Renewal on the Great Barrier Reef, in the bosom of Nature. (Australia, India)
| The Great Barrier
It was a bright, mid February Sunday morning in Sydney, Australia. It was summer in the Southern hemisphere with the temperature hovering around 35 degrees celcius. Jai decided to head towards the Bondi beach. A bus was about to leave the Circular Quay and he ran across the road towards the bus stop waving at the bus driver.
“Is this going to Bondi?” he gasped out to the girl who was just boarding the bus. “ I was wondering if ……”
With two steps inside, she turned around to reply and then looking at him, she suddenly stopped in her tracks. “ Jai,” she said barely audible above the din of the traffic, “Is it really you?”
“ Fiz, by God !” Jai exclaimed, “ What are you doing in Australia?”. He couldn’t believe his eyes. He grabbed her by the hands and pulled her down from the bus. “ Wherever you are going , you can go later. It's been what, ten years, isn’t it?”
Feroza quickly disembarked and they stood looking at each other for eons. “ I am dumbstruck,” Feroza finally said , “Fancy meeting you here in Australia; same question, what are ‘you’ doing here?”
“ I’m here on a two year assignment and have got another year to go,” said Jai while he brushed his hair with his fingers. Feroza smiled to herself as she observed this subconscious action, and old memories rushed back in a flood.
“ Look, why don’t we go over to my flat at Manly,” Jai suggested . “There’s a lot of catching up to do. Bondi can wait another day.” Feroza smiled and nodded and they walked side by side towards the ferry wharf on the Circular Quay. The ferry was going to leave in another ten minutes so Jai bought two tickets and they sat on the bench and looked out over the sparkling waters of Sydney harbor. A young white boy with blonde hair, face and hair streaked with Aboriginee ceremonial paint, sat under the arch playing the didgeridoo under a poster on safe sex.
“ I’m here on a short visit, one of many,” Feroza said. “ Picking up some dope on automated credit scoring systems. I’ve been doing some data collection on regional credit behavior back in India. Trying to see if we can fit it all in a statistical model.”
“ Good on ya, as the Aussies say,” Jai laughed , but is this model going to fit and give results in our complex country? Everything is fairly homogenous out here, even though the locals won’t agree.”
“If your reference point is India, then Oz more homogenous and the language is more or less the same. But just ask a Sydney resident what they think about Melbourne,” Feroza laughed and winked at Jai. “ And vice versa. As everywhere, the differences are emphasized more than the similarities, isn’t it?”
They boarded the ferry and went up to sit on the open deck. In a few minutes the ferry was on its way out. The sun reflected off the glass and steel skyskrapers on the shore. Leaving the arched Sydney bridge to the left, the ferry turned right and sailed past the Opera House floating like a white lotus on the blue sea. The view was breathtaking.
“ So,are you married?” Feroza asked. “ Are you ?” Jai shot back and looked at the receding shoreline through his dark glasses, suddenly serious.
“ Married to my work. Yes. After you, there’s really been no one.” Feroza looked into Jai’s eyes. “We were slaves of history and religion was the great barrier. It wasn’t about you and me. It was about communities, religion and society. Father didn’t dare cross swords with the Magi, the high priests of the fire temple. My parents tried very hard to get me hitched with another Parsee, a good Zoroastrian. But we were a zillion miles apart. You understand?”
Jai nodded. “ No,it wasn’t about you and me. I went through two more relationships after that. Just didn't gell.” She hadn’t changed much, Jai decided. He loved her short hair and aquiline nose. In blue jeans and white sweat shirt, she was a picture of well groomed informality.
Feroza still remembered that day that she stormed out of her parent’s Altamount Road apartment.
“You will marry a non Parsee over my dead body,” her father had screamed, his face white and body shaking with anger. “ I will not have my only daughter excommunicated. No no no!”
Jai’s parents had been ecstatic. “All’s well that ends well. It wouldn’t have lasted my boy. Hope you realize it. We’ll find you a nice Hindu girl from our own caste and background.” Jai’s father had secretly circulated his birth chart hoping to find a good match.
The ferry turned left and docked at the Manly jetty and they disembarked. They turned left and walked past the Manly beach.
“My place is on the waterfront. It’s a nice walk. Wan’t to?" Jai asked.
“ Sure,” Feroza said. “ I haven’t been to this side and I’d love to. Today’s my day for sightseeing anyway.” They crossed Sea World and climbed on to the walkway. They were surrounded by manicured greenery and flowers and walked with the coastline to their left and quiet residences to their right. A man looking through a daylight telescope from his balcony, watched them approach. Feroza looked up and he quickly turned his telescope away to view ships going out to sea.
