The Importance of Eating Algae – Part 2

Read part 1 here.

“Tell me about it.” Elder Humphead was almost encrusted to her chair, but her voice was crisp.

Rabbit scooped algae into his mouth. He wouldn’t lie. “Let me eat something first.”

The second rush from the algae was subdued, but he felt good enough to tell a story. “Quieting the tantrums of the Shark children was a sign of prestige among the Fishies, but it was a lot of work. Only Senior Fishies were given the assignment, yet that same evening, the day before I last saw you, the Elite Fishie gave it to me because Grouper…left. I had already worked that whole day, but I couldn’t turn it down, it was a promotion, and I wouldn’t abandon my other responsibilities. I thought…” Rabbit stopped. He needed some more algae. He tilted his head away from Elder Humphead until a sniffling broke the silence. Her eyes were watery, but she was smiling. “That’s where I was the night before I told you our last story. Mesopelagia. I was so keen to see the oldest blossoms in Reef. Have you seen the home of the Shark family? It’s huge, and its branches were exploding in bright colours. But inside was a different story. The blossoms hung like dying nymphs from the cavern walls. I was still in awe, of course; how could you not be? Those caverns were full of, I don’t know how to describe it, a kind of solemn chaos demanding nothing short of fear and respect.

“Only one cave was still guarded by an iron gate. An old fish swung it open, a cleaner from one of those Wrasse families that have served the Elites and Elders for generations. ‘Ahh they sent another one,’ he said to me, slowly, as if each syllable got caught in his teeth. ‘You best get up there. They weren’t expecting another one so soon. They’ll be happy to see the Elite Fishie hasn’t given up on them yet…ack-ack.’ He said that, ‘ack-ack.’”  

Rabbit paused to gnaw on more slime.

“I’m still not sure what was so unsettling. The decadent crimson vibrating off the walls, or maybe it was the raucous shrieking that seeped like a gurgling spring at first but soon surged into a cacophonous waterfall as I stepped further into the main chamber. You have to understand, the room was the most grandiose I’d ever seen; the chandelier alone shone like a sea goddess. But the ruckus emanating from beyond the room made it all feel wrong. If I showed any shock at the immensity of it all, the Sharks did not seem embarrassed. The Matriarch sat at a blossoming red table, a short stick stuck between her teeth. Sneering, her chiseled points bit something hard off the end of the stick in a loud crunch.

“I started to introduce myself, but her voice cut harder than her teeth. ‘Grey!’ she yelled. ‘Where are you? They sent another, so we can go hunting again.’ Her legs undulating, hips bobbing side to side, she sauntered to me. I held out my hand, but she ignored it. ‘I hope you make our children smile better than the last.’ The navy of her eyes conjured a cold, the kind you feel staring into the interminable Deepsea. ‘I doubt you need reminding of what’s at stake.’”

Rabbit halted again. Greenish brown slime slushed down his chin; he slurped it back up.

“Rabbit?” Elder Humphead reached for him.

“I’m fine,” Rabbit huffed. As the algae flowed into him, breathing got easier.

“‘The colours down there are just dreadful,’ she scolded me, pointing to the drab floor, then to a dark hole in the far wall. ‘They’re out there. We’ll be back in the morning. Best get started; they are so whiny today.’

“The Patriarch was short and stocky but walked fast. His eyes were full of the same chaos as his wife, laughing at me. ‘My darling Silvertip. Another one? Say it isn’t so! Oh, they do want us to be happy! Such dedication.’”

Elder Humphead chuckled. Grey’s voice had been unnervingly suave and smooth. Rabbit had done his best to imitate him but lacked the volcanic turgidity rumbling in Grey’s imposing posture.

“‘Caribbean, Blacktip, do be good for Mummy and Daddy! Look after Whitetip!’ he shouted as they whisked out their Acroporan mansion. The colours of the table surged in the dimming light like a sunrise, but I knew it was an illusion. There was lots of work to do. The children were a restless mess. The oldest, Caribbean, was thrashing the youngest, Whitetip, while the middle child, Blacktip, was alone in a corner. I pulled Caribbean away, and the other two started playing, but Caribbean just started punching me. I tried jokes, stories, goofy acts, every game I had in my repertoire, but nothing. They just kept screaming at each other. They wouldn’t listen; they wouldn’t obey. I had to put Carribbean in another room. He sulked in the corner, but got quiet. When I returned to the others, Whitetip was leaping on Blacktip as they tumbled out their room and into the dining table. I had to yell, force them into separate corners. Caribbean tried to escape, but I barked back at him. He thrashed me. I would not yield; I’m not proud, but it was all I could do. I remember just falling over once they were all silent and calm. I had expended all the energy I had-”

For a sliver of a moment, Elder Humphead stopped rocking.

