Beneath the Waning Tide

Hannah L. Bercovici

© Copyright 2021 by Hannah L. Bercovici

Photo of Hannah and sea turtle.  (c) 2021 by Hannah Bercovici.
© 2021 by Hannah Bercovici

Coral reefs are quickly disappearing because of human interference. In this story, I try to create an emotional landscape for the reader to experience being underwater with these organisms and explain why it is so important for humans to act.

The ocean felt like a lukewarm bathtub, slightly warm but cold enough to be uncomfortable. The back of my throat contracted against the salt water. It tasted as if someone purposely mixed in the perfect amount of salt to cause my body to go into a hypertrophic state. I was seventeen, on a SCUBA diving trip with my family in the Cayman Islands. As soon as my body broke the water’s surface tension, I began deflating my BCD. I clamped my nose shut with my fingers. I breathed out and descended. As the ocean floor got closer and closer, pain through my ear canals. I reveled in the feeling of being underwater—sometimes the most uncomfortable sensations provide a sense of calm. My stomach clenched at the thought of descending the coral wall in front of me. I needed to see it all.

SCUBA diving gives divers a superpower: the ability to explore a secret universe, one that has been virtually uncharted. The little pockets of nature that one can explore underwater are diverse, ranging from murky lakes to the clear Caribbean waves to the briny waters underneath Arctic Sea ice. Diving opens an entirely new world for human beings to explore. However, diving also exposes humans to worlds they can take advantage of, creating a great responsibility for divers and others who have the privilege of being in those spaces. The responsibility to protect the oceanic universe.

My movements were thick as I pulled myself through the water, staring at the colorful world below. I continued to descend, forgetting about the other divers slowly filing into the water above me. The coral formed uneven, lumpy towers, dotting the sand with pillars of life. Coral reefs create highly diverse and efficient ecosystems all over the world, but there was something wrong with the community below me. It was too… pale. A sea worm crept out of its brown and white tube, its white tentacles caressing the current. I reach a finger towards the feather-like appendages; the alien darted back into its shell, annoyed at my interference in its hunt. A sense of shame filled my gut—I did not mean to do harm.

Not many people do.

Yet, human irresponsibility is quickly endangering organisms within our waters. The ocean is the largest sink for carbon dioxide, having the ability to sequester human produced carbon dioxide. In fact, the ocean absorbs approximately thirty-five percent of carbon dioxide released by people. The ocean has to accommodate the increasing levels of carbon dioxide to keep the ocean’s chemistry stable. It does this by creating carbonic acid, a reaction between water and carbon dioxide. The elevated amounts of the greenhouse gas shift the ocean’s composition to a greater acidity, or lower pH, which is poisonous to many marine organisms—especially corals.

I deflated my BCD, moving away from the disturbed tubeworm. The wall of coral blinked red, white, yellow, white, purple, orange. Bleached coral surrounded the painted ones, threatening to leach any color from its neighbors. I did not comprehend what the lack of color meant, though my nerves tingled with anxious anticipation. A turtle zoomed above, and a shark pressed against the wall of shelled polyps. Their grace reminded me that these animals depended on the reef to survive. I stared at the white coral in front of me, an ache forming in my gut.

The rapid change in acidity from increasing carbon dioxide creates deadly consequences for marine organisms living in reefs. Coral and other shelled creatures build their exoskeletons from calcium carbonates, like calcite and its polymorph aragonite. Carbonic acid in the ocean decomposes carbonate minerals naturally; however, an increase in carbonic acid will increase the breakdown of these marine organisms’ shells. However, calcite is more stable than aragonite, so while mollusks and other creatures are beginning to form thinner calcite shells, corals are decaying due to their aragonite-based exoskeleton.

Not only does greater acidity cause exoskeleton disintegration, but it also creates a stressful environment for the coral. When the polyps sense that the acidity of the water is damaging their exoskeletons, they become stressed and expel the algae that are a major source of sustenance for them. This process, called coral bleaching, is mostly irreversible. By 2005, fifty percent of the United States’ coral reefs in the Caribbean were bleached; in 2002, sixty percent of the Great Barrier Reef was bleached. As humans continue to expel carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the acidity of the ocean will increase, and coral reefs will be obliterated, along with the ecosystems they built.

After the dive on the wall, an older diver told me solemnly, “The reefs are not what they used to be.” She explained that she had been diving here for over fifty years and while the change was obvious to her, it was less noticeable for new divers like myself. “Corals used to sweep over the ocean floor, covering all visible expanses. I thought that the coral would go on forever.” Her words echoed my own thoughts while diving; they also meant that I was wrong. Though I had wished for it, I could not see all the beauty of the reefs. Healthy corals were quickly disappearing into the past. “It used to be all reds and oranges, purples and pinks. Now it’s half-bleached. It breaks my heart,” she said. “Much has changed, and no one even knows.”

Humans must learn the consequences of their actions. As more people SCUBA dive and learn about what is happening underwater, they can begin to understand what needs to be saved. Diving gives humans the opportunity to submerge themselves in an entirely new world; it shows us what we need to protect. However, not everyone can get underwater in this way. Humans must take responsibility for our actions and learn about what we can do to fix what we have broken. If we manage to stop the damage being done to the coral reefs, we might be able to save an entire ecosystem that contributes to our lives daily. If we do not save it, we will miss out on a world that deserves to be known. To be saved.

Hannah Bercovici lives and works as a writer and bartender in Phoenix, Arizona. A writer for as long as she can remember, she has recently begun submitting her creative work for publication. Her published work includes "I exist!" in the Slippery Elm Literary Journal, "The Scientist of Europa" in the Community in a Box Project, and "a desert reef" in GLITCHWORDS. Her short story, "Casabruja," will appear shortly in the Slippery Elm.

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