The Eighth Continent

CORAL REEFS OF THE WORLD editedby Susan M. Wells. United Nations Environment Programme, three volumes, $100.00.
CORAL REEFS ARE the largest structures built by life on earth. They are the last architecture an astronaut sees from high orbit. They figure to be the first enterprise the aliens detect, when they finally arrive. This third planet from a smallish sun is distinguished by the work of the translucent tentacles of the coral polyp more than by any labors of the opposable thumb. (The convolutions of the brain coral hold more ambition, in their way, than the cerebral convolutions of Homo faber.)
Coral communities are the most complex ecosystems on the planet, save perhaps for tropical rain forests. Western science came late to the coral reef. Biologists have only begun to unravel the reef’s intricacies, to list its inhabitants, to guess at its dynamics. The coral reefs of the world amount, collectively, to a kind of scattered eighth continent, a serendipitous new world dispersed, just awash, between the tropics of Capricorn and Cancer. If anyone has a grasp of this vast, teeming, violent, polychromatic, largely unknown province of life, it is, oddly enough, an Englishwoman whose milieu is the fog and chill of Cambridge, and whose specialty, until a few years ago, was the family life of horses.
Coral Reefs of the World began, to the best of Sue Wells’s recollection, at the 4th International Coral Reef Symposium, held in Manila in 1981. “In Manila I got this feeling there was a fantastic need for information,”she says. “I was collecting information on threatened invertebrates for IUCN [the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources]. I was responsible for marine stuff. When I wrote off to people for information on marine species, they all wrote back saying we should be doing something on coral reefs. It sort of grew out of that.”
If her book’s conception took place in Manila, its gestation occurred in the confines of what the English call a portacabin, a temporary bungalow, on the Cambridge campus. The IUCN has its headquarters in Switzerland, but its Conservation Monitoring Centre—its information and data-base base—is at Cambridge, in a cluster of porta-cabins near the university library. Wells began full-time work on the book in the summer of 1983.
The porta-cabin was a “shoe box,”Wells says. In her own office, a Chinese box within, filing cabinets multiplied, stacks of books grew, shifted, and tumbled, sheaves of papers ascended toward the ceiling. What Wells was attempting was enormous: the transliteration, from coral limestone to English, of the coral reefs of the world. For many of the reefs reconstructed in her book. Wells seems to have tried to get every coral head in place.
Carrie Bow Cay, for example. The entry begins,
CARRIE BOW CAY. Geographical Location 16°48’N, 88°05’W; on the barrier reef, 22 km south-east of Dangriga and 18 km east of Sittee Point (the nearest land); prior to 1944, known as Ellen or Bird Cay.
Carrie Bow Cay is a sand islet in Belize. It has an area of 0.36 hectares (0.89 acres) and a maximum altitude of forty centimeters, according to Coral Reefs of the World. It was once, under its older names, twice that large, but mangrove clearing in 1944 led to erosion. “Currently it has an elliptical shape, aligned north-south, is 120 m long between mean tide level points, and has a maximum width of 36 m.” Scarcely larger than a football field, yet immortalized in Wells’s opus. She spends 2,000 words and twenty-seven references on it. She takes readers from the lagoon (weak currents, fine sand, beds of sea grass), to the back-reef (strong currents, patch reefs of Montastrea annularis and other corals), to the reef crest, to the inner fore-reef, to the outer fore-reef. She lists the flora (sea grass, mangroves, a few introduced coconut palms) and the fauna (three species of crab and a single vertebrate, the lizard Anolis sagrei). She describes Carrie Bow’s steady whittling away by hurricanes, first Hattie in 1961, then Laura in 1971, Fifi in 1974, and Greta in 1978. She does not dally over the cay’s history, but Carrie Bow has a history, extraordinarily enough. Should anyone have a burning desire to learn it, Wells refers him to a scholarly paper in the Atoll Research Bulletin. Wells describes the cay in such loving detail (“Conch shells abandoned by local fishermen have accumulated along the south-west coast. . . . the Loggerhead Turtle is known to nest. ... a number of seabirds feed regularly around the island, and the Boat-tailed Grackle Cassidix mexicanus may breed. . . . ”) that we see Carrie Bow Cay, know those 0.36 hectares as well as that resident lizard must. Wells has liberated us. It will never be necessary to travel in person to Carrie Bow Cay—though now that we know about it, we may want to.
ALL THE REEFS of the world passed through Wells’s porta-cabin. They arrived in Cambridge much compressed and abstracted, of course, but even reduced to type in the files or bytes in the computer, the reefs of the world are voluminous.
