Tangled Coral: An Underwater Encounter with Fishing Line
My shears were as dull as a spoon, but I held them firmly with blades opened against the thick, clear line of monofilament. My legs kicked steadily downward, my body inverted three meters below the ocean's surface. With only a moment until I'd require my next breath, I focused on my entanglement task to free this coral from the grip of fishing line.
The shears were gnawing on the line, but it wouldn't break. Every second felt like a lifetime. While I assessed, the requirement to breathe became absolute. I abandoned the line and in the next moment I fought my way to the surface, the coral beneath me becoming smaller with distance.
When my face broke the surface of the water, I gasped for air. Nothing is so immediate and exacting as the need to breathe. The instinct is primitive. We breathe without thinking, and yet the desire consumes our every thought when denied the privilege.
I know my breath-hold is a pittance compared to more experienced free divers in Hawaii. I don’t even consider myself a free diver, which requires much more finesse and a prettier skin suit than the one I wear. I’m a scuba diver, and an experienced one at that. I'm also a snorkeler, choosing this route often over the more cumbersome toolkit required of scuba.
I'm in the water a lot here, and tangled coral is a common sight. So much so that there are local organizations dedicated to removing fishing line from nearshore waters, and ones devoted to cleaning beaches too. With more than enough debris to go around, everyone has their own place to collect what the ocean on its own cannot dissolve.
Around the world, coral reefs face a variety of threats. None of these is so obviously the result of human interference than that of fishing line entanglements. While talking heads can argue tirelessly about the role of humans on ocean warming, Uncle Kai has no doubt the fishing line he lost several days ago is stuck in the reef.
I've volunteered with debris removal organizations here in Hawaii on many occasions. When I started noticing it on personal dives, I began to carry shears in the water. Several times I'd been snorkeling and discovered severe fishing line hazards. Line would be wrapped like an underwater clothesline around corals and lava rocks, ready to insnare an unsuspecting sea turtle or monk seal whose fins can easily become entangled. Like humans, these creatures breathe air, so if they are denied access to the surface, they will die. Unfortunately, this happens a lot.
Back in the water, it took me about sixty seconds to recover my strength and I was ready to try again. I stuck my head in the water using my snorkel to breathe and searched the seafloor through my mask. I was looking for the bit of tangled coral I had just been working on. It was insnared by a long fishing line, the hook properly synched into the coral's calcium carbonate skeleton while the remaining line knitted itself like a scarf in its branches.
I spotted my project about twelve feet away - the current had moved me just slightly - and I swam the surface until my body was positioned directly over it. When it was, I prepared myself by taking several deep inhales and exhales. I like to warn my lungs that the next plunge is coming. On the final inhale, I held my breath and dove downwards to the coral below.
Submerged, I heard a litany of crackling and popping, like the sound of freshly poured milk over a bowl of rice krispies. Wherever Jacques Cousteau was swimming, it wasn't in the shallow reefs of Hawaii because the underwater world here is anything but silent. The popping comes from tiny shrimps that are hidden inside the corals. Often these shrimps are accompanied by the voices of dolphin and, if you're lucky, the songs of whales - creatures who are also often the victims of marine debris hazards.
Back at the seafloor, I reached for the free floating fishing line I'd been untangling. I found my previous incision point, applied pressure to the shears with one hand while I held the line with the other. With relief, the line snapped apart.
As I began to untangle it, the need to breathe attacked once again. But I was determined to complete my task, and continued unweaving the line, methodically, wasting no time - up, over, around, up, over, around. I was careful not to touch any coral polyps in the process. Corals are sensitive, very sensitive, and touching them can kill them.
As sharp as they are, corals can hurt me too. So when I'm in the water, I wear full gear. Staying covered doesn't just help to avoid cuts, scrapes, and stings, it keeps me warm. Water temperatures in Hawaii are chilly, even in the summer. Perhaps not at the surface in the dead of August, but several meters below, out of the immediate glare of the stifling Pacific sun, it's cold. Even my hands are covered, but that's less for warmth and more for protection. I once tried to pull fishing line with my bare hands and had nearly cut myself, the line threatening to slice through my gloveless, waterlogged fingers.
And I wear fins. I never swim in Hawaii without fins. Hawaii's ocean currents are strong, and fins can save your life. One time for me, they did, when a rip current snatched me away from the reef and threatened to dump me in the channel. Using my fins, I kicked parallel to shore, perpendicular to the rip tide like they tell you. It's amazing what informational nuggets will flash in your brain when you think you might die.
Back underwater, I continued untangling the coral, still holding my breath. The need to breathe was urgent now. Just one more weave and - SHIT - the end of the line was stuck. I reacted quickly, using my shears to slice it.
In less than a second I was on my way to the surface, shears in one hand and a bundle of fishing line in the other. A small piece of monofilament and a shiny wedged hook remained fastened to he coral below, likely in perpetuity.
For the next two hours I continued this way - take a breath, dive, untangle coral, return to the surface and recover. It's an exhausting drill but I'm rewarded with a solid ten pounds of fishing debris dangling in a mesh bag that's strapped to my weight belt. I realize it's not much considering the entirety of nearshore debris hazards, but it's ten pounds that won't suffocate a coral, won't drown a turtle, and won't choke a monk seal.
It's ten pounds of something that makes me feel lighter for holding it.