The Gulf of Love
A Rick Beck Story
Editor: Jerry W.
As Reefs Go
It was the following week that my world of marine biology hit one hell of a speed bump. I was acquainted with having the rug pulled out from under me. I was a professional man as in charge of his career as any man had been. I was high on a future senator's list of assets.
Ivan was home and all signs pointed toward him staying.
It was on a Thursday. Dylan had come to the lab with Ivan after lunch. It was hot and humid. A typical July day and a good day for a cooling dive.
We went diving twice a week once Dylan was out of school for the summer. I knew once they arrived, we'd leave almost immediately for the marina, after telling Pop we were off for a dive.
We were happy. Ivan had just made a big investment in the cove, and no one thought he'd be anywhere else for the next twenty or thirty years.
I saw it first and I swung a mile west of the dive site to come in with the sun directly behind the Sea Lab. At two in the afternoon it rendered us invisible to any craft directly east of us.
I let the engines idle only a minute before dropping anchor. We stood off almost a mile from the vessel in question.
I picked up my binoculars and walked out behind the bridge. Both Dylan and Ivan followed. They weren't sure what was wrong but they knew this wasn't the usual routine.
“Who is it?” Ivan asked.
“Don't know,” I said. “But they shouldn't be where they are.”
“Where's that, Daddy,” Dylan asked.
“Directly over my reef.”
Both Dylan and Ivan took a closer look.
“You two stay here. I'm going to put on my equipment and go take a look,” I said.
“Over my dead body you will,” Ivan said. “You don't know what they're up to.”
“They're on top of my reef. I want to know what they're doing,” I said.
“Look, slick, you don't know what they're doing. They could be armed. They could be dangerous. I just came back from a place where bandits would cut your throat as soon as look at you if you get in their way. We have our son with us and you aren't the Lone Ranger.”
“Pirates?” Dylan asked.
“On the sea you call men like that pirates, yes,” Ivan said. “You need to call the coast guard, Clay.”
“Wait a minute. They've got something on their crane. I'm trying to see what it is.”
“Let me take a look,” Ivan said.
I handed him the binoculars once I knew what was on their hook.
“It's a cannon. Where in the world did that get a cannon.”
“Off the shipwreck. It's likely a twelve or sixteen pounder.”
“Hell that thing weighs a ton. What's twelve or sixteen got to do with it?” Ivan asked.
“It's the size of the ball cannons used from early in the eighteenth century.”
“Sea Lab to coast guard base. Sea Lab....”
“Go ahead Sea Lab. This you Captain Olson. What's up on this fine July afternoon.”
Ivan handed me the microphone as I came onto the bridge.
“This is Captain Olson of the Sea Lab. I have a salvage ship sitting on top of what I believe is an eighteenth century shipwreck. They've got a cannon on the hook as we speak. You can catch them in the act, coast guard base.”
“This is Harold, Clay.”
“Hello, Harold. You need to get a boat out here and see what these folks are up to.”
“That the reef you've been diving the last few years?” Harold asked.
“Harold, they're already destroying that ship. It can't take any pressure. It's hundreds of years old. They're interested in what might be in it.”
“Coast guard one is on the way. Confirm that we're talking the reef I mentioned.”
“Yes, that's where I am.”
“Clay, stay off from the site. These men are probably armed. We get this a couple of times a year. They fly over and spot something in the water and send a boat to loot the sites that look promising. I know you feel like you need to stop them, but I'm ordering you to stand down and wait for Coast Guard One. Are you clear on that?”
“I am, Harold. I understand the danger. How'd you know I was diving this reef?” I asked.
“Captain Olson, we're the coast guard. We know everything that goes on in our waters. You park out there twice a week. You think we haven't noticed that floating castle of yours. I”d recognize the Sea Lab from ten miles off. Now I want you to stand down. Make no attempt to approach. Coast guard one will be there in eighteen minutes.”
“10-4. Sea Lab out.”
“Coast guard base out.”
“You realize what they had to do to get to that cannon?” Ivan asked.
“I know,” I said, walking out to stare at where my reef once was.
My insides felt empty.
The coast guard came with lights and siren. It was like watching the Cavalry charging in. The men scurried about the deck but they were out gunned and quickly threw their hands in the air.
“Sea Lab, this is coast guard base. You got your ears on, Clay.”
“Yeah, Harold. What you got.”
“The scene is secure. Nine sailors are under arrest. I have something for you to mark down. Got a pencil?”
