Attractions of the Undersea World
By “Awake!” correspondent in the Leeward Islands
ARMED with scuba outfit or simply with mask and flippers, men are now exploring the wonders of the submarine world. Let others go to the moon and plan additional exploits in space; undersea enthusiasts are happy to explore some of these little-known regions of our planet. Life and activities under the sea offer their own peculiar fascinations. The silent world affords a relieving contrast to the din and bustle of surface life.
Submarine adventure need not involve the wanton slaughter of the sea’s inhabitants. There are good and practical purposes too. Oceanographers who are aware of the great potential of underwater farming are suggesting that as a partial solution to the world’s food problem. Students of botany and biology are keenly interested in the flora and fauna of the sea. Many others are attracted by the beauty and color and myriad art forms with which the seas abound.
The preferable location for such adventure under the waves is in tropical seas, where the water temperature is not too cool for lengthy submarine visits. The clear, clean waters of coral seas beckon adventurers to the best places.
The Coral Reef
Why should coral seas be a special attraction? Because coral thrives in waters that are sufficiently agitated so as to ensure replacement of water and of the consequent fresh supply of microscopic plankton, and around coral growth is to be found the greatest variety of undersea life. Smaller creatures seek the protective coral, reef with its multitudes of caves and crevices, while larger ones cruise constantly in the neighborhood in the hope that they will intercept some careless little creature that has wandered too far.
What is this coral reef? It may look just like perforated rock. However, its formation is not at all like that of rock. Coral formation is, in fact, the result of the architectural labors of many generations of tiny sea creatures—creatures that are related to the familiar jellyfish and the sea anemone. These creatures, called polyps, are jellylike, pliable, cylinder shaped. One end is anchored to the coral colony, the deserted homes of a previous generation. The other end is the creature’s mouth that opens at night into a fringe of small tentacles that reach out and feed on the plankton that rise to the surface waters. Each polyp builds a protective covering around itself, a sort of individual apartment formed of calcium carbonate secreted by its own outer skin. During the day these polyps retire within their refuges.
With infinite numbers of these tiny architects at work side by side, building upward toward the sun, year after year, century after century, the reef assumed its present aspect. Marine plants took root, seaweed became lodged, sponges and algae—all shared in some degree in cementing the framework together. The result—the coral reef, which has often been termed “the submarine apartment block.”
Generally the reef occurs in shallow coastal waters where the sun’s light and warmth penetrate quite deeply. One reason appears to be that within the body of each polyp there are microscopic plants that make a vital contribution to its digestive process and, like most plants, they are dependent on photosynthesis. Without sunlight these plants die, and therefore so does the polyp.
Strong and lasting though the reef architecture is, there are forces of disintegration, too, not the least of which are mighty storms that often break off coral chunks weighing several tons and toss them like matchwood on top of the reef.
There are other corals, too, that do not build onto the reef proper, though their presence does add to its mass. There is the staghorn coral, the growth of which resembles that of massive tree branches, some of them fifteen to twenty feet long and two feet thick at the base. The brain coral takes the form of various-size boulders with markings that are very much like the convolutions of the brain. These grow in tide pools close to the reef.
There is the stinging coral, which is the bane of divers, for it can inflict a painful wound on creatures venturing too near. Another type of coral looks very much like lettuce in form. Soft corals, as distinguished from the rock corals, include the vividly colored star coral, others that are just a flabby mass with soft, spongy, branching fingers, and still others that look like large plates, some six to eight feet in diameter, having the polyps arranged in concentric circles.
Lords of the Reef
Architects and master builders though the coral polyps are, it must be admitted that the fish are truly lords of the reef. Here they feed and sport and find refuge from the larger predators of the sea. The reef population comes in a fantastic variety of shapes, sizes, colors and odd markings. Seen against the background of the many coral hues, they remind one of the colorful tropical birds and butterflies that flit around a flower garden. There are reds, greens, yellows, blues and every subtle shade in between. Activity is made up of quick starts and short stops amid the jagged coral. Alertness and mobility are vital. For this reason most of the reef dwellers are of modest dimensions.
Close by the reef, on the sandy floor, the little yellowhead jawfish may be seen digging its burrow with its jaws. Just a few inches deep, the burrow provides a refuge into which it backs tail first whenever danger threatens. Such burrows are usually lined with carefully selected pebbles. Schools of angelfish and triggerfish, some of them beautifully marked, will glide by. On the reef surface itself the blue parrot fish, with birdlike beak, will be breaking off chunks of coral and feeding on the tasty polyps within.
Deep down in the nooks and crannies of the reef or hiding among heaps of ancient ballast stones from wrecked vessels live the most formidable perhaps of all the reef dwellers—the six-foot green moray eel and its cousin, the three-foot spotted moray. These are sharp-toothed, powerful creatures that could snap off a man’s fingers or toes if he were not careful where he put them. Beyond the reef, in deeper waters, lurk the larger marauders, forever vigilant, awaiting the opportunity for a good meal—the hammerhead shark, the white-tipped shark, the yellow shark and the six-foot great barracuda.
The barracuda, built for speed and striking power, is a highly selective feeder. Some of the rare attacks on humans by these creatures are believed to have been mistakes on their part. In general they will kill only what they are going to eat, and there appears to be neither waste nor deliberate cruelty in their killing.
While these larger fish just beyond the reef do pose some problems for human visitors to the submarine world, there is other more immediate danger to be guarded against. Take, for instance, the common sea urchin. It is a burrowing, thistlelike creature with sharp brittle spines. When one brushes against it, the spines penetrate the flesh and break off. They are extremely difficult to remove and may quickly produce infection.
Another peril is the stinging jellyfish. As though to disarm the visitor, these are patterned in dark blue, brown and yellow. But many of them can deal out a shocking sting. One of the most dangerous of these is the so-called Portuguese man-of-war. It floats on the surface, dangling its long poisonous filaments. To get involved with one can mean a very bad sting, in some rare cases even causing death.
It is not out of place here to take note of a peril to the polyps, these tiny architects of the reef. The prickly starfish ordinarily seeks out and digests as many polyps as can be found. However, in the Pacific area it seems that the starfish is experiencing a population explosion, so much so that the polyps are being cleaned off of reef after reef, turning them into algae-shrouded cemeteries or lifeless, condemned apartment blocks.
The undersea world surely has its variety, its perils, and its attractions, just as has the world on the surface. The reef visitor who reflects on all the marvels he sees in the silent world cannot but stand in wonder and awe at these multitudinous creations of the One who in the beginning commanded: “Let the waters swarm forth a swarm of living souls.”—Gen. 1:20.