“ I went to see the Sydney aquarium as soon as it opened in the morning.” Feroza offered. “ Simply amazing. Haven’t seen a better display.”
“ So Fiz,you’re ‘doing’ Sydney, are you?” Jai teased.
“ Actually no. It’s a side of me that you don’t know about. I’ve gotten quite interested in marine biology,” Feroza smiled as she fended him off. “There’s been life after you, y’know.”
“Touche!” Jai laughed aloud. “ But where do you find the time. I know what a full time career in Bombay’s financial market means.”
“ When you become really interested in something, you find time; rather, time finds you.” Feroza stopped to admire a fern growing by the roadside. “ I’d gone to the Indian ocean island of Lakshwadeep and got hooked to the sea. Lived all my life next to the sea in Bombay and never saw it the way I saw it there. Got a diving certificate from Kakkar’s training school there.”
“Now let me tell you of a side of me that you don’t know,” Jai brushed his hair with his fingers. “ I too have got a certificate in diving . Got it in Singapore when I was posted there.”
“Na you didn’t!” Feroza exclaimed . “Seems that a lot has happenned these last ten years.”
They walked along as the path curved upwards. Below, they could see a sea swimming pool with a lot of kids swimming and playing ball. Grandparents sat in the warm waters having fun with their little grandchildren. Families were out enjoying their Sunday. Jai looked at Feroza’s eyes and a lot was left unsaid. It was difficult to pick up the pieces after ten years. Away from the family area was a more secluded spot. A woman was sunbathing alone and topless, reading a magazine. Then they crossed a garage sale and came up to a spot from where they could see houses with manicured lawns below. Through the trees they could see yachts and sailboats moored on the waters below. Living with the sea was a joy.
Finally they arrived at an open green flat parkland alongside the waters. “ There’s my building,” Jai said. They walked over the freshly cut grass and entered. “ I live on the first floor. Time for lunch, let me fix you a meal.”
“Let me cook you something “ Feroza offered, but Jai would have none of it. “ In that case, mind if I go outside and sit by the waters for a while?”
“ Sure, go ahead,” said Jai . “ Didn’t know I could cook,did you Fiz? Surprise surprise.”
Feroza screwed up her face and called him a name with her lips. Still smiling she walked out into the park towards the water’s edge. She sat on a wooden bench and watched the small waves dancing in the sunlight and the boats bobbing up and down. Old memories flooded back to her as she watched the gentle rolling of the waves. “ History, we were all slaves of history,” she thought to herself as she took off her shoes, rolled up her jeans and soaked up the sun.
Feroza’s Zoroastrian ancestors,the Parsis, had migrated to India from Persia in the 8th century AD to avoid Muslim persecution. They had downed anchor in Diu, been warmly received by the local king Jadi Rana in Gujarat,India. Five years after this, they had built their first fire temple, Atash Behram, to shelter the holy fire rescued from Persia. Over the years, the need to protect religion and racial purity, under attack in the old country had translated itself into religious strictures restricting marriage only within members of the Parsi community in the new land. Ancestral memories, specially the traumatic ones were hard to give up. Even in a welcoming new country, imaginary enemies waged continuous wars on collective memories and religious edicts built a fortress within which the community was to be protected and purity of race maintained. In time, the fortress had become the great barrier.
The Parsis stood out in the diverse melting pot of cultures in India, well educated and wealthy, with an economic and cultural impact well beyond their small numbers. Feroza had tried to understand how such an enlightened community, still held on to ancient fears of the loss of identity and isolated itself into a closed loop. She talked to the reformists but they were too few in number. She had hit her head on the stone walls of social taboos. The Parsis revered the sun and nature as manifestations of the divinity of Ahura Mazda. Mother nature, not bothered with man made rules, looked aghast at the rites of intermarriage within a small population and its effects, a preponderance of blood, mental desease and genetic disorders within the limited gene pool. The Parsee population had steadily declined and is now,slowly but surely, facing extinction. That was Mother nature’s way; nothing survives in isolation.
“It’s a bloody collective death wish,” Jai had said in barely controlled anger.
Her father was too much a part of the community to allow her to move away. Moving away was guaranteed if she married outside the Parsi community, as she would be immediately ex-communicated from the religion and community, never to return.
“What if I was a Parsi boy,” she had shouted at her father, “Then you wouldn’t have thrown a fit, would you?”
“Then the girl would have become Parsi,” he had said still shaking with anger,“and I would be attending Navjot ceremonies of my grandchildren. If you marry him, you will not see or speak to your mother and me ever again. Is that understood?” Sobbing uncontrolably, she had stormed out of their Altamount Road flat in Bombay.
