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The Literal Landscape
by Simmons B. Buntin, Editor/Publisher, Terrain.org

Even in the Shadows, She is of the Light

She is hiding again, sliding through broken branches of coral and into the darkness of purple rock. It could be the mysterious shape of my body, these wild arms first in and then outside of the water. Maybe she’s a loner, as the other fish mingle near the rippling surface, waiting for something falling slowly like freeze-dried manna from a watery heaven. Or perhaps she knows better, remembering the swift rush of Hawaiian current, a crazy-colored wrasse digging headfirst into the sand.

Beneath the makeshift cavern of lacerock and barnacle, she moves in and out of the blue light, suddenly and fully visible as she steals a mouthful of feathery Caulerpa, the macroalgea’s fine green stems waving slightly in the soft current. She darts back again, but even in the shadows I can see the surgeonfish—her eyes, bluer than black and surrounded by bright yellow rings. As she moves cautiously into the open, her full force is now upon me. The lateral, lavender lines draw out from the gold-banded eye to the nearly clear emarginated caudal fin, a thick crescent propelling thin weight. Except for these and the same-colored spots on her head, she is the velvety color of merlot.

Her slow glide along the coralline ridge reveals that she is slightly larger than a silver dollar, and nearly as thin, her smoothly arching dorsal fin shaping her more ovate than round. Underside pelvic and anal fins of deep red add to the elongated form, coupled by slowly rowing pectoral fins, nearly violet.

It is no surprise that Kahekili, Hawaii’s noblest king, deemed the Kole Surgeonfish taboo, ordering a hasty death for those who took it for their own use. All the Koles in the fertile Hawaiian seas may have swam great choruses around their rainbowed coral reefs that day, joyous in the king’s protection. Though Hawaiians dragged long, kelp-braided nets across the lagoons and deeper waters of their island homes, all knew better than to keep the jeweled Kole. The fishes’ freedom was guaranteed.

But freedom is an odd thing. Here I stand now sanding the edges of inch-thick glass, testing the square edge with unprotected flesh, and then sanding again. The glass dust falls like a starlight shower to the shop floor, spreading at my feet. These silicon particles of a handful of atoms are now free; but do they want to be? Is there recognition in individual glassdom, or is the particle now without self, unable to justify its own existence in the absence of a million other particles forming the sheer and rectangular plate of glass that will itself counter freedom?

Kole tang.
King of the Hawaiian fish: the Kole surgeonfish.
Photo courtesy of Keoki's Corner.

I am making an aquarium, cousin to the tank where Queen Kole now reigns, and feeling a bit like a deity. It’s not that I am all-knowing by any means, or else I wouldn’t have to keep repeating basic steps for lack of having done this before. It’s not even this grandiose ability to form things out of unrelated pieces—a polished square of glass, cornered plastic edging—or I would twitch my nose like a television witch and the tank would be complete. It is, rather, this all too easy ability to take life, to hold it captive in the four glass walls roughly 48 inches by 12, and to tell my captives—in not so many words—that they will live out the rest of their lives in this confined space.

Perhaps they think the bargain is fair—I’ll do my best to ensure good water quality, the availability of food, and freedom from predation. In return, they have to get used to transparent walls, keep their colors strong, try to be amiable. But what is their choice? If they disagree to obey the walls, turn black as decaying sponge, and carry a frown, would I ship them back and demand, “These will not cooperate! Return them to the reef and bring me fish that will agree!?” Or do I have inside information, note this disagreeable lad and that sulking lass at the fishstore and safely choose another? What fish would ever ask for this unnatural harbor, this unwild glass box?

Yet I continue my work. The crystalline particles scatter as I shuffle to press the plates of glass together, running a smooth silicon bead along the joined edges. I clamp the pieces strongly and set the clear and heavy box on the workbench.

As I run my hand along the smooth side of cedar board that will become the housing for the aquarium’s intense light, I think of my Kole. I think, really, about the meaning of “my,” it’s definitive possession, as if the surgeonfish really could be mine. Certainly she reflects like a thin arced ruby as the actinic light glints from smooth-scaled side in my aquarium. I own the watery box. But her life is mine only so much as she deems it to be. I will add more Caulerpa if she overgrazes. I will check the water quality to ensure the simpler green microalgae will grow over most everything except the pinks and purples and reds of coralline algae. I will not add another organism hazardous to her health. But she chooses to eat, and chooses to continue her sea-raised ways in the smaller world. She could decide to die, like the waterpark porpoise who slipped into death only days after his mate suddenly passed away.

And what of a mate? Has this noble fish been pulled from her mate, who now searches dark cavities—risking moray eel and octopus—never to find his one-time love? If I risk anthropomorphism, so be it. After all, this isn’t about me, or even my, but about the slow and graceful dive of a million finned creatures in wonderfully blue nautical light, about the light green and dull orange and fire red of a thin wall of sea fans filtering the rich saltwater, about the pink and white barnacle colony synchronized in feeding, the infinitely detailed legs whisking and whisking.

