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  Field Notes From
Kingdom of Coral

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From Author

Douglas H. Chadwick

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From Photographer

David Doubilet

In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photographs by David Doubilet

image: starfish
At the Great Barrier Reef

Field Notes From Author
Douglas H. Chadwick
When you’re out in wild places, it’s almost always the case that the more you look and learn, the more you see. That’s the great joy of working in natural history: It’s an infinite frontier. You’re looking at the process of life. That’s especially true with a coral reef, and the Great Barrier Reef in particular.
It is the most visually amazing place with layer upon layer of different colored animals living on top of each other. Life has been doing this in the oceans for hundreds of millions of years longer than it has been on land, so there are more ways of living and existing. I felt an exuberance at the capacity of life for invention.
My 16-year-old son went with one of the guys from our boat to do what’s called a drift dive. That’s where you take a small boat upstream in a tidal current, jump into the water, and let the riverlike current carry you back to the boat. It’s wonderful because when you’re in the current you feel like you’re flying. This particular tidal current was really strong at six knots. Given the strength of the water, they should have been back in ten minutes. But 40 minutes later we still hadn’t seen him. We were way offshore, and somewhere under that vast ocean was my son. I didn’t know if the current trapped him in a cave or what was going on.
Finally, he just popped up out of the water. He told me they saw some really cool stuff in a bend of the coral reef where they could get out of the main stream. So they just hung around and watched it.
Of course, my teeth had been ground down to about a quarter of an inch from worry. You always get more scared for someone you love than for yourself, but I was projecting my own inadequacies out there. The truth is, my son is a better diver and a lot braver than I am.
My wife jumped in the water just ahead of me at a place called Cod Hole. Soon after, she started frantically pointing at a 15-foot-long (five-meter-long) black marlin. I watched it cruise past us, then I went up and told Captain Marc Addington. He glared at me and said, “I’ve been diving for years, and I’ve never seen one of those things!”
A week later on another dive, I looked up and saw another marlin. The captain had accused me of telling tales, so I thought he wouldn’t believe me. To see two of these things in a lifetime is rare.
I needed confirmation, so I swam over to one of the photographer’s assistants, Mary Bell, and pointed up at this huge Indo-Pacific blue marlin. When it’s near the surface and you look up at it from below, it almost disappears. About 20,000 other fish were swimming around us, so Mary couldn’t pick out the marlin.
I made gestures of a long nose, but Mary just looked at me. Then I had a brainstorm and started fencing like Errol Flynn. She finally gave up trying to figure me out, shook her head, and swam off.
I told the captain about my second sighting anyway, and he said, “Now I know you’re just making it up.”

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