Soapbox Science

HEAVY DEBT

Gordon-ChaplinGordon Chaplin was a journalist in the Saigon bureau of Newsweek and at Bangkok World, the Baltimore Sun, and the Washington Post. He has also worked in sea conservation with the group Niparaja and since 2003 has been a research associate at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. He is the author of several books, including Dark Wind: A Survivor’s Tale of Love and Loss. He lives with his wife and daughter in New York City and Hebron, New York, where they run a grass-fed beef operation. Gordon is the author of FULL FATHOM FIVE: Ocean Warming and a Father’s Legacy

Returning to one’s childhood is a fraught exercise on many levels. What if your sacred memories turn out to be false or faulty? What if you yourself have changed too much to fit back in? And scariest of all, what if the place you’re returning to no longer exists?

I grew up in the Bahamas in the fifties and sixties, helping my ichthyologist father collect and study fishes for his monumental scientific text, Fishes of the Bahamas and Adjacent Tropical Waters. In many ways the book was my sibling. I knew the reefs as well as the rooms in our home, and the fishes that lived in them were my peers.

Full-Fathom-Five1On my favorite shallow reef, spreading branches of elkhorn coral reached eight feet from the sandy bottom to the surface. Their color was a light, glowing terra cotta, the texture deeply serrated with the chambers of the polyps that had made them. Through the clear water’s prism everything was magnified and intensified–the jewel-like reef fishes seemed to be lit from inside. Fish, anemones, purple gorgonians, soft corals, tube sponges, sea fans, all moved to a light, watery rhythm, the symphony of the reef. I felt part of it in a way I never did on land.

Fifty years later, I am about to publish my sibling’s child: Full Fathom Five: Ocean Warming and a Father’s Legacy, half science, half memoir, combining an account of updating my father’s work with an investigation of my dreamlike childhood and who my father really was.

All this started a few years ago when I was asked by a group of scientists from my father’s old institution, the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, to participate in the first 50 year retrospective study ever made of Bahamian reef fishes. My father and his colleague Jim Bohlke, in compiling their text, had accumulated the uniquely extensive archive that provided a solid base line against which change could be measured.

The science would be pretty straightforward. We’d return to a series of locations where reliable measurements had been taken in the past, take new comparable measurements, and then study the ecological changes. As the sole surviving member of the original team, I could guide the scientists to the exact collecting sites we used 50 years earlier. I remembered them perfectly, even though I’d been only 10 years old.

Aldo Leopold, the father of American conservation, has written: “It is the part of wisdom never to revisit a wilderness, for the more golden the lily, the more certain that someone has gilded it.” Of course, the central concept of our project flew directly in the face of that advice: I expected my memory to be tarnished, and measuring the degrees and details of tarnishing is what my colleagues and I would be trying to do.

The collecting team that did the present day expedition out of Nassau, Bahamas.

The collecting team that did the present day expedition out of Nassau, Bahamas.

The day was sunny when I and the scientific team arrived at my favorite reef fifty years later, donned our diving gear, and jumped overboard. It took a few moments to understand exactly what I was seeing. Finally it came to me: the light had gone out.

Plenty of light shone through the surface onto the reef, but it was absorbed like light on a winter forest. Dark green-brown algae covered the broken branches of elkhorn coral and they no longer glowed with that magnified, intensified terra cotta fluorescence I remembered so well. Under the algae, the coral had died.

You can read about this destruction–and I had–but that doesn’t even come close to preparing you for seeing it first-hand. It was revisiting wildernesses, witnessing for himself how they’d changed over time, that set Leopold on his life’s course. But I don’t think even Leopold saw such a drastic example of deterioration as I did at the favorite reef of my childhood: 90-percent of his beloved Southwestern forests did not die during his lifetime.

Our subsequent investigations showed that most of the damage had happened during the great El Nino condition of 1997-98, when the south Pacific trade winds stopped blowing and cool deep-water upwellings were compromised, raising ocean temperatures around the world. A one-degree Centigrade rise in water temperature will start killing coral, and thousands of years of growth can be destroyed in less than a presidential term in office. As global warming progresses, El Nino conditions are expected to become more and more frequent.

Now that the coral is dead, what happens to the fishes that live in it? This was a largely unanswered question. In the course of five expeditions over almost three years, we collected fishes on a representative sample of my father’s sites, using the same method he had: an organic fish poison (rotenone) extracted from the roots of certain members of the pea family. After we’d eventually analyzed and compared historical collections with present ones, the results were startling.

At first glance, the news was wonderful. Even with severe coral degradation, we found no measurable difference in species richness over fifty years! In grim picture, there is hope. As long as the species survive, the means for regeneration are intact. Extinction hasn’t happened yet. Biodiversity is preserved, for the time being.

But the time qualifier is very important. Even though diversity is pretty much the same, we found crucial changes in the proportions of the community–fewer plankton eaters like the tiny red cardinalfish and more algae eaters like parrotfish and wrasses—that indicated it was probably just beginning to be affected by the coral’s destruction. “An initial stage” as it was termed in our paper published in the Bulletin of Marine Sciences. The implications were terrifying.

Although the dead reefs we collected on were still largely intact, in other parts of the Caribbean they’ve been crumbling away for the last 30 years and now the most complex structures have mostly disappeared. The time period between death and total disappearance is called a “degradation debt.” When the debt is fully paid, the collapsing reefs will be abandoned and the fish that lived in them will have no refuge. The world’s most diverse ecosystem will have been destroyed.

Our work was based on my father’s work and would have been impossible without it. Which raised a question I’d been grappling with all my life: how and why had my father–who’d never been to college, married a rich woman, and seemed headed for a playboy’s insubstantial life–transformed himself into an accomplished scientist and co-author of a seminal text that’s still considered definitive. As his son, the answer could help define me.

I’ve come to believe the answer had to do with art. I think it was the beauty of fishes that attracted him to study them, more than a scientific motive. When I was six, he showed me the iconic little fish (a fairy basslet) that would become my totem. And the legacy was passed, not through daunting ceremony and solemn words but through a piece of living art. I saw what my father wanted me to see and took it from there.

 

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