In the chapter “Dropping Acid” of Elizabeth Kolbert’s “The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History”, she describes an excursion to the beautiful country of Australia where she originally traveled to Heron Island to observe an annual coral spawning event. However, she later unintentionally finds herself on the miniscule One Tree Island studying ocean acidification in the Great Barrier Reef. The article focuses on the direct effect pollution and industrialization has had on the ocean’s beautiful coral reefs.
The Great Barrier Reef, Australia (image provided by “The Sun”)
The topic of the deterioration of coral reefs is a very personal one to me. Growing up, I spent my summers in the Florida Keys. I often found inspiration snorkeling at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. Each trip felt as if I was entering a new kingdom — an ever-changing resilient ecosystem with a variety of vibrant fish and vivacious sea life, all thriving together in perfect harmony.
John Pennekamp State Park, Key Largo, Florida (Image provided by “Fun in the Sun“)
One of the most interesting portions of this chapter was the way Kolbert personifies coral reefs and contrasts them with humans. “The way corals change the world -with huge construction projects spanning multiple generations – might be likened to the way that humans do, with this crucial difference. Instead of displacing other other creatures, coral support them.” (Kolbert 130). Kolbert explains that while humans seem to be constantly polluting and destroying the world they live in, corals act as “builders” and supporters of the very environment they live in. For centuries, human have been depleting the earth of its resources, while coral reefs have been providing sustenance for extensive populations of sea life. Kolbert describes how “thousands of species have evolved to rely on coral reefs, either directly for protection or food, or indirectly to prey on those species that come seeking protection or food.” (Kolbert 130). To support her claim, Kolbert further explains how coral reefs calcify into gigantic sanctuaries that provide homes to thousands of species. This passage reinforces one of the main themes in the chapter: Coral reefs are truly ecological jewels of the ocean and play an essential role in the oceanic ecosystems, while the human population has become the most destructive force of nature.
As a coral reef enthusiast, I also enjoyed the many excerpts in the passage where Kolbert describes her first hand interactions with the sea life. In the beginning of the passage, Kolbert recalls how she came across a wounded loggerhead sea turtle digging in the sand in the middle of the day, an unusual time for a turtle to be spotted on shore. Later in the chapter, Kolbert describes all of the vibrant creatures she encountered one night during a beachside walk during low tide. Using vivid imagery, she depicted “ loggerhead turtles waiting out low tide, bright blue starfish, leopard sharks stranded in shallow pools, and ruddy octopuses doing their best to blend into the reef” (Kolbert 134). She continues to describe giant clams with apparent lips “painted” with algae. Her encounter with the massive, slimy sea cucumber was one of my personal favorites because I have always wondered what real live sea cucumbers looked like. The way Kolbert describes her walk makes you feel as if you are walking right alongside of her.
Loggerhead Sea Turtle (image provided by “National Geographic Kids“)
One of the most astonishing portions of the article was Kolbert’s comparison of the ocean with the Sahara desert. I had a difficult time grasping this idea considering I have always thought of the desert as a solace, barren terrain. However, Kolbert explains how coral reefs are a sort of oasis or “rainforest” in the middle the mostly empty, vast ocean. Because coral reefs provide the ocean with an “efficient system by which nutrients are passed from one class of organism to another” as well as providing a sort of “trading post” that allows for this complex system of exchange, without coral reefs, the ocean might as well be “nothing more than a watery desert” (Kolbert 139-140).
As a whole, I truly enjoyed this article, especially because I have a very deep personal connection with the topic. I found the article extremely informative as well as amusing and entertaining. As the delicate harmony and beauty of the coral reefs deteriorate, I feel as if I have lost a piece of myself. Overall, I completely agree with Kolbert’s perspective on humanity’s destructive qualities. Everyday, the ocean absorbs more and more toxic levels of carbon emissions; coral reefs are slowly going extinct. It is clear that the majority of the human population is unaware of the irreversible harm they are inflicting on the oceans. I believe this article should be shared with a wider audience to enlighten the public and encourage them to work together to save our precious jewels of the sea before it is too late.
Shocking image of the dying Great Barrier Reef (image provided by “Forbes Magazine”)