I thought it was beauty.
Recently, snorkelling in shallow waters in Indonesia, I saw some pieces of coral glowing electric blue, a colour so strong it filled the waters with a fluorescent melody, a ringing blue that sung itself out – out – to the realm of ultramarine. I had swum across swathes of dead coral that day and was shocked and saddened. This blue coral at least seemed vibrantly alive and possessed of an utterly ethereal beauty.
Over a decade ago, I trained as a diver so that I could write about coral reefs in my book (Wild: An Elemental Journey) but in no dive back then had I seen coral of this pulsing glow, lit from within, luminous as a bluebell wood at twilight.
What stays in my mind from a decade ago are the colours of a coral reef. Here small fish, anthias, play a yellow scherzo, there the orange of an anemone fish shines out. The blue and yellow of the surgeonfish is like laughter across the reef and the parrotfish gleams like a paradise of gold and turquoise. The fire dartfish zooms into view, its body all the colours of flame from its pale yellow head to tawny embers at its tail.
Coral, the living part of which is made up of tiny creatures called polyps, is an underwater shapeshifter. It looks like ferns and reindeer horns, like frosted trees and feathery fireworks, like fans of gold and white lattices; while whip coral looks like an ancient anchor, ropes of coral look like necklaces made of moss crushed with diamonds, sapphire and shells. The coral reefs I saw ten years ago made me think of culture as well as nature, renditions of civilisations: the patterning of Islamic art, a hint of Borobudur, a quote from the pyramids, or pointillisme or modernist pottery, they create their ornate architecture in trellised balconies and stupas.
For thousands of years, the coral world has existed mostly unseen by humans, in a phantasmagoria of psychedelic dreaming
Nothing expresses vitality like a coral reef. Angelfish look like they invented iridescence, their fins trailing the glory of it. In vivid proliferation, in this world of reckless beauty, life is lived only in rainbows. For thousands of years, the coral world has existed mostly unseen by humans, in a phantasmagoria of psychedelic dreaming. It is now spiny, now prickly: coral may be fiddle-headed or pronged, spirally, whorled, tubular, gauzy or gossamery. It appears inexhaustible in its profusion, a kaleidoscope, a wonder, laughing with sunlight, swaying and thriving in the sheer ivresse of life.
Coral reefs are as necessary as they are beautiful. Fish come here to spawn, as the reef offers protection for eggs. Sea mammals including dugongs raise their young on the reefs. Various medicines, including prostaglandin, come from coral reefs. Reefs are home to a third of the species of the sea and are entire communities of inter-thriving life. Coral acts symbiotically with algae which live in coral tissue, and the algae photosynthesise, turning sunlight into food for the coral.
In the summer of 2015, more than two billion corals lived in the Great Barrier Reef. Half have now been killed, largely due to the crisis of climate change and the overheating of the oceans. 93% of the Great Barrier Reef suffers some level of bleaching. 29% of it died in 2016. A 2017 UNESCO report found that bleaching had impacted 72% of World Heritage listed reefs. Based on current trends, bleaching will kill most of the world’s coral within 30 years and, because it is a fundamental part of the ecosystem, the death of coral will cause a terrible collapse in the wider life of the oceans.
When the oceans become too hot, the coral expels its algae and the result is first bleaching, then death. Without algae, the coral starves. Further, nothing thrives around a famished reef. In the endless expanse of deadness, on that ghost-reef recently, the only fish I could see were grey, eerily translucent, camouflaged in this colourless coral, hanging listless in the deadening waters. All the colourful reef fish I saw a decade ago – the fish like wishes in their brilliant and shimmery shoals, their gold and purple swift as psychedelic electricity – can no longer find camouflage in the ashen coral and have fled.
When coral bleaches, it can go white in a couple of weeks, as if enacting a poignant image of grief and shock. Of this coral are bones made. Broken. Lifeless. Skeletons. The endless grey of pallid, lifeless ashes, sunk into dust. This is what I was looking at a month ago, when suddenly, in the midst of the devastation, I saw that unforgettable luminous blue, fluorescing and electric. I thought I was looking at beauty. I wasn’t. When I got home and researched it, I found that I had been looking, unknowingly, at death foretold. Not looking at beauty but at tragedy played in blue.
When coral gets too hot, it produces a chemical to try to protect itself from the heat, and this is what makes them luminesce in this unearthly way for a mysterious moment. They still live but will die, and in this moment between, they shine. It is the coral’s swan song. Richard Vevers, creator of the film Chasing Coral describes it as ‘the most beautiful transformation in nature. The incredibly beautiful phase of – death. It feels as if the corals are saying Look at me. Please notice. This is one of the rarest events of nature happening and everyone’s just oblivious to it.’
When you dive deeply, colours disappear. As you first dip underwater, skeins of fluent light surround you, but diving deeper the light fades and colours disappear one by one. The rays of reds are gone by 200 or 300 feet. The rainbow is inexorably reduced. After the yellows and greens give out, only blues and violets remain. Then these in turn give way to ultraviolet, the colour we cannot see. The ultraviolet reaches deepest of all, beyond our sight, as the prefix ‘ultra’ means beyond.
Ultramarine means beyond the sea, and watching this blue coral glow in its moment between life and death, the ultramarine has a timbre all its own in the deepening. Blue is the colour of both grief and love. Blue fathoms the past and is the colour of eternity. Gazing at this coral, in the indigo, lustrous and low, what I was seeing was the time between its life and its death, the blue hour, the last colour you see before the abyssal depth, an ultramarine sung in the key of dusk, radiant into a world that ignores it, and sinking, ultimately, into invisible and anguishing ultraviolet, an ultra-dying at an ultra-twilight.
IMAGE: Unknown Entities – Fishing Buoy No. 1 by David Ellingsen
Pigment ink on cotton rag
Using fine wire rigging and long exposures of seconds and minutes in combination with the currents of wind and water, the photograph reflects a reality of plastic, one of the most ubiquitous substances on the planet, as an unknown entity literally diffusing, dissolving and evolving into the fabric of life itself. While common sense might suggest some disturbing conclusions, scientific studies are only just beginning on the long-term health effects of these compounds.
David Ellingsen is a Canadian photographer creating images that speak to the relationship between humans and the natural world. Themes of witness, memory and mourning feature prominently in his work.
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Now booking for our book launch at the Poetry in Aldeburgh Festival on 9th November, 7-8pm. Hope to see you there!