The reef blooms when the sun sets and the wine-red corollas of sea hibiscus trees have fallen for half a day and are breaking apart to become fodder for beachfleas and other minute scavengers. A chill wind blows through the gap in the seawall at Pulau Subar Laut and toys with the tide as the water seeps out for but an hour over a morass of coarse weed. The ripples turn the lagoon into a basin of parallel motion that shatters the thin interface between airspace and the life aquatic. Taking care not to misplace caution or miss a step, we descend onto a flat that blinks a blank from the shelter of the high shore but turns into a scene of lurid hues before harsh beams of diode light.
The colonies that invade the lagoon fail to attain the dendriform proportions of corals in deeper waters. What branching genera survive here are modest shrubs and sparse in distribution compared to the trees and tabletops of submerged reefs. Massive boulders, buffered against wave damage by their convex anchorage, litter the shore with fissured domes and rosettes of lime that vie with other coralline settlers to chart a broken mosaic on the rubble of dead kin. Tiny globes encrust the edges of pools filled with startled fish, while little crabs graze on larger outcrops with pates shorn by heat and desiccation. Columns of sandpaper and the skeletons of cranial lobes inject a semblance of structure to the sway of fronds and fruiting bodies. On the sand between the mounds lie wandering mushrooms which extend fat, fleshy tentacles from gaps between radiating septa that form a single parasolic polyp.
The animals that reside in smaller polygons emerge, too, to taste and trap the flavours of the sea when it is too dark to catalyse a solar brew. Some colonies have corallites that maintain a tenuous individuality; their soft columns dwell within discrete or shared walls with nowhere to grow but up. Others develop as irregular, meandering moulds from which a glassy fringe of tentacles protrude; it is not clear if each elongated favid arose from the ontogenic fusion of adjacent polyps or an inevitable dilatation of a once cylindrical clone as it lays down fresh layers of calcite to capture every available inch of the water column. The gleam of a torch reveals a battery of colours as fluorescent tissue creeps over sharp ridges, but the polyps quickly shy away from the glare, retreating into embedded theca to offer the hospitality of a home with hard edges.
We try to avoid direct contact with these old school architects that pulse and play in the waves, for their apparent ubiquity by reclaimed isles disguises a stony refusal to adopt a contemporary pace of growth that could fuel their revival in a sea smothered by coastline development and untimely deluges. But it’s a task hobbled by the spite of a naughty breeze and the danger of losing yourself to the beguiling motion of builders who struggle to turn bare rubble into monuments of natural artifice. And there’s never enough time to finish asking one long, longing question before the elder of two sisters hastens to drive us from her grace and bid night to the lightbearers of a city that fears the dark and has forgotten how to dream.