“Shoot!” I said.
Harold gave me three sets of map readings.
“What's this for, Harold.”
“For you, Clay. You know what they did to your reef?”
“These are ship wrecks from earlier in this century. None are as seasoned as the Spanish shipwreck. The first readings I gave you are a site I've been diving. The reef is small but growing. You'll be able to watch a juvenile reef do its thing. I'll take you out when you're ready to dive on it. You may be surprised.”
“Thanks, Harold. I'll get back to you on these. Sea Lab out.”
“Sorry we couldn't do more, Captain Olson. Coast Guard Base out.”
Not diving on a hot July afternoon was more difficult than going on our dive.
The coast guard had come and towed away the ship that was parked on top of my reef when we got there. Dylan and Ivan wanted to go diving and see if they'd damaged the reef.
I didn't want to face it right away. I'd come back one more time. I wasn't sure how I'd handle seeing my reef or how I might document it, but I was working on it.
“You want another order of clams, Dylan?” I asked, as we sat at J.K.'s processing the aborted dive.
“I want another order,” Ivan said. “I'll split it with junior.”
“I still don't get why we didn't dive, Daddy,” Dylan said. “Did you want to look at the reef?”
“Those men disturbed the reef. It's a living animal. We need to leave it alone for a while. I have a couple of new sites we'll try. See what other reefs have to offer.
“Cool,” Dylan said, shoveling in the last of his clams.
“I'm glad we're going to see another reef,” Ivan said. “We'd seen that one. There wasn't much there we hadn't seen.”
“No,” I said. “Not much.”
Ivan knew what I knew and shifting Dylan's attention to other things was advisable at this point. I wasn't in the mood to figure out where we might shift our diving to. There were other sites I was aware of and spots where I went diving with Bill Payne. They weren't private spots and other divers came and went on most days.
Diving was a growing activity in the clear Gulf waters.
I was in no hurry to return to the reef where the pirates had been. Ivan began work on the house next to the river a few days after we were last out on the sea Lab. He had Dylan helping him and talk of diving had subsided for the time being.
Ivan kept Dylan busy painting the outside of the house. It had needed a coat of paint since the first time I visited him there.
When Ivan wasn't working on the house, he continued taking apart and cleaning his grandfather's fishing gear. It was exacting work that took days to disassemble, clean, and put the gear back together again. It had all been hand made.
Ivan would be a fisherman but not with his father. He had the charter boat on order. He was sure the future was in sport fishing and charter boat tours for vacationers. Ivan didn't want to be gone for three days a week or more.
He could take sports fishermen out before sunrise and have them back by dark. That would be enough fishing for anyone and Ivan could sleep in his own bed.
Ivan was working on an advertising strategy to bring business to the cove. Lucy was helping him create literature that could highlight the services he wanted to offer and be used in tourist advertising papers and magazines around the state.
I didn't know much about Ivan's plans. He liked to surprise me.
I waited a couple of days before going back to the reef. I was in no hurry. What I found wasn't going to change in two days or two years. Seeing it would bring finality to my work there. I knew what I wanted to do without knowing how to use it.
When I visited my reef for the last time, I went alone. I took the Nikon and plenty of film with me. I wanted to document my final dive from beginning to end. I needed to document what had been done there. I wasn't certain about what I was going to see. It was obvious, to get to the cannon the pirates had on their hook, they had to remove the reef, which grew on top of the shipwreck.
I anchored the Sea Lab where I usually left it while diving on the reef. I got into my gear. With two full tanks of air, I'd have just under two hours to do what I came to do.
I eased myself down the ladder, pushing off to begin my approach. I took my time moving deeper into the Gulf while approaching the remains of the shipwreck.
The first thing I noticed was sediment in the water where the reef had been. At a distance where I could plainly see the outline of the reef, I could only see particulate matter in the water.
The reef was gone. It had been blown to pieces. It was dead. It wouldn't return to its former grandeur at some future date. My job was to see that its death wasn't in vain. I didn't know how I'd do it, but I would do something.
The reef was now rubble on the sea floor. I had prepared myself for what I saw but nothing could prepare me for it.
I approached carefully, clicking pictures of the cloud in the water where the reef had been. The sediment hid the graying reef until I was directly over it. The debris field stretched out in all directions. Burn marks from whatever explosive that was used to move the coral out of the way, also destroyed the last vestiges of the shipwreck where the coral took hold.