Even in the shadows she is of the light. Everything about her, indeed about the entire coral reef, depends on sunlight. Its nourishing rays scatter in the watery medium, giving life to phytoplankton and algae. Phytoplankton feeds zooplankton, a veritable smorgasbord of microscopic drifting animals, which in turn feeds larger fish, who feed larger fish, and so on. And algae follows suit, converting sunlight to growth. It makes its way to the stinging or snaring tentacles of coral and anemones, growing within individual polyps; to the thin and blanketing micro form adorning staghorn shelf and sunken ship; and to the leafy form of Caulerpa, kelp, and hundreds of other marine plants. These feed other species—invertebrates and fish—and house them, as well. Pacific eels will spend their lives in shallow fields of sea grass. Whole oceanic communities live respiring lives in giant kelp forests.

She swims now to the front of the aquarium, extending the suctioning mouth to glass surface and pulling back swiftly. Dim light breaks through the newly-cleared mark, and she moves on, creating rows of algae-less walls. She reflects the light with every new movement, hovering above the lightly striated shell of barnacle, cocking her magnificent eye to catch Caulerpa’s sway, yawing slightly to ease through a coral’s crack.

Like a rapid silver lure shining wildly, she breaks suddenly from the branching rock and scatters three green Chromis fish, startled by the larger fish’s enthusiasm. They too gleam—a mirror shattered into three pieces by slicing surgeonfish.

Green chromis.
Green chromis are small but active reef fish.
Photo courtesy of John's Reef Flat.

And she could easily slice. Surgeonfishes are so named because of a series of fused scales located on each side just before the caudal fin. In danger or displays of aggression, they can spin quickly, push out the scalpel-like scales, and cut. But in this safe realm she presses her weapons tightly to her sides, swimming briskly now to the other side of the aquarium to taste green-matted lacerock. It’s slight chips show her handiwork, and the other fish give her room.

Though the Kole is solitary, she is not alone. The 55-gallon tank she patrols is also home to two Ocellaris clownfish, their orange-, white-, and black- striped bodies perfect camouflage amid the blue-white tentacles of host anemone. In the wild, clownfish and anemones have symbiotic relationships. The fish have developed a layer of mucus on their scales similar to the stinging nematocyst cells of anemones. Because anemones sting or sometimes snare fish or other objects that do not have this mucus, the clownfish is safe. It nestles into the hundred-armed invertebrate, finding protection from larger fish that cannot safely touch the flowery host. In return, the sessile animal receives bits of food dropped from the fish’s mouth. Or, alternately, when the clownfish is gone an unwary fish or swimming shrimp may wander into the tentacles’ grasp and be pulled into the central mouth to.

But these resident clownfish have no anemone—the aquarium’s lighting is too weak to support zooxanthellae, the unicellular algae which itself has a symbiotic relationship with tentacled host, living in the nematocysts and converting sunlight to food. They would die a slow and unnecessary death in the relative darkness here.

Another clown, the larger tomato clownfish, with one wide band of white painted from the front tip of dorsal fin to the bottom of the gill against the smooth canvas of dark orange, also lives in the tank. Before the Kole, he was the royalty—the fish that all others laid fin before. But the Kole is larger, twice again as big, and the tomato must now give way. This clownfish is also without anemone, but has found safe hiding within a haphazard cavern, behind a low curtain of weaving Caulerpa and calcified purple algae. He still reigns over the Ocellaris clowns, but his fiefdom wanes with the Kole’s whim.

Besides the three green Chromis, their metallic teal backs blending to silver, there is one other fish who is a loner, as well—though it’s not out of fear as much as habit. The four-spot wrasse is about two inches long and half an inch high, bright yellow above fading to whitish pink below. His elongated dorsal fin, running from head to clear caudal tail, contains four black spots, rimmed perfectly with white. His mouth extends to the shape of a short beak, which he uses to search out minute crustaceans occurring in the wild, roaming just above the sandy substrate for an unsuspecting shrimp here, an overturned snail there. In this aquarium he eagerly accepts introduced foods—frozen marine formulas, fresh salad shrimp, frozen brine shrimp, and colorful flakes of various origins.

But he cherishes the occasional feather duster, a small tube worm that opens from live rock or other housing into a red and white umbrella of feathery tentacles, sifting the water for planktonic food. And he also favors small anemones, their translucent brown blossoms spreading rapidly in most other tanks without such a hungry gardener. Though his feeding habits are peculiar, his eyes rotating as he swims slow as a drifting leaf, it is his sleeping habit that is of most interest. At dusk he dives the crushed coral substrate, burying himself for the darkness, reappearing only in the new light of morning.

