One of my favourite activities in the world is scuba diving. It’s wonderful even when there’s nothing to see – night diving can be like being lost in a gravity-free space of pure colour. But flying through to a coral garden teeming with life is like entering another dimension of reality, a dream world.
One of the most awe-inspiring aspects of it is how completely superfluous I myself become. I’m clearly an alien interloper in this realm. I can barely survive, and it has absolutely no need of me. It goes about its own business whether I’m there or not. In fact, it’s still there right now going about its business, while I sit here perched in my Tower high above sea level. And it’s been doing it for millions of years.
Here’s some old rock. It looks like a lump of pebbly concrete at first, but then you realize you’re looking at the bodies of hundreds of creatures. Shells, sponges, corals and trilobites all jumbled up in a heap. This is a small piece of the sea floor from 430 million years ago. It’s just some of what happened to sink to the bottom near a coral reef and was hard enough to leave an impression.
Imagine the colour and movement of the sea above it. Imagine the purposeful lives full of desire, fear, hunger, pleasure. Many of us thought the human skull I first showed deserved reverence and ceremony. We were less sure about the hyaena skull. I guess the skeletons here then are just dirt and sand? Is that arrogant speciesism, science, or common sense?
The oldest and largest living creature on planet earth lives in the ocean off north-eastern Australia. Or perhaps it’s a city rather than a creature. Or a nation. For the last 25 million years tiny coral polyps have been building it grain by grain. It has fallen and risen again many times as seas and continents have shifted around it. And all sorts of peoples of many species have been drawn to it from land, sea and air. It would be the first living thing seen by any visiting alien flying in from outer space.
For the last 40,000 years of its life this nation has co-existed with the oldest human civilization on the planet, the Aboriginal Australians. But suddenly, in just the last couple of hundred years, it is facing an unprecedented challenge as it is choked by the runoff from human farmlands, bleached by warming seas, and de-stabilized by over-fishing.
Seems to me a little hypocritical that we should devote so much time, space and money to an old fossil, put armed guards and proximity sensors and great citadels of learning around it, and yet stand by and watch while the Great Barrier Reef, a living, feeling ecosystem, dies at our feet.
Which one do you care about?