She was so very young then, and so very confused. She did not have a job to support herself and she desparately want to go to business school. In her own way, she loved her parents. Really. She had realised that her father was not an evil tyrant, but his world was limited within the boundary of his community. She didn’t hate him. But in that turmoil, Feroza had realized that her future world lay well beyond those man made boundaries. For the moment she had to play by the rules.
She heard Jai calling out to her from the house.
“Hey Fiz, come back in if you’re hungry. Grub’s ready.”
She picked up her handbag and shoes and walked barefoot across the park. She loved to walk barefoot on the grass. Jai was busy serving the Italian fettuccine ribbon pasta that he had made. He had already laid the table.
“ Fiz, would you get the bottle of Aussie chardonnay from the fridge,” Jai said , struggling with the meat sauce.
Feroza poured the wine into two glasses. Jai came from behind and kissed her on the forehead.
“ Jai , stop,” Feroza started to say, but Jai put up his hands in mock defence, smiled and sat down on the dining table. The bridge across ten years was still a long one to cross. One had to cross it one tentative step at a time.
“ Cheers,” Jai smiled as they clinked wine glasses. “How’re your parents?”
“ Both gone,” Feroza said withdrawing into to a reflective mood as she took a sip of wine.
“ Mother went first, while I was still in business school in Ahmedabad. She went quietly in her sleep. Father went later. I’d been working two years in Bombay and sharing a flat with a friend. He didn’t like me living independently, on my own. He was lonely after mother went. Took to drinking.”
“Can’t say I blame him,” Jai said.“ Loneliness in a rapidly changing world, can be a deadly disease.”
“I blame myself,” Feroza stated in a matter of fact manner as a tinge of sadness clouded her eyes. "It’s a daughter’s duty to look after her father and I failed him. I was so hell bent on doing my own thing and escaping from the well. He died from cirrhosis of the liver. They took him to the Dakhma, the Tower of Silence on Malabar hill, to give his body to the elements. Times are changing there too it seems. Vultures are few and far between. They’ve started using solar panels. ”
“ Don’t be,” Feroza said. I’ve dealt with it the best I could. Then I moved on. I moved away from religion. You understand? Not from spirituality though. And I enjoy my work. Time heals .”
“Does it now?” Jai asked,“ And why haven’t you married? What happened to you and me?”
“We parted friends, you and I, didn’t we? Perhaps I wasn’t very sensitive at the time and I’ve been running away from relationships ever since. I realize how you must have felt,then again, you were capable of handling it.”
They were silent for a while, each immersed in memories of another time and place and events long gone in life’s chaotic journey. They had reached bifurcation points in their path and had made their choices, much of it outside their own control. Feroza played with the stem of her wine glass and looked at the light refracting through the wine as Jai ate quietly.
“And when did you pick up your interest in marine biology,” Jai broke the silence.
Feroza’s eyes lit up, “I told you I’d learned diving at the Lakshadeep islands. Back in Bombay I got involved in the finance project for the new aquarium. One thing led to another and I got hooked on.”
“Then it’s one thing that we’ve both developed on, separately.” Jai quipped.
“Strange as it may seem, yes,” Feroza nodded pouring herself another glass of chardonnay.
“Tell you what,” Jai suggested,“ I’ve got some leave coming up after next week. Can you postpone your trip back to India for a week after you finish your work here?”
“I have an invitation to go diving on the Great Barrier Reef. This good Aussie friend of mine is part of a volunteer group of locals which helps the Queensland Park Department and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. They clean junk off the reef and buoys, remove anchors from corals ,help with research projects and educate the public.”
“Who are these guys and would I be welcome?” Feroza asked with interest. She realized that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity.
“Ah, they call themselves the Order of Underwater Coral Heroes,” Jai laughed aloud. “ O.U.C.H for short, Aussie humor shines through.”
“That’s a great acronym. Look, I’d love to. Are you sure?”
“ Say no more, lady of the oceans. My travel plans are already made. I’ll book you on the Quantas flight to Cairns. We leave by the early morning flight, next Saturday.”
“Great. But we’re just good friends. OK?”
“Whatever you say. Why don’t you stay over tonight?”
Feroza backed off as if fending off from an imaginary right hook. “I’ve got an early start tomorrow. I’ll take the 6.45 ferry back today. Thanks anyway. ”
Jai reached for his hair involuntarily. He was still attracted to her but realized that a gap of ten years was going to be difficult to bridge. She was unready, sensitive and building barriers around herself. At the back of his mind he was surprised by the common interest that they had developed. They sat on the balcony of his flat and talked about their lives they had led in the last ten years and the rapid changes that were taking place in India. Their’s was a generation caught between the old and the new, but there was an openness,a sense of happening and adventure was in the air. As they talked through till late in the afternoon, Jai realized how comfortable they were in each other’s company.