Wood hundreds of years old splintered from the force of the explosions. Destruction required so the pirates could reach the treasure within. That treasure consisted of four rusted cannon and fourteen hundred and ninety eight bricks used for ballast on an empty treasure ship.
The ship had entered the Straits of Florida to escape an unnamed storm in 1728. The storm caught the ship and it sank.
There were originally fifteen hundred bricks in the ships hold. A marine biologist who shall remain unnamed liberated two bricks to hold open the doors between his bedroom and the porch outside. I didn't confess to the theft. I didn't want them to offer me the rest of the bricks.
I clicked away. I swam above, around the sides, and from the trench where I'd taken thousands of slides over the years. I'd kept the history of a pristine reef for a time.
I could hardly see the broken pieces of coral from twenty feet away. The residue from the explosive was still prominent in the water.
Did they think they were blowing up the Titanic?
They'd destroyed the shipwreck and the reef completely.
The location that once thrived with color and life was dead. Nothing was alive in the water. Even the tiny microbes visible where the rays of the sun penetrating the water were gone or at least greatly diminished in number.
I focused on doing what I came to do. I clicked off the first roll of film in short order. I surfaced, drank some fresh water, reloaded my camera, before going back to finish up.
I wouldn't need to use all my air.
I wondered what kind of men did something like this. I knew only men who cared and did their best to preserve natural beauty. What kind of men blow up a coral reef?
I'd never dared to get this close to the reef before. My presence was a violation of the privacy of another living organism. Keeping my distance allowed life on the reef to go on undisturbed or with the least disturbance possible. .
I told myself that these pictures were for the greater good as I violated the reef's space one last time. I was documenting a dead reef. I'd studied its life and the life of the creatures it hosted. I got to observing it growing. It created a beauty the likes of which I never expected to see again. I had recorded it all on film.
I'd once thought, 'This is nature's Sistine Chapel.' I'm looking at a creation beyond any ability I had to imagine it. It stood alone to represent the best of the natural world. I expected it to go on forever. I expected to be diving on it when I was old and gray.
Now I was the mercenary. I'd kept a record of the reef over the years and I was here to document its death. As obscene as that was to me, I knew it's what I had to do to complete the story I told.
My air ran out. I had stayed longer than I intended. It was then a plan began to form. I'd surface and be safe. I had the film that told the final chapter in the story of the reef, my story.
By studying this reef I thought I could save it. If I could find a way to save this reef, I could save them all. By watching it's many incarnations, the incredible variety of life, I'd uncovered its secrets and document them on film. I was sure I could protect it, save it.
Had I led the pirates to my reef? Did they fly over and see the Sea Lab anchored next to it?
Had the fool who came to save it been its merchant of death. If the coast guard knew I was diving there, couldn't someone else have seen me and been made curious about what I might be doing?
As I swam back toward the Sea Lab, I remembered one of my earliest dives with Bill Payne. I was seventeen.
Bill said, 'We are the canary in the coal mine, Clay.'
I got it now. I couldn't save my reef. I couldn't save anything. What I could do was sound the alarm. I was here to warn the people. If you want to keep beauty in your world, stop destroying it.
I wasn't sure they would stop. I wasn't sure people cared enough to make an effort to preserve the beauty we had.
I left my reef for the final time, taking my pictures with me.
I wouldn't return.
I developed the pictures and created the slides I wanted on the Sea Lab. Once I was back in my slip, I spent several days looking at the slides in the salon, trying to get an idea of their impact. When I had what I wanted, I contacted Harry.
“Yes, Clayton, how are you? Tampa in two weeks. The tenth of August.”
“I'm fine, Harry. The Tampa campaign stop. I have some slides I want to show the audience. Put me in touch with whoever I need to talk to about it.”
“Slides. You know it's at the auditorium in Tampa. We plan to speak to several thousand people that night. You think they'll sit still for a slide show?”
“I've incorporated the slides into my presentation. I'm working on some music to go with the slides. I need to know who to speak to so that they're ready for me when I speak.”
“I'll have the man making the arrangements for Tampa contact you with that information. This will be the opening for my campaign push. We'll be busy campaigning until next year's election. I'll be at the conservancy for a couple of days after Tampa. We'll meet and compare notes.”
“Thanks, Harry. I'll see you in Tampa.”
As soon as I got off the phone, I began writing the changes to my usual talk. I wasn't going to talk as long and the slides would last twenty minutes. I expected to be in front of the audience for thirty-five minutes. That's all the time I needed to do what I planned to do.
