There is nothing heroic about turning 47. It has none of the transitional status of 40 nor is it a milestone like 50. If it represents anything, it is one more annual reminder of the general accretion of the past, you eroding gradually under its crust. You stare at the growing damp fungus on the ceiling of this tired hotel. Brief body scan from toe to head. Everything aches.
That’s normal. It has been normal for a while. Inside, your gut microbiome is in turmoil. You’ve read somewhere that, cell-for-cell, this swirling community of bacteria, protists and viruses constitute more of you than you yourself. And they are clearly not happy. They have been living on a diet of parotta, fish curry and sugary tea far too long, and it is only a matter of time before they mount a proletarian protist revolution from within. One more day, you urge. One more day and you are out of these islands. Uncheery thoughts to start the morning. Happy birthday to you.
After twenty-two years of being here, you think you are finally spent. The reefs have gone through one major upheaval, then another, and then another. And with everyone, your hopes fail, then rise, grow exuberant, then crash yet again. The fate of the reef is linked to yours, and after so many repeated batterings you seem both to be waving the flag of surrender. This time around, you promise, you will not rise again, if it will only make the pain go away. Twenty-two years. Inside you, your microbiome remind you, a trifle peevishly, that they have been at it for 47. To their credit, it has been a mostly uncomplaining symbiosis, and you cannot really tell where they end and you begin. In reality, until a few years ago, you did not even know they existed, processing your foods, keeping you healthy, keeping you sane.
“Chalo”, you retreat to the cheery vernacular, “let’s head out to sample”. The boat will be waiting at the western jetty. The morning quickly coalesces around the familiar routine. Mask: bifocals for ageing eyes. Fins: quirky duck-shaped ones that have accompanied you all your life. Booties, weight belt, blank slate, pencil, camera in the housing, PVC quadrat. Load the net bag and four tanks into the rickshaw. Ride the short distance to jetty. Unload. Load again. Consider a spritely hop on to the boat but remember that you are 47 now. You accept the outstretched hand of the boat captain and climb more gingerly on, suppressing a grunt of effort as your feet hit the deck. Start engines. Chug out of the western lagoon. You chomp a few glucose biscuits before you roll backward into the water. Give the protists something to keep them going through the dive.
You know this site well. You have come here every year for 20 years. It has had a troubled history, like most western reefs in this archipelago. This site was teeming once. Handsome stands of colourful Acropora fought bitterly for space in the light. Now the shallows are a vast rubble field, brown with turf, left to the skulkers and scrapers of the reef. It has been like this for many years now. You try not to look as you head further down to get the deeper transects done first. 14 meters We’ll start here. Place the quadrat. Rise with a breath and hover motionless. Click. Swim ten meters. Repeat. In these deeper waters, the reef is doing better and it does not hurt as much to look. There is even beauty here in among these living rocks. Transect one done. You set your mind in neutral and get ready to start the next.
The reef looks unfamiliar. You have swum slightly further than you normally do, slightly deeper. There is something large in the distance. You feel it before you see it. Damn this bifocal mask, you curse, as your eyes struggle to make sense of the shape in the blue. When your eyes finally focus, you see it in all its impossible majesty. It is a giant. A coral, but in all your years of diving these reefs, rarely have you encountered an individual so massive. It has a gravity all of its own and you are drawn to her, almost afraid to exhale should you wake her from some ancient slumber. At 30 meters away, she fills your vision, a shuddering, living ecosystem all to herself. She wears an iridescent veil of tiny anthias and chromis. Three consorting green turtles rest on her surface, one exhaling quiet bubbles through his nostrils. Below, in the shadowy crannies she creates, large groupers lurk with other regular cave dwellers – wide-eyed squirrels, deep-bodied sweepers, the inevitable banded shrimps.
You lose all sense of her size. Your vision is coral. You are on your knees before her. Porites, possibly lutea. At this distance, you can see the polyps on her surface. At this time of day, most have retired after a night-time of feeding, but a few still have their tentacles out. Impossibly, your 47-year old eyes focus in on a single polyp. It is lazily filtering the water for invisible zooplankton to crunch on. Green, but you know that, in reality each polyp is pale transparent tissue. Inside each, an army of hundred thousand zooxanthallae are busy at work, painting the coral green, but doing so much more. They are processing the sunlight that streams down to this depth through the clear waters. Impossibly, you see them through your bifocals, picking up little packets of light in their little dinoflagellate arms, mixing them up in their tiny photosynthetic kitchens, churning out food to feed the insatiable appetite of this Leviathan.
The protist in the coral speaks to the protist in you. There is a quiet movement in your tummy, but it is not a complaint. A silent communion of shared understanding. Comparing notes, you imagine. Two thousand years. Forty seven. When you first came to this island, the zooxanthallae seem to say, we were here already some 1978 years. Your entire ‘long term monitoring programme’ barely registers in our growth. Before you there were others of course, but we were here before. Cast your mind back, further back. When the first explorers, stragglers all, lost wanderers on their way to India, drifted on these shores, we were here, a mere 500 years old, but here. Further still. Deep in our protist past, dimly remembered now, for an oh-so- brief few hours, we once traveled the waters free, hitching a ride on a tiny planua, less than a millimeter across, that is now the Leviathan you kneel before. We have stayed. Through all the turbulence of the last two decades, through all the rising and falling of our cousins in the shallows, we remain, unmoved. Our history is the history of this reef, our future is its future. And by the way, happy birthday to you, young neonate.
The moment passes. An eternity. Barely breathing, you rise and collect your things. You hover over her, unwilling to leave. The veil of anthias part briefly to let you pass. You have transects to complete. You have corals to count. Your protists are digesting their biscuits.