The early morning Quantas flight left Sydney airport on time and headed out to Queensland. Jai had made all the arrangements. Cairns airport was a small one, handling mostly tourist traffic. The brochure informed them that there were only 3.5 million residents in the entire state of Queensland and Cairns received 800,000 international visitors yearly. All of them come to look at the sumptuous reefs in crystalline water, the Great Barrier Reef. The airport pickup was waiting for them and they drove through nearly empty roads to the hotel.
Jai noticed that Feroza was visibly excited. “ We have the entire evening to ourselves and the whole of tomorrow. We’re going to Green Island tomorrow and I need to book our tickets. There’s a big casino here, do you want to try it out?”
“ Lets hop down to Coles Myre. Need to pick up some swimming gear and a backpack. OK?”
They walked down main street and picked up some Lebanese donner kebabs from one of the numerous food kiosks that dotted the street. Young Australians were skate boarding on the waterfront as they made their way to the central market building on the waterfront. It seemed as if the Barrier reef was on display everywhere, on textiles, exhibition of reef paintings, sweat shirts, it was everywhere. Feroza spotted a restaurant and decided that a quiet dinner together would be preferable to the casino.
A quiet dinner it was definitely not going to be. They ordered a sirloin steak dinner and red wine when the rock band started playing. Jai didn’t have to ask Feroza. She was already on her feet and ready. The music was loud and heady and they swung to the rhythm. It was just like old times and magic was in the air. Later, exhausted and happy they walked back to the hotel. Feroza collected the keys to her room and stood looking at Jai while he collected his. She was definitely beginning to enjoy herself she thought. Through the corner of his eye Jai saw Feroza looking at him intently. Outside her room, she gave him a hug and Jai decided that he was quite satisfied with just that. For the moment at least.
Early next morning they boarded the Big Cat, a high speed Australian designed catamaran on their way to Green island, one of the reef resort islands. The crew had easy Australian manners as they explained the safety regulations with humor and knowledge. They also supplied diving gear to those who wanted a short course on snorkelling and diving techniques.
“ Both of us are certified divers. Not carrying our certificates though,” Jai offered.
“ No worries mate,” the instructor smiled. “ Dive with us, pass our test and we’ll give you a certification right away.”
After a sumptuous Aussie BBQ lunch on deck, they reached the Agincourt reefs. The craft docked at a huge, stable platform anchored by cables. They had reached Green island.
Some groups headed out on guided tours and some to see corals and reef fish in glass bottomed boats. Their diving appointment was still some time away, so Jai and Feroza decided to go to the outer coral walls in a submarine.
They had seen corals before but this first introduction to the Great Barrier Reef took their breath away. This was an undersea Eden. They looked on in awe as the submarine dived deeper to the seabed and meandered beween corrals of all shapes and colors. Sun rays streaked in from the surface splashing blue and emerald on the undersea world. Yes, it was in planet earth, but surely a separate reality. The sunlight made underwater plants glow . The submarine slowly made its way through light and shade and a smorgasboard of color. A shoal of a thousand brightly striped silver blue and gold Sweetlip fish, stood waiting as it observed the submarine approach. Then the entire shoal turned ninety degrees, all at once, stood still for a moment and then darted away. Amidst a forest of blue pillar corals, an anemone fish took refuge in the stinging arm of a sea anenone plant. Two vermillion harlequin tuskfish, striped and bordered in blue swam along the submarine window, staring at the aliens through huge unblinking eyes. They were soon replaced on the watch by two green and yellow humphead wrasse as they escorted the submarine. Feroza wanted to touch them, but the glass on the window prevented her. Jai watched the coral, fish, the wonder on Feroza’s face and held his breath.
The guide on the submarine was giving out his well rehearsed commentary. Coral reefs form, he explained, when colonies of tropical marine plants and animals with limestone skeletons rise atop earlier generations. They fashion the most visually diverse natural environments a human can experience, and the Great Barrier Reef is the world’s single largest coral domain. With the broad, shallow continental shelf of tropical northeastern Australia providing an ideal pedestal for growth, this coral complex reaches as far as 160 miles offshore and more than 1250 miles from north to south. The Great Barrier Reef covers 135,000 square miles, a sprawling offshore nation. It is really a commonwealth of at least 2,800 separate reefs,only some of which are true barrier reefs --- breakwaters rising near the edge of the continental shelf. These constitute a huge marine rampart and the largest structure built by living organisms. In the calmer seas behind that cordon, more reefs appear as irregular circles and crescents known as platform reefs and fringing reefs grow outward from the mainland shores or surround the region’s 618 high islands, which were mountains and hills along Australia’s Ice age coast before the glaciers melted and raised sea levels.
