In the year of my sixteenth summer, I discovered one of the best of lifes bargains. Scuba diving. My romantic interest at the time just happened to have a set of scuba gear and offered to teach me how to do it, using the reservoir behind the local dam as my classroom. My first two attempts were rather disasterious. As tall and skinny as I was, the heavy tanks almost brought me to my knees. Those flopping flippers didnt help either. (Warning: Dont attempt this if you want to be known as Miss Poise) Submerging beneath the water, the weight of the tanks played tricks on me and I found myself flat on my back, arms and legs flailing like an upside down turtle trying to right itself. However, prince charming came to the rescue and on the third try, off I went.
I had expected to see a bunch of dead trees, drowned by the water that had created the reservoir. Instead, the view through my mask revealed a lush, green, gently swaying forest while fish, small and large, lazily wound their way through this living wonderland. I sadly bid adieu to summer that year, as well as prince charming. It would be 12 long years before I donned another mask.
The tide of life carried me from the cold environs of that reservoir in Michigan to the sunny shores of Miami and when my first born son, already a whiz at snorkeling, turned eight, we headed for the Keys to get our first glimpse of a coral reef. We found a reef, situated just outside a protected swimming area on the Atlantic side of an island whose name I dont recall. I was suprised that a reef could be found in such shallow water and opted to sit atop the berm surrounding the swimming area to watch my son wade off into his great adventure. And great it was. He encountered a small squid that shot a stream of ink at him as he disturbed its quiet solitude and unable to quell his excitement, called for me to join him.
The moment I slipped under the water I realized this was a whole new world. The colors, from simple to sublime, of this little reef would have made any artist drool. Tiny fish dressed in a rainbow of varing colors darted in and out from the corals protective cover as if they were a bunch of children playing hide and seek. Small sea creatures, the likes of which I had never seen, moved around, over and under the coral ignoring our intrusion. The coral itself was a thing of wonder. Its colors, intricate designs, shapes and sizes made it look as if it had been placed there by a master carver, yet, it was a living thing capable of dying just as we are. Too soon, it was time to pack up and head home. As grand as this little patch of reef was, even bigger and more wonderous views could be found in Florida Bay, a favorite of divers and snorklers on the west side of the chain of Keys. The water was so clear that during the mid-sixties a statue known as the Christ of the Abyss was placed as an underwater attraction just off Key Largo.
Today, that underwater wonderland is vastly changed. The coral reefs in Florida Bay as well as the reefs that run up along the Florida coast are dying. The sewerage effluent, pesticides, phosphorous, fertilizers and oil tainted run-off we have pumped into the ocean, the Everglades and our rivers have finally taken their toll. As of 2003, just 7.2 percent of the coral on the Florida Reef Tract was still alive. It might not seem like a big deal to someone whose never seen a reef up close but if fish is one of your favorite meals, it should be. The reefs are the nurseries for many of the fish species we love to eat. When the obituary for our reefs is written it will include a long list of victims that perished with them.