“I was at the computer only about half the time,” Wells says. “There’s a lot of work plowing through correspondence and documents, what we call ‘the gray literature,’ all these reports and managements plans and surveys that people have done. You may really only want a line out of the whole thing, but you’ve got to go through it.” As Wells got deeper into the project, her days in the porta-cabin grew longer and longer. A coffee cup sat by the computer in the mornings, a teacup in the afternoons. In the next rooms people in the Species Monitoring Unit were monitoring species, people in the Wildlife Trade Monitoring Unit were monitoring trade in wildlife. Wells, except for some temporary assistance when money was available, and except for the considerable help that maps provided, wrestled with the reefs of the world alone.
“It was pretty nightmarish, after a while. I had this idea I would do it in a year or two years, it was originally meant to be one volume. It sort of grew and grew and grew. We had to split it up" — Volume 1: Atlantic and Eastern Pacific, Volume 2: Indian Ocean, Red Sea, and Gulf, Volume 3: Central and Western Pacific. “As time went on, the early stuff I’d written got out of date, so I was writing out again to get the new stuff. It began to get incredibly out of control.”
The one or two years Wells had budgeted for the project grew to three, then to four.
Susan Wells is not a marine biologist. She saw her first coral reefs in Singapore when she was nine—her father was there with the Royal Navy—and she loved the corals and spent all her time in the water, but that was a long time ago. Most of her adult career has taken place in the temperate zone. She worked in London at the Natural History Museum, in the south of France on the social behavior of horses, at Cambridge on wildlife trade and invertebrates for IUCN. She has no background in reef biology. “I can barely recognize one coral from another,” she admits. Any number of reef biologists know given reefs, given archipelagos, given families of fish, more intimately; any number understand reef dynamics more profoundly. What Wells sees, instead, is the big picture.
The reef scientists at the 1981 Manila conference (“my base-line set of contacts”) put Wells in touch with other reef scientists, who put her in touch with still more. Her ever-ramifying web of informants became as labyrinthine as one of those charts of trophic relationships on the reef. (The spawning damselfish is observed by the graduate student, who is gulped by his graduate adviser, who is cited by a colleague, who is subsumed by a biogeographer; and at the very summit of that pyramid, finning in place like some giant grouper with a great, capacious, downturned mouth—but more attractive, of course, trim and blonde, wearing a ponytail — Sue Wells sits alone.)
I MET WELLS LAST August in Townsville, Australia, at the 6th International Coral Reef Symposium. She was in constant—almost manic—motion at the symposium, as one might expect of a woman freed only periodically from a shoe box in Cambridge. In Australia she was rubbing shoulders with many friends she had not seen since the last symposium, and meeting others she had never before encountered in the flesh. (There were more than 700 reef scientists in attendance, and she seemed to know the majority of them.) If Wells was happy and excited in Townsville, she was also relieved. After five years of labor Coral Reefs of the World was finished. She had brought a few advance copies, which she gave away to informants who had been especially helpful. I was able to borrow one volume overnight. The next day it went to a German biologist, and Wells had no more.
Wells’s remote-sensing acquaintances at the symposium—the men and women who study reefs using satellite imagery from space—have a practice called “ground-truthing.” It means coming down to earth and getting wet; visiting selected spots on foot or by fin, verifying firsthand whatever computer-enhanced or infrared truths the satellite seems to have revealed. For Wells, the symposium itself was a kind of ground-truthing. She has dived now in the Red Sea, the Philippines, the Bahamas, the Maldives, Mexico, French Polynesia, and Fiji, but the world of reefs is vastly larger than that. She must depend on the accuracy of her informants.
“If I can get three people to say the same thing about a given area, then I’m perfectly happy,” she says. “But sometimes you get a really extreme conservationist who says, ‘Oh, it’s a disaster here, the reef’s been wrecked.’ Then you get somebody very pragmatic who says, ‘That’s absolute rubbish.’ And then you’re on the spot.”
The symposium, where most of the world’s reef scientists had gathered, was an opportunity to look her sources in the eye.
AT HOME IN THE United States, when Wells’s volumes arrived in the mail, I did a little ground-truthing of my own. I looked up reefs I had visited, comparing her pages with my recollections.
In Volume 3 I read Wells’s pages on the Great Barrier Reef, off eastern Australia. They coincided perfectly with the Great Barrier Reef I know. The reefs around Heron Island, at the southern end of that greatest of reef systems, and the reefs around Lizard Island, in the middle, are rendered faithfully. Wells gives short shrift to the reefs of the far northern section of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park—a remote section, which I happen to know best—but there are 2,500 reef complexes in the Great Barrier Reef, and it is not possible to mention all of them. Her Hawaiian reefs are on target, as are her accounts of reefs I know in Ponape, Yap, and Truk, in the Federated States of Micronesia.
In Wells’s account of the corals of the Ecuadorian Parque Nacional Galápagos, I found Onslow, which I had last seen in 1977. “At Onslow, a small islet off Point Cormorant, Pocillopora [coral] once formed a dense monotypic stand over an area of approximately one hectare before it was killed by the El Niño event of 1983.”
The corals I remembered were dead. I wished I had never looked the place up.
WALLACE STEGNER once wrote of “the geography of hope”—the unspoiled places on the map which one will probably never visit, yet which are precious because one might. A large part of everyone’s geography of hope, I think, is contained in Wells’s pages. The small, separate worlds of coral reefs and coral islands have been that—dream refuges— for as long as we have known about them. Maps, as Stegner says, are good for evoking that geography, but sometimes just the names are enough. In Coral Reefs of the World there are hundreds of thousands of them.
Off Kuala Trengganu, reefs are found around the Pulau Perhentian group, Pulau Lang Tengah and the Pulau Redang group. South of Pulau Redang, reefs occur around Pulau Bidong Laut, Pula Belok, Pulau Yu, the Pulau Karah group and Pulau Kapas. . . .
Qishran Island and the North Inner Farasan Bank reefs and islands, to include Janabiyat and Melma Island, Ras Kinnateis, Ras Al Humara, Umm al Qandil, and the north arm of Ghubbet al Mahasin; Umm al Gharaniq Island; Ghubbet al Mahasin south, including the coastline from Ras Ahmar to Ras Mahasin; Sirrain Island; Safiq and Umm Ali Islands; and the Pelican Island complex have been recommended as coastal and marine protectorates.
In the British Virgin Islands is the proposed protected area of the Dogs, whose names are evocative in a funkier way. The Dogs, according to Wells, lie just west of Virgin Gorda (“Fat Virgin,” a fine name itself for an island). The protected area would include West Dog, Great Dog. George Dog, and Cockroach Island. In New South Wales is the Solitary Islands proposed marine reserve: Split Solitary, South Solitary, Southwest Solitary, Northwest Solitary, North Solitary, and North Rock. Someday, when it gets too crowded here, I believe I will head for the Solitaries.
There are villains in Sue Wells’s book. One that seems to slink into nearly all her accounts of Indo-Pacific archipelagoes, and then slink out again, heavyladen, is the Taiwanese clam boat. Tridacna gigas, the giant clam, the most monumental of mollusks, emblem of unspoiled Pacific reef, is falling everywhere to those indefatigable pirates. More nearly ubiquitous even than the Taiwanese, popping up in Wells’s pages like an undersea Moriarty, is Acanthaster planci, the crown of thorns starfish. Population explosions of the crown of thorns, once a millennial event, are now occurring every fifteen years or so, on reefs all across the Indo-Pacific. The starfish, a coral-eater, leaves dead white reef behind it. The cause of its outbreaks is unknown, but most reef biologists suspect some perturbation by man. No great surprise, of course. The real menace to the reefs of the world—as to all terrestrial ecosystems, wet or dry—is the opposable thumb.

LAST AUGUST, at the coral-reef symposium in Australia, Wells delivered a paper in which she abstracted, from the nearly two million words of her book, its salient message.

Coral reefs of significance occur in the waters of 108 countries, she said. Reef deterioration as a result of human activities has been reported in ninety-three of those countries. In forty-one countries deforestation, agriculture, and other forms of land-clearing have led to siltation that has damaged reefs. In forty countries sewage outfall has damaged reefs. In nearly sixty countries tourism is considered a threat to reefs. In seventynine countries reef resources are considered to be overexploited.
“It is depressing,” she told me afterward. “There is so much bad news. I am pessimistic. But I’m optimistic, too. I worry about Madagascar. I feel good about Oman. I feel good about the U.S.ASEAN programs in the Philippines. I felt good about Fiji when things were really beginning to move there. I don’t feel so good about Fiji anymore. I’m confident about a lot of the Pacific atolls.
“The nice thing about doing these data books and directories is that you actually feel you’re having some conservation impact just in doing them. You write somebody and say, ‘Send me information.’ They say, ‘You want our information? That’s amazing, but can you send us information in exchange?’ Or, ‘Oh, are our reefs important? Well, we’ve got to do something about it.’ You find that you’ve stimulated some action of some kind in a country.
“For a long time I’ve been trying to find out what’s going on in the Andaman and Nicobar islands—these really remote islands off India. I sent lots of letters at first, and coral-identification guides and information about where to learn survey techniques. Now there’s talk of a marine park being developed there. It’s certainly not just me—obviously people in India were getting things going too—but the correspondence had something to do with it. The last thing I got from the Andaman and Nicobar islands was a letter asking if I would like to go out there and help.”
She would like to do that. Her book done, Wells is free now to slip into her own pages.
The Nicobars are high islands forming part of an emergent mountain chain, continuing that underlying the Andamans. Car Nicobar is the northernmost island and Great Nicobar is the southernmost. Between these lie Tillanchong, Katchall, Camorta, Tarasa Dwip, Bompoka, Batti Malv and Chaura. . . .