The submarine returned to the Green island platform. Jai and Feroza disembarked with ten other visitors. For most of whom, this had been a once in a lifetime experience. There was still an hour to go before their appointment with the diving instructor so they decided to wander around the resort with its crocodile center, wooden pathways through the woods and to the mangroves which kissed the golden beach as the waters lapped gently on the shore. They sat side by side on the sand next to the mangroves and looked out to the emerald sea. He put his arms around her shoulders. This time she didn’t recoil. “Perfect,” Jai said quietly, “just us and the sea”.
Later they reported in to the diving instructor. They put on their scuba gear, flippers, mask, wetsuit and air tank and joined three others. They dived into the sunlit warm waters of the inner reef. It was good practice for what they would have to do in the next few days. They were both good swimmers and divers and the instructor was happy to provide them with the certification. “ Good on ya , guys,” he said but cautioned them, “The waters of the outer reefs are not going to be so easy, watch out for your breathing and air in the tank.”
They celebrated their certification in the bar by the swimming pool. The Big Cat went back to Cairns leaving them to spend the night on the island. A boat would come and pick them up in the morning. They had a quiet dinner by the poolside. It had been a woderful and long day but they were exhausted. Jai suggested that they turn in early. In her room, Feroza lay awake late into the night and then she dreamed that she had merged and become one with the corals and the ecosystem, walking into all the reef islands with the aborigines through the legends of their ancient dreamtime.
Next morning as she stepped into the restaurant for breakfast she found Jai sitting with a tall bearded Australian.
“Fiz, good morning, meet Jeff Christie ,” Jai made the introductions.
Jeff stood up and brought out a chair for Feroza to sit.“ G’day. You’re all that Jai has been talking about. I’ve been trying to tell him about the reef, instead he’s been telling me about your diving escapades.”
“Nothing uncomplimentary I hope,” Feroza smiled as she watched Jai turn a shade of deep purple.
“ Nah. I personally think he has fallen short in his descriptions,” Jeff’s deep blue eyes directly found hers. “While I didn’t expect a typical traditional Indian lady, I didn’t expect … well you.”
“And what pray,is a traditional Indian lady,” Feroza asked Jeff leaving him to grope for words.
“Aw, at least one that doesn’t wear wet suits and comes diving to Oz.”
“Things have changed quite a bit you know. Can’t go by the stereotypes the Brits caricatured a century ago." Feroza offered.
“Yeah! Give it to the Poms, eh? There, we have something in common,” Jeff had an easy laugh.
“Jeff’s attractive,” she decided and made a mental note as she studied his tall muscular frame and easy manners. He wore a half open shirt and dungarees and his legs were those of an athlete in shape.
“ I’ve got a sea plane moored just off the platform,” Jeff was telling Jai. “We must leave in thirty minutes,ok?
Feroza helped herself to breakfast. “Where are we going?” she asked, looking up from a glass of pineapple juice.
“ I’ll fly you to Lizzard Island where you’ll meet the rest of the O.U.C.H team.”
“I love the acronym for the Order of Underwater Coral Heroes” said Feroza quickly finishing breakfast.
“ We didn’t choose the name to sound noble. We like O.U.C.H. It lets us tell people that’s how coral feels when you drag an anchor across it.”
“ We both feel honored by your invitation to join the team,” Jai started to say but Jeff cut him short.
“ No formalities mate. Its hard work, but a labor of love.” He turned to Feroza, “ We use our diving expertise to maintain buoys, clean junk off the reef and help protect it. The Marine Park authorities don’t have the manpower to keep on top of all the chores and that’s where we come in. Our current assignment is to clear some coral reefs of crown-of –thorns. You’ll be joining us on our dive today, I’m happy to say.”
Jai and Feroza were all ears, so Jeff continued. “ Crown – of –thorns are huge, spiked poison-tipped sea stars that dine on live coral. Outbreaks of these sea stars can strip reefs of color and life. We’ve got to get these stars off the reef. Interested?” The excitement on Jai and Feroza’s faces told Jeff all that we wanted to know.
Jeff skimmed the water and smoothly made the small seaplane airborne. They flew across a smooth windless deep azure sea. Below were numerous platform reefs surrounding small dots of islands standing out as giant emerald rings on the blue expanse, bordered by multiple corridors of white waves. The beauty of blue white and emerald from the sky made Feroza’s draw in her breath and she thanked God for showing her a little bit of Himself.
