Photo Credit: Julia Galbenu

Julia's been making her way down Latin America for the last year, exploring jungles and beaches while learning about its unique flora and fauna firsthand. During her journey, she started writing Find Your Wild to share her experiences and help people engage with the natural world around them, by blending the stories of her adventures with biological facts and information. This excerpt takes us to the incredible ecosystem of the coral reef.

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It all changes. The water, that had some sediment intermixed before, has completely switched in composition. The only word you can describe it as, is oily. You can barely see your hands. The current has shifted, it now carries sediment from a northern river in Panama, creating this orange, oily smudge. You are determined to not give up. Perhaps there is a place that is clearer - like the lagoon the reef is protecting. You try to explore around. 

Then, you’re not even sure what happened, did you see it first, or did it sting you first? Regardless, you catch sight of a large pink and purple jellyfish and immediately your left arm is in pain. Fear strikes you. You can barely see, how many are there around? You sprint back to shore, sit on the beach and nurse your wound. 

The sea is a fickle thing, constantly changing. So many factors influence it and, unless the conditions are right, there is no kindness there. The sea will take you for everything you’ve got. You test the conditions twice a day, once in the morning and once in the afternoon. The weeks go by slowly and you begin to accept that you will not get the chance to see this other world. You make peace with it, and the peace turns to admiration. For in many ways you cannot understand, it doesn’t matter how strong the waves beat, how fast the current runs or how much it pours. Underneath, marine life continues on. 

It’s your last week in Manzanillo, you wake up early. There’s not a wave in sight, only crystalline water, shining gloriously. It looks impossibly perfect. You’re skeptical. You put the scuba mask over your sleepy face and don’t expect much. You’re waist deep and can see the blue penetrating to the soft sand, can even make out the odd white shell here and there. You gently lower yourself and glide forward. There is no orange, there is no sediment. You can see everything. 

You push forward expecting it to get worse. But it doesn’t. It’s perfect. 

You start your journey over broken shells and speckled sands. One patch catches your eye, the patterns too intricate. There are dark circles within white spirals and along the edges, fringed lines. Looking closer, you see lines of turquoise with two balls at the top. Then the Dusky Flounder (Syacium papillosum) gives it all away. It swims forward, not scared of you but intrigued by something in front of it - a crab like none other you’ve seen before. It looks like a clump of sand. Only the movement and the way it digs itself into the sand gives it away. You dive, yes there are two eyes on top of the sand clump, definitely a crab. You stare at the flounder and then at the crab, not sure which to give more attention. The flounder seems to be chasing the crab, the crab makes a half-hearted effort to escape. Giving them their privacy, you swim on. 

Dark seaweeds start to dominate the seabed. They start in chunks and then form whole mats. As they move with the waves, the seaweeds create an optical illusion. It’s as if you’re not moving, or you’re moving way too fast, you’re not sure. You focus on the gaps between to prevent getting dizzy. Tiny fish find their home there. They may be small but their colours make up for it. Some have red and yellow stripes across their backs. Others are bright blue with fins dipped in orange. Many are black and white and move in herds. The tiny fish dart up, down and in between the seaweed. Then they all vanish. 

The ocean floor turns into a bright, luminous green. Short trimmed seagrass forms desert plains. Their leaves emerge out of the sand, never growing higher than half an inch. Dotted around are the small pieces of coral you’ve seen before. With such clear water you now recognise them as Brain Coral (Mussidae), the detail a puzzle of turns, a maze you would never escape. The Brain Coral become larger in size. You spot them in shades of emerald green, rosy ruby and classy magenta.

Then you see it in all its glory, what you’ve only caught glimpses of in the past. The Coral Reef. Immediately, you can see what made swimming so hard in the smudgy conditions you’d had earlier. The Coral is not flat, or continuous. It is an underground fortress. A fortress with caverns and tunnels and arches, cliffs and mountains. There are nooks, crannies and dark spaces your eyes can’t even begin to penetrate. There are layers from top to bottom, branching outward, like wide circular shelves that spiral upwards. Calling it an underwater jungle does not do the ecosystem justice. For jungles are filled with different spaces of green - this place is filled with different everything. The colour, the texture, the size. The reef is like a fancy dress shop that has overstepped the line. There are Corals that live as a hard, solid clump. Others that form impossibly high towers. And those that move with the waves, feathery and delicate. The colours fade, blend and stand-out against one another. The textures are rough, prickly, squidgy, bouncy, soft and tickly. 

The Corals are as different to each other as sharks are to beavers, and yet they are united. Lying within the Anthozoa class, they share common features. Some of which are also shared with sharks and beavers. For Corals, too, are animals. How is this possible? Corals lack the one defining feature of all animals: movement. Or do they? 

Coral fits neatly into the Cnidaria phylum, which also include jellyfish. You dive deep, inspecting one piece of Coral as closely as you can. You see that the Coral is not one whole living organism, rather it is made of repeating units called polyps. A polyp is essentially an upside-down jellyfish stuck to a substance, and for stony Coral this takes the form of a calcium carbonate cup. The tentacles of this upside-down jellyfish can move. Not only that, but they are also interspersed with cells containing harpoons doused in toxins. These Cnidocytes, as they’re known, will pierce through skin or scales, causing that sting you’re so familiar with. 

