On Bonaire’s western shore, Maggie May floats upon aquamarine glass over what is known as the Bonaire House Reef. It’s a coral reef that extends the length of the town of Kralendijk, the main city center of the island. Though this reef has been more impacted by human development and enterprise than many other areas of Bonaire’s coral community, it is still healthier than 95 percent of the reefs we’ve visited in the Caribbean, which have been devastated by overfishing, climate change, hurricanes and disease.
In the shallows of this house reef is a vast sandy area, speckled with coral heads. Some are living, vibrant coral islands, others are dead and little more than rock. Also in the shallow sands people have dumped tires, old engines, pipes, construction waste and other detritus of unknown origin. The waste speaks poorly of the human species. It is however a tribute to the ingenuity of the natural world, the members of which have repurposed the rubble. Trumpet fish shelter in heaps of dingy rope, eels hide in old pipes, blennies perch like tiny ornate seals on engine parts colonized by spreading corals.
Bill and I regularly hop off the boat and venture out to observe the day’s dramatic underwater turns.
Recently in the giant rock pile that forms a marina break wall, we found a green moray eel, the first we had ever seen in the shallows, where mostly the smaller eels dwell. It was down about 20 feet, under the overhang of a large boulder. I swam down to get a closer look and found the eel was lying on its side, his mouth closed, looking very lethargic. I don’t know if eels lay down to sleep, but I hoped this was the case. I had seen many lethargic eels in the past days, following big rainstorms that washed pollution through culverts and over streets and into the ocean, diminishing the normally 70-100 foot visibility to a couple of murky brown inches. The water cleared when the tide went out, as it generally does, but many animals are highly vulnerable to these pollutants. I hoped the eel was just resting.
We swam on. Our route followed a short ledge of rock paralleling the coastline, in about 3 feet of water. I almost always end my snorkels and freedives here and almost always something unexpected occurs. This particular late afternoon, near the ledge, I came upon an area of small rock at the base of a towering luxury apartment building. The rock itself, a mixture of hundreds of thousands of staghorn and brain coral skeletons, bleached white by the sun and smoothed by the constant grinding swell, became beautiful in the angled light. But within it I saw something out of place. Legs. Too many legs. Eight of them. Attached to a textured orange rock. Cupid! Draw back your booooow. Zing! Mon amour, the octopus.
I called Bill over and we sat audience as it charismatically did almost nothing and moved almost not at all. Just a slight opening and closing of one watchful eye. We were casually assessed and deemed not an immediate threat.
As we were hovering, suddenly the octopus flashed white-blue and red and reared up on its legs. Like a hissing arched-back tom cat. We looked around to see what caused this prickly show and saw a chainlink eel esssssing through the rocks between us and the octopus. The eel was small and seemed utterly uninterested in any of us, including the freaked out octopus. When the eel had passed by, the octopus oozed back down into repose. Bill looked at me quizzically. I shrugged my shoulders. Bill watched the octopus a while longer and then headed home to the boat while I stayed to gawp.
The octopus started to shuffle around, foraging, probing. At a casual glance, this space seems just a jumble of inanimate objects, some are natural, some are dumped. Closer inspection shows every space has some sort of living thing upon or within or nearby. The octopuses busy arms, each serving as an auxiliary brain, probed the seascape’s every hidden secret.
When the octopus was barely visible in the dusky light, I returned to the boat. Full heart, empty belly.
The following day I ran my snorkeling circuit again. Stopping first at the overhang where we had found the green moray. There were other freedivers clustered around the boulder. Obviously the eel was still there. When they backed away, I dove down. He looked worse than the day before. His mouth had opened, but he was lying completely on his side and barely breathing. His tail was flat, covered in pale sand.
“He looks sick,” one of the divers said when I surfaced. I nodded in agreement. Then told them about an eel who had reportedly been swimming in the street during the last major stormwater flooding. I have seen gasoline spreading a toxic rainbow over the marina waters, and when big rains add the silt and sewage of ditches, roadways and the ever expanding construction sites, it all ends up in the gills of fish, the bellies of turtles and octopuses. Nothing could live if the ocean didn’t carry much of it away every twelve hours.
I stayed with the eel for a while as the others swam away. Quite sure that he was dying.
I continued on my same path, hoping to see the octopus again. In the shallows I did come across an octopus, but not the same one. This was a much smaller creature in a different location, and right beyond her, under the shallow ledge, a huge green moray eel. A healthy one, tucked almost entirely under the ledge, with an attendant juvenile angelfish. These juvenile fish often serve as cleaners for predators like eels. The little fish get something to eat and the predator gets a grooming. Proximity to great scary eel offers the little fish some protection from its own predators.
