I made a new friend. This is always the recipe for something insane to happen because I get a ridiculous amount of energy from meeting new people. And in this case, my new friend happened to be a scientist with an impeccable knowledge for coral reefs …
I had driven over 12 hours—along the most beautiful coastline with no human life for kilometers and kilometers—from Perth to a place called Exmouth, Western Australia. This tiny town [population 3,000] is situated on red dirt and bright blue waters and is the gateway to one of earth’s forgotten wonders: The Ningaloo Reef. When you think of Australia’s reefs you are drawn to the east coast’s Great Barrier. But almost never do you hear about this gem of the wild west. And because of that alone, I knew I needed to go see for myself.
The best way to see the wild out here is to car camp, as there’s not much accommodation available, especially during peak season. Typically, there’d be droves of Aussie tourists in these parts this time of year. But because of that funky “thing” that happened in 2020 … this wasn’t the case. I only fully realized the lack of human life around me as I made my way around the tip of Exmouth towards the vast Cape Range National Park.
There was a somewhat post-apocalyptic energy happening in Exxy due to the lack of humanity out here. I also realized there was another element to the foreboding nature of the scene. The town was completely without power, and as a result, looked practically abandoned. But something spectacular had also gone down that I was soon to learn all about, up close and personal.
Diving over an hour outside town center, losing all cell service, I finally arrived at the legendary Turquoise Beach. This place is known for its drift swimming in extremely clear [and of course turquoise] water over Ningaloo’s fringing reef. Fun fact: there are three types of reefs—barrier, atolls and fringing. The fringing kind are very close to shore and are easily accessed just by swimming out to them. They can sometimes be attached to the shoreline or submerged in the shallows if they are considered a back reef.
While taking in one of the most gorgeous [and completely empty] beaches I’ve ever seen from the top of the dune line, another one of my senses was overwhelmed with disgust. The glorious vista was unexpectedly met with one of the foulest odors I’d ever smelled. How could something so beautiful smell so bad!? That’s when I noticed there are quite literally THOUSANDS of stunning, colorful tropical fish dead, washed up on the sand. They say scent is closely tied to the memory centers of our brains—and I don’t think I could ever forget the smell of these dead fish if I tried.
But that’s also when I noticed I was no longer alone in this stinky paradise. I spotted a woman who looked nearly my age, if not a bit older, about 100 meters away. She was sporting some high-tech looking equipment, wearing thick rubber coveralls and sturdy muck boots. She was intensely focused on what he was doing—eyes to the ground, examining the deceased. Naturally, I approached her to spark my usual line of deep questioning, but she beat me to it, as if I was the first person she’d seen in days … which I came to find out was true. And that’s when we became best friends.
Her name was Justine, and she was a coral scientist and expert from the Great Barrier here for a few weeks to study the scene. She explained that there was an early and extreme coral spawning event [something I had read about in books and only dreamed of seeing one day.] But why all the dead fish?
So, let’s talk about coral spawning. This is an annual happening where all the coral on a reef synchronize their mating patterns. Yep, that’s right. These animals release their eggs and sperm all at the same time over a few days beneath the light of the full moon. The location and species of coral will determine when exactly this happens, so it’s not always the easiest to PLAN and see. Unless, you’re me in this particular moment, given I just stumbled upon it by chance. Win!
Now, back to that fish graveyard. Justine hypothesized that the spawn slicks were so intense this year, that they’d managed to drift all the way to the shore. This cut off the fishes’ oxygen supply and unfortunately asphyxiated them. To make matters worse, the combination of low tides, minimal swells and unusually hotter than hot weather made conditions even worse for these special fish—as the currents and waves typically would disperse the coral larvae out to sea, preventing something like this from happening.
While the abundance of coral sex happening [for an already threatened species] was a great thing to behold, the inadvertent fish genocide was less so. Especially since it was partially caused by [you guessed it] climate change. We are seeing these weird “freak events” all over, manifesting in many different [and mostly alarming] forms. After about an hour going back and forth discussing the pros and cons of this particular freakshow, Justine asked me the last question I could’ve expected: “Do you want to see if we can catch some of the spawning action, up close?”