I didn't know how Harry would take it but I wasn't doing it for Harry. This had to be done and this audience was where I'd do it.
Ivan drove Dylan and me to Tampa in his new Buick. He wasted no time getting us there. I followed the direction to the office where final arrangements were made for my presentation.
I took my slide show with me to Tampa. The auditorium was the biggest place where I'd spoken if not the biggest place I'd ever been in. It was set up as a multipurpose venue with lights, sound, and a first class slide projector were all provided. I was to bring a cassette with the music that went with the slides.
Everything was ready to go.
Harry was going to be elected to the senate. Nothing I did could stop his momentum. All his regular donors and a lot more had been invited to Tampa.
My presentation, the story about Harry, me, and the Gulf of Mexico, came last. Most people enjoyed it. I told about Harry's dedication to the economic growth of Florida and my reach and our determination to keep the Gulf clean.
Tonight there was a new wrinkle. My praise of Harry wouldn't take quite as long and the slide show followed. It was choreographed to last 32 minutes, which was shorter than the usual speech I gave.
By this time most of Harry's donors knew me and they were well acquainted with what I did. There would be new donors that followed a politician to higher office. Most knew what the conservancy did. It remained to be seen how the rest of the audience would react.
I was there to tell my story and I intended to tell it.
Harry spoke just before I was announced. He'd arrived fifteen minutes ahead of time and remained in a huddle with advisers until he was announced. He bounced out on the stage to give one of the best speeches he'd given. He'd begun to grow into his roll as a future senator.
“Now for a man I depend upon to take the pulse of the Gulf and make sure it stays healthy. The marine biologist from my conservancy at Sanibel, Clayton Olson.”
There was modest applause when I was announced. Harry only used twenty-five minutes. They audience had been seated for a little over an hour and three speeches when I showed up.
It was hot and the main speaker had come and gone. I was the closing act before the exit music played, but no one walked out on me, not right away. There was a meet and greet after I spoke.
I walked to center stage and stood there looking out.
“Many of you know me as Clayton Olson. Some of you know me as a marine biologist. I'm called Captain Olson of the good ship Sea Lab by some of you. I am a marine biologist thanks to future senator Harry McCallister. I have a beautiful floating laboratory thanks to one of Harry's donors.”
“Harry saw to it I got the best education possible in his effort to keep the Gulf of Mexico healthy.
I nodded and smiled at Mr. Mosby. He was front row center. He returned my smile and nodded back. Most of the donors I knew had scored front row seats and I felt comfortable.
“You've heard me speak about the incredible creatures I come in contact with while I'm at work. Tonight I decided I'd show you that beauty. I brought some slides. Don't panic. They are worth the few minutes it'll take to show them to you. I never get tired of seeing the underwater world that I study,” I said.
“The Gulf of Mexico is one of the most incredible bodies of water in the world. Harry's conservancy is determined to keep it that way.”
The music was light and fanciful. A single piano furnished a delicate sound as the lights went low. The slide projector came to life.
“The Gulf is filled with life.”
The slide projector clicked each time a slide changed. The wall behind me became the screen. The images were large enough for everyone to see.
Each slide appeared for twenty seconds. I picked out the richest colors. These were the best slides from the thousands of pictures I'd taken. They represented a living rainbow of color.
The coral was brilliant white. I named each unique species that came into view. The projector clicked off each slide.
“This is a living reef,” I said.
The auditorium had fallen quiet. There were sounds of awe when the more spectacular creatures appeared behind me. I may not win an academy award but my audience was hooked on the underwater world.
I didn't see how it could be otherwise. I got chills when I looked at my slides.
As the slides clicked off, I described the condition as well as the scene they were seeing.
The beauty had painted its own pictures. I simply offered a name for what each image showed. How can you describe something where there are no words to compare to its grandeur?
After the fortieth slide, the lights came up. The delicate piano piece stopped playing.
“What I've shown you tonight are slides of my reef. It's beautiful. I decided it wasn't fair keeping it to myself. Since I can't invite you to go diving with me, I did the next best things. I hope you enjoyed it.
The audience applauded, sensing I was nearing the end, and I was, but I wasn't quite done yet.
“This is a special reef. It grew, coral being a living animal, on an ancient shipwreck. You see why I love my work.”
I didn't expect the applause here.
I waited for it to subside.
