Coral Die-Off Reveals Truths About Our Interconnected World
To save reefs we need to first fix the quality of our air and water
In June 2012 author and illustrator Liz Cunningham visited the Turks and Caicos Islands – a tiny crescent of windblown, handkerchief-sized coral islands just north of Haiti and the Dominican Republic – to research her upcoming book on ocean conservation, Ocean Country. While she was there, she witnessed a dramatic coral bleaching event in less than a week's time. That month NOAA documented record-breaking temperature highs for the North Atlantic and Caribbean Sea. This excerpt, from the chapter “The Truths of the Islands,” describes what Cunningham experienced.
I loved mornings, the metallic clank of dive gear being attached to aluminum tanks, the thwap-thwap air-bursts of regulators expelling air when tested, the roll call on the boat. Each diver’s named was called out, followed by a loud and bold answer, “Here!”
The dive boat chugged out into the sleek waters of Grace Bay to a site called Boneyard. Oh, I loved that place! I remembered how a year before, we’d motored out on a calm August day. The water was so crystal clear that when we leaned over the bow we could see the contours of the ocean bottom.
I sat on the upper deck of the boat and remembered the last time we were there, just the week before. It was a series of deep sand channels, densely populated with finger and staghorn coral. The finger coral were shaped like protruding stubby thumbs and the staghorn coral, like the large antlers of a deer. Hence its name, Boneyard.
The degree to which it teemed with life was staggering. Each cluster of coral colonies ranged from 20 to a 100 “thumbs” and “staghorns,” densely packed together. That coral armature gave the fish what seemed like infinite possibilities for spawning and resting and hiding. It was like some ancient and intricate Italian city, with streets that kept branching into smaller and smaller, narrower and narrower ones. And each street had its own intricate micro-life, a hidden bistro with no sign out front, a vespa-repair shop, an art gallery, a gelateria, a bustling grocery store, laundry strung across a narrow walkway.
It was hard sometimes to even fully see the coral mounds, because the schools of hundreds of yellow grunts were so thick, they only parted as you came very close to them. And those schools were punctuated by hundreds of parrotfish in all kinds of colors – maroon and turquoise with magenta and yellow and deep blue markings, colors so brilliant and brave it was as if Picasso had painted them. And there were damselfish and hamlets and grouper and trumpetfish who were an astonishingly almost neon yellow. Not to mention a turtle or a herd of spotted rays or a shark swimming through.
As we motored out, I remember thinking that the waters of Grace Bay and the Point were the most deeply alive place I had ever experienced.
The boat slowed. One of the divemasters used a long pole to moor on to the buoy. We geared up. “OK kiddo, get in the water,” the divemaster said, as he spot-checked my gear. I put the heel of my hand to my mask to keep it in place, looked at the horizon and took one long step off the edge of the back of the boat, and into that world I so deeply cherished.
I exhaled and sank softly into the warm water. I closed my eyes for a second or two, just to feel the water river along my body. “Warm,” I mused. I opened my eyes and looked at my dive computer, it was 82 degrees Fahrenheit, three degrees warmer than the week before. I turned horizontal as I sank and looked down at the site that was now just about 40 feet below. “Where am I?” I thought. What I saw was almost unrecognizable. The sand channels were there, but there was hardly a sign of life.
“This can’t be!” I thought as we neared the bottom. Everywhere I turned, the coral was white and brown, with green-brown algae growing over it. There were a few small clusters of fish in places and an occasional lone fish, looking out of place.
The coral had bleached.
I paused at a bed of staghorn coral. The week before it had been filled with so many half-inch juvenile parrotfish and blue chromis that the water appeared to be filled with blue and white snow. Small multi-colored fish had darted furtively and mischievously, sometimes chasing each other, or nibbling off a piece of coral, nestled in the safety of its tight matrix – a dazzling display of light created by a multitude of life forms. Now it was barren and whitish-gray, save for one singular oval-shaped blue tang that nibbled on the algae overgrowth.
