The life of the coral body

This article is part of the following series:

Life comes apart on the reef. Changes to ocean chemistry and temperature—generated by the fossil-hunger of militarism, extractivism, and industrialism—break open coral worlds on Australia’s northeast coast. Encountering death’s ascendency on the Great Barrier Reef, scientists seek to track coral life by descending within: to study limestone structures, the tiny polyps that build them, and the microscopic symbiotic algae that provide the energy for their construction. But life is not only captured through coral skeletons, bodies, and their many symbionts. There is also a second capture, in the other direction, as researchers ascend to view the planetary-scale effects of anthropogenic ocean changes on “the metabolic pulse” of Earth’s reefs (Cyronak et al., 2018). Both movements—towards the molecular and towards the planetary—enact the insides and outsides of what could be called the “coral body”: a membrane-bound reef assemblage of named and unnamed marine species. This body is a flattened topography of life and nonlife, a body we fear to be “dying” or “sickened,” like a human patient in a hospital.

Altered by the changing chemistry and temperature of the ocean, the coral body is a site for thinking porosity, absorption and the transmission of toxicity. In the same way that this body operates at multiple spatiotemporal scales, its health and metabolism are also multiple, becoming molecular and planetary. To think the thinking of this multiscalar coral body brings us into contact with scientists and medical anthropologists of the 20th century—such as Margaret Lock—who have approached health in a way that interrupts “bodily boundaries by distributing bodies across personhood and time” (Yates-Doerr, 2017: 154). In the 21st century, we see further interruptions with the shifting body-world configurations that characterise what Hannah Landecker has termed “the new metabolism” (2011). Landecker’s account of post-industrial porosity, which builds on the body-busting work of Lock, tracks the trajectory of the “biological gaze” as it is extended (Niewöhner, 2011: 290) from the internal fleshy matter of humans outward into external molecules in their environments. 

Rather than attempting to tell a story about matter itself, I want to consider the gaze and its extensions as a heuristic for breaking apart the reef. The gaze is a crude knife that cuts around the “life” of the Great Barrier Reef as it follows specific trajectories, producing membranes. Tracking the gaze may be one way to bring into being the orientations and practices that stage the insides and outsides of these membranes, a place to begin asking the question: Where is the life of the coral body?

Floating in clear saltwater off the northeast coast of Australia, I look at my compass to orient myself in the swell. Two divers and I, heavy with scuba equipment, are floating far out on a high tide in Geoffrey Bay, the site in the Great Barrier Reef where mass coral spawning was discovered in 1981. 

“Where will we drop down?” one of the divers asks. As we swim backward, kicking slowly, I gesture behind us with my head: “The reef starts over there.”

“Corals” can be many things. Some are soft, others hard; some grow in shallow, sunny and warm water, others in deep, dark and cold water. Those that build limestone reefs in tropical oceans—the kind most often referred to in the context of anthropogenic climate change—are called “hermatypic-zooxanthellate” corals. These are small, millimeters-thin translucent animals with stinging tentacles that build stone structures (the quality that makes them “hermatypic”) from the energy provided by photosynthesising plants that live inside their skin. These plants are called “zooxanthellae”: microscopic algae who have tightly coupled with their tentacular hosts alongside dense microbial communities. This symbiosis between animal coral and vegetal algae allows both to survive. It is “the engine of the reef” (Roth, 2014), which drives a kind of monstrous coral body to continue building the world’s largest bioconstructions, including the largest: the Great Barrier Reef.

In research articles, documentaries and tourist media, the coral body-machine of that reef is often made whole through metrics. We learn that it was built by billions of coral polyps, and runs 2,300 kilometers down the northeast coast of Australia. It has a maximum width of 330 km. It covers a total area of 344,400 km2. It contains around 900 islands and 3,700 coral reefs situated 15-150 km from the coast in 10-40 meters of water (Hopley, 2007).

We are off the coast of one of those islands, above one of those reefs, and within one of those 344,400 km2. The sun is slipping toward the horizon, the tide has turned, and a current is lightly tugging us further out to sea. I ask the divers with me if they are ready to descend. We put on our masks, test our regulators with measured breaths and hold high hoses from our buoyancy control vests to purge the air keeping us afloat. As the gas hisses out, we float down toward hermatypic–zooxanthellate reef-builders.

Beside me, one of the two young Californian tourists I am guiding releases air from her vest and sinks deeper. She approaches the carbonate limbs of a branching Acropora coral, hoping to see the tiny tentacles of the polyps that built it. She gets our attention and gestures at the coral, using a finger to draw a large circle that first encompasses the whole colony, then individual branches. Her finger points out different parts of the colony—the top, bottom, and sides—before she signals “I don’t know” with a shrug. 