Coral spawning only happens at night, so Justine and I agreed to meet at sunset to prepare. She gave me the “coordinates” on a map [where we were going, there were no addresses] and said it was going to be a late, long, hectic night. Which I was obviously down for to minimize time spent car camping. She told me to bring my freedive gear and get ready to feel “disgusting.” DISGUSTING? Wasn’t totally sure what she meant by that, but I presumed it had something to do with the aforementioned slicks—aka, coral jizz and eggs. Another moment of thinking, “what’s the worst that could happen?”
In the meantime, Justine asked me if I wanted to see the event from the sky. Again, clueless as to what this could possibly mean, she pointed me in the direction of a landing strip where spotter planes will search for marine life from above. I was meant to ask for Chris, and see if he’d be ok taking me out for a flight. Absolutely pumped, and still with no cell service, I follow Justine’s paper map and finger point, and get on my way.
Yet again, another person really excited to see human life, Chris seems even more pumped than me to get in the air. Relishing in this good luck, I strap my GoPro to the wing of the spotter and off we go. Flying over Exxy’s cape, and what was once the ocean floor, we make our way to the turquoise. That’s when the abundant brownish/red slicks of spawn clutching close to the shoreline came into our line of sight—exactly the story Justine had laid out about the cause of fish death.
After the flight of my life, it was time to make my way back to our coordinated spawn-seeking location. When I finally found Justine, we threw on our lightest wetsuits, fins and masks letting the sun set around us in the middle of nowhere. All the while, Justine was staring at me, confused. “Where’s your hood?” she asked. I didn’t understand why I’d need a hood in 30 degree celsius water, and told her I was without one. That’s when her face went blank. It wouldn’t take long for me to realize how screwed I was gonna be without that stupid hood.
So there I was. In the complete darkness, plunging into slick sea water, not knowing what exactly to expect and lacking the necessary equipment. We were off to a perfect start!
Because a lot of the spawning had already happened, we were in search of a specific species that hadn't released its goods yet [coral species know how to avoid cross-pollination during these big events.] The “mating” act itself would resemble an underwater, white, orange, red and yellow snowstorm upon release. And then, the egg/sperm bundles were meant to rise to the surface when fertilization begins. This is what we were searching for.
The water was shallow enough to pop our heads out, but deep enough to require swimming. With such limited light, we couldn’t go far from each other, as we are cruising one torch each. The water felt warm, thick and creamy as we submerged. I used my light to start duck diving onto the reef. And with each descent, there were millions of little worm creatures spiraling around us in a frenzy. The worms seemed to be here to feed on the slicks. We swam through this chaotic dance of critters before it finally became clear why I should’ve brought the hood.
I never thought I’d say these words but, after the sensation of earworms subsided a bit, I continued on my sexy coral search. My torch had died after being out there for too long, which meant Justine and I had to tether to one another. And finally, right when we were about to throw in the towel, we got to see one release! It was spectacular, and exactly how Justine had described it. A coral eruption if you will. We watched plankton, small fish and rays feed on the coral, all while the worms continued to swarm our heads. I was thrilled to say I had the unique and totally random pleasure of seeing one species let its legacy live on.
As we got onto shore, I once again was reminded of my dire circumstances: I don’t have a place to shower. I come to find out neither does Justine, given she was only in town for a few weeks, and she too was car camping. Because of the dead fish scenario, she was posted up close by in order to observe at all hours. We resorted to our only option: water jugs in the backseat of our cars.
As we washed mother earth’s eggs and sperm off ourselves [and while I attempted to get the residual worms out of my ears], we celebrated this shared ocean moment that would last us a lifetime. That night was truly the most uncomfortable attempt at sleep of my adult life. It wasn’t until the next morning that I had to break-and-enter into a hotel, using their outdoor shower for another memory of pure bliss. Never thought I could love a warm shower more.