By Bashir Cassimally
The waters of the Blue Bay Marine Park in Mauritius are not as blue as their name suggests, but more of a greenish aquamarine hue. That is until you go in. At knee level it is all of a sudden so clear that you can see below the surface, like looking through a glass of drinking water. It is time to slip on the mask and the fins, and head to the coral reefs for a snorkelling break.
Hovering on the surface and peering down into a sea garden of all imaginable colours is possibly the closest you can come to a hawk gliding over the forest, moving its sharp eyes to pick up any movement of creatures below. It is the ultimate contemplation. A complete let go, rid of gravity and allowing the buoyancy of the sea water to take over and set you free in spirit, free from all the thoughts, good and less good, imprinted on the brain that come knocking at the doors of the sub consciousness.
The sea garden of corals has been constructed by millions of tiny animals, polyps all in symbiosis with other organisms. The corals are so varied in colour, shape and size. The names befit them. The stag horns and finger corals are pointed, providing refuge to a multitude of small fishes in an astonishing array of colours. The table and plate corals are horizontal and often multi layered, offering shelter to fishe and other organisms as soon as a potential predator comes near. The mushroom and brain corals are boulder-like formations emerging from the sea bed to greet the congregations of smaller fishes that congregate around them.
The butterfly fish, often yellow in colour, is almost as slim as a pancake. It is egg-shaped with a snout emerging from the smaller side to peck at corals in search of small organisms. It possesses beautiful stripes, sometimes linear and sometimes concentric, and floats about the coral reefs as a butterfly does on flowers. There are other types of fishes with mind-boggling appearances. There is the flutemouth, almost translucent in colour with, as its name suggests, a flute-like appearance. It likes to remain still near the surface, making believe it is a floating object. The flute mouth is able to suck in seawater like a pipette with its long snout sifting the smaller organisms. The boxfish with its bright spots swells itself to mimic a decorative box. The triggerfish is shaped like a three dimensional rhomboid ready to set off at a minimum disturbance. Its bright colours earned it the name of Picasso fish. The goatfish, with whiskered feelers down their chins, prefer to graze on sand patches close to the corals. They are ever in search of buried invertebrates that they uncover with their funny whiskered-looking feelers.
The coral formations and their resident fishes are so fascinating to watch. No two snorkelling trips are ever alike. There is always something more to discover, to learn and to relish from the reefs. There is one trip that I particularly cherish and will always carry in my heart. I was swimming in the park when a presence nearby made itself felt. I tend to become fidgety whenever a fish longer than a mere quarter of a metre flashes past. But this one was different. I could sense it gliding past effortlessly and smoothly. I turned slowly to the left to see a turtle swimming alongside, by no means resentful or fretful of me. Instead it was contented to accompany me side by side over a distance of maybe twenty metres in what must have been the most graceful dance I was ever privileged to have been honoured with.
The turtle dived to a finger coral formation. I hovered above as it pecked at corals, unearthing small invertebrates with its raptor-like mouth. It was a hawkbill turtle with distinctive overlapping tooth-shaped scales on its carapace. These animals have a life span of up to fifty years. Our friend was in comparison a youngster, about half a metre in length, but an intrepid and probing one.
Most species of turtle are critically endangered. Hawksbills can be seen, though rarely, in the Indian Ocean islands. An encounter with one of these most graceful of creatures is a moment to be remembered. A waltz with one is a blessing.
Bashir Cassimally is an engineer and a writer of short fiction and creative non fiction. His work has been published in ArtAscent and he is currently writing a collection of short stories set in the Land of the Munchas, a fictional place.
Photograph credit: By User: (WT-shared) Legis at wts wikivoyage (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons