Birding Far North Queensland
One of Nature's Greatest Marvels
January 3, 2013
Swimming through the inky darkness armed with nothing but a tiny beam of light makes me question my job choice. It’s almost 9pm and I am leading a group of intrepid snorkelers through the calm, warm waters of Low Isles, in search of one of the most elusive and fantastic natural events on the planet. We swim past prowling reef sharks and slumbering turtles, beautiful in their own right but not the focus of our trip here tonight…..
Unlike other animals free to move about in search of mates, corals are fixed to the seabed. Instead they have developed an ingenious strategy to ensure their successful reproduction - mass coral spawning. At the same time, on the same night particular corals release bundles of egg and sperm into the water column in a large-scale, synchronized event. This allows the sex cells to find representatives of the same species and fertilization to occur externally (and also overwhelms predators which ensures some of the offspring survive). Mass coral spawning is a highly coveted sight, especially among photographers and marine scientists, but is an event difficult to predict as it requires several subtle factors to align (including ambient light, temperature, tide/moon phase, etc).
For the first half hour of our snorkel on Monday December 3rd everything is calm and quiet as we simply enjoy being immersed in nature at this odd hour. But it’s not too long before I hear someone yell out – “I think I’ve got something”. We all swim towards Pat, our anticipation growing. As she shines her light around us, the shaft illuminates small, pink whirls of colour suspended in the water. Yes. We have timed it just right!
Over the next forty minutes we remain mesmerized as the water comes alive with an assortment of colour, shapes and sizes. What started off as a trickle is soon in full flood and we feel as though we have been caught up in some kind of undersea carnival - complete with confetti (egg cells), smoke (sperm clouds) streamers (spawning worms) and all kinds of ‘drifters’ here to join the celebration (fish and sharks gorging on the sudden explosion of food).
There are whoops and big smiles all around as we float spellbound amongst this rare natural wonder. The sights and smells (yes – coral spawning is quite a pungent affair!) we have just witnessed are at once humbling and awe-inspiring and will remain in our memories forever.