A Reef to Call Home by Asiem Sanyal

Twice every year, during the Summer and Winter Solstices, when the ocean currents dance to the caprices of the moon, Grandma Goatfish calls to her all the members of her tribe, and recounts to us the story of the Reef. Most of us know her words by heart; yet we listen, enthralled as ever, as rapt as the youngsters born that year. She settles herself on a glorious coral skeleton, its bone-white branches almost throne-like, and regards us as we arrange ourselves in concentric semi-circles radiating away from her. Grandma’s whiskers have turned translucent with age, and these quiver as she begins to speak:

“A very long time ago, before any of you were born and I was just a small little fry in the ocean, the Reef was a riot of colours, and a steady thrum of activity. One couldn’t swim more than a few metres without encountering other fish, or coming across a new coral being constructed. It was a happy place. The sun shone down on us from high, high above, and we frolicked and made what we could of the glorious sunshine.

Did I mention the fish? Schools of sweetlips, striated white, black and yellow, circled the Reef, dispersing to make way for a solitary grouper. Squirrelfish, those little pipsqueaks, played hide-and-seek among the corals. Nervous blennies zipped past you at lightning speeds, leaving barely a ripple in their wake. Large moray eels grinned at us as miniscule cleaner shrimp worked on their teeth. Pairs of bannerfish would pirouette in the waters, weaving and skimming and looping around the confused angelfish that happened to cross their path. Large, almost delicate butterflyfish would hover near the coral, nibbling tenderly at the algae which covered the each coral.

The corals themselves dazzled in various shades and hues. You must understand that these fantastic colours were mostly because of the algae which covered them. The coral-making animals, the polyps, lived in harmony with the algae, thriving under the warm sunshine. The algae helped provide the corals with food. Oh, there were all manner of corals dotting the Reef – large, branching staghorn corals, such as the one I am on right now, spherical, furrowed brain corals, turreted pillar corals, flat table corals, and the beautifully patterned great star corals.

From time to time, the Reef would receive visitors, vagabonds of the ocean who looked for a place to rest before continuing on their journey. Turtles often stopped by the Reef, telling tales of faraway events and happenings. Humans were wreaking havoc in parts of the ocean. These creatures too, we had seen on occasion. They would descend to the Reef, clad in artificial skin, breathing with the help of artificial tubes, but they would never approach us closely. Large, peaceable manta rays would hum songs of their travel, and the occasional shark would recount stories of the Great Below. This was how we learned of the distant places beyond the Reef.

Now, you must remember that corals only survive within a certain temperature range. In the warm waters of the Reef, where the temperature never fluctuated, this was hardly a problem. This changed, however, when we were visited by the Little Boy.
The Little Boy, or El Niño, is a strong underwater current. Having run away from home, he travels the world, sometimes being angelic, and sometimes throwing the worst tantrums. I wouldn’t say he is bad, but he is a tad spoilt, and will unleash destruction if he doesn’t get his way.

Well, El Niño came to us, and it was our bad luck that he was in one of his towering rages. He hollered and screeched and bawled and yelled, cutting across the Reef, and before we could make sense of what was happening, he had already disappeared.

So had the Reef, as I knew it. Temperatures had risen drastically, and the coral polyps, in a bid to save their algae friends, were busy expelling them in little clouds and puffs, leaving the corals bare and bleached. Panic-stricken fish were leaving the Reef in droves, hoping to find safe refuge elsewhere. Where there was once colour, everything was pale or white, and stark. Where there was once laughter and merriment, in a few days there was silence. Not many wished to linger here. It is almost as all of you see it today – an unending landscape of white; white skeletons, white debris, pale, ghostly fish.

I was young, and scared, and lacked the confidence to venture out into the ocean in search of a new place to set base. Thus, I have endured here, and here my children were born, and their children, and eventually I became too comfortable to leave. It is not very long since that event, though it seems like a lifetime in goatfish years.

The Reef will recover, I think. But this is a warning to you all. El Niño hasn’t returned yet, but this is not to say he won’t. I have heard tell that in some other places, humans are causing the same effects as him, due to their pollution and effluents which they release into the sea.
I want you all, each and every one of you, to know a thriving Reef as I did. I want you to summon the bravery I never could, and make your way out into the unknown. Somewhere out there is a Reef which will dazzle you with its colours, and which you will be lucky to call home.”

Grandma falls silent, reminiscing about the Reef, no doubt. An imperceptible ripple passes through our ranks, and, as happens every time Grandma tells her story, a few of us, emboldened by her narration, head out into the Big Blue, hoping to find a Reef of our own, hoping to find home.