Great Reefs and Little Rats

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Bleaching in the NYTimes.

In Australia things are a mess.

First, the Great Barrier Reef: mass bleaching has left huge tracts of this 1,400-mile wonder dead. It’s the worst such incident scientists have recorded, and the third event of this type in two decades. In some places as much as half of the coral has been left dead.

Bleaching occurs when water temperatures climb too high. The warm water makes the coral release its colorful algae, turning it white. And often once released the coral needs temperatures to come back down if there is to be any shot at recolonization. Corals that do survive such warming events often do not grow as rapidly as they should.

Screen Shot 2016-06-14 at 10.12.13 PMSo that’s one. The other Australia story is also from the Great Barrier Reef, but this time from land: a small rat known only to live on one island is likely extinct, and the cause is us. Scientists are calling the Bramble Cay melomys likely the first mammal to go extinct as a result of climate change, and they haven’t minced their words:

“Anecdotal information obtained from a professional fisherman who visited Bramble Cay annually for the past ten years suggested that the last known sighting of the Bramble Cay melomys was made in late 2009.

The key factor responsible for the extirpation of this population was almost certainly ocean inundation of the low-lying cay, very likely on multiple occasions, during the last decade, causing dramatic habitat loss and perhaps also direct mortality of individuals. Available information about sea-level rise and the increased frequency and intensity of weather events producing extreme high water levels and damaging storm surges in the Torres Strait region over this period point to human-induced climate change being the root cause of the loss of the Bramble Cay melomys.”

“Human-induced climate change.” There it is. The rats have abandoned ship. Never a good sign.

I head to Belize next month with two missions: one to work on a social service project with American high school kids, and two to check out their reefs, which had their own bleaching event in March, also the third in recent decades. So I’ll get a look firsthand at what warming temperatures do to undersea life. So that’s to come.

King of the Reef

King of the Reef

image1I didn’t expect much.

I left on the 1 p.m. boat. The captain had warned me the waves were up, that it would be a bit rough for snorkeling. “Everyone else will be underwater,” he said, “but you might have a hard time.”

But I wanted to go anyway. I’d come to dive, and day one had already been too windy. I figured I could handle a little chop, so I climbed onboard alongside 25 other passengers.

But they were different than me—each one had a wetsuits, rebreather, buoyancy vest, mask, fins, dive computer, camera, seemingly everything. Mountains of gear lined the benches, stacked next to silver airtanks. The hiss of venting tanks filled the air. A teenager struggled into his neoprene. A middle aged women fitted her buoyancy vest.

I took a seat and opened my book.

“Life is a peephole, a single tiny entry onto a vastness—how can I not dwell on this brief, cramped view I have of things?”

– Yann Martel, Life of Pi

The boat roared to life.

“You’re not getting dressed?” the woman next to me asked.

I looked down at my chest and scanned myself all the way to my feet. I was wearing nothing but swim trunks and flip flops. I looked at her. “It doesn’t take much,” I said.

“But aren’t you diving?” she said.

“Yes,” I said. “Or, no. Not scuba diving.” I pointed to my hat, a souvenir from my course in April, Frontline Freediving smeared across my forehead. “I just need a mask, snorkel and fins. I won’t be long.”

She blinked. Paused. “Your snorkeling,” she said matter-of-factly.

“Something like that,” I said. She smiled. I went back to my book.

Something like that.

When the boat slowed everyone started their final fiddling. I didn’t. I grabbed my mask, tucked my fins under my arm and walked to the back of the boat.

“You’re ready,” the captain joked.

“I am,” I said.

“Pool’s open,” he said, smiling.

I jumped.

The water was warm, 82 degrees, felt almost bathwater. Fish hung lazily beneath the boat. Sand sparkled 30-plus feet below. Ridges of coral meandered out like starfish arms. I kicked, letting my fins carry me.

The divers slowly made their way in after me. They descended to the floor, casting of long streams of bubbles. I hovered above, letting the air trickle over me, caress me, the photo negative of a shower. I breathed deep through my snorkel, feeling my pulse slow. Then I flipped, kicked and dove.

The act of freediving is built on the first word: FREE. There is no tether, only what your lungs can handle. It is light and fast and peaceful and silent. The scuba divers cross the ocean floor like SUVs, exhaust spewing skyward with every breath. I float silently. It is beautiful.

Three other divers saw the manta. I had just dove, was aiming for the bottom, when a shadow passed overhead. A big shadow. I turned. A kite the size of a coffee table with a mawing hole for a mouth glided by, beating giant wings as he went. Remoras clung to his underside. I froze. My camera was in my back pocket. I fumbled for it as he arced past me. I beat my legs to get astride him, but the great waves of his body sent him slicing through the water at a pace I couldn’t match. I let go of the idea of capturing him digitally; I wanted only to see him, to behold his magnificence. He looked like a king inspecting his subjects below, attended to by two courtiers. He paid no mind to me, just kept flowing.

 

I returned to the surface. I have no idea how long I was down. But my heart was pounding.

The dive continued. I was up and down, up and down, for two hours, saw a black-tipped shark, a nurse shark, a young sea turtle and several lobster. I saw thousands of beautiful, graceful, brightly streaked fish, and corals of every shade. It was all amazing. And the manta had inspected it all.

I came you at the end, last to climb the ladder back to the boat. I was covered in goosebumps, nearly shivering from diving to the cold waters of the deep. One of the divers looked up at me as I boarded. “Are you the freediver?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said.

“I got a great shot of you.”

I smiled.