Sea Reality. Call of the corals

We know more about extraterrestrial life than we know about marine life. Here is the fragility of underwater world as we celebrate World Wildlife Day today, whose focus is 'Life below water: for people and planet'

In the middle of the languid, bright blue lagoon in Maldives, with stingrays and baby sharks swimming under the gangways, the breakfast at the island resort is a heady elaborate affair. “How do you manage to smuggle in bacon in a Muslim-majority nation that takes its religion seriously,” I ask the hostess. She shrugs and says, “We import everything,” and pointing to the smoked salmon on her plate says, “This has come all the way from Belgium.”

The timber for the wood-villas, spiralling outward into the shallow waters, a  guide tells us later in the day, was shipped from Malaysia. Ecologically fragile, tropical tourist sunspots around the world rely heavily on import and thereby export their ecological troubles elsewhere. The concerns in these El Dorado’s are epicurean. For the holidaymakers, the ocean is often just an accessory.  Why wet your toes in the sea when your villa comes with an infinity pool? 

Into depths

The oceans have always been a brooding mystery and we are willing to keep them that way. Our obsessions, our aspirations, our dreams are all terrestrial. We are a blue planet (71% water), but we are happy to live out our lives on 29% of it. In our stories, the oceans are where we embark on long odysseys to reach finally with relief on some shore. We know more about the surface of the moon (and soon of Mars) than we know about the ocean. We send out radio telescopes probing for extraterrestrials when aliens inhabit our seas, many waiting to be discovered, many vanishing in an event called the ‘background extinction’, before we can even discover them. 


The biggest mountains, the deepest gorges, the widest valleys, the steepest canyons, and the broadest spectrum of colours — all lie in the seas.
Photo by author 

But anyone who has had a glimpse of the underwater world is like the proverbial frog out of the well. The biggest mountains, the deepest gorges, the widest valleys, the steepest canyons, and the broadest spectrum of colours — all lie in the seas. And the most fantastical of all —  the coral reef — the largest living organism  in the world — is a creature of the seas, too. 

Face down in the middle of Indian Ocean, breathing hard through the snorkeling mask, I glimpsed my first coral reef almost a decade ago. It is incredible that the fantastical structure that stretched out in myriad colours, shapes and sizes below me was made by the creatures that are part-plant, part-animal — the corals. 

Elizabeth Kolbert, in her book The Sixth Extinction, calls the calcifying corals ‘vast community-building projects’, “The way corals change the world — with huge construction projects spanning multiple generations – might be likened to the way that humans do, with this crucial difference: instead of displacing other creatures, corals support them. Thousands, perhaps millions, of species have evolved to rely on coral reefs either directly for protection or food, or indirectly to prey on those species that come seeking protection or food.”

But perhaps no other species is as dependent on them as humans. Coral reefs are a source of income and food for 500 million people worldwide. 

Charles Darwin wrote that “coral reef ranks high among the wonderful objects in the world,”

What is astonishing is that the waters in the tropics, where most of the corals are found, are nutrient-deficient, yet the diversity of species here rivals that of any rain forest. This also puzzled Darwin, and this phenomenon is now called the ‘Darwin’s Paradox’.  Darwin concluded that the answer was recycling. Everything in these waters is recycled. Nothing is wasted in the symbiotic relationship that each organism here has with the other. It is this nutrient deficiency that keeps the tropical waters so transparent and crystal clear. 

But corals are the canaries in the coal mine for climate change. They would be the first to go and are already on the way out. And with them, as Kolbert writes, “Reefs will be the first major ecosystems in the modern era to become ecologically extinct.” Estimates point out that we have lost more than 50% of corals in the last 30 years. And by 2070, there won’t be any corals left at all.

Any species that cannot adapt quickly to the rising temperatures won’t survive. Corals are particularly sensitive to any rise in water temperature and when the temperature rises, corals, as a stress response, expel the algae that lives symbiotically on them. This robs them of their only food source. The corals, devoid of algae, turn white before starving to death. 


Corals are sensitive to even the sunscreen you wear while diving or snorkeling.
Sunscreen has a chemical, oxybenzone, which destroys the corals. 
Photo by author

There are wastelands of them across the tropics. In Mauritius, the boatman drives me almost 20 kilometres along  the southern coastline from my hotel to see unspoiled corals, where all you had to do only a few years ago to see corals was walk into the waters from the hotel beach.

In Bali, overrun by tourists, you have coral graveyards. However, in the lesser frequented Flores — across the Wallace Line, east of which animals species different to those of Asia are found — corals still thrive. But you still have to dive deeper, where the water is not too warm to trigger coral bleaching and see the corals in their pristine state. 

In Watamu, East Africa, the soft white-sand beach was once girdled by a spectacular reef abounding in corals, but now it’s fragmented and the corals are lustreless and without its schools of fish. The divemasters now bring breadcrumbs to entice any fish. The one that shows up is the zebra fish, which dashes at the morsels and disappears quickly again. 

Corals are sensitive. They are not by any Darwinian yardstick the fittest of the species. They are, in fact, the least fit. They are sensitive to even the sunscreen you wear while diving or snorkeling. Sunscreen has a chemical, oxybenzone, which destroys the corals. 

But thankfully, the touristy activities more popular in the tropics are those in which one does not have to wear the wet suit. Shark and stingray-feeding are the general excitements, as are the dolphin excursions, even though they are a blink-and-you-miss-it affairs. 

But, it is said that because what is in the ocean remains out of sight is why it remains out of mind. Corals, their beauty and their ecological importance, are not well understood even today. However, flying into Mauritius, anyone can clearly see how the reefs protect the Mauritian coast from erosion. The waves encounter the reef far back in the ocean, where they crash, and from the reef to the beach, there is a placid coral-filled lagoon. 

The world may end, but the sun yet will shine and the stars yet will twinkle in the night sky, and the moon wax and wane. And many creatures — the fittest among us, the insects mostly, and the vermin — that survived even the Great Dying may survive yet again. But it won’t be the iridescent corals, and it certainly won’t be us.

Many islands in Maldives, devoid of the protective reef, have erected water- breakers. The water-breakers may stop the waves but not the rising oceans. Barely 1.8-metre above sea level, this lowest-lying nation in the world will be overrun by the ocean in less than two decades if global temperatures continue to rise. 

Climate change and extinction are a natural part of earth’s history. There have been five major extinction events in the past. But in the Anthropocene, our current geological age — where humans hold sway — we have already entered the sixth extinction, many scientists warn. This extinction has been compared to the Permian Extinction that occurred over 250 millions years ago, where over 90% of life was wiped out. Permian Extinction, also called the Great Dying, is different in that it was caused by a natural event (volcanic eruptions) unlike ours, spearheaded by one species.

More importantly, it took millions of years to occur, while the present extinction event seems to be happening right before our eyes. 

End, as we know it

Our oceans are the largest carbon sinks in the world absorbing over 40% carbon from the atmosphere. But carbon dioxide dissolves in water to form an acid. Scientists point out that the ocean acidification happening today mimics the acidification of oceans during the Permian Extinction. 

Leading environmentalist Bill McKibben, whose book The End of Nature is generally regarded as the first that sounded the bugle on climate change, writes, “When I say that we have ended nature, I don’t mean, obviously, that natural processes have ceased… but we have ended the thing that has, at least in modern times, defined nature for us.”

The world may end, but the sun yet will shine and the stars yet will twinkle in the night sky, and the moon wax and wane. And many creatures — the fittest among us, the insects mostly, and the vermin — that survived even the Great Dying may survive yet again. But it won’t be the iridescent corals, and it certainly won’t be us.

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Sea Reality. Call of the corals

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