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Art by Maya Katz

MARINE MURDERER
by NANCY WHITECROSS

The ocean was calm that day; there was no wind, only the sun beating down on my head as the dive boat sped on top of the water. The sky reflected an azure blue, with not a cloud in the sky.  My fingertips gently touched the water. People asked me what I was doing when they heard me calling my friends to come and play with us. Within minutes, they had surrounded the boat, jumping gracefully in and out of the water. The bottlenose dolphins knew I was there; they waited for me to join them. 

        Just six kilometers off the coast of Umkomaas (South of Durban in the province of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa) is Aliwal Shoal, one of the top ten dive sites in the world.

        John, a fellow instructor and friend brought a student on his first dive. The conversation was exciting as the student, his father, anticipated an incredible dive while we tried to play it down, as Aliwal Shoal could be daunting. More often than not, the visibility is less than five metres. When we dive in this glorious place we must remind ourselves that we are invaders of the fish species’ habitat. It is not an aquarium.

         I had my camera on the boat that day, hoping to glimpse my friends playing underwater. We kitted up. When I was ready, I did a back roll into the water with the dive buoy.

         Immediately, the dolphins surrounded me as I dived to the bottom of North Sands, ten meters underwater. John and his father followed me. Once our student was safe, I handed the buoy line to John and immediately pointed my camera at the dolphins scratching their backs in the sand, one after the other, as though they were dancing to music. An albino dolphin joined in the fun. John and I tried to count how many of them were playing; it must have been close to one hundred. Our student was mesmerised as he knelt in the sand, watching them.  As they ascended to breathe, two giant manta rays appeared out of nowhere, one covering my whole body as I lay horizontally above the sand.  They disappeared into the depths of the deep blue ocean. Adrenaline rushed through my body. I had experienced pure love and joy from the living creatures below. 

         We had not moved from North Sands and needed to get to the reef to show our student more of nature's wonders. John, holding the buoy line, hovered just above us as we swam away to find the reef. The current was gently swaying us as we were propelled forward. In our vision was a magnificent sight: two clownfish playing in an anemone's tentacles. Even though their tentacles are poisonous, the clownfish are protected there. They live a symbiotic life without harm or fear. Their black and white stripes over their bright orange coats are beautiful against the bland pink anemone. As we swam over the many different types of coral, our student looked blissfully happy and content. The visibility was around eighteen metres and we were so lucky to witness a ragged toothed shark approaching us, gently flicking his tail. Aliwal Shoal is a breeding ground for the ragged toothed shark, also known as the grey nurse shark. Although he looked ferocious, he was a gentle giant as he swam past, enchanting us and our student.

        As we swam further, an alien-looking moray eel peeked at us from his hideout. They are carnivorous predators and feed off small fish and crabs. Knowing he could deliver a nasty, painful bite, I avoided contact with him. He ventured out of his home and swiftly swam away on the hunt for his next meal. We swam around the beautiful coloured coral, which had taken many thousands of years to evolve. I am particularly interested in montipora coral, which is preyed upon by butterfly fish. There are many types of montipora, some with branching arms, others with twisting spirals, and even more that grow on top of the rocks, blanketing them in color. 

        We came upon a cleaning station as we watched the many fish species swaying in the gentle current. We tried to explain to our student why several species of fish were waiting patiently to be cleaned by several cleaner wrasse. The cleaner carefully picked off dead skin, bacteria and parasites from each fish, taking particular care of the mouths and gills. Once clean, the fish happily swam away, leaving the wrasse with a full meal. Shrimps and cleaner wrasse then do a small dance, indicating to other species that they are ready for business. It reminds me of a car wash. Even predatory fish like groupers allow the cleaner fish to swim inside their mouths, removing hitchhikers and bacteria without harm. 

        Our time below had ended, and the magic of that one dive will live in our students’ mind forever. Seeing so many of my friends swimming beside us was a rare sight.

         Almost twenty years have passed since that magnificent, magical dive, and although I have travelled to many dive sites worldwide, I have never experienced another dive that I could compare to that one. 

        Over recent years, I have witnessed what the temperature rise has done to my precious place. Oceans absorb ninety percent of the excess heat from global warming, endangering life in and around them, including humans.[1] The oceans cover seventy percent of our planet's surface, and forty-four percent is experiencing what has been called a "Marine Heatwave." The warmer the oceans get, the stronger the storms get. When a hurricane forms, the hot sea exacerbates it, creating more devastation. Warmer water contains less oxygen than cold water; therefore, fish’s oxygen demand is much higher in warm water. During the ocean's heat waves, more fish will die.

         Venomous sea creatures are increasing due to warmer waters and the acidity level of the oceans, especially the deadly Box Jellyfish and the coral-eating crown-of-thorns.[2]

        Many corals in various parts of the world have been bleached by the sun and have died, devoid of colour. The breeding grounds of several species of fish and mammals have been destroyed. I have observed how the increase in numbers of the crown-of-thorns has devastated some reefs by eating their way across the coral, a direct aftermath of climate change. If this continues and people do not take responsibility for their actions, in 2100 the oceans will be depleted.[3]

         In the last eleven years, we have lost fourteen percent of the world's total coral reefs, equivalent to half of Australia’s living coral.[4] A recent report claimed that the cause of the tragic loss is due to climate change, rising ocean temperatures, overfishing, and declining water quality. The report also mentioned that the coral reefs could recover. But we would have to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However, coral takes many thousands of years to grow. 

         We will not see it recover in our lifetimes.

          I realized that what I have seen and treasured during these last thirty years will soon be a memory as the oceans become depleted of their beauty. Many of the coral reefs are already barren. My grandchildren and great-grandchildren will only know this memory from the photographs and tales that I will pass down from generation to generation.

         The changing climate is the enemy that has murdered my friends deep down in the once-magnificent waters of the oceans. 

 

 

Note:

        The excellent picture of that day, of the back-scratching dolphins, was later published in the DiveStyle Magazine. 

        I have been diving since 1994 and have had the good fortune to visit the Great Barrier Reef, The Red Sea and many Islands for over thirty years. As a diving instructor, I have had the pleasure of qualifying many students who have found a passion for scuba diving. 

 

 

 

[1] National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “How Does Climate Change Affect Coral Reefs?” NOAA, January 20, 2023. https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/coralreef-climate.html.

[2] National Geographic. “Venomous Sea Creatures on the Rise Thanks to Climate Change.” Environment, October 8, 2018. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/climate-change-increasing-venomous-creatures-ocean-warming.

[3] Lotterhos, Katie E., Áki J. Láruson, and Li-Qing Jiang. “Novel and Disappearing Climates in the Global Surface Ocean from 1800 to 2100.” Scientific Reports11, no. 1 (August 26, 2021): 15535. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-94872-4.

[4] United Nations Enviornment Program. “Rising Sea Surface Temperatures Driving the Loss of 14 Percent of Corals since 2009.” UN Environment, October 5, 2021. http://www.unep.org/news-and-stories/press-release/rising-sea-surface-temperatures-driving-loss-14-percent-corals-2009.

 

NANCY WHITECROSS, a poet and author from England, currently resides in South Africa. She previously qualified as an accountant in England. She last worked as a financial director of a company until she retired and began her autobiography. As a dive instructor who has traveled the world, she has witnessed firsthand how climate change has impacted the oceans. 

 

MAYA KATZ graduated from the University of Colorado, Boulder in 2021 with a Bachelor's Degree in Business Marketing. Her piece is a three-dimensional 48x24 acrylic on canvas utilizing mixed media like sand, shells, beads, rocks, foam, and glue.

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