At Lizard island they were received warmly by the team. “ Jai and Feroza are going to be with us this week,” Jeff announced, but they all knew that anyway. They were shown their quarters on the Lizard Island Research Station and given diving gear. An instructor gave them a long spear each and briefed them how to kill Crown-of-thorn sea stars. “No worries , just do what the others are doing. They went out on boats to the area demarcated on a map. As they strapped on the air tanks Jeff offered advice, “the water is clear with visibility at 150 feet or more , and very shacky.” Jeff saw blank faces and laughed , “ Ah, shack is how Aussies say ‘shark’.” He noticed a hint of apprehension on Feroza’s face and continued, “ they hunt in small packs and like to come right up for a look , give you a bit of a squeeze. Just back toward the reef if you can. Just don’t go popping to the surface.” With that Jeff, Feroza and Jai backflipped together and entered Eden.
Descending past green coral that looked like sunken organ pipes they were sqeezed by a pack right away, but the sharks moved on. They leveled out a hundred feet down on the lip of a sheer drop, hovered awhile and then kicked into the blueness. Though the depth gauge gave a constant reading, Feroza couldn’t shake the perception of falling. Bluefin tuna cruised under their feet. Schooling unicornfish and trevallies swirled past like currents made visible. Far bigger shapes loomed where the blue turned to gloom. Feeling like drifting plankton, they turned towards balcony-like tiers of coral toward the clerestory light far above through chromis, sergeants, triggerfish, surgeonfish, and clouds of other fish feeding on everything from algae to shrimps to the corals that housed them. Jeff guided Feroza to the corals under attack from Crown – of –thorns, while Jai followed. He pointed out to a colony of Crown-of-thorn starfish devouring brain corals. Jeff thrust his long spear into one of the stars, removed it from the coral and put it into a net bag. Jai and Feroza did the same and in a few minutes, in their given area, the corals were clean.
Further away, others from the team were doing the same. To the left of these corals Feroza saw that the reef was riddled with caverns and crevices. She knew that this was where the reef life’s night shift spent the day and the day shift spent the night. As she drifted in for a closer look, she felt a mild electric current passing through her body. She quickly backed off, but seeing no clear and present danger from anyone, she rose to the surface and waters warmed by the sun. Once on the boat she asked Jai if he had felt anything. Jai didn’t understand what she was talking about and she didn’t pursue it any further.
After sunset, Jeff lit a bonfire on the Lizard Island beach. The coral heroes brought out barbeque sets and guitars. Feroza and Jai sat with Jeff and the others, sipping whiskey and wine.
Feroza decided that the dancing firelight enhanced Jeff’s good looks. She sat crosslegged in the sand, cupped her face in her hands and listened intently to what Jeff was explaining to Jai. “ At one time,” Jeff explained, “ corals were mistaken for colorful plants. But they are actually carnivores related to anemones and jellyfish. Like them, corals use tentacles with stinging cells to snare microscopic prey. They can also absord nutrients directly through their epidermis.”
“But they don’t travel looking for food, so they must survive on what’s available around them,” Jai interjected. “ Is it enough for survival?”
“Hang on,” Jeff made a funny face, “as much as 90 percent of their nourishment comes from golden brown algae they host in their tissues at a density of millions per square inch. The coral’s enzymes cause the algae to leak carbohydrates. In return the algae get nitrogen from the coral’s waste material, along with a home.”
“So its animal and plant living and surviving on each other,” Jai was fascinated by the insight.
Jeff saw that he had an enthralled audience and continued. “ Nothing survives in isolation,” he said, “and the reef is a good example. Partnerships play a role almost anywhere you look on a reef."
Feroza thought about her own people, the Parsis, and couldn’t help drawing a parallel. A community in self-isolation in the vibrant and diverse melting pot of India. A race nearly finished due to isolation at the behest of the Magi, the high priests of the fire temples. Social barriers raised to protect and maintain a pure race was leading the community to extinction and oblivion. Perhaps the exceptional success of an insular community had carried the seeds of its own destruction. Here at the barrier reef the contrast to nature’s own way, was crystal clear.
Someone had started strumming on a guitar by the fireside. Feroza poured herself some wine and switched back to Jeff. “ Y’know , the largest marine fish family is that of gobies with more than 2000 species worldwide. Here they share burroughs with shrimps, which keeps the holes clean while the gobies act as sentinels warning of danger. During dives you’ll find big barracudas yawning to accommodate cleaner wrasse fish cleaning parasites from mouth and gills. ”
“So everything is dependant on others, isn’t it?” Feroza asked.
“It goes much further than that,” Jeff explained.“ Look at how this and other reef islands are formed. They are formed on top of coral shoals from reef sediments.As seabird droppings glue the grains together and colonizing plants build soil, some of those desert isles transform into woodlands.”