In truth, Coral does live more like a plant than an animal. Picking one spot to set foot, they grow outwards and provide ecosystems for countless species. Some Coral species rely entirely on their tentacles to bring them food. They sting tiny animals called Zooplankton and then bend their tentacles to bring the prey to their central mouth. Or for smaller prey, some Corals use cells on their tentacles, called cilia, to waft them towards their mouth. 

Reef-building Coral include numerous species that have decided to share some of their food-finding burden. Living in shallow waters where the light persists, they form symbiotic relationships with plants. Specifically, a single-celled plant known as Zooxanthellae. It’s a wonderful relationship. The Zooxanthellae gain carbon dioxide and nitrogen waste products. The Coral gain food, and if required, calcium carbonate. Teamed up with plants, these animals can eat round the clock. During the day, when the sun shines, they use photosynthesis to make food. At night, when the creepy crawlies come out, the tentacles are outstretched to hunt. In their success, reef-building Coral can grow and grow, and soon their only limitation is space. Their neighbours are diverse and unique, but together, they form a world of their own. 

The occupants of this world are as loyal as ever and within the Coral Reef, they find everything they need. Food, shelter, mates. Life here, in its abundance, is sublime. And the occupants are not afraid to show themselves for everything they’ve got. You spot Banded Butterflyfish (Chaetodon striatus) with tiny, pouty mouths that give them an air of superiority. Parrotfish (Scarus guacamaia) shimmer all the colours of the rainbow, with bright blue mouths and white teeth. Then, with a feeling of being watched, you turn behind you. A large Porcupinefish (Diodontidae) meets your gaze. It is round and bulky with two alien eyes and a drawn on smile. Looking closely, you can see spines laid flat across its body. When scared Porcupinefish engulf water, double in size and protrude these spines outwards. 

You don’t get a second look. Caught out, the Porcupinefish clumsily swims behind a wall of Coral. You continue moving through clouds of bright fish, electric blue on their edges. Turning again, you meet the gaze of the same Porcupinefish. And just like before, it rapidly tries to hide. The problem is, Porcupinefish aren’t very fast swimmers. You watch with amusement as it awkwardly finds a new hiding spot. Is it following you? You play along, swimming calmly before suddenly turning to check where it is. Each time you turn it swims out of sight, but as soon as your back is turned, it follows. Is it in on the fun? 

You will never know. A bright flash concludes the game. It takes you a few moments to process what has just happened. A Caribbean Reef Octopus (Octopus briareus), perfectly camouflaged on dark red Coral, decided you got too close. It flashed bright blue and swam under its home. You dive down to where it went and meet one massive eye staring out at you. One tentacle is outstretched, pumping out that blue warning colour, its remarkable suckers holding onto its underwater home. You decide to leave it in peace. Perhaps it is still there when you return later, re-emerged and camouflaged on its red Coral. But no matter how hard you look, you can no longer find it. 

You reach a shallow part of the reef. Breathing in deeply to stay afloat, the water is half a metre deep. In a narrow crevice you spot the head of a Spotted Moray Eel (Gymnothorax moringa). The mouth gapes open at you, showing off its pearly whites. You turn the other way and are met with a Great Barracuda (Sphyraena barracuda). Long and thin, it gives you a ghostly gaze, as if it doesn’t know what it is doing there. You return to the deeper crevices, needing to calm your breath. 

There is so much, it is all there. And the crazy thing is you somehow feel like you are part of it all. You don’t feel like an intruder. Gliding over the surface, no fish seems to notice or care about your presence. It’s not like the jungle, where animals usually run at the first sight, sound or smell of you. Here, no one seems to mind, as long as you move slowly and gently with the group. 

At times you dive, completely immersed in their world, the fish surrounding you. But if you stretch out an arm, get a little too close, that particular fish will immediately zip off. It will happen so fast you may not even realise it. The reason for this movement is that fish, all fish, have this extra sense quite unknown to humans. Covering their body are tiny sensory hairs, called Neuromasts, which allow fish to feel a small distance away from their body. It sounds crazy, but water allows this sense to function in a way air never would. If an object moves towards a fish, before the object touches the fish, the water around the object will move. This water displacement bends the hairs on the Neuromast, causing a signal to be sent out, saying something along the lines of ‘woah there's something coming, like right now’. And so the fish moves out of the way, milliseconds before the object hits. 

These Neuromasts give fish their jagged, rapid movements that we are so familiar with. But it isn’t them acting erratically. In fact they are responding to potential threats, just milliseconds before they strike. It allows fish to swim in herds together, moving as one, never bumping into each other. It gives them swift escape routes, both from predators and if a wave brings them too close to a rock. And it’s also what makes you feel like you’re invited, because if you swim in a way that doesn’t bend those sensory hairs, you will be allowed access to this underwater world. You can play their games, watch their disputes and understand the incredible lives they lead. 

The sea is full of life, more life than we can possibly imagine on land. There are so many stories there, and you want to know them all. But the sea is also unforgiving. In that one month by the sea, you were given just one day’s access. The life you saw will never leave you, but it also makes you crave more. Unfortunately the weather is changing, the turbulent times of the Caribbean are coming and soon the waves will be surfable. 

So, you must go. The jungle is calling, it’s time for you to head south. 

Julia Galbenu graduated from Oxford University with a degree in Biological Sciences. Currently, she's making her way down Latin America with one simple aim: to get people outdoors and make them fall in love with nature. She'll be posting all about her adventures, as well as sneak peeks and excerpts from her book "Find Your Wild" on her instagram @juliagalbenu 

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