Reef of Renewal
I watched the sunrise from an airbus 30,000 feet over Borneo. Rivers coiled down from misty jungles to form massive sprawling deltas in the Strait of Makassar. These beautiful sights pulled me from a swamp of anxiety I had been wading through for weeks.
Since 2015 I have experienced bouts of panic attacks and chronic anxiety. Most people can relate. I once met a rancher who was anxious that his land would be subdivided after he retired. An elderly couple once spoke to me about the anxiety that builds in their minds from years of watching local businesses be replaced by casinos. A woman with sensitive lungs told me she feel anxious every summer at the onset of wildfire season. Our environment is in a constant state of both renewal and destruction. Shifting the balance away from destruction may be the only way to heal our own pain.
Out my window I looked down on rainforest where 150 of acres are destroyed every minute, burned to the ground to make way for monoculture crops. Orangutans with nowhere to live. Poachers that kill entire families of them just to sell one infant into captivity. There is pain down there. But from 30,000 feet up, I only see the beauty.
My wife and I traveled to the Indo-Pacific on a kind of educational vacation to learn everything we could about marine ecology. We ended up in a cottage resting on crooked stilts in a bay full of beautiful reefs. The place was run by a marine biologist named Yoan. Everyday he motored a large dugout canoe named, “No Problem” from the village to bring us tins of fish and rice and to answer our questions about life in the ocean.
Yoan fostered a reef around his cottage, building up the corals, creating habitat for fish. As a result, the cottage was a hotspot of marine life. Yoan kept a stack of textbooks on marine ecology at the outdoor dining table and we referenced them constantly. We could snorkel over several reefs from our front door. When we grew tired we would watch eels hunting below our dangling feet from the edge of the cottage. The animals brought me healing with their beauty and stress with their fragility.
After a week of swimming and reading fish books all day my anxiety and pain were mostly soothed. In a moment of particularly great healing while snorkeling, a Green Sea Turtle flapped his fins and rose in graceful circles below me. Despite carrying a shell the size of dinner table he moved with incredible grace.
The Green Sea Turtle is listed as an endangered species because humans have killed and eaten them for hundreds of years. The decline of the Green Sea Turtle was foreshadowed on the day we named them after the color of the fat found around the organs under their shell. The shell itself can be green but is often nearly black.
The turtle surfaced and eyed me cautiously while breathing for a moment. In many places sea turtles will flee at the sight of humans, so ingrained is their fear of the human hunter, but this one let me stay near for a moment. After taking a breath he dipped his head back into the water and dove into the depths.
A second week in the tropical wilderness had all but entirely erased my pain. But I am not cured and each time I encountered another endangered species I was taken by a moment of despair. Each species was hanging on by a fraying thread. The juxtaposition of beautiful individual animals against the pain and loss of their whole species was jarring.
Upon watching a school of endangered Banggai Cardinal Fish swim below our cottage I was filled with an emotional cocktail of despair for their future and joy for their present life and my privilege to witness it. I felt a bittersweet mix of pain and healing all at once.
Despite tremendous environmental pain our planet is in a constant state of renewal. I should not have seen the Banggai Cardinal Fish below our cottage. For millennia it was only found in the Banggai islands, two hundred miles from our cottage. In the 1990s aquarium traders began collecting and selling them internationally. By the mid 2000s it was estimated that hundreds of thousands of them were collected annually, resulting in more than 90% declines in some populations and extinction in others.
Along the way the aquarium traders either let some fish go or had some escape in new regions. The Cardinal Fish I saw below our cottage were not exactly native, but were surviving, and could be a new hope for restoring the species.
Each night I walked the decks, barefoot, carefully probing the cracks in salty boards for Banded Sea Kraits. After hunting in the reef the snakes slithered into the cracks of the cottage to digest their prey. With a jolt of rational fear of their venom the Sea Kraits brought healing to any lingering irrational fears I had. Maybe it’s always been this way with snakes.
An ancient Greek symbol, the Staff of Asclepius, a snake wrapped around a staff, is still used to symbolize healing and medicine today. Throughout the Indo-Pacific sea kraits are caught and sold for the science-based medicinal properties of their highly toxic venom. When a collector is accidentally bitten she may use poached rhino horn as a traditional medicine to extract the venom. Banded Sea Kraits are not endangered, but of course, rhinos are. Pain and healing move together in inexorable cycles, rotating, like a snake around a staff.
One morning, toward the end of our trip, I woke abruptly at 3:30AM with a flash of panic like I was stuck on a sinking ship. Waking up to early morning attacks of panic like this are common for me. I dreamed that the tide had risen into our room and that octopuses were swimming around my bed.
Later that day we went out to a reef at the edge of the bay to look for sharks, which are making a comeback in the area. Sharks were nearly extirpated from the region by fishermen over harvesting them for shark fin soup but the population collapsed and the fin soup trade died with it. Now the sharks are recovering and the finning industry isn’t. It seems that the verge of destruction and the point of rebirth must be close together.
We swam through the shallows, following glimpses of sharks, waves breaking around us. Then a huge wave was towering over me. Everything happened instantly, I could see only bubbles, my fins were ripped off my feet. I was taken to the bottom and drug across the reef. When I finally surfaced I was bleeding but not badly hurt. I feared more big waves could come and I started the hardest swim of my life against the outgoing tide without fins.
I cannot blame the reef. The reef has much deeper scars than I do. In some places they are deep gouges cut by man to make passage for boats to float through. In other places people have dropped dynamite down to bring fish up, turning the corals into gravel. Temperatures in many reefs have warmed, bleaching and eventually killing, the corals. Throughout the ocean the water is growing ever more acidic, making it harder for corals to build their skeletons. We all have scars.
Back on the boat I looked down at the blood and salt water forming streams down my legs and stomach. I felt an odd sense of unity with the sea, both of us scarred, the equation of pain and healing slightly more balanced.
On the last night of our trip Yoan picked us up in his canoe, “No Problem” and took us to an area where the ocean was particularly scarred. We anchored the boat over what appeared to be a gravel pit but was actually the fragmented remains of a reef long since come apart. Yoan said the waves push dead corals to this area from all around the bay, and because the tide gets so low in the area, they don’t rejuvenate.
We dove down, grabbed hunks of dead coral, essentially limestone rocks, and loaded them onto the boat. At first pass, it was a depressing task, hauling the skeletons of the reef, pulling them from this grave to one of our own intent. However, upon close inspection, I realized that each hunk of coral skeleton held bits of life. Colorful dabs of living coral hung onto each piece, subtly here, boldly there. Pain cannot exist without healing, the two are bound together as separate sides of one coin.
We took the boat the boat back and unloaded the corals, piece by piece, into the water around the cottage. I grabbed a hunk of gnarled limestone with bits of colorful living corals tucked into its cracks and let its weight sink me three meters down to the bottom where I carefully set it in the a new reef.
These old corals are the foundation for a new reef to grow upon. The small colorful bits of life that still hung on will slowly grow into corals indistinguishable from any naturally occurring healthy reef. Yoan has been doing this for the better part of five years and the results were moving.
After unloading all the corals I swam around the gardened reef below the cottage and surveyed all the work done over the years. Fish swim all around, giant clams lay around the bottom, tube worms and sea stars are stuck to everything, a beautiful diversity of life. They all lived there because corals, that mankind killed somewhere else, were piled up here and given a chance at renewal.