It's 10 o'clock on a Caribbean night and not one dive tale is being spun at
Curacao's beach bars. Anyone in Curacao possessing a C-card and an ounce of curiosity is in the water, including me; if our bubble-blowing tribe had drums to beat, the sound would be issuing out across the starlit waters.
We're in the front row for one of nature's greatest spectacles. It's five days after late September's full moon, which means only one thing to divers: a night of wild sexual abandon. The coral spawning, an annual synchronized release of thousands of egg and sperm bundles, is predicted to occur tonight between 9:45 and 11:30.
I swim through the cutout in the breakwater of the Curacao Sea Aquarium's usually off-limits house reef and drop 20 feet to where a hand-puppet-size turquoise octopus dances on the sand before disappearing between the rocks exactly where I saw it last night. After a quick hello, I beat a path for the mini-mountain of star coral I'd scouted on previous recon dives and duck the current behind it.
I'm part of an international contingent of divers who've chosen to spend vacation time as voyeurs while participating in the aquarium's Coral Spawning Week. Before this, I hadn't given coral its due as a complicated carnivore that eats, excretes and reproduces (all from the same hole, no less). But now, after attending several coral biology sessions with the aquarium's education director, Steve Pinotek, and making good use of the all-access pass that's allowed me unlimited day and night dives, I know better.
At the moment, I'm just lying in wait for a mad bout of sex on the reef while the glow from the other divers' lights and camera strobes illuminates the sea of darkness around me.
We diver aren't not alone. Blackbar soldierfish, flamefish, cardinalfish, brittle stars and squirrelfish have stirred awake to indulge in this caviar buffet. To me they're just backscatter -- I'm focused on the white egg bundle securely resting inside the "mouth" of each ring-shaped polyp. The mound of coral in front of me looks like it needs a good dermatologist.
Without warning, the eggs emerge onto the coral's skin until the outside is entirely sheathed in pearls. Then, as though an alarm has sounded, all at once the water is awash in thousands of red and white egg bundles.
Talk about survival of the fittest -- it's a mad dash as thick schools of fish rush the midnight foodfest and swarms of greedy brittle stars sweep across the coral heads, collecting egg bundles in their flaming-red, pinstriped daddy-longleg arms. A year of pent-up sexual energy is finally relieved in a single explosive moment, and as the bundles release their mix of eggs and sperm, the current whips it all into a potent brew that encourages cross-pollination. Yet again, Mother Nature has engineered some brilliant genetic programming into a critter that's as immobile as a rock.
At this moment I realize that I am one of the few people who have ever witnessed this carnal carnival. I'll never look at coral the same way again.
It's well after 11 when I call it a night. I take a slight detour to see if my octo friend is still there, but it's gone. Perhaps he'll be back tomorrow. I know I will be.