The Age of Breathing Underwater

Environmentalists have long struggled to save Nature from humanity’s negligence — and still we’ve reached the brink of catastrophe. How can we learn to thrive in the climate we’ve created? The answer begins beneath the sea…
Illustration by Balint Zsako

But here, in poise and in hard thought, I look down to find myself happy.
— William Matthews, “Skin Diving”

hardy reef, queensland / 19°44’ s, 149°12’ e /
depth: 10–13 metres / june 2008

Here on Hardy Reef, in soft, refracted light ten metres below the surface of the Coral Sea, the scene is a sort of mystical mix of frenetic and tranquil, like something out of an anthropomorphic cartoon rendering of rush hour with the sound turned down to a soothing, ambient hum. Dense aquatic traffic moves everywhere, constantly, in swarms and tidy lines and tangents, in ever-morphing smears of electric colour, all against a backdrop even more riotously hued and just as busy. The reef wall is a vertical forest of coral branches and squiggles in a hundred shades of Day-Glo, fire-red fractal twists alongside lime-green paisley curls alongside delicate golden folds.

I slow myself, flapping my polyurethane fins just enough to stay horizontal and giving a half-second push on the thumb-activated, rubber-capped trigger at the end of an insulated tube protruding from my buoyancy control vest. The vest inflates slightly with a gentle, echoing scrick. My breath leaves me in a burbling stream of rising, distended bubbles, a quiet bass drum rumble augmented by the brushes-scraping-across-snare click of my demand regulator’s valve. Neutral buoyancy achieved, breathing free and easy beneath four storeys of salt water, I hover an arm’s length from the reef wall in an alien repose that feels much closer to floating magically above a forest canopy than to swimming.

“It is excusable,” Charles Darwin wrote from the deck of the Beagle in 1836, “to grow enthusiastic over the infinite numbers of organic beings with which the sea of the tropics, so prodigal of life, teems.” Word to that, Charlie — and you didn’t even have the scuba gear to bring you down here to front-row seating so close to the prodigiousness you feel almost as if you’re of it.

Hold still and fix your gaze anywhere, really, and the universe is born anew in otherworldly hues and you-gotta-be-kidding-me shapes. Tiny fish the colour of a roadworker’s safety vest or the hat on a backwoods hunter’s head — don’t-hit-me yellow, don’t-shoot-me orange — dart in and out of the coral fronds. The waving tentacles of an anemone have a multihued, translucent aspect, like something you’d find protruding from the forehead of a comic book alien. A school of trevally cruises by in an orderly procession so broad and dense you think for a second the sea is actually made of fish. Look down, and there’s the mouth of a giant clam, the orifice mostly sealed by a membrane of electric purple and emerald green in intricate screensaver squiggles. Sergeant major fish will swim right up to the tempered glass of your mask and wait there expectantly like autograph seekers, giving you ample time to wonder whether you’d best describe the yellow splotches on the upper part of their bodies as ballpark mustard or canary, and to notice the way their distinctive black vertical stripes smear into a singular shade of pale neon blue at the dorsal fin and tail.

And then there’s the extraordinary symbiotic web the reef’s myriad denizens have woven, enabling this aquatic Babel to thrive more or less self-sufficiently for millennia. Hermaphrodites and sex changers abound. A great many of the reef’s coral polyps mate once a year, simultaneously, in a great cloud of eggs and sperm whose release is precisely timed with the lunar cycle. Certain species of parrotfish, their scales resembling the most ambitious palette Matisse ever dared to play with, start out female and then switch gender in four stages, each more vividly coloured than the last, eventually reaching a dazzling final act that’s been called “super-male.” Some of the zaniest colouring elsewhere, meanwhile, is “aposematic,” which is to say it’s a warning flag to would-be predators of something that tastes terrible or hurts to bite.

Damselfish tend permanent gardens of algae and chase off interlopers like rabid guard dogs; blue tang have taught themselves to successfully invade these gardens in swarms. Different species of nocturnal squirrel fish have specialized within their genus on particular kinds of food — some eating only this type of crab, others only this size of prawn. Speaking of which, there are several species of prawn and certain kinds of small fish as well, collectively referred to as “cleaners,” who live a significant chunk of their lives inside the mouths of other fish.