“Hey, are we sitting on birdshit or what ?” Jai laughed out aloud.
Jeff smiled and continued,“ By acting as a buffer against the open heavy seas, the reef-and –island complex makes possible neighboring sea grass beds and coastal mangrove forests. Those in turn trap sediments, store nutrients and serve as nurseries for a number of reef residents. Add soft sea bottoms between reefs and submarine hillocks made of Halimeda, a calcium hardened green algae.”
“Put all these habitats together with clear azure waters flowing from the Coral Sea and brown soil-laden waters washing off the continent. Mix with warm currents, daily tides and seasonal weather patterns, sunlight, time and, voila, you have the formula for life on the Great Barrier Reef ecosystem. Whew! Enough of this lecture. Care to dance?” Jeff got up from the sand and looked at Feroza.
“Sure. Love to,” said Feroza as Jeff helped her to get up. Someone had started playing recorded dance music and there were two couples already dancing on the sand beside the bonfire.
Jai finished his third whiskey and looked at Feroza dancing with Jeff. He couldn’t help himself, but he didn’t like it one bit. “What’s wrong with me?” he asked himself, but deep inside he had begun to shiver. He didn’t understand where the feeling was coming from. He had thought that he was past the stage of juvenile feelings. With all his maturity, professional accomplishments and experience across continents, it struck him that he was just a jealous guy. She was drifting away from him on the reef’s warm currents. Or was it just the flikering light from the bonfire playing tricks with him?
The music had changed to slow reggae. Jeff drew Feroza to himself as they close danced. The seabreeze, wine, music and dancing below starlight and firelight from the crackling branches was a heady mix. Feroza sighed and put her head on Jeff’s shoulders.
“ I’m dazzled by this polychrome beauty of creation,” Feroza whispered as they swayed to the music. “ Where does this color, all this life , all this diversity, come from?”
“ I’ve asked myself this many times,” Jeff said.
“ Why is reef life such a parade of forms and hues? Why are there 20 different butterflyfish species instead of just two or three? I don’t really know.”
Feroza closed her eyes and moved in rhythm. “ I can guess though,” Jeff said dancing further away from the main group to where it was darker. A lot of diversity within groups of tropical fish is due to historical accident. Maybe sea levels fell during the ice ages, ocean basins became isolated, and their populations evolved along separate lines, which we now regard as separate species. Later, when sea levels rose again, many migrated to Australia and started living together side by side. They have flourished. And Australia hasn’t tampered with nature here. Not too much anyway.”
“ Is the reason only physical and biological or is there something else, “ Feroza quietly asked.
“What do you mean.”
“ I think that there is a life force, a great force in operation in the depths of the reef, that holds it all together,”
Jeff stopped dancing, “Did you go towards the reef caverns today?” Jeff looked deeply at Feroza.
“ Did you feel anything?”
“Yes. It was pure electricity. I was bathed in a force I knew nothing about. And I felt wonderful. I felt like I was being born again.”
“Gaia,” Jeff whispered. “ Must have been Gaia . I’ve had the same experience a long time ago.”
Feroza’s look was an open question mark. “Gaia? Spirit of the sea?”
“ The spirit and lifeforce of the earth. Yes. The spirit of the mountains, the spirit of the sea and of all life on earth. The soul of our planet, that keeps everything in balance . You were touched by the force. You’ve been part of the dreamtime”
“ And what happened to you when you were touched? Feroza asked as they sat on the sand.
“ I felt strange. I don’t know, felt like giving myself to others, to the reef. That’s when I became a coral hero. I’ve never left the reef since then. ”
Feroza looked at Jeff and her body trembled. She was fragile. She realized that something was happening to her. Then that moment passed. Someone yelled out to them to come and help with the barbeque and they walked in to join the rest of the team. Jeff advised them to have an early night. “Go on a walkabout to the summit if you wish,” he had suggested. Tomorrow was going to be another long day of diving .
Jai woke up at dawn. He hadn’t been able to sleep well. He wanted to be with himself ,alone with his thoughts for a while and think clearly. He started walking towards Cook’s Look, Lizard Island’s granite summit, 1,178 feet above sea level. Cook’s Look is named after Captain James Cook of England, who was in search of the continent of Terra Australis. In 1770 he had scrambled up to the summit to search for a way out of an endless barricade of reefs. Jai looked around him and saw life blooming. Cook’s look was wrapped in glowing clouds. As he trekked up, Torresian imperial pigeons called from eucalyptus trees, and four foot monitor lizards rustled in the leaves underneath. Jai sat on the summit and looked out to the sea just as Captain Cook had done more than 200 years before him. Within the narrow folds of time, both were looking for answers. The fresh sea breeze brushed his hair and eyebrows and he suddenly felt rejuvenated, his fears had left him. He felt as if he had just walked through a mirage and into reality.
