Eulogy: a reef

…built like a chain, the breaking of only one link could destroy it… [i]
breathe in
breathe out:  I am angry – won’t watch destruction – won’t unsee bleaching, plastics, silt runoff, overfishing
no more Jacques Cousteau in his black rubber wetsuit smiling through my black and white TV, lying on the floor close to the set, watching Captain Cousteau and his Calypso, the enormity of his underwater adventures, a world apart, below
no more Ron and Valerie with sharks all around
no more can I watch David, the King, on his Blue Planet– his YouTube Trailers mesmerise me, his TV shorts catch me unaware – I have to walk away

damselfish butterflyfish bumpheadparrotfish pufferfish catfish garfish pipefish anemonefish lionfish surgeonfish triggerfish clownfish – sweetlips and the grouper

…protected from climatic extremes, the tropical reefs are a dazzling confusion of colour and light, pattern and texture, movement and sway…
breathe in
breathe out:  it is the descent into water she is most comfortable with, pressure increasing, colours changing, underwater noisy crackling clear sounds
an outboard brings panic – sounds of her own breathing calm – the sound of air exhaled in silver spheres of carbon dioxide rising to the surface
waves swell and roll, bring a tinkle and scrape of coral, broken pieces of coral hitting rocks, shell, coral, clouds of reef detritus caught in the endless swish, side to side
each wave’s swell rushes quickly overhead, ground below shifts, weeds push open, hidden things rush into view, disappear, reappear – nothing is certain

swathes of luminosity colour endless variations green and blue black orange to red on yellow silver rays shimmering, colour upon colour, patterns upon patterns – movement

…a treaty to which the signatories are an animal and a microscopic plant…
breathe in
breathe out:  entering ocean is like putting on a second skin, water might be her element, her at home place, relief from heat, discomfort of equipment, she rolls backwards over the boat’s side
sight the anchor rope, begin her descent, level her body streamline, long slow kicks and small quick movements of her fins place her, a shrug of her shoulders repositions the tank, settles the weights, checks the mask
after the adjustment the rush looking out into the blue, the world of water she has become a part of, infinite distances of blue – ahead, behind, below, a three-sixty degree world of myriad shades of blue

flicking of life, constant movement, silver shimmers, forms, shapes, glimpses of unknown, familiar, organic shapes, torpedo shapes, flat shapes, box shapes, things swimming into focus, things blurring to disappear on the outer blue edge – big things

Animals on the reef are neither as aggressive nor as culturally obsessed with victory as Homo sapiens…
breathe in
breathe out:  riots of colour which are the small things of flesh and shell and cartilage, ocean meadows miniature landscapes, always changing, surprising
brittle stars and weeds become fish, ledges, crevices, coral as home, anemones and gardens obsessively tended, sacred sites protected, revered, hard coral gardens, soft corals organic shape, rocks become fish
creatures change, surprise – plants become animals, to open and close at the nearness of an almost touch, whisper of a shadow as sunlight is momentarily blocked, hard edged giant clams fleshy insides, octopus as shells move, retract, extend, electric blue neons dart across current

where ultraviolet flashes a thousand stripes, vertical, diagonal, lines curve to move, patterns on patterns black and white and yellow-orange, pink, crimson and red and green, purple blue purple and dots – black dots and large false eyes

…reef can only thrive in almost constant sunlight. Most fish do not wander from one reef to the next…
breathe in
breathe out:  over beds of sand which flick away cover, leaving a retinal image of dots, a cloud of swirling sand an instant recognised as movement
moments when she stopped – corrected her horizontal position to vertical, suspended her legs, took a breath to hold, hover, look up at the surface’s silver underside
lighter shades of blue falling, falling, sunlit rays streaming down in cascades of crisp pale light through darker blue water, falling to disappear below

where yesterday, the silver under skin of the surface formed a layer as glaringly bright as mercury, refracting sunlight rays through water so clear and straight she could have followed their path down to that part of the drop-off where light diffused, no longer penetrated

Overgrazing by sea urchins on temperate reefs can affect a phase shift from macro-algal beds to ‘barrens’ habitat largely devoid of seaweeds [ii]
breathe in
breathe out:  snorkelling, diving easy stuff, warm clear water, good vis, casual, when she can, when its good, only when its good, is good, was good
learn the way of things, chance things, lucky dive things, surprise me now things, what is that creature things
sunlight patterning sand in a dance, watching then, watching now – before it’s too late, nothing hard, nothing dark, nothing cold, nothing murky like

once years back catching scallops, Jervis Bay – the scallop beds old, cold, too cold, way too cold, how long before hypothermia, scallops flick off the bottom fast to land far away in mud, bigger than her hand, skimming over the bottom leaving long silt trails, someone said they’re all gone now
once she dived grey nurse sharks, southeast numbers are critical, only a thousand left they say
long time ago that big old wobbegong, Guerrilla Bay, crossing below her pale belly, down in the deeper part of the channel, slow sideways undulations as it drifted out to sea
summer snorkelling seals, Montague Island, a raft of young males, diving, twisting, together they knew their strength, off the island’s northern tip, near weed beds, where it’s safe, hanging out, away from sea urchin ‘barrens’, those deserts of pink rock, hanging where the ecosystem is still good, still protective, watching two large eagle rays shadowing below
not too long back three large sharks circling a coral bommie, waiting at a cleaning station on the reef edge, Ningaloo, only fifty K’s from where Shell Oil plans exploratory drilling
only last summer that baby stingray in the estuary, before this drought closed the sand bar, the smallest one ever, she could have covered it with her hand
once, years ago, at Greenpatch, that lucky three-in-one day, a weedy sea dragon and two Port Jackson sharks, patterns of camouflage and fragile endemic things
before the earthquake those chilled out turtles off Gili Trawangan, a big Reef Manta swimming against the current at Manta Point
four summers back the lionfish at Lembongan, motionless in shadow under the tourist boat…
this Indonesian dry season, the Komodo islands, a sharp intake of breath…

breathe in
breathe out:  i am angry – i won’t watch destruction – won’t unsee bleaching, plastics, silt runoff, overfishing
no more Jacquesno more Ronno more Valerie
no more Davidnow it all just feels like a eulogy for lives once lived

Elanna Herbert

[i] Unless otherwise noted, quotes in italics are from The Diver’s Universe: a Guide to Interacting With Marine Life, Annemarie and Danja Köhler, New Holland Publishers, 2003.

[ii] Flukes EB, Johnson CR, Ling SD, ‘Forming Sea Urchin Barrens from the Inside Out: an alternative pattern of overgrazing’, Marine Ecology Progress Series (MEPS) 464: 179–194, 2012.

Elanna Herbert has lived in Canberra, Perth and rural New South Wales. Recent poetry can be found in Axon: Creative Explorations (forthcoming 2019), Grieve (7), Meniscus (6/2), Australian Poetry Anthology (6), fourW (28) and Westerly. She was awarded a 2019 Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre fellowship and was runner-up in the Queensland Poetry Festival 2018 Emerging Older Poets Mentorship. Elanna has a PhD in Communication.

© 2019