It’s like contemplating the cosmos under a starry sky, only the planets and constellations are close enough to touch, and they swirl past you as though you were a comet in their midst. I could float here in this reverie until my oxygen ran out — divers have — but I’m eased out of my trance by the dive leader. She’s a credentialed marine biologist, and she’s just risen from a sea-floor bed of coral below us with a rare treat in her hand. She waves her hand up and away like she’s releasing a bird, and I watch a flatworm the size and shape of a piece of Scotch tape drift slowly downward between us. The body undulates like a flag in a breeze as it descends, revealing a black sheen on one side, an explosion of deep red and purple and yellow on the other. The reef’s endless variety in microcosm, twisting and dancing between us on the current. I read somewhere that they once analyzed a single three-kilogram chunk of dead Great Barrier Reef coral and found 1,300 worms from about 100 species living in its labyrinth of orifices and folds.

All due respect, Charlie, but it’s not just that the reef teems with life; it’s that it seems like the reason we coined the term. To teem is to exhibit the properties of a coral reef. I watch the flatworm descend against a writhing backdrop of coral fronds and bustling shoals of fish, and I try to imagine what it means that this little kidney-bean reef is one in a chain of 3,650 — a profusion of life stretching from a few hundred kilometres south of here all the way up the remaining length of the northeastern Australian coast and beyond, 1,800 kilometres in total. The Great Barrier Reef: the largest living system on earth, a deeply interconnected macro-organism comprising nearly a tenth of all the coral reef there is.

Coral reefs worldwide occupy only about 0.17 percent of the ocean’s surface area, but they provide habitat for nearly one-quarter of its marine life, all of it derived from a flawless, fragile symbiosis between coral polyps — the animals that form all those elaborate, plantlike structures — and a particular strain of algae called zooxanthellae. The polyps, fed by the photosynthesizing zooxanthellae that live on their bodies, grow up to secrete their own skeletons, bundles of calcium carbonate the zooxanthellae combine with ionized carbonates dissolved in the ocean’s water to cement into place as limestone, thus providing a hospitable habitat for yet more corals.

This is a very delicate balance, and every dreamcoated fish and giddily tinted worm depends on it. Five times in the geological record, reefs have mostly or entirely vanished from the face of the earth, leaving corals to drift on the ocean currents for millions of years at a time, largely dying off until their preferred climatic conditions returned. Still, I find it impossible from my subaquatic vantage point to imagine that Hardy Reef could die, that virtually all life could one day cease to exist on the Great Barrier Reef as a whole. It’s a fantastical notion, a witch’s curse in a Teutonic fable. Maybe the sun won’t rise tomorrow, and maybe the coral reef will no longer teem with fish. Surely such a dying would come here only at the very last, at the black end of some much wider catastrophe.

Well, sorry, Charlie, but here’s a twist you couldn’t possibly have seen coming from the crow’s nest of the Beagle: it’s the water. It’s grown too warm, and absorbed way too much carbon dioxide. The pH is off, down from 8.2 to maybe 8.1. Not much, but it could mean everything. The beginning of some kind of unthinkable end.

I’ve only just heard. That’s why I came.

melbourne, victoria / 37°49’ s, 144°57’ e /
café patio, newquay promenade /
three weeks earlier

The Age, June 7, 2008:
Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, more than 25 million years in the making, is “an icon [of] primordial wilderness,” says Dr. Veron — it is the greatest structure created by life on earth. The idea that it might be mortally threatened within the span of a generation or two he would once have considered preposterous.

“I was wrong,” he says.

Twin assailants, both creatures of climate change, threaten the reef and oceans more generally. The lesser of these is the warming of the water, which turns the single-celled algae on which corals rely for their sustenance toxic, compelling the coral to expel them and probably die — the event known as coral bleaching — or to keep them and certainly die.

The worst bleaching events of history will become commonplace by 2030, says Dr. Veron, and by 2050, “the only corals left alive will be those in refuges on deep outer slopes of reefs. The rest will be unrecognisable — a bacterial slime, devoid of life.”

The even greater threat is ocean acidification — the dissolving of carbon dioxide into the sea, forming weak carbonic acid. This is the climate change frontier to which science is swinging [with] increasing focus, as alarm grows at the threat it poses to marine ecosystems and to human food supplies and economies.

