If you have been fortunate enough to see a living shrimp in its natural habitat then you will agree on two things with me. First, they are magnificent creatures with their combative pincers, their science fiction like eyes, hyper-balanced legs on stilts and that powerful whip of a tail that allows them to flick to a new position so fast, that your eyes won’t follow. Second, you will be challenged to find any resemblance between them and that pink mess on a plate of barbecued prawns. It is like a reverse metamorphoses that turns beauty into ugliness. It is also death in a particularly cruel disguise.
Life in the sea is extraordinary. Perhaps I am so used to life on the surface of the earth that my awareness of the living things around me has atrophied somewhat. But when I don a BCD jacket, regulator, air bottle, mask and fins, I am in a protracted state if awe. Life on coral reefs is ridiculously clever.
I was lucky enough to see a sea dragon today. They are cousins of the seahorse and have leaflike appendices hanging of their little bodies that inspired their name. Like other sea horses they hide in coral branches that are an exact color and shape match. Like leaf and stick insects they are extremely hard to spot. Fortunately dive masters tend to know where the miracles of the sea are hiding and will point them out. Although evolution took the long way around, these finger sized creatures look as if they have simply snapped of another coral branch.
The first time I saw a seahorse was in the Philippines. On a dive outing we pulled up our outrigger at a small village on an island. We had heard that there were seahorse around there and we showed a picture of a seahorse to a villager. He smiled broadly and told us to follow him. We were delighted at our clever approach to marine search but our smiles faded into distress when the man took us to the local fish market and showed us a plastic box filled with dead seahorse. We never saw them alive around that island.
Fisherman and divers rarely get on.
Next on the menu is octopus. Not everyone is attracted to their suction padded tentacles but underwater these blobby things are something else. They will hide in plain sight in a hollow in the seabed. They fold their legs into any shape and then perform a miracle: they turn on a video show. The skin of an octopus is covered in nano sized scales that the octopus can manipulate. As it does so, the incidence of light in their skin changes and will reflect different colors. All of a sudden their skin will look exactly like the sea bed with bits of shell, broken corals and speckled sand emulated on the skin. When an octopus gets mad, as they do when there are a bunch of scuba divers, i.e. clumsy rubber dolls with fins, goggles and external plumbing, crowding around this little master of illusion, then the octopus puts on a Vegas jackpot show. Psychedelic rings of electric blue and nuclear yellow run up and down its bulbous hulk. Fiery red and poisonous green circles expand as it stares you down with its angry bulging eyes. It’s a real spectacle but frankly, it works. Who would want to attack and eat a rabbit sized halucinary psychedelic mushroom that will leave you with dreams of a thousand tentacles around your face while a thousand times a thousand suction pads pierce your skin and devour you from the inside out?
I wouldn’t and barbecued octopus is not on my menu any longer.
The last course is a little unassuming reef fish as you might see in any aquarium. Lovely colors of radioactive green, pearly silver and liquid orange. It lives in miniature stag horn corals, the ones with a forest of branches growing from a single root into a perfectly coordinated maze of colorful stems with minuscule orange flowers at every spare millimeter of its surface.
When this little fish goes home, it is protected by this prickly calcium harness that we think of as coral but is in fact the dead skeleton of billions of dead polyps; only the flowery babes on the skin are alive. But the sea surprises and little fish went one further.
At the end of each spine of its dorsal fin, it sprouts a crown of soft blue petals. Along the dorsal fin is thus a spread bouquet of lovely little flowers. When this fish goes for a swim outside its orange home, it gives its predators a Monty-pythonesque message: I am not a fish. I am a poisonous horrible soft coral that will make you vomit. Just look at the flowers on my back. Oops, not back. No back. I’m not a fish remember?!
As of today, I have become a non-marine-creature-eater. How can I possibly eat these amazing creatures that redefine the whole idea of creative solutions. Their extraordinary answers to life and death challenges puts humans to shame.
When I discretely study our species back on the boat I am faced with a creature that denies its own design. Even the young divers have fat where it doesn’t belong and the old ones do not resemble at all the sporty specimens on their dive certificates. Some are covered in tattoos and piercings and if the sea had ‘t messed it up, their hair would underline that same peculiar species denial.
And we are the pinnacle of evolution?
I won’t laugh out loud because of deep respect and deeper sadness.
We make a big deal out of having thumbs, bipedular motion and an oversized brain whose biggest achievement has been to create a useless and disturbing ego, a host of gods and exo-solutions that we call houses, clothing, tools, science and what not, just so that we can compensate for all those things nature did not include in our specs.
When i swim with tiger sharks, I feel very small but when I observe minuscule shrimps, I feel even smaller.
I am somewhat relieved to know that as earth crawling humans, we haven’t worked out how to invade the sea. We are limited to simplistic dragnet fishing and resource mining that do a lot of unseen damage. Who cares exactly? But when we finally do invade the sea, I hope that as we equip ourselves with light self sufficient breathing contraptions and start building artificial coral homes and underwater farms, that our octopus like brain has finally produced some respect and humility,!i.e. that we are not and never will be the pinnacle of creation, and that we will smile and be grateful for having entered the last garden of Eden on earth.
Please, big please, let’s not ruin this one too.