Report from Underwater Worlds: Saltwater Sublimity

Killian Quigley’s second report from The Underwater World’s project, on his unexpected and emotional response to experiencing the Great Barrier Reef first hand.

Image by Francesco Ungaro, via Unsplash

This is the second instalment in a four part blog series on The Underwater Worlds Project, a research venture undertaken by The University of Sydney, RMIT, Stanford University and Vanderbilt University. The project explores how aquatic environments and the marine creatures who inhabit them were imagined, represented, explored, exploited and endangered. Read Killian Quigley’s first blog on Bringing the Reef into View

My first swim on Heron Island wasn’t the stuff of glossy spreads in National Geographic, not by a fair shot. Our first full day, I took an early walk to the south end of the cay, under black noddies  chittering from pisonia trees, around temporarily vacant shearwater burrows, and through screw pine and casuarina. This was Shark Bay. The sand, blinding in the morning sun, reminded me of Rocky Mountain snow. I understood I’d be in shallow water here, but