“I had to make them smile. The children.”

“I understand.” She smiled, flooding the tidepools of her cheeks a rosy red.

“I failed.”

A petal dropped onto his lap. Crisp. New.

Rabbit’s voice grew husky; he gasped. She was smiling. Because of his story. He tore algae off the walls with such ferocity his fingers bled. The little pockets were there, waiting to trap colours from the wind. Of course.

He could save them. All of them.

They just needed smiles.

A week later, he had cleared Elder Humphead’s home of algae. He had already sung, danced, regaled, and performed for every lost soul he could find in her neighbourhood, which was now spotted with colour. Elder Humphead’s house was the most vivid, a torrent of fuchsia swishing into pools of lavender. The growling in his gut compelled Rabbit to make as many of the Useless smile as possible. As he ventured deeper into the Bleached, the skyline smoothed as buildings became more hunched; many had already toppled down into architecturally uniform corpses. Some were piles of limestone, their identity long crumbled. Rabbit passed through many abandoned neighbourhoods, home to only rubble, until, scrunched in decrepit caves or flung lifeless over shards of rock, he found some souls he could help. At first, moans were his reward, but after a few weeks, Rabbit excavated some rudimentary smiles from their crusty lips. Those fish deeper in the Bleached had been Useless for a long time, and Rabbit worked harder to bring them smiles, but he had the trick. Anytime the emptiness around him fanned his flailing despair, he rested and ate algae. He would stop being Useless, then he would bring the colour back.

After one long meal of slime a few weeks into his new quest, his mind drifted back to Elder Humphead and the happiness she had brought him. It had been a while; her home will be even more alive now. He should return, give her a smile boost and keep the seeds snuggled in her wall. A small lump clogged his throat when he could not see her Mussid home from where he stood deep in the Bleached. Buildings stretched to the horizon, slipping over it like it was the edge of existence. He had gone further than he intended. Rabbit started running. A fog rose again in his eyes. He had lost his ragged landmarks. Consumed by the empty streets, his dry voice did not even echo. A pervasive stillness ensnared all signs of life. Where were his smiles?

The call started as a light breeze, the cool licks on his cheeks slowly coalescing into discrete syllables.

“She’s gone!” The phrase boomed vivaciously off the pallor of the street. “She’s gone!”

The savage shouts ricocheted off a ballooning cloud of dust out of which a whirlwind of petals flew in terror.

“She’s gone! She’s gone!”

The walls had disintegrated; the staircase now gaped out of swaying ruins. He knew this place. The top room, now just a floor, rolled like a long tongue over the street, dripping pebbles like saliva into already large pools of stony spit. Her chair fell, a vomited bolus; the only thing not dust.

“She’s gone!” The voices sang.

“Hey!” Rabbit screamed after the fading chants, a putrid fog of sweat simmering off his throbbing forehead. He needed to eat.

“Gone…” The melodious taunting bellowed from a distance.

Rabbit fell against some archaic, cracking architecture. Another abandoned neighbourhood. He was lost again.

Hawhawhaw. A faint and flaky fish had wedged herself into a cave, her face melting into its cracks, and cranked out extended wheezes. She did meet his eyes; they were rolled too far back in their sockets. Another puff of air escaped her dry mouth when he pat her shoulder. Hawhawhaw. A petrifying regurgitation.

Hawhawhaw. A faint and flaky fish had wedged herself into a cave, her face melting into its cracks, and cranked out extended wheezes smelling of rotting kelp. She did meet his eyes; they were rolled too far back in their sockets. Another puff of air escaped her dry mouth when he pat her shoulder. Hawhawhaw. A petrifying regurgitation.

“Sheeee’s gooone!” mocked the breeze.

This old fish can wait.

The houses crumbled into increasingly desperate states of disrepair, even abandoned by the breeze, until an ocean of broken stone drowned the landscape. Rabbit’s stomach clawed at his chest. Eat. The rocks around shrank as he stumbled further into the endless rocky field. It was easy to find a handful he could juggle in his mouth as he sucked them clean of algae. MORE. A snapping turtle possessed his clawing fingers as they scraped into a thick sheen of so voraciously he cut himself on the edge of the large slab. A window. He chuckled for a second at the realization. Another place to save.

