way of speaking was jovial but subdued. He answered any questions we had but rarely offered spontaneous conversation. Ben punctuated long stretches of silence with bits of narration about the island’s natural history as he drove us, kayaks in tow, to our destination. His manner was well suited to guiding coral reef tours. Most of the guiding is necessarily visual; if your mask is in the water, your ears are, too.
Ben pointed his long yellow stick close to a thumb-length jawfish, which responded to the threat by opening its jaws like a roaring lion, comically huge in proportion to the fish’s tiny body. He let me pick up a deep purple brittle star that squiggled and wiggled out of my grasp. He showed us how to let an urchin suction to our hands, which we turned upside down while the thing held on, tickling our palms as we laughed. He poked his stick at a known lair, and out spurted a little mottled copper octopus that whisked away out of sight.
Everywhere you look is yellow, is blue, is sparkling, is rainbow, is vibrant, is in motion, a world absolutely teeming with life, creatures both small and great, too much for the eyes to take in.
Four years later, when we lucked out with the same cheap vacation from the same charity auction, we eagerly booked another visit to Peterson Cay. This time I prepared by buying a field guide to local reef fish and memorizing everything in it.
Our guide this time was Marco, a friendly and hip young black man with short braids and a muscular frame. Marco was a seasoned naturalist who was not hard on the eyes. He explained that a recent tropical storm had heavily damaged the reef, something we could easily see. Fan corals, still alive, had been uprooted and turned over by the turbulent waves. Like a two-month fallen oak tree whose leaves still reach for the nourishment of the sun, they look alive, but you cannot save them by just righting them. Media vita in morte sumus. Mustard-colored elkhorn corals still sprawled impressively like azalea bushes in April, but parts of their branches lay dead and broken on the ocean floor. Some corals had not survived, and some, bleaching, showed obvious distress.
Still, I marveled at the reef’s surprises, like a strange little shelled thing that my book called a flamingo tongue. I couldn’t believe I was looking at one, just hanging out on a fan coral, and I swam closer. Its peach-colored shell has dark spots, but when it perceives a threat, shoop! – it retracts the spots under the outer membrane of its shell. That wasn’t in my book! Later, Marco was showing something else to the group when I spotted a peacock flounder with bright turquoise spots that matched the ocean, and I squealed and gesticulated so everybody could see it. But I was dismayed at the sad state of the reef after such a small amount of time had passed. This universe, I learned, was exceedingly fragile.
We were determined to do as much snorkeling as possible. We arranged a ride to a place called Deadman’s Reef, where you can rent cheap snorkeling equipment all day and have lovely tropical cocktails and fried grouper fingers or conch fritters at the beach bar. We took a look at the weather forecast and decided we could go there for two of our vacation days.
Here, the bleaching, brokenness, and coral death were obvious. Someone told us that the destruction in this area it had less to do with the recent storm and more with human activity. Toxins from the lobster fishing industry regularly got dumped in the water, killing or bleaching the coral. Warming water had something to do with it, as did boats just motoring on through, taking with them decades of coral growth, like a tornado going for several miles through an old-growth forest.
Even though nearly eighty percent of the corals were dead, there were still a few glorious remnants of a thriving reef. I had to spit out my snorkel and laugh out loud when I realized that the noise I heard was a large parrotfish munching on whatever vegetation was growing on the rocks. Once as I was swimming back to shore, I passed right by a three-foot long barracuda with its telltale underbite. But the variety of color and life wasn’t there.
I recently heard a man speak who had been wrongfully convicted of murder and exonerated after twenty-three years on death row. There on the inside, he had found his talent and passion for art. He said one of the things that society does to criminals is to deprive them of color, constructing prisons of boring sameness, bare walls.
Two weeks before Hurricane Irma hit in 2017, we went to the Florida Keys for the first time to visit my cousin and her wife. We were eager to get snorkeling, and we decided to splurge on a seaplane trip to Dry Tortugas National Park. It boasts of being America’s least accessible national park, and it’s home to an enormous 19th-century brick fort, as well as one of our best coral reefs on the east coast.
The small plane was equipped with noise-cancelling headphones which we donned as the engine sputtered loudly to a start. Flying low over the water, I felt my excitement building. We could see loggerhead turtles, too many to number, floating near the surface. We could see the depth of the water and where the reefs were by the subtle color changes, from turquoise to deep green to deep blue. We could also see what we’d heard about in the Bahamas: long scars where motorboats had damaged the reefs as they deviated from the channels.
I laughed out loud as the plane’s soundtrack switched from narration about the island’s history to Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’.” A great song, but it wouldn’t have been my very top choice for an airplane.
