One of the worst parts of being a coral reef biologist is that you spend a lot of time underwater noticing things that kinda suck: a band of coral disease here, a creepy algal overgrowth there, a group of herbivorous parrotfish strung up in an abandoned gill net… it adds up to an ever-present, sorrowful feeling on most dives. But sometimes over that background of dull anxiety comes something beyond mere “bummer” status.
Such an experience occurred last fall when I went diving to check on some corals I had gotten to know well over the previous year. (Yes, I know individual coral colonies by their location, shape, surroundings, and the numbers I’ve given them… is that weird?) Tropical Storm (later Hurricane) Omar had spent the previous three days hovering near Curacao, where I do my field research, causing the water between Curacao and Venezuela to slosh around in the channel between them like it was a bathtub.
Mind you, hurricanes are a normal stress for a coral reef. (In this case, we didn’t start the fire, though things may be getting worse on our watch.) So the storm itself wasn’t the issue as much as the fact that the branching shallow-water corals of the Caribbean died off en masse in the 1980s and have failed to make a substantial recovery. You know what hefty, cylindrical coral skeleton fragments look like in a huge pile? Baseball bats. So this should have been less of a surprise…
Nothing like facing all the human-induced threats to the oceans while being beaten in the head with your dead reef-mates. Which brings me to Why You Didn’t Really Want It (my job) Reason #1: underwater crying. Breaking all rules of air conservation and underwater manners, underwater crying is a great way to fill your dive mask with snot, puff your eyes to red oblivion, and exhaust your gaspy lungs (as if tropical life didn’t involve enough beauty disasters), not to mention make your dive buddy think you are totally bats*** crazy. I shed many tears the short distance from my eyeballs to the bottom of my low-volume dive mask when I discovered that this, my cute, colonial, hermaphroditic coral friend, had gotten the crap beaten out of him-her by pieces of dead corals that we marine biologists couldn’t keep alive 25 years ago, nor re-grow in the meantime.
So, for Memorial Day, I offer my hearty thanks to everyone who serves and served their country with honor (especially the late Ned Marhaver, WW2 Navy veteran and, as far as I can tell, inventor of the forehead), and I offer a small thanks to Coral 1-2, who partially died in the middle of my “war on not having my dissertation done yet.” Last month, I was in Curacao for a week-long stint, but I didn’t get to check on this trooper, not that I didn’t want to know his-her final outcome. I didn’t make it out because I was too busy getting electrocuted by various pieces of lab equipment on a different part of the island. But more on that later.