The clouds threatened to pour cold water on the year's final offshore survey, though the monsoon did little to discourage a hasty horde of shopoholics from descending upon the city that never slips. The land around the pier, once a morass of she-oaks and vernal pools, is now a forest of cranes and concrete in preformed perfection. Adding a touch of glam to this scene of steel were frocks and friends who strutted down to the pontoon, where they boarded a one-eunuch flotilla for a meal with a view of a town obsessed with boom and busts. Seamen in festive smiles and faded overalls also arrived, unloading from vans and pick-ups white goods in shrinkwrapped cartons destined for onboard cubicles.
A visible shower blew southwest as the boat drifted over the still swells of the channel that separate the sisters. More worn dame than otherworldly damsel, the older sibling unleashed a damp squib as we trotted to her gentle shores. Stale sand gave way to slippery rubble and live rock in a lagoon of sheltered mysteries. A friendly breeze accompanied our wade through swarthes of brown sargassum and dirty green fronds so fine they hide an army of arthropods that cling, climb and couple amid filaments that come and go with the fancy of a season. The draft kept our bodies cool but like a puppy who has not learnt to curb his enthusiasm insisted on toying with our senses with soft whispers that reduced the reef into a flicker of ripples.
Beyond the seawall, stronger waves crashed onto the edge of the flat in frustration as the lunar cycle drew the sea away from this cove to reveal the majesty of the world beneath the wind. Shod in cold rubber, we trod for the most part on coarse sand, taking care to sidestep colonies of hermatypes and clumps of potential hazard. It was not possible leave an invisible footprint, for nearly every surface bore signs of life in encrustation and even the naked grains nursed an assembly of small, see-through creatures that scattered before our shadows.
Stubby tentacles emerged from convex forms that glowed a faint brown or green like composite fruit in a state of mild inebriation. Living corallites covered the entire surface of younger colonies, while larger clusters bore scars of damage and dehydration. Most polyps bloom with stiff modesty from the safety of their shell, but a few exuberant poritids produce long, flexible columns that must grip their anchors with minute tenacity and pulse with pale lavender to the sweep of the tide. Parasols constructed from calcite littered parts of the lagoon, begetting wonder if the fungiids had gathered by chance or employed mysterious means to move in close proximity. A few were overturned and expired, but many celebrated the fading day with discs of blue, green and purple from which worm-like tentacles swayed and surrounded a striped, slit-like mouth.
Electric-blue silversides and chrome-plated biddies darted about awkward patches of open water broken by dense weed and defensive boulders. Below the pelagics hopped gangs of gobies that shared their space with blue-eyed shrimp and young portunids still too small to tackle their fellow crustaceans or make a grab for careless fish. The incessant clicks of snapping shrimp accompanied the dance of the benthics, as the alpheids shovelled debris from their burrows, which double as hideouts for imperilled bodies, and blew clouds of sediment onto parlours of solitude.
Larger nooks provided retreats for xanthids that trust not in the poison of their flesh, preferring to lumber into the crevices of faviids. The ovum-like carapaces of egg crabs probably make it difficult for teeth or thumbs to get a grip on these clumsy beasts, which are nonetheless shunned by octopi who seem to recognise the crabs as unsuitable prey. In contrast, sharp marginal teeth and spines line the body and chelae of swimming crabs, which crop algae on exposed heads and paddle away with the grace of secondhand greek gods. Though predators themselves, the remains of portunids in entirety or part often lie on all levels of the shoal, forming middens of sort of other decapods or molluscs with suckers of a punch.
A pair of octopi was caught making love at arm's length. The larger of the two, with an armspan of nearly two feet, sauntered over the rubble with false composure, while her slightly smaller companion kept a noodly appendage within his mate's mantle. With little choice but to dog the female in order to maintain coitus, the male turned two-face; one half of his body assumed a pallid hue with two dark streaks leading to one eye, whilst the other retained shades of normalcy. Vivid displays of skin are known to serve as signals to indicate one's desirability to nubile members of the cephalopod tribe and it would appear the male was seeking to maximise his impact with minimal effort by showing the ardour of only his better side.
Phymanthus anemones were once again in full and lusty bloom, a welcome sight after the mid-year months when the actinarians shared the bleached fate of their scleractinian kin. The macroalgae bloom, however, obscured the locations of stichodactylans and their clownish tenants; only one was spotted, languishing high on the flat and bearing a ménage à trois of two male commensal shrimp and a lone anemonefish.
Offering a brief respite from a minefield of marine life, the raised skirt of the seawall extended an invitation to fall and feed the creatures that scuttle and slide on the slippery rocks. Purple crabs with flattened carapaces and spidery legs hugged the crags and huddled in inaccessible reaches. Nerites and turban snails celebrated the moist air with visible movement and waving feelers, leaving trails of damp scrapes in their wake. Rather more circumspect were false limpets that barely broke the contours of their weathered home and rebuked all efforts to drive a wedge in their grip.
A far more active gastropod lurched through the flat with jerky elegance. Overgrown with aufwuchs, the shell of this spider conch presents a disguise that wavers between hide and seek. A gentle flip revealed the lustre of clean mother-of-pearl and stalked eyes with blank, blinkless stares that peered from an aperture that is always wide open. Developed for brace not battle, the spines provide leverage and a counterweight for a pendulous stab that swings the snail back to its preferred orientation. We left the conch to its devices and plodded ashore, relieved and yet reluctant to give way to the rising tide or give up hope that these reefs would remain insignificant in the eyes of avarice and magnificent to all who prize the grandeur of this view of life, of endless forms most beautiful and the gift of eternal wonder in a world where magic has faded and all that remains is the ghost of glories past.