The plane landed on the water, and we shakily exited onto a dock. I was temporarily distracted by the circling magnificent frigatebirds, one of my father’s favorites because of its name, but I wanted to see this reef. Getting my gear on seemed to take forever. My eyes rebelled against the sun’s glare off the sand after I replaced my sunglasses with a snorkel mask, and I somehow managed to get sand under the thing. That wouldn’t do, and the cleanup entailed removing the mask – and some of my hair with it – and dusting it off as my eyes burned with suncreen. Finally, I got in the water, and I headed for a place where we were told that the reef close to shore isn’t that good, but “advanced snorkelers” can swim to the buoys to see the best reef.
I passed a couple of big parrotfish about twenty feet out, but beyond that, I wasn’t seeing much. In fact, I hardly saw any life, only white, broken, dead corals and a handful of the most common fish like yellowtail snapper. Piles and piles of dead, white structures that used to be colorful living corals. I swam and swam and swam out to the buoys in the choppy water. Nothing more than skeletons.
Increasingly panicked that I had paid a bazillion dollars to see dead coral, and more than that, panicked for the sickening state of this treasure, I swam fast around the fort, where I started seeing some paltry coral growth on the submerged bricks. Finally I got to the south Coaling Docks, remnants of manmade structures. Thick underwater ropes hold up wooden posts where complacent pelicans, terns, and noddies perch, coating them with their white excrement like wax drips on a candle.
Here, I finally saw splashes of color where corals grew on the old ropes and posts. After incredulously finding myself next to a black grouper the size of a labrador retriever, I swam alongside small curious fish around the ropes, where I spent some time dodging the jellyfish and watching Christmas tree worms. These are colorful, festive little life forms that are indeed shaped like Christmas trees and instantly retracted their full selves when I got too close. But compared to the healthy reef I had seen before, the growth was sparse: just a few bursts of color among large swaths of empty sand. These, I learned later, were the weeds of the coral ecosystem. Rather than making their own “bones,” these common, opportunistic corals can build on existing structures. The reef itself, at least anyplace within snorkeling distance, was gone.
I had paid a bazillion dollars to see dead coral.
When I got home, I looked up coral reef conservation groups. They pitch their efforts to government and business sectors as vital to industry, tourism, economic stability. I know why they say those things, but the money talk is head-in-hands dismaying. Why does it have to be about money? Why can’t it be about beauty and mystery and the inherent value of wilderness? Why can’t it be about preventing a catastrophic loss to our humanity without most people even knowing about it? To a question that no one has ever dared to ask, we’ve responded with a resounding “No, thank you.”
I’ve done enough research now to understand that corals die for a multitude of reasons, human-caused and not. Hurricanes, algae blooms, whatever was in my sunscreen, natural toxins, those times I peed in the water. But the biggest factor in the recent catastrophic death of corals around the world is the rising temperature of the oceans. Even if we kick the fossil fuel habit, we have some hard, hard truths to confront about our nonstop lifestyles. Things like drinking coffee or taking a plane twelve hundred miles to see what’s left of a coral reef. How inconvenient.
My beer is done, and I eventually get up off the sofa and solicit a goodbye hug before setting off for home. Beanie protests with a grimace that looks like the beginning of tears.
“Auntie Rachel, do you have to go? I think it would be good if you and Uncle Jim stayed here tonight!” Beanie really talks like that.
“We’ll see you soon – we’re coming next Sunday, remember?” I try in vain to wrest my heartstrings away from his grasp as I step out the door to get into my gasoline-powered car and drive fourteen miles to my home.
“Bye!” I close the door.
Will he ever see a coral reef with all its wonders? Or will they be like the dinosaurs on his pajamas, frozen in time, relics of strange fantasy worlds that no one can describe?
We know they had feathers, but we don’t know what color.
No one can figure out what this bone was for.
It’s all gone now, but luckily, we have pictures!
What would I say to him, knowing what I know?
What will I say to him?
The phrase “creatures both small and great” is taken from Psalm 104:26, translation from the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, https://www.bcponline.org/.
Rachel Evangeline Barham is a classical singer and writer in Washington, D.C. She began writing about the confluence of words, music, and experience by creating program notes and translations for her own recitals. Those skills have been honed during a fifteen-year run as the program notes annotator for Cantate Chamber Singers in Bethesda, Maryland, and a position at the now-defunct Music Library at The Catholic University of America. She began writing longer-form essays when she realized that she had more to say than an op-ed would allow. Rachel escapes into the wild whenever possible. www.RachelBarham.com