Hot water

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From Iain Matthews

Just as the Greeks sat silently until nightfall in the belly of a horse-faced statue, we similarly wait. Looking for a sign to prompt a nighttime evacuation to the inky seas in the hope of witnessing one of the sea’s most enigmatic phenomena.

Coral spawning has been talked of in hushed tones and excited squeaks since our arrival in Madagascar’s south west corner. The season is perfect as the Austral spring turns to summer and the waters warm. The carefully selected sprigs of coral removed from the reef for inspection have borne fruit in the form of orange speck-like eggs. What we await is a single night where all the different corals will simultaneously decide to reproduce.

Amazingly, it is still unknown exactly what triggers the commencement of the reef’s busiest night of the year. Water temperature, chemical signals and the phases of the moon are all thought to play their part; the exact combination of these that prompt the coral to release a snowstorm of eggs and sperm is still a cryptic riddle. What is sure is that this benthic orgy also serves as an all-you-can-eat buffet for the other inhabitants of the African reef, the smaller fish eating the eggs but falling prey themselves to the larger species attracted by the flurry of the feeding frenzy. All the divers here, from kid to grandpa, want to be in the water to view the excitement.

Our hopes remained unfulfilled on my first ever night dive: nonetheless, it was a fascinating if eerie experience. As we descended into the briny blackness I was aware of the near shadows of crepuscular sea-dwellers all around. Only my high-powered dive torch was able to illuminate the familiar, and less familiar, reef animals. The night-time makes these sightings seem more dream-like, with the spotlights of each diver highlighting the contrast between light and dark. The colours and creatures appear hyper-realistic as though they were characters from a Disney cartoon. Our 3am start to the day was well rewarded; we encountered a green turtle slumbering under a convenient coral outcrop; a fully inflated pufferfish and a quickly retiring octopus – maybe embarrassed that we had caught him in the midst of his nightly ablutions.

As we headed back to base in the pre-light of the early dawn we all felt the thrill of a successful dive but the lingering awareness that it might be the next crew of night-divers, rather than us, who would be the first spectators of the big event.

So we go on waiting until the next time we are chosen for a twilight sortie. Meanwhile the dark clouds gather in the distance and threatening rumbles of thunder emanate from further inland. We hope that the rains act in kind and wait a little longer before coming to Andavadoaka.

IDM

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