“Most of you know me as Harry's man in the Gulf, because I work at his conservancy. Our business is the Gulf of Mexico, where I document what's going on and how conditions are changing,” I said.
“It's all made possible by Harry. I have the best equipment. I got the best education a marine biologist can get. Most environmentalist know Bill Payne. He taught me my craft. I need say no more. I'm Harry's boy because he arranged my training each step of the way.”
“Harry saw to it that environmental friendly laws were passed. It's vital to Florida's economy. He isn't running for the senate to add that to his resume. Harry is a man of integrity running to be your senator so he can pass new and better laws to protect Florida from those who would pollute and destroy its natural beauty, like my reef.
“I call it my reef because so few people know its there. Much of my research over the last four years has been done there,” I said.
“We, me and you, along with Harry McCallister, want to preserve the Gulf of Mexico as the pristine body of water we know. I'm here to tell you that reefs like the one I've shared with you are endangered.
“In time, if steps aren't taken to prevent it, many reefs will begin to die. With the introduction of chemicals, petroleum, man himself, the Gulf is in danger. If we don't prevent it, the reef I showed you, and reefs like it will die.”
I signaled for the lights to come down again. Ominous music played dramatically in the background.
The first slide showed the sediment, then the closer shots of the fallen reef and the gray pallor of death. I did not narrate these slides.
A single group moan accompanied the first slide that identified the rubble that was a reef.
There were eight slides. It took only eight to show what was left of my pristine reef. That was plenty.
The audience became restless by the time the last slide was shown and the lights came back up.
People were walking out now. Others needed to know if what they suspected was true. Those people stayed put and waited to find out.
I'd come too far to lie now.
I was on my own. It was no longer about Harry. This was about me. It's about what I did. It was about whether or not I'd continue doing what I did. This was about who I was.
I'd pushed all my chips into the center of the table. It was anyone's guess where I went from here.
The audience was buzzing. No one else walked out on me.
“I didn't show you that to upset you. I used it to make my point.”
“That's what a dead reef looks like,” I said, waiting.
“The death of this reef came suddenly and violently. A slow toxic death results in the same ending. It just takes longer. I couldn't protect the reef where the pictures I showed you were taken. I thought I was protecting it but you see how well that turned out.”
“What happened?” A voice asked. “Who did that?”
“I'm glad you asked. Some men blew it up. They wanted to get to a shipwreck under where the coral had grown. They destroyed the reef and the shipwreck. No treasure,except the one they destroyed.”
A buzz ran through the audience.
People talked to each other.
“I didn't come here tonight to tell you we are winning. We aren't. More pollutants enter the Gulf each day. It's not just Florida, it's going on everywhere,” I said.
“When I speak on behalf of Harry, I tell my story. Harry doesn't know this story. I'm sure he'll find out,” I said.
The audience laughed.
“I may be Harry's man, because he made me what I am. He is in no way responsible for what I presented here tonight. If you have complaints about learning the harsh truth I've told, don't blame him. This is what I had to do, because I am a marine biologist first and Harry's boy second.”
There was a few more laughs.
“I'll close on a positive note. Because of studying this reef for so many years, the information gathered, the thousands of slides taken, specimens collected, this reef will never die. It lives in my studies and it will help marine biologists understand more about life on a reef in the Gulf of Mexico.”
“As a marine biologist, heavy on the biology, I want to tell you that the hummingbird and the grizzly bear are like nothing else on earth. The sand dollar and sea horse may be tiny, hard to find, but they are no less dynamic than the dolphin or the orca. I think I shall never see anything as beautiful as a manatee, but they too are endangered,” I said, thinking about Millie's scar.
“I've shown you a reef at it's peak of vitality and shortly after its death. I don't want to be alive to see the last hummingbird or manatee. Should someone still be alive to see the last of our sea creatures, heaven help them. It's not an earth where I wish to live.
“I leave in your hands. You know what we're up against now. If we all work together, we might save the world. Thank you and Good night.”
I was drained completely.
I'd just done the hardest thing that I'd ever done.
I had screamed.
It remained to be seen if any one heard me.
Ivan jumped up on the stage and hugged me.
“Damn, Captain Olson, you hung it out there tonight. That was wonderful,” Ivan said, hugging me again.
“Far out, Daddy,” Dylan said. “You said you'd have something to say about your reef. You sure did say it.”
Yes, I did.
“Let's get out of here. I'm exhausted,” I said, and we slipped out of the hall together.
It was a long ride home and I didn't have any idea where I went from here.