I spent most of the rest of daylight with this group, watching the octopus float along and plant itself here and there, in perfect camouflage with her surroundings. The weird buddies, eel and baby angelfish never leaving their ledge space. Peacock flounders came and went, fluttering by and melting into the sand. Trumpetfish, tangs, surgeonfish and parrotfish passed us by.
When it was near dark I went to the spot where I had seen the larger octopus the day before, but it was not there. I was just about to turn back to Maggie May when I saw, in a pile of rubble, three spotted moray eels, brilliant against the dark mound in early evening light. They were all pointed toward a single large rock, their bodies taut with interest and anticipation. The scene sparked with electricity. Had I known the cause, I may have turned away.
One of the eels, the largest, was fully out and nosing into a small crevice beneath the rock. A second, slightly smaller eel was nearly out of its crevice on the heels of the other. The third was watching closely, but waiting in safety for an opportunity to present itself. Suddenly, the largest eel plunged toward the bottom of the rock. Its head disappeared then bam! it stopped abruptly, the rest of its body too thick to cram inside the hole. It jerked itself out, paused for a disgruntled moment and then swam around the rock and disappeared into a pile of rubble behind it. The second eel seemed to be considering its options. I think it was wary of me, but driven by hunger. There was food under that rock. The eel ventured out a bit from its hole, then slunk back in. Came out a bit more, then slunk back in. After a few wavering minutes it ventured all the way out and swam toward the bottom of the rock. One moment passed, uncertainty, hesitation, then resolve. It jammed itself into the small hole. Like the first eel its head disappeared but then it stuck hard, its flesh ballooning out with pressure. But rather than retreat, it heaved violently inward, forcing itself into the hole. In my mind there must have been a scraping of hard rock on soft skin. A tearing injury. I had only a blink to ponder this harm because in fractions of seconds, in a tumult, in a thrashing blink of a moment, there appeared in the near dark a tip of an eel’s tail, then a ball of what looked like an eel torn in two and tied in knots. Thrashing, confusion, then finally clarity. The eel was in a ball, but it was not ripped, it had ripped an octopus from that hole, wrapped itself in a ball to extract and hold the struggling creature, then, after a breath of time, swallowed the octopus. For one brief second, two of the octopus’ legs held desperately to the rock. Grasping, one… last… moment… of life. And then the end. It was gone. No more than a bulge in the throat of the eel.
I swam slowly away from this carnage, my heart racing, my mind reeling with an understanding that this was probably the same octopus I had spent time with the evening before. My photos are likely some of the last visual evidence of its beautiful life. I returned to Maggie May in the dark.
The following day, again I swam my circuit. The green moray under the boulder lay still, utterly and forever still. His once smooth, leaf green body was mottled, discolored with dark patches, and almost completely covered in a fine layer of silt. I swam down, saw the finality of his situation, then floated quietly above for some time. Nearby a lizardfish and trumpetfish had a brief, non-violent exchange. The the lizardfish skulked away. The trumpetfish ghosted above the eel’s body. I could hear the munching of parrotfish teeth on rock. Of waves crashing against the jetty. A spotted drum peeked out from a hidden place.
Life moves forward on the reef and under rocks and over the sand. The hard coral will be spawning soon. The sergeant majors will tend their eggs.
I said some words in my mind for the eel and the octopus. I understand something of how it feels to have your world end amid the indifferent hum and thrust of the ever-living world. I know it not from the point of one dying or dead, but from one who has watched death take hold while I mounted a raging feeble protest, was ignored and defeated, and sat watching the world rush by as it ever will.
I didn’t find any octopuses that day.
I recently read, The Soul of an Octopus, an interesting book that I was put off by because, while the author detailed the intelligence and beauty of these creatures, she also seemed to support the keeping of octopuses in captivity. She made the usual excuses people make about captivity: they are well fed and cared for, they live longer lives. This is true. Common octopuses only live a year or two in the wild, and after my recent experience I have to believe much of that time is spent in fear. But that is the grand bargain of life isn’t it? Taking the fear and want and joy and adventure as it comes, or striving for a life of safe captivity.
Yesterday I walked to downtown Kralendijk as a cruise ship was disembarking its masses. They walked past me on the shoreline sidewalk, chatting and gazing around at the newness of the place to their eyes. A woman with a British accent stopped me. She looked hot, tired as she asked, a bit skeptically, “Is there anything that way?” She pointed north, toward the mooring field, the shoreline ledge and rock jetty beneath the aquamarine bay. I looked out over the water as I puzzled out how to answer that question. Yes, there is everything that way. Beauty like you’ve never seen, love and death and nightmares, weird stuff, and also hunger and despair. There is transformation. There is grief. There is connection. Beginnings and endings. Ignominy. Pain. There is everything.
But I surmised that wasn’t really what she was asking, so I looked back at her and said, “There are no restaurants or shops. It’s pretty much what you see here.”
She grabbed her husband by the elbow and they turned back toward the cruise ship towering above downtown Kralendijk.