We kept swimming, searching for a spot that might not be so damaged. “How many miles did this stretch on for?” I asked myself. As I moved my fins slowly through the dense water, I felt as if I was swimming through the ashen remnants of a bombed-out cathedral.
Each spot I remembered once deeply alive and illuminated with life was now devoid of the mosaic of color and life. Only a white-brown monotone armature remained, covered with algae.
The sense of the coral’s ailing was palpable. We swam through a landscape of millions upon millions of tiny, near-microscopic animals, ailing and dead, unable to support the multitude of life forms it once did. I paused at a huge yard-wide knob of brain coral. The week before, small black and white gobies had sped across its Aztec-like shapes. The adjacent sea fans had been a brilliant magenta, displaying the most remarkable patterns, like lace curtains.
The sea fans were now tattered and brown with a blackish overgrowth. Almost all of the brain coral was covered with algae, leaving only small portions where you could see the zig-zag structure of the coral colony, its luminous beige color turning dark brown and white in places.
A French physician who was my dive buddy watched as I took a photograph of the brain coral. He looked at me with moribund eyes and then very slowly ran his index finger across the rim of his neck from ear to ear, as if to gesture the sharp slice of a guillotine. I opened the palms of my hands to say, “I’m not sure.”
Before getting back on the boat, I keep looking down to the reef. I still couldn’t quite believe it. How could this happen in less than a week’s time? It was incomprehensible.
That night as I walked the beach, the surface of the water glowed with a deep dark, turquoise blue illumined by a thin slice of moon. It was like a beautiful goddess battling cancer. Below the surface, I knew the waters were fighting off a terminal illness.
I asked myself, “What don’t I know? What do I need to know?” So vastly had my view of things changed in less than 24 hours. All the data I’d consumed over months of research fitted together with new vividness and urgency. It was like this: imagine my telling you the physiological details of a heart attack. OK. And now, your father just had one. He’s survived, but he’s battling heart disease. You’d want to know, what is that? Why does this happen? The science would register at a new level. That’s how I felt about the reef.
Coral reefs were in terrible danger from anchoring damage, overfishing, divers kicking delicate coral heads that take years to re-grow, and nutrient runoff, that miserable hodge-podge of sewage, fertilizers, and detergents that gets pumped into rivers and oceans daily. And coral bleaching was yet one more indicator that climate change was on the brink of showing the true fury of destruction it was capable of.
Collapsing fisheries have been one of the most visible indicators of environmental degradation in these islands for decades. The curator of the Turks and Caicos National Environmental Centre at the time, Lormeka Williams, had described how the plummeting fish populations were incrementally proportional to the destruction of coral reefs, sea grass meadows and mangroves. She’d told me how the smallest fish in a catch used to be a foot long, and as fish populations shrank, the smallest were bait-sized “sprats.”
Several days later I showed video footage of the reef to Marsha Pardee, a marine ecologist, and John Walch, President of the Reef Ball Foundation. Marsha and John explained that the temperature change wasn’t the only culprit, that the coral had been weakened for years by sediment in the water from dredging and construction and from nutrient runoff. The temperature change was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
And they explained it wasn’t just bleaching that I saw, but coral disease and algae overgrowth. The tattered and frayed sea fans and the withered but not-completely white brain coral suffered from that tongue-twisting phenomenon that scientists call eutrophication. This means that algae that’s been feasting on sewage and fertilizers and other chemicals is choking the coral. It had been having a degrading effect on the reef for decades, but it seemed that with the temperature spike it reached a tipping point and became widespread.
Bleaching happens when the coral, reacting to environmental stresses, expels the algae. “The coral basically gets sick and throws up the algae,” John said, “just like when a person is ill and they expel the contents of their stomach.” The coral gets its nourishment from the algae’s ability to make energy from light, photosynthesis. And it gets its beautiful green and rose and yellow hues from the algae’s color. So when it expels the algae, it loses its color and turns white. It can survive for a while without the algae, but not too long and not if the coral disease and algae overgrowth became predominant.
