People need to breathe air. We cannot live underwater. But we have ways to explore the ocean’s deepest life and mysteries. Snorkels and scuba equipment allow us to visit with colorful fish, glide with a sea current, or even repair a damaged coral reef.
Michelle Rediker loved scuba diving for fun on vacations. Then she learned about a marine conservation project on Thailand’s island of Koh Tao, where volunteers could dive underwater to study and help protect the ocean and its creatures. “Koh Tao” means “Turtle Island” in Thai. Many years ago, at certain times of the year, the shiny black shells of several species of turtles would cover Koh Tao’s beaches. But Michelle, in her month with the New Heaven Reef Conservation Program, saw only one Hawksbill turtle.
As a volunteer diver, Michelle swam in a zigzag pattern across her assigned underwater area with a clipboard, counting and inspecting fishes, snails, and amazing sea slugs called nudibranchs (NOO-de-bronkz; see photo, above left) and evaluating substrate, the ocean floor. She learned that a coral reef is an undersea colony made up of tiny, individual animals called polyps that can have many different shapes. The beautiful colors of coral come from the single-cell algae (plants) called zooxanthalle that live within the coral.
Michelle learned how changes in habitat can harm coral. If it is too hot or too cold,if there are too many or not enough nutrients, or if sunlight cannot penetrate murky water, coral can get stressed. Then, the coral will expel their zooxanthalle, and can die.
Yet a damaged coral reef can be healed, and sometimes even brought back to life. Michelle collected healthy fragments of broken coral she found rolling loose on the ocean floor. These could be transplanted to a coral nursery or an artificial reef. Michelle helped to build artificial reefs. One was about 10 feet long, sculpted to look like a large fish.
Michelle says she fell in love with many of the creatures that live under the sea. One that surprised her was the Boring Clam, not boring at all! “They look like a silk scarf that someone has laid on the floor,” she says. “They billow beautifully! Sometimes they twitch, or if they feel threatened, they pull their mantle into their shell. I could have watched them for hours.”
Michelle A. Rediker works for the UU Funding Program. She hopes you’ll visit newheavenreefconservation.com to learn how you can care for the oceans. She and her wife, Sue, live in Brighton, Mass., with their dog, Buster.