Night, in fact, is the time of invertebrates, as the fish retreat to their favorite nooks. The sessile Christmas tree feather dusters, their spiraling conical tufts the seasonal colors of red and green and white, unfold from glossy tubes into the dark current. Microscopic plankton trapped in the finely tipped gills are pulled slowly into waiting mouths. Mobile invertebrates in the natural reef abound, but in this aquarium there are few.

But when the lights turn off, they come out.

Thin white whiskers rise from behind the largest rock, imprecisely centered in the back of the aquarium. Slowly a banded coral shrimp moves over the ledge, fully displaying her four-inch antennae. Her body is about half that size and upturned sharply at the thorax. It is white, almost clear, with dark red bands. Slim pinchers constantly sweep the uneven coral for leftover food. In the early morning, before lights shine and before I wake, she may take post on the pyramidal rock, wave her long white feelers easily, and wait. On the reef, long lines of random fish will form an underwater parade at similar cleaning stations. Cleaner shrimp of amazing colors—violet and emerald, garnet and gold—and cleaner wrasses of cobalt, pink, and black, will search for parasites on these larger fish, checking even inside mouths and gills.

Two other shrimp, vermilion with thin white lines, their angled backs lending the name of camel shrimp, live in the old conch shell at the front of the tank. They are not cleaners, per se, but eat thin detritus accumulating on the floor, doing their own part to keep the system clean.

And then there is the hairy red hermit crab, safely lodged into green speckled shell of natica, roaming in light and dark across any part of the artificial reef he can climb, or perhaps move. Like the Kole, he grazes the minimal diatoms of green algae and larger branches of Caulerpa. But he is a scavenger at heart, racing around the tank as ably as any eight-legged creature with heavy home on his back, searching for food. He has taken quickly to eating directly from my hand, occasionally opting for my own slow fingers but otherwise choosing fresh shrimp.

Banded coral shrimp.
The banded coral shrimp feeds on parasites that live on reef fish.
Photo courtesy of Dive Gallery.

I have finished the cedar-housed light, and placed it atop the new tank now resting on a painted wrought iron stand at the top of the stairs. Next is the filter. I have chosen the Jaubert method, which uses the capacity of live rock and live sand—minutely crushed bits of coral inhabited by nitrobacteria and other microscopic organisms—to serve as biological filter. In a marine aquarium, a biological filter must be established—as it is in the wild—to reduce ammonia and nitrite produced from animal waste. The million organisms of live rock and sand break down the wastes into nitrate, which can then be removed through mechanical filtration.

If it seems like an arduous process to replicate the real reef, that’s because it is. Maintaining a saltwater aquarium, and especially a reef, can truly be a struggle. The challenge is not so much in duplicating natural conditions by adding calcium and strontium, iodine and lithium; or even in establishing the correct lighting levels.

It is literally deeper than that, dissolving like fine salts in the ocean to a question of ethics and freedom—the question of my again. Fundamentally, it is this: What right do I have to take animals, plants, and live rock and sand from the fragile coral reef ecosystems? What right do any of us have in taking a living being, transporting it over thousands of miles, mandating a new and foreign home, and then doing that all for our own primary benefit?

I suppose I should have an answer to that, but I don’t. Is it excuse enough to blame it on an insatiable curiosity with the wonders of life—the inability to travel those shallow seas myself and so the admittedly selfish desire to bring them to me?

Not long ago I read an article in one of the larger aquarium magazines by a well-respected reef aquarist. He complained that hobbyists often don’t respect the lives of their animals, and that this large sector of the hobby could bring the whole industry down. Even now collection of live rock has been outlawed, with few exceptions, off the tropical coasts of Florida. It is simply wrong to set up an aquarium, be it freshwater or marine, and then let the fish and other inhabitants die a slow death because of neglect. It is even worse to continually replace fish that die regularly, thereby consciously lending not only to lower overall natural populations, but the willing death of living creatures.

But am I better than careless aquarists? I have a Kole surgeonfish imported from Hawaii, removed from the wild regardless of the fact that it is the islands’ most abundant coral-dwelling fish. I have a deep orange-red tomato clown from Fiji, an electric yellow four-spot wrasse from Tonga, three green Chromis from the Caribbean. The shrimp and crab may have come from any part of exotic seas. And even my live rock comes from Florida’s coralline coast.

In my defense, I am trying to be better, to make the my less of a factor. The first step is, if intent on maintaining a saltwater aquarium, to ensure that it is the best for the inhabitants that it can be. That is why I, and many of the reefkeepers I know, take great care to ensure not only adequate but superior conditions for the captive marine species. The second step may be more important, and that is reducing the effect of taking plants and animals from the wild.