When bleaching happens, the fish leave, looking for healthier terrain. How far they go or where, scientists don’t really know. John explained that if the temperature change had come more slowly, in weeks rather than two or three days, the coral might have tolerated it. “Corals and marine organisms have evolved in the most stable environment in the world,” John explained, “because there’s the least amount of change in the ocean. So they have no built in mechanisms for rapid change. They can take change, but if we go too fast, that’s where the problem is.” The three-degree spike in temperature in less than a week is what the coral couldn’t tolerate.
“Take a roach in my kitchen,” Marsha said, “He can go through 15 different insecticides in a year and get used to it. Coral can’t, they don’t have that ability to make that rapid a change.”
So many people over the past few days had been asking me, “What can we do?” “There’s no silver bullet,” John says, “Everyone wants a silver bullet.” Ocean ecosystems are so vastly interconnected that you can’t just cordon off a portion of them and preserve them like a pickle in a jar. And the thing about saving coral reefs is that it isn’t just about saving coral reefs. Their decline is about the quality of our water and the air we breathe. The damage I saw was yet another indicator of the massive destruction around the globe that was devastating fisheries, creating extreme droughts and storms and polluting our waterways to the point that already more than one out of six people, 1.1 billion people, lacked access to safe drinking water.
But that first night after I had first witnessed the bleaching I was just stunned. My view of the world had changed massively. I’ve heard so many individuals recount that at some point they get to a place where they understand that the earth is ill like an ailing body. And what ails it? What limits its ability to renew itself? Us. Humankind.
If you’d asked me the day before, “Do you understand this?” I would have said, “Of course I do!” But no way did I get it the way I did after seeing that bleached coral reef, which went on for miles and miles and miles. It was like an intensely visceral window on the true scope of the destruction going on all around the world. How could we pollute a quantity of salt water so vast that it would run awry like an ill-tended aquarium? Could human beings really do that? The answer I’d been steeped in with each fin-kick through the water that day was “Yes.” The truth of it had me by the throat.
I skipped dinner, went to bed hungry. An empty growl in my stomach was better than trying to digest food. I wrote nothing that night. I dozed off to sleep, journal at my bedside, a pencil aligned in the center of the spine, holding open two blank pages.
On my last morning in the islands, as a ritual of recognition and grief and determination not to be indifferent, I tossed seven seashells into the sea. As I tossed each shell, I thought of a truth that these islands had taught me.
First was the truth of beauty. Beauty could be so much more than a passing, blissful apprehension, it could be a window into the very nature of life. Then the simple truth of connection, that each of us is sustained by a web of interconnections. And the truth that one can begin again. Over and over I’d witnessed scientists and volunteers mop up the damage done to an environment and help life flourish again – cleaning up beaches, planting mangroves, and re-propagating coral mounds.
That led me to the truth that each of us can make a difference. Kids started picking up garbage after they encountered some straggling baby sea turtles who were nurtured back to health by an engineer named Eiglys Trejo. They had learned that turtles confuse plastic for food and it can kill them if they eat it. And turtle fishers had linked arms with the Marine Conservation Society's Amdeep Sanghera to craft a sustainable turtle fishery. There was another truth, that honoring each other’s experience, no matter how difficult, is crucial.
I thought of my love and longing for the sea – the truth within that mysterious pull of the sea, the truth of things yet to be comprehended. Last, I realized that the islands had given me one final truth which I would have so desperately begged and bargained and pleaded with them never to give me in such an intimate and devastating way: the truth of how deeply the life of our seas and our earth as a whole were in peril.
Squinting in the bright light and open sea wind, I tossed that last shell into the sea.
Postscript: Cunningham received reports that in the cooler winter of 2012-13, the reef had had recovered slightly. But it is still struggling against warming sea temperatures, eutrophication due to nutrient runoff, anchoring damage and overfishing.