Reef Lessons

Alice and I were lucky enough to get away for a while this past Christmas. We took a cruise ship in the Western Caribbean, where we were able to spend some quality time on the beautiful tropical beaches there. One seldom hears complaints about the sandy beaches in the tropics. Until recently, I did not know that the sand on those beaches is comprised mostly of parrotfish poop.

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According to my snorkeling guide in Belize, there are about 80 species of parrotfish world wide, and in the reefs of Belize are found around 20 of them. Parrotfish are identified by their parrot-like mouths. They make their living by cleaning algae off the coral. As coral declines, algae can invade them, causing the coral to get sicker. Parrot Fish have strong beaks that can pry up these sick sections of coral, which they chew and swallow in order to extract the nutritious algae. They then excrete the inedible parts. One large parrotfish can excrete 200# of sand per year. Multiply that by all the parrotfish in the world, and give them the millions of years they’ve been munching and pooping, and voila, you have sandy beaches.

Although I tried several times, I was unable to get a positive view of a parrotfish. My guide explained my trouble was due to my shark-like behavior. He told me that during high tide some sharks come a long way up into the coral, and looking for a meal, they can get into the shallows by turning on their sides and churning their tail fin. When my guide pointed out a parrotfish for me to look at, I looked where he was pointing and dove under water churning my fins. This behavior reminded the parrotfish of a shark attack, and they quickly scattered before I could spot them. I was not too disappointed though, because there are lots of youtubes of parrotfish available.

I tried to imagine an old parrotfish swimming around the reef looking down at the sand. It seems possible to me that one determined fish could create many hundreds of pounds of sand. Sand is his legacy. I wonder what the legacy of humans will be once we’ve been around for a while. What is our collective legacy and what will be our individual legacy? As I swim around and observe the flotsam in my wake, will any of it settle to the bottom and merge with the other flotsam? Will I manage to get out of the way when sharks swim sideways during high tide? Will I wear my teeth down chewing up the coral while sucking out the algae?

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