When coral reefs start to die, can the rest of the natural world in its current state be far behind? We are living in the visible midst of an extinction event, right up there with the Pleistocene, although luckily not as dramatic as the Permian-Triassic. Corals have been on the planet for a very long time, perhaps 25 million years, and when they start to commit suicide by expelling their symbiotes they are signaling that something is really not right. John Vernon, the author of a Reef in Time, says that when the reefs start to die rapidly, watch out. The world is about to undergo a rather unpleasant change.
I met an octopus the other day, while night diving along the coast of Bintan, in West Indonesia. Slowly scurrying along the sandy bottom, the well-named Long-Arm Octopus was completely white, the same color as the sand, and the only reason I noticed her was that my flashlight created a moving shadow under her body. When she saw me she found a small flat rock to hid under, paused for a minute or two, and then took off again. She obviously had places to go, and while at first I was a minor irritant, she slowly got more annoyed and told me so – by first turning a deep brown, then flashing red, then back to brown, all while spread out fully, perhaps a foot wide from the tip of one skinny arm to the other. I got the message, and headed off to look for one of her dim cousins, the cuttlefish. Glancing back, I saw her back to white, relaxed now, having made her point.
The next morning, while riding an old rusty Schwinn women’s bike along the coast, I turned down a side road and rolled slowly through the middle of a fishing village perched on the banks of a narrow river flowing into the sea about a kilometer away. A fisherman lugged a small plastic barrel up to a drying tray set in the sun along the road. As I approached, he dumped the contents of the barrel onto the tray, and I felt ill. Dozens of small fins spilled out, still bloody and glistening where they had been freshly cut from the juvenile sharks caught on his lines that morning. Destined for Chinese restaurants serving shark-fin soup, these tiny sad fins tell a story – there are no more big sharks to catch in this area.
There are no more large fish at all on the reefs of Bintan, which is not a Marine Protected Area (MPA) and therefore is an open hunting ground for anyone who wants to come out and help themselves to lobsters, crabs, fish or anything else. The local markets have some big deep-water fish, but mostly offer smaller baitfish and a variety of reef fish – boxfish, parrot fish, even butterfly fish, and I can tell you from experience that those little things don’t have much meat on them. I saw fish traps on the reef on every one of my dives, full of baby groupers and other colorful creatures, frantic in their wire mesh prisons. The contrast to diving in one of the MPAs around the world is striking – a few months ago in Cozumel, I dove the Palancar caves and came face to face with giant moray eels, huge lobsters by the dozens, and a potato grouper as big as a Mini Cooper.
We are losing our reefs, and not just the fish – we are now experiencing one of the biggest bleaching events ever recorded, most likely a result of a combination of global warming, El Nino and increased local impacts from wastewater dumping and pollution. The Great Barrier Reef is not so great any more; it’s just as big, but much of the coral is dead. Coral grows slowly, over many thousands of years, and while it is highly adaptive and resilient in dinosaur time (measured in millions of years), we humans are an impatient species, and the Holocene era may spell the demise of the coral reef environments as we knew them. A blip in time ago, 150,000 years or so, humans were confined to a few neighborhoods in Africa and had no more impact on large ecosystems than any other random mammal, and were certainly a lot less accomplished builders than corals and termites. Looking forward another 150,000 years, will humans be extinct, their stupendous cities as barren as sections of the Great Barrier Reef?
Way back I don’t know when, the octopus and us had a common ancestor, some bizarre creature that evolution diverged into two animals with large brains, inquisitive personalities, and an ability to live in a variety of environments. Some of us like the cold waters of the northern pacific, while others prefer the balmy reefs of the Caribbean and Southeast Asia. I wonder, what does evolution have in store for us another few million years from now? There may not be humans or octopuses (no, the plural of octopus is not octopi – you can’t put a Roman ending on a Greek word), but perhaps there will be an even smarter sort of hybrid, one that can breathe both air and water, a cephalopod that can ride a bicycle. Too bad I won’t be around to see it happen.
Me, I’m a reef-hugger, and I can’t help anthropomorphizing the animals I meet there, like the lady octopus I met in Bintan. In fact, these days I’m finding my scuba gear far too clunky and obtrusive. I want to hang out down there, holding my breath like our cousins the seals and whales and dolphins, other smart sentient creatures with a love of the oceans. Next month, I’m going to learn how to freedive; the concept of the mammalian dive reflex fascinates me, and while my first attempts will be in the pool and in the cold waters of Monterey, this summer I hope to be able to spend more time on a tropical reef, a silent observer, no longer blowing loud bubbles and clanking around like some clumsy robot.
Ancestral shore-dwelling humans somehow learned to dive for ten to fifteen minutes on a single breath. I doubt I will ever get near that figure, but three to five minutes will be adequate for me. I’m looking forward to spending a few more minutes hanging out with an octopus, perhaps a shark or two, in their world, contemplating our shared history.