It was one of those totally relaxing afternoon dives on a shallow site off the Caribbean island of Saba. Sun rays danced over the sand and the reef, revealing tiny coral polyps and neon bright anemones as they made their living catching microscopic plankton as it drifted helplessly by.
I was shooting macro, as I did on nearly every dive that week, so I was on the lookout for exactly those little creatures. Underwater macro photography exposes the crown jewels of the coral reefs. Hard corals form the hard base of the reef on which everything else depends, for food and shelter. Nestled in closely with the corals are other small creatures, including anemones, Christmas tree worms, tiny crabs and shrimp, zoanthids, crusting sponges, nudibranchs and small fish.
Everything is there for a reason (unless it's an invasive species, which is another topic for another day). Everything there eats and is eaten. A coral reef is a great place to learn how ecosystems function. And it is all about function. Except for the beauty.
And that's what struck me on that afternoon dive. Maybe it was because it was so relaxing. I was enjoying near perfect neutral buoyancy, moving by the tiniest flicks of my fins, as close as you can get to that zen state of not just being one with the water, but actually being the water.
I was drifting slowly through a narrow crevasse peering closely at the shady side when I spotted a feather duster worm so tiny and so orange I almost didn't believe my eyes. I wasn't narced, not at 30 feet deep. It was real, and about the size of my little fingernail. It was tucked in among brain corals and rope sponges that made it hard to photograph, but I did my best and got a few images worth keeping.
And as I backed away and continued on my aqueous meander, one word popped into my mind and wouldn't go away.
Usually I have asked that question in despair, trying to understand the reasons behind greed, cruelty, violence, destruction, betrayal and other human traits. But now I found myself incredulous that this world could be full of such beauty, and that most of it existed for its own sake.
The reef would still function if it were all drab and muted. It would function differently, to be sure. Science has explained that some of those colors and patterns help creatures identify each other or serve as warnings about things that will kill.
But when you look closely at these things, you see patterns and colors that go way beyond function. They are more intricate than the anti-counterfeiting patterns on folding currency, more colorful than the wildest acid trip, more breath-taking than a gothic cathedral. And they are not just in the smallest creatures, but in the close-up details of the larger animals as well. The question is, Why?
If you have read this far thinking I have an answer to that question, you're going to be disappointed. Everyone will have a different answer, and it will be right. For me, it's enough just to realize that there is incomprehensible beauty and goodness in nature.
Maybe its purpose is to balance the incomprehensible ugliness and evil that we humans are capable of. But I'm pretty sure that when we are gone, extinguished from the planet along with the dinosaurs and passenger pigeons, the beauty and goodness will still be here.
Unnecessary beauty exists for its own sake, for its own purposes, whatever those are. It doesn't need us, doesn't need to be appreciated by us. It was in the ocean for millions of years before we evolved into hominids and developed the technology to find it and be astonished by it. And it will be there for millions more after all our technology has rusted
So, why it's there is really not that important. It just is.
What is important, I believe, is that we're just lucky, or blessed or whatever you want to call it, to be able to see it, if only briefly.
That is the why that deserves pondering.
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