Their next assignment took them to the Swain reef complex of the Macay-Capricorn section, the Great Barrier Reef’s widest belt of reefs.
“You will see a strange sight, mates,” Jeff briefed them.“At shallow depths, sunlight here can actually be toxic. Corals have special pigments to absorb ultraviolet rays, and their symbiotic algae hide in the shade beneath bundles of these pigments for protection." Feroza and Jai were all ears.
“ At depths where little sunlight penetrates, the algae nestle right inside the coral’s pigment bundles. As the pigments re-radiate the light energy they have gathered, the algae can use it for photosynthesis. Get your underwater cameras ready mates. Re-radiation makes the corals to fluorese. A sight you’ll never forget.”
As they put on their scuba diving gear and checked their air tanks, Jeff reminded them in passing to watch out for sea snakes. Jai froze in his tracks, “I hate snakes,” he said. “ No worries,” Jeff laughed,“ Though their venom is deadlier than a cobra’s, these sea snakes aren’t bad tempered, just unnervingly curious. Don’t charge at them. That’s all. By the way, we have thicker rubber suits today as the water at the depths is a bit colder than before. OK, Lets go.”
They dived into the warm waters of what turned out to be the biblical Eden. Within minutes of the dive, sea snakes were everywhere, wriggling in and out of coral branchesafter small fish and eels. A five foot long olive sea snake followed Feroza all the way, seemingly fascinated by the blue flippers, nosing them whenever she paused. A little further down, Jai found Jeff spearing Crowns-of-Thorns from brain corals, oblivious to the fact that he had a far more toxic sea snake about to insinuate itself under one armpit and a shark checking out his other side.
Feroza moved through a feast of orange-yellow broccoli coral as a golden damsel fish stopped to look at her. A spotted potato cod swam with her for a distance before veering off to the left behind a rainbow fish with pink stripes radiating from its eyes. Clearing the starfish from the corals, Feroza moved towards Jai and together they dropped behind a coral slope and stopped outside an underwater cavern. Then, suddenly it happened again. Feroza and Jai were washed by an underwater force, the energy of which passed through them like a mild electric current. Jai gestured to Feroza to clear away from the mouth of the cavern, but Feroza simply smiled. She did a summersault in the depths in joy and wonder and waved at Jai to come closer towards her. She held his hands and Jai and she became one with the spirit of the reef. They stayed draped in the fields of energy for a few more minutes and then together, they rose upwards towards the sun.
Back on the boat, they took off their diving gear and delivered the starfish they had speared.
“What was that? Did you feel it?” Jai asked Feroza.
“That was Gaia,” and we have both been touched.
“Weird,” Jai said.”Wouldn’t have believed it,if I hadn’t felt it. Feel kind of different.”
Back on the island Jeff was saying,“ Weird things do happen on the reef mate. The life force is strong. Doesn’t matter what sex you are, they change. Sex, renewal, growth. Energy, sex, the life force.”
“What about it?”
“ Reef fish switch sex. Really mate. Changes in social environments trigger hormones that promote male characteristics at the expense of female traits or vice versa. I’ve seen male fairy basslet fish attending a harem suddenly disappearing and within hours the dominant female start acting like a male. Then the female becomes a male physically within a few days. Sex and survival…” Jeff trailed off as he went back to clean his gear.
Sundown was still an hour away. In a couple of days they would be leaving the polychrome reef waters.
“Feel like a walk up Cook’s look?” Jai asked Feroza. “ Up there, you’re the master of all you survey, of the sea and the reef and the clouds and the birds. Unless you want to be with Jeff of course…”
“Idiot,” Feroza grinned and threw sand at Jai. “Can’t let a girl dance, can you?”
They reached the summit and surveyed the emerald paradise. They had walked back into dreamtime. The cool sea breeze brushed against their skin . Feroza was flushed. Something inside them had changed. Yes, for both of them. There was a new energy and joy. Feroza’s skin tingled. They looked at each other for what seemed eons and slowly, tentatively, they kissed, and the inhibitions of ten years fell away. They were in the protective arms of the Barrier reef. The ancient manmade barriers were gone forever. Jai kissed her neck and her feet and her fingers and thighs. Feroza let herself go. Slowly, langourously they made love.
From the crest of the waves, from the grains of sand, from the gentle waters lapping below on the mangroves, from the animated cosmos within a droplet of reef water, Gaia smiled. She approved.