“I was trying to ask where the coral is,” she says after we surface, bobbing in the swell.

Swimming back to shore, I ask the divers why they chose to come here.

“We came to see the Reef,” one says.

“You mean this reef?”

No, “we came to see the Reef.”

But, I tell them, this reef is also part of that reef. They seem unconvinced.

“Where else can we dive?”, one asks.

There are many drop zones for descending into an encounter with the life of the coral body. Thinking chronologically would take us back to the reef’s first encounters with the epistemological “fishing net” (Veron 2008, 6) of Western marine science, as British explorers attempted its taxonomic and cartographic capture. This descent begins in 1770 as Captain James Cook maps the coastline of what would become known as “Australia,” opening routes of passage for the invasion of the continent. Coral biology was not well understood at this time, and the existence of a stretch of coral structures at the scale of the Great Barrier Reef would have been hard to conceive. But in July of that year, Cook’s vessel makes contact with this unthinkable object, which tears holes in its wooden hull. After the boat is mended the reality of a seemingly endless series of ship-destroying reefs begins to manifest. As reef historian Iain McCalman writes, the onboard naturalist Joseph Banks “neatly summarized Cook’s resulting predicament and, in the process, coined a term to describe the coral maze that the Captain would quickly adopt” (McCalman, 2012: 16): Banks wrote that the crew “were ready to sail with the first fair wind but where to go? To windward was impossible, to leeward was a labyrinth of shoals” (Banks, quoted in McCalman 2012: 16). Cook’s “labyrinth” hung over the colonial imaginary of the reef for 30 years until Matthew Flinders—on a similar mission to cartographically capture, name, and subjugate the continent—came into contact with what he described as “great” reefs off the northeastern coast. He wrote that they formed “so extraordinary a barrier” he suspected they might be “connected with the Labyrinth of captain Cook” (1814: 102). This “great barrier” became further membrane-bound as a singular entity through the writing of Charles Darwin, who described it as “the grandest and most extraordinary coral formation in the world” (Darwin, 1838). Viewed from a passing ship in the 1700 and 1800s, the reef becomes a mineral monument: impenetrable. 

A labyrinth, barrier, and formation. The geological gaze that membrane-bound the coral body in the 18th and 19th centuries was soon replaced by a different way of seeing and constructing the life of the reef. In the 20th century, we encounter the coral body through the extension of a biological gaze deep into the fragile, fleshy bodies that grew the mineral “barrier.” In laboratory tanks and through the lenses of microscopes, corals emerge as a “thin film of living tissue” that has “shaped the face of Earth more than any other organisms” (Birkeland, 2015: 6). Advances in marine science, producing a “net” with smaller holes, showed the life of this flesh-stone assemblage emerging from different biological locations: from the synchronous mass spawning of pink sperm-egg bundles (Harrison et al., 1984) and the evolutionary currents they drifted on (Veron, 1995); and from a symbiosis between animal, plant, and microbial bodies. Through this work, the 3,700 reefs dribbling along the continental shelf were seen as belonging to a single living biological system: the Reef. A system whose boundaries became further strengthened in 1975 with the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act, which made the Reef a legal entity with clearly defined geographic and biological limits. 

Ironically, as life comes apart on the reef in the 21st century, the biological membrane around the body appears to strengthen. In 2019, in response to reports of mass coral death on the Great Barrier Reef, a campaign was started to “make the Great Barrier Reef an Australian citizen.” This echoes other attempts outside Australia to conceptually membrane-bind ecosystems—rivers, mountains, forests—as legal “persons.” Organisers justified the legal personhood of the Reef by listing the value of its ecosystem services, based on a Deloitte report that determined “her” net worth at $56 billion Australian dollars. “But despite her massive contribution to Australia,” the campaign’s press release reads, “she’s still denied the one basic right of every Australian citizen—the right to live.”

But the question remains, where is the life of the coral body? The more intensive the attempts to locate life by descending into the biology of a body, the more that pressure increases to realize the spatiotemporal contexts a body is embedded within (Niewöhner, 2011). Toxicity, generated by petrocapitalism, draws out this embeddedness, linking billions of bodies, human and calcareous, through changes to oceans. The question then becomes one of a different location: how deeply is the coral body embedded?