This Dr. Veron’s byline in A Reef in Time, the chronicle of the life and impending death of the Great Barrier Reef whose release prompted this stunning report, reads “J. E. N. Veron,” but the author actually goes by Charlie. That’s Charlie as in Darwin — “Little Mr. Darwin,” one of his schoolteachers once called him, because the prepubescent J. E. N. Veron was so obsessed with bugs and such. Somehow the nickname mutated into Charlie, and it stuck, even though Veron himself didn’t read On the Origin of Species until years later. He studied dragonflies to earn the “Dr.,” and for reasons I’ll come back to he abandoned a promising career in entomology to become the world’s most prolific coral taxonomist (having personally identified and named 23 percent of the planet’s coral species), former chief scientist at the Australian Institute of Marine Science, and nowadays a grise whose éminence in his field is so uncontested that he is identified, in the press releases accompanying scientific declarations with dozens of Ph.D.-wielding signatories, as “the world’s foremost expert on coral reefs.”

So there I was, leafing idly through the pages of Melbourne’s prestige daily, a cool winter breeze coming in off the harbour and setting its corners flapping, my mind still fuzzy with jet lag of International Date Line grade. A sunny morning on the pretty new boardwalk in the city’s redeveloped Docklands, a cup of bold Melburnian coffee, one of those inside-page special interest stories to pass the time. A pair of full-colour before-and-after pictures of coral bleaching. And the world’s foremost expert on coral reefs saying, without much in the way of qualification, that his learned opinion is that the Great Barrier Reef will be largely bereft of life by 2050, after which time whatever remains will be finished off by the over-acidified Coral Sea. That whatever world we might, if we’re quite lucky and extremely bold, wrest from the jaws of this mutated climate, whatever equilibrium we might hope to reach, it is already not the one we knew. Not the one that provided the stable foundations for 12,000 years of this thing we call civilization. Not the Holocene epoch at all, perhaps, but something else, something new.

The term Anthropocene came quickly to mind. It translates loosely to “wrought by human hands,” and I’ve used it with some frequency. I’d even stood before an audience at Melbourne’s stylish new bmw Edge amphitheatre right there in the city’s heart the night before and explained what I believed it meant. But reading The Age that morning — that was the first time I’d really felt it.

In time, it sent me searching for two other pieces of esoteric but existentially critical science news that emerged in 2008 and quickly vanished in the churning media sea of burst housing bubbles and flailing banks. The first was a concise policy paper released in August and signed by fourteen of the world’s top ocean researchers — Charlie Veron among them — under the title The Honolulu Declaration on Ocean Acidification and Reef Management. Their statement noted the imminent onset of levels of ocean acidity not seen in “tens of millions of years,” which would “compromise the long-term viability of coral reef ecosystems.” The crisis was phrased more bluntly in the accompanying press release: “In July 2008, scientists at the International Coral Reef Symposium in Florida declared acidification as the largest and most significant threat that oceans face today and conveyed that coral reefs will be unable to survive the projected increases in ocean acidification.”

The other crucial science story was a paper published in February 2008 in gsa Today, the Geological Society of America’s house journal. It was entitled Are We Now Living in the Anthropocene? and co-written by twenty-one members of the Stratigraphy Commission of the Geological Society of London, England, the body responsible for naming and dating geological time. “Sufficient evidence has emerged,” went the closing argument, “of stratigraphically significant change (both elapsed and imminent) for recognition of the Anthropocene — currently a vivid yet informal metaphor of global environmental change — as a new geological epoch to be considered for formalization by international discussion.” Which is to say the notion that humanity had permanently and fundamentally altered the planet was no longer a rhetorical flourish (as it had been when the chemist Paul Crutzen proposed the term “Anthropocene” a decade earlier) or a bit of activist hyperbole (as it had sometimes seemed coming from environmentalists a decade before that) but an emerging scientific reality.

I’m trying not to hyperbolize this. I don’t want to traffic in visions of apocalypse. On the other hand, how can the probable demise of the ocean’s most fecund ecosystem and the possible dawn of a new geological epoch be overstated?
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2 comment(s)

Philip C.September 22, 2009 10:27 EST

Kudos to the author for the depth of research and level of thought and emotion invested, and the near-flawless execution. I am impressed, and have a lot to think about...

MilanSeptember 23, 2009 13:28 EST

Here, rather:

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