[Editor’s note: Spent the last week in Jamaica, stalking the elusive social shrimp for an ongoing biogeographic study supported by the National Geographic Society. “Irie” is a Jamaican, and more specifically Rastafarian, general purpose word that is said to refer to “high emotions and peaceful vibrations“. Our team resolved to name the first new species we found on the trip Synalpheus irie. Following is an entry from the journal:]
Man, how I love working in the Caribbean. The escape from routine, the healthful vigor of the work for body, mind, and spirit — working in the open air, in the water, wiithout shoes for days on end, focusing on a single goal for a week at a time — unheard of in splintered everyday life where concentrating on one task for even a few hours seems a luxury. The opportunity for quiet reflection is worth more than any lesson from a master, any drug, any expensive therapy — merely being able to live simply for a while.
The last day, at dusk, after sitting hunched over the picnic table picking sponges and curating the specimens all day, we got in the water for a break. I was tired and uninspired, and joined only for a little exercise and to be a good sport. The water near the dock was characteristically blurry and very cold due to mixing of fresh groundwater that flows down through the porous limestone of the hills and up out of fissures in the coral-rock pavement just beyond the shore. I paddled around in the shallows and grassbeds and over to the backreef, killing time mainly, looking at a sea hare undulating in the grass here or an anemone there. It was a beautiful, very placid evening and the atmosphere took on the magical quality that comes over water at this time of day in calm weather. Suddenly it occurred to me that the Sea was quiet enough that I might make it through maze of the very shallow reef crest, which is normally impassably pounded by surf. Charged with a little adrenaline by the swell rolling over the treacherous outcrops, even as lazy as it was, I pumped through a little channel in the reef, working gingerly but quickly, hand over hand, along the brown seaweed-covered rock, chest nearly scraping bottom in places, and finally shot out the other side.
Even after reading for years about Jamaica as the poster child of coral reef ecosystem collapse, the scene shocked me. It literally looked like the scene of a bombing — the place was littered with slabs of broken coral lying everywhere, the sense of desolation heightened by the nearly complete absence of any macroscopic life. Very little live coral, almost no algae, no sponges or soft corals. It was a striking picture of a wasteland. And this is nearly three decades after Hurrican Allen dealt Jamaica the final blow that knocked the teetering ecosystem out. By now the grazing sea urchins have come back with a vengeance and are bristling from every cervice and overhang. The algae are accordingly scarce, which bodes well for the return of live coral, but I still saw little sign of coral recovery. Quite unsettling.
But the darkening ocean seemed to invite me and I swam on over the deepening reef. The water was very clear, at least 50 feet of visibility, and seemed to hold the light with that indescribable, intrinsic luminosity found at dusk underwater. The rocky spurs sloped away steadily and soon I floated like one of the light motionless frigatebirds over an expansive reefscape, maybe 30 feet deep, with canyons of white sand going blue in the fading light between the dusky bulwarks of encrusted coral rock. Here and there were big flat plates of living mustard-colored coral, and a few other species in the deeper water, which gave me a seed of hope. There is still life, and it is still kicking. A small shoal of electric blue Chromis flitted above a coral head, and algae and soft corals swayed rhythmically in the gentle swell, back and forth, back and forth. This, I realized with sudden certainty, is why I come, why I continue to come back to the reef. I was filled with a powerful sense of calm and gratitude and harmony. I realized also that this was a gift, dropped in my lap when least expected, after climbing into the water for the last time in a rote way, preoccupied and without awareness. I hovered there for some time, then swam back in the dusk. Everything looked different on the way back.