As reefs diminish in the altered environments produced by anthropogenic climate change, attempts to spatially and ecologically delimit reef biology are supplemented by projects that more explicitly attempt to existentially delimit the reef. Entering this space are the coral scientists tracking changes in alkalinity and carbon in the water column to determine the metabolism of immense reef systems. Here we encounter a membrane enacted through a chemical gaze. This research locates the coral body elsewhere: not within the limestone terrain of the reef itself, or inside the coral polyp, but expanding outward along metabolic pathways through different “functional scales” (Takeshita et al., 2018). By looking into the chemistry of the water around the Great Barrier Reef, these studies are seeking molecular indicators of “ecosystem-level response to climate change” (Cyronak et al. 2018, 10). Scientific work like this appears to run alongside those studies into human metabolism that hunt for indicators of bodily health in the molecular environment outside a body, extending the “biological gaze” into the world. But corals are not like humans, and the environments they each inhabit are ontologically incommensurable. Those observing the chemistry of the water around the Great Barrier Reef are not only looking at how an altered ocean environment will alter biological bodies but also tracing an interpenetration of saltwater and the carbonate reef. In one extreme case, to capture the edges of the reef’s metabolic pathways, a group of researchers looked at “shelf-scale dynamics” (Lønborg et al. 2019) by tracking the relationship that the Great Barrier Reef—at the level of continental shelf—has with the atmosphere through carbon fluxes between ocean and air (exchanges of CO2). Studies like these highlight the “growing recognition of the importance of examining biogeochemical processes across different functional scales” (Takeshita et al., 2018: 1). These tangled biological, geological and chemical processes pass matter between living systems and the environment; planetary cycles that wholly reorder body-world configurations underwater. Attempting to examine reef life at this scale—with a biogeochemical gaze—produces something like vertigo, as hermatypic-zooxanthellate corals literally coalesce into the world and the small, locatable lives of polyps and their symbionts sink in an ontological labyrinth.

In some ways, this work follows the outflowing of biological life to the environment seen in Landecker’s conceptualization of “the new metabolism.” But thinking with the heuristic of the gaze—that crude knife that cuts around “life”—the membrane-binding of the reef suggests other body-world configurations emerging in the context of post-industrial porosity. The “molecularization of the environment” (Landecker, 2011: 179) extends the biological gaze from within human bodies out into an altered world of active molecules ready to be metabolized. It is a gaze that configures life by traveling from within to without along biological trajectories. Thinking the coral body offers the possibility for other pathways. Distributed in space and time, the life of the coral body crystalizes through the trajectories of nested gazes that enact metabolism at different functional scales. These gaze trajectories are not only represented by biological lines extending outward from bodies to environments but also through more difficult and uncertain shapes: those immense biogeochemical loops that spiral life and nonlife in and out of the Earth. 

Works Cited

Birkeland, C (2015). Coral Reefs in the Anthropocene. Springer.

Cyronak T, Andersson A, Langdon, C et al (2018) Taking the Metabolic Pulse of the World’s Coral Reefs. PLOS ONE 13 (1): e0190872.

Darwin, C (1838) On Certain Areas of Elevation and Subsidence in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, as Deduced from the Study of Coral Formations. In Proceedings of the Geological Society of London: November 1826 to June 1833.

Flinders, M (1814) A Voyage to Terra Australis, Undertaken for the Purpose of Completing the Discovery of That Vast Country and Prosecuted in the Years 1801, 1802 and 1803… G. and W. Nicol.

Harrison, P L, Babcock R, Bull G, et al Mass Spawning in Tropical Reef Corals. Science 223, no. 4641 (March 16, 1984): 1186–89.

Hopley D, Smithers S, and Parnell, K (2007). The Geomorphology of the Great Barrier Reef: Development, Diversity and Change. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Landecker, H (2011) Food as Exposure: Nutritional Epigenetics and the New Metabolism. BioSocieties 6 (2): 167–94.

Lønborg C, Calleja M, Fabricius K et al. (2019) The Great Barrier Reef: A Source of CO2 to the Atmosphere. Marine Chemistry 210 (March 20): 24–33.

McCalman, I (2012) Turtle War: Captain Cook’s Environmental Crisis on the Great Barrier Reef.”The Great Circle 34 (2): 7–18.

Niewöhner, J (2011) Epigenetics: Embedded Bodies and the Molecularisation of Biography and Milieu. BioSocieties 6 (3): 279–98.

Roth M (2014) The Engine of the Reef: Photobiology of the Coral–Algal Symbiosis. Frontiers in Microbiology 5.

Takeshita Y, Cyronak T, Martz T et al. (2018) Coral Reef Carbonate Chemistry Variability at Different Functional Scales. Frontiers in Marine Science 5.

Veron, J (1995) Corals in Space and Time: The Biogeography and Evolution of the Scleractinia.  Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.

Veron, J (2008) A Reef in Time: The Great Barrier Reef from Beginning to End. Cambridge, Mass.; London: Belknap Press.

Yates-Doerr, E (2017) Counting Bodies? On Future Engagements with Science Studies in Medical Anthropology. Anthropology & Medicine 24, no. 2 (May 4, 2017): 142–58.

Cameron Allan McKean is a Ph.D. Candidate, Anthropology, Deakin University.