Reef Life: Dive into Callum Roberts’ Underwater Memoir

22 November 2019

‘There are few better guides to the glories of reefs than Callum Roberts. Reef Life is a vibrant memoir.’ Guardian

We are past the point where we can ignore the climate crisis and Professor of Marine Conservation at York University, Callum Roberts, has written a memoir to show us just why we should be doing everything in our power to conserve our mesmerising coral reefs. 

His stories allow us priviliged access to, and understanding of, the science of our oceans and reefs and will inspire you to believe that we can transform ourselves in time to rescue the future of our seas.

Follow @Prof_CallumYork on Twitter

Order your copy from Waterstones, Hive or Amazon

 Reef Life

Looking back

York, UK, 2014

Sun has lifted the mist, driving away the early chill and touching the trees beyond my office window with autumn copper and gold. It is the beginning of a new academic year and there is an energy and excitement about campus today. Friends greet one another on the walkway outside and share stories of their summers in noisy laughter. Other faces, hesitant, expectant, lost, consult maps and smartphones. In half an hour I will meet twenty-five new students enrolled on our Masters course in Marine Environmental Management. Julie, the course director and my wife of twenty-seven years, has just passed by to check I am ready.

It feels almost like yesterday, looking back. That first taste of a coral reef remains as vivid today as it was in 1982, so often have I replayed it in my mind: the cobalt intensity of sea, the pause at the reef crest, the plunge, then revelation. Few moments in life can compare with that of sudden arrival on a reef; that headlong rush from the realm of air and people, buildings and cars, into the fluid domain of creatures that crowd and jostle, fearless and unconcerned.

After over thirty years of diving, I have never lost the sense of excitement on entering the water, but I no longer dive alone. I miss the solitude and freedom, but my university would never allow it today. Mind you, the thought of letting my own students do the things I once did brings on a cold sweat. I would happily head for the reef edge, tank strapped to my back, with little more than a wave and a back in a couple of hours!shout. I wasn’t even certified to dive on my first trip to Saudi, not having completed the open-water tests. One time I reached the reef crest after a hazardous wade through churning breakers only to find I had left my fins on the beach. I went for the dive anyway, wading along the seabed like the hard helmet divers of old. Another entry in my dive log reads: Unfortunately the compressor had been playing up, so the tank was only 20 per cent full. Fortunately, the reefs are very shallow here (6 m) so the efficiency of the census was not impaired. No buddy.

To help write this book, I retrieved a horde of letters home to Julie, then my girlfriend, from a tin box in the attic. I am lucky to have married her for many reasons, but now have another: my letters were spared the bonfire of departed love. Rereading them, the memories flood back. So many things have changed. The letters show how fascinated I was by sharks, and frightened too. The movie Jaws had recently kindled the primal horror of becoming prey, reminding me that I was a clumsy intruder in a medium the sharks had mastered millions of years before. Moreover, the derring-do stories of pioneer divers like Hans Hass and Jacques Cousteau were full of encounters with ‘man-eaters’, many of which ended with a length of steel through the shark! So I savoured the excitement and unpredictability of their appearances. I am still drawn to sharks, all the more so because there are so few today compared to then: man eats shark happens millions of times more often every year than the other way around.1

But because of the recent collapse in shark numbers, it is hard to separate hype from reality in the accounts of early explorers.

Were they really so dangerous? I recently came across a telling passage in William Beebe’s The Arcturus Adventure. Born in New York in 1877, Beebe was a scientist at the New York Zoological Society and a great writer of natural history. His books were bestsellers and if anyone had an incentive to spice descriptions of sharks with machismo, it would be him. Published in 1926, The Arcturus Adventure tells the story of Beebe’s expedition to the eastern Pacific and of his visit to Cocos Island, 500 kilometres from the coast of Costa Rica. Cocos is a jungle-clad shard of land that had, and still has in depleted numbers, some of the sharkiest seas on the planet.

By coincidence, Beebe visited the same year as the big game fisherman Zane Grey, also a writer, and quotes Grey’s description of encounters with Cocos sharks: It was a marvellous sight to peer down into that exquisitely clear water and see fish as thickly laid as fence pickets… We saw yellow-tail and amberjack swim among the sharks as if they were all friendly. But the instant we hooked a poor, luckless fish he was set upon by these voracious monsters and devoured.Having caught and killed a shark, Grey disposes of the corpse over the side of the boat: A cloud of blood spread like smoke. Then I watched a performance that beggared description. Sharks came thick upon the scene from everywhere. Some far down seemed as long as our boat. They massed around the carcass of their slain comrade and a terrible battle ensued. Such swift action, such ferocity, such unparalleled instinct to kill and eat!

Less than a month later, William Beebe anchored in the same bay where he and the rest of his staff were diving in helmets and walking about on the bottom, with these self-same man-eatingsharks swimming by and around and over us, dashing at and taking our hooked fish, but, except for a mild curiosity, paying no attention to ourselves. It was as unexpected to me as to anyone, yet I will go on record as saying it is perfectly safe.

So that settles it. It isn’t sharks that have changed so much as the way we see them. The bold adventurers of today don’t fight sharks underwater but commune with them, cageless and exposed, even among the most feared tigers and great whites. I once sat next to a South African on a plane who had pioneered out-of-the-cage encounters with great whites, which he somewhat disconcertingly called his ‘puppies’. Rupert has joined this shark-loving band. After a long stint at the University of York and then as director of a Scottish marine station, he joined the Save our Seas Foundation as chief scientist. In a pleasing about-turn from the indifference which many Saudis showed to marine life in the early 1980s, Save our Seas was established by a rich Saudi Arabian and is dedicated to studying and saving ocean giants. Its work is desperately needed today.

The unalloyed optimism that flies off the pages of my letters home has been tempered by experience. When was it that I first sensed something big happening to coral reefs? Right from the start I remember an argument raging among established scientists about whether coral reefs were robust or fragile. Certainly, there was plenty of evidence that reefs could easily be damaged by careless use. It is telling that in my very first letter home, back in 1982, I write of the damage done by construction of Jeddah’s Corniche road. In 1980, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature had just established a group to consider the protection of coral reefs. I met its chairman in 1983 at a conference, an elegant, white-jacketed Frenchman named Bernard Salvat who was kind enough to invite me to his research station on the French Polynesian island of Moorea two years later. In his first statement of the group’s purpose, published in 1980 and titled Death for the coral reefs(which sounds more like a message of intent than a clarion call for protection; something lost in translation, one hopes), he listed his main coral reef worries as fishing, shell collecting, coastal development and mining for building materials. There is no hint of the trouble ahead.

The robust/fragile debate burned out after a few years when people noticed that members of the robust camp were mostly geologists, while those taking the fragile view were ecologists who spent their time with living reefs. Coral reefs might be prone to local damage and collapse, but over the long run they would endure, or so we believed.

Looking back, it seems that the first events to rock our confidence in the permanence of coral reefs, in their solid, vibrant immortality, were unfolding at the time of my first trip to Saudi Arabia. This was in the eastern Pacific and Caribbean in late 1982 and early 1983, when an almighty El Niño, a periodic reversal of ocean currents and airflow over the tropical Pacific, stewed reefs in a pool of overheated water. The corals lost their bright colours and turned deathly white when water temperatures rose to excess, a phenomenon soon dubbed ‘mass bleaching’. Hot water causes the delicate symbiosis of the coral animal and their plant-like microbes to break down. Mutual benefit turns to cost and the coral either kills or expels its zooxanthellae. A bleached coral is a starving coral; if conditions don’t soon swing back to normal, it dies. Excessive warmth led to the almost complete annihilation of corals in the Galápagos, a catastrophe from which they have never recovered.

Meanwhile, an unknown affliction was sweeping the Caribbean that would destroy almost every long-spine sea urchin by the end of 1984. To those who have ever been impaled by an urchin, this might seem a matter of little regret, but it unleashed a chain of events with terrible consequences that would only be fully appreciated years later. For the moment, untroubled by such news, I was content to follow my ambition to understand how reefs could sustain so many species. It would not be until 2001 that I would adopt the moniker of Professor of Marine Conservation at the University of York, substituting the word ‘Conservation’ for ‘Science’. As in past years, I find the new students on our course united by a passion for the ocean. They share my younger self’s love of the sea, but where I was unconcerned by any sense that this world might be threatened, they know it is and are here to learn how to protect and look after it better. In just thirty years, humanity has gained the upper hand in planetary affairs and the environment is suffering. But still they bubble with enthusiasm and hope. I am careful not to dent their optimism.

1. An estimated 100 million sharks are killed by people each year, compared to an average of six people killed by sharks. Only one in twelve shark attacks is fatal.