Unlike freshwater species, saltwater fish and invertebrates are difficult to breed and raise, and so are mostly imported. Capture programs both diminish the natural resource, and—in what is fortunately a rare occurrence today—poison whole areas of the reef, not to mention the fish themselves, by using cyanide to ease capture. Fortunately, programs spurred by regional aquariums in Waikiki, Monterey, and Baltimore and concerned fishstores and collectors around the country have initiated small but successful captive breeding programs.

Many clownfish, including the two Ocellaris clowns now teasing each other along the rounded edge of lava rock in my aquarium, are born and raised in captivity. Immediately this makes a difference, as less and less of these fish need to be taken from the wild. Live capture by itself has high mortality rates even before the fish reach individual hobbyists’ aquariums. Vendors can now tank-raise nearly all species of clowns and damselfish—including green Chromis—as well as many species of invertebrates, from clams to coral, snails to starfish. But more captive breeding must be done to protect both the animals and the hobby itself—specially with other highly desired species such as surgeonfish and angelfish.

Sustainable programs have also been developed by importers of live rock and sand. In a Marshall Islands atoll in the South Pacific, Reef Science International, from whom I ordered 30 pounds of live rock for the new reef tank, maintains what it calls eco-rock. Like live rock harvested from all tropical oceans, it is not taken from the reef itself but from rubble gathered at the bottom of the reef, often broken coral and base rock tumbled by storms or other natural events. RSI replaces every pound of live rock it takes with a pound of equally porous and calcareous land rock, which will itself become live rock over time. This process will allow the vendor to harvest live rock without any net loss of biodiversity. And while RSI is still removing living organisms from their natural habitats, it is also giving existing reef dwellers the opportunity to colonize. In the ocean, it takes only a matter of days for this process to begin.

Likewise, on the Florida Gulf coast, plots of live sand are harvested and then replaced with sand quickly re-established by eager microorganisms in the shallow waters.

Finally, responsible aquarists must work to educate beginners and others to avoid unnecessary death and destruction. Hobbyists must boycott those fishstores that do not properly handle marine species so that they will end their interest in the trade. Aquarists must share their knowledge not only with other aquarium keepers, but with scientists and the general public, as well. Some highly experienced reefkeepers have been able to reproduce corals in the tank that are struggling in the wild—and these husbandry techniques can be used to help return suffering reefs to more healthy conditions.

In the end, if the marine aquarium industry cannot develop a sustainable process for continuing the hobby—ultimately eliminating the need to collect from the wild—then it must be halted. There is only one earth, with only so many coral reefs already under severe environmental crises, and we cannot be responsible for their further demise. Indeed, we must be responsible for their continued existence.

False percula clownfish.
Bred in captivity: False Percula clownfish.
Photo courtesy of Premium Aquatics, Inc.

The Marshall Island live rock has arrived, suffering a bit from the cold air, but otherwise healthy. I place it in the tank, on top of the Florida live sand, ensuring gaps for fish habitat and proper circulation. I will leave the lights off until the tank cycles, discouraging any green diatom growth while dosing with calcium to regenerate the varying reds of coralline algae. It will be weeks before I can add even the first set of species—Astrea snails raised in captivity, and a detritivore fish such as a goby. Then, it will be months before the reef tank is completely established, allowing me to add the more sensitive invertebrates, such as the flexible branches of soft red coral, its white polyps extending like so many submarine stars.

I turn my attention back to the Kole’s tank, for surely it is hers as much as mine. She swims swiftly into hiding upon seeing me, but as I settle motionless, she again greets the light, now returning the favor as it glints off each velvety scale. It seems that this displaced fish has made herself at home, fully knowledgeable of each crevice and patch of algae, every feather duster and live rock branch. She weaves in and out of shelved lacerock, nipping the tips of Caulerpa from green to white. Wild again, she bursts the schooling Chromis, then gracefully glides to the other side of the tank, watching their nervous reactions. The small fish join again and search just below the water’s surface for food. The Fiji tomato clown is herding the Ocellaris clowns, and all three brush gently against a Caulerpa clump, perhaps remembering anemone. The banana wrasse drifts over uneven floor, picking at shell or algae-coated coral, and then dives into the light substrate, submerged for the night.

The automatic timer clicks and with a short, electronic buzz, the lights turn off—first daylight, then actinic blue. What was the day on Hawaiian reefs that it couldn’t be here? Many things, but as the Kole surgeonfish slips into a coralline den and nestles in for the night, a part of the Hawaiian reef does live here. And it is not mine at all.


Simmons B. Buntin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments. With Ken Pirie, he is the author of the new book Unsprawl: Remixing Spaces as Places (Planetizen Press, 2013). His books of poetry are Riverfall (2005) and Bloom (2010), both published by Ireland's Salmon Poetry. Recent work has appeared in North American Review, ISLE, Versal, Orion, Hawk & Handsaw, High Desert Journal, and Kyoto Journal. Catch up with him at www.SimmonsBuntin.com.
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