IS THIS THE REAL LIFE? IS THIS JUST FANS AT SEA?
I am re-posting this sea fan article as 2021 rolls over into 2022 with much the same disruption, anxiety, and (for many) grief that we were all facing a year ago. The converse and somewhat rhapsodic title reflects the experience of many people since Covid engulfed the world. Life has become simultaneously real and surreal. It continues in many respects as normal yet who would have guessed that as we entered a new decade in 2020, the face mask would quickly become an essential (or anyway a medically recommended) part of daily life and remain so?
This post was written at a time of sunshine, normality and optimism, before Covid and even before the violent destructive force of Dorian in autumn 2019. Here’s some cheer from sea fans on the coral reefs of the Bahamas.
GALLERY OF GORGONIANS
The waters of Abaco teem with myriads of fish that depend on the coral reefs for shelter and safety, for breeding, for growing up in, and for nourishment. Sea fans (or gorgonians, to use the technical name) are animals too. They may look like plants and stay rooted to the spot, but like anemones these ‘soft corals’ are creatures of the reef and essential indicators of its health.
The purple sea fan Gorgonia ventalina (classified by Linnaeus in 1785) is one of the most common species of sea fan, and a spectacular one at that. The main branches are linked by a lattice of smaller branches. Below the ‘skin’ is a skeleton made of calcite compounded with a form of collagen.
Sea fans are filter-feeders, and have polyps with eight tiny tentacles that catch plankton as it drifts past. They develop so that their orientation is across the prevailing current. This maximises the water passing by and consequently the supply of food as the fans gently wave in the flow.
Gorgonians have a chemical defence mechanism that protects against potential troublemakers. The main effect is to make themselves unpleasant to nibble or uproot.
One species impervious to this deterrent is the fascinating FLAMINGO TONGUE SNAIL. Other ‘safe’ species include the fireworm and BUTTERFLYFISHES.
One benefit of sea fans to mankind is that their defensive chemicals have been discovered to provide the basis for drug research and development, specifically in the field of anti-inflammatories. Another benefit, of course, is that they are very beautiful to look at. And in bad times, that can only be good .
Credits: these wonderful photos were taken by Melinda & Keith Rodgers / Dive Abaco, Marsh Harbour; and Melinda & Fred Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba. Huge thanks to them all for allowing me to freely use their skilful underwater photography in this blog for the best part of a decade.
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