Wait.

Rabbit pawed at the rocks. Smooth. Eroded.

No pocket marks.

Even smaller rocks were hiding underneath these, and at the bottom of it all, there was only sand.

The horizon pierced his gut in ambush; evacuated of buildings, it had camouflaged itself as innocuous in his psyche, but now its lack of structure struck him with the quick dash of a feeding lion fish. The lion fish had cornered him against the blanket of miniscule limestone shards. The true center of the Bleached smashed the dam in his mind and spilled into infinity.

There had to be something here, some fishes still alive. His digging turned up only sand. So pale and coarse. Nothing to save about it. Something caught on his nail as the brutalized remains of his city sifted through his fingers. A thin red thread. Rabbit felt more of it under the rubble of what must have been a crumbled door and shook it free of sand. A small knitted patch, rosy red.

They had been arguing one night. The last night.

If you smile, you’ll catch the colours. They had been quiet then but now echoed loudly in his hollowing memory.

It’s not that simple, Honey. Smiles need to be true.

Don’t do this! Our son needs his father.

What he needs is colour in his home. Real colour. We can’t let this house Bleach. What choice do I have?

No! No!

I’m already Useless, Honey. Better than if we’re all forced to the Bleached. It is a sad place for families and not somewhere to raise kids. Better me alone. It’ll be easier for you to catch the colour.

PLEASE! DON’T DO THIS!

Promise me you’ll fight for him, so he never has to know what it feels like.

A dry wind deafened Rabbit’s raucous heartbeat and clogged his tremulous nose. He couldn’t hear his own wailing as it flailed inside all his empty spaces, trapped beneath the acid in the stomach the thing that had consumed him.

The limestone was merging with his fingers while the air hummed his thoughts Yes yes finally yes. The sun was setting once again, the minuscule rocks sacrificing their individuality to the dimming light. That’s all everything was in the end, a field of nothing.

Haw. The call came from the cave where the old fish had fallen and never gotten up. Rabbit’s chest stopped expelling air, but its heaving rampaged on as he ran back to her. He peeled a thin sheet of algae from a mass beside the fish’s head.

“Have I ever told you about the knight and the Rabbit Princess? Oh it’s a daring tale. You see, the Rabbit Princess knitted these beautiful flowers, so lush, so vivacious, when you touched them, you felt as if you were sailing through a garden in the sky. The knight had to leave on a quest; a monster so pale it was invisible was attacking a village full of children. She gave these woven blossoms to her knight, but he did not want them, believing them mere masks covering up the fear they both felt at his parting. Not true flowers he had said. But the princess shook her head. No no no. These are the truest flowers of all, a reminder of the happiness he was fighting for. A reminder to never give up in the fight no matter how impossible it seemed. He could touch them and feel hope. The knight galloped off proclaiming he did not need such things, so the Rabbit Princess started to worry. The knight’s squire heard her crying and soothed her, exclaiming he did not have any armour to adorn, nor lances to strengthen, but he would wear her knitted flower as his sigil always.” 

Hawhawhawhaw she croaked.

Rabbit grabbed another fist of algae and kept going.   

Hawhawhaw. A faint and flaky fish had wedged herself into a cave, her face melting into its cracks, and cranked out extended wheezes smelling of rotting kelp. She did meet his eyes; they were rolled too far back in their sockets. Another puff of air escaped her dry mouth when he pat her shoulder. Hawhawhawawww. A petrifying regurgitation.

“Sheeee’s gooone!” mocked the breeze.

This old fish can wait.

The houses crumbled into increasingly desperate states of disrepair, even abandoned by the breeze, until an ocean of broken stone drowned the landscape. Rabbit’s stomach clawed at his chest. Eat. The rocks around shrank as he stumbled further into the endless rocky field. It was easy to find a handful he could juggle in his mouth as he sucked them clean of algae. MORE. A snapping turtle possessed his clawing fingers as they scraped into a thick sheen of so voraciously he cut himself on the edge of the large slab. A window. He chuckled for a second at the realization. Another place to save.

Wait.

Rabbit pawed at the rocks. Smooth. Eroded.

No pocket marks.

Even smaller rocks were hiding underneath these, and at the bottom of it all, there was only sand.

The horizon pierced his gut in ambush; evacuated of buildings, it had camouflaged itself as innocuous in his psyche, but now its lack of structure struck him with the quick dash of a feeding lion fish. The lion fish had cornered him against the blanket of miniscule limestone shards. The true center of the Bleached smashed the dam in his mind and spilled into infinity.

There had to be something here, some fishes still alive. His digging turned up only sand. So pale and coarse. Nothing to save about it. Something caught on his nail as the brutalized remains of his city sifted through his fingers. A thin red thread. Rabbit felt more of it under the rubble of what must have been a crumbled door and shook it free of sand. A small knitted patch, rosy red.

They had been arguing one night. The last night.

If you smile, you’ll catch the colours. They had been quiet then but now echoed loudly in his hollowing memory.

It’s not that simple, Honey. Smiles need to be true.

Don’t do this! Our son needs his father.

What he needs is colour in his home. Real colour. We can’t let this house Bleach. What choice do I have?

No! No!

I’m already Useless, Honey. Better than if we’re all forced to the Bleached. It is a sad place for families and not somewhere to raise kids. Better me alone. It’ll be easier for you to catch the colour.

PLEASE! DON’T DO THIS!

Promise me you’ll fight for him, so he never has to know what it feels like.

A dry wind deafened Rabbit’s raucous heartbeat and clogged his tremulous nose. He couldn’t hear his own wailing as it flailed inside all his empty spaces, trapped beneath the acid in the stomach the thing that had consumed him.

The limestone was merging with his fingers while the air hummed his thoughts Yes yes finally yes. The sun was setting once again, the minuscule rocks sacrificing their individuality to the dimming light. That’s all everything was in the end, a field of nothing.

Haw. The call came from the cave where the old fish had fallen and never gotten up. Rabbit’s chest stopped expelling air, but its heaving rampaged on as he ran back to her. He peeled a thin sheet of algae from a mass beside the fish’s head.

“Have I ever told you about the knight and the Rabbit Princess? Oh it’s a daring tale. You see, the Rabbit Princess knitted these beautiful flowers, so lush, so vivacious, when you touched them, you felt as if you were sailing through a garden in the sky. The knight had to leave on a quest; a monster so pale it was invisible was attacking a village full of children. She gave these woven blossoms to her knight, but he did not want them, believing them mere masks covering up the fear they both felt at his parting. Not true flowers he had said. But the princess shook her head. No no no. These are the truest flowers of all, a reminder of the happiness he was fighting for. A reminder to never give up in the fight no matter how impossible it seemed. He could touch them and feel hope. The knight galloped off proclaiming he did not need such things, so the Rabbit Princess started to worry. The knight’s squire heard her crying and soothed her, exclaiming he did not have any armour to adorn, nor lances to strengthen, but he would wear her knitted flower as his sigil always.” 

Awwwhawhawhaw she croaked.

Rabbit grabbed another fist of algae and kept going.   

Behind the Science

Image of a grey reef shark (Carcharhinus amblyrhynchos) credit CRED/PIFSC, NOAA [Public domain]

A regime shift often occurs when corals bleach and algae comes to dominate the reef in their place. Herbivorous fishes eat this algae, clearing the way for baby corals to join the struggling reef, and so give hope for resilience against such drastic changes. As we saw last week, Robinson and colleagues discovered these vegetarian fishes provide another benefit: since they eat algae, they can survive on bleached reefs and provide food to fishers when populations of other fish species have declined. However, herbivores are not the holy grail to stopping climate change’s plundering of reef ecosystems. Herbivorous species like rabbitfish did support the fishers of the Seychelles, but that help was fickle, changing in space and time, making sustainability harder to manage. When you rely on the reef for daily sustenance, large variation across space and time in potential catch is a problem. Increased dependency on the rabbitfish in the Seychelles could create a precarious situation for fishers and the reef alike should the rabbitfish population become exhausted from poor management. Ultimately, as Bruno and colleagues point out in a different paper published this year, protecting specific fish species with management or marine protected areas will not stop the heat-induced trauma that leads to bleaching. Climate change knows nor boarders and takes no prisoners. To prevent the structural collapse of coral reef habitat, direct actions addressing climate change are needed now. Things may seem hopeless at times, but that is a matter of perspective. There will always be hope; refuse to give up, look inward, and it will be there. Check out this list of brilliant people fighting climate change to get you inspired, and go over to Project Drawdown for solutions we have right now.

Check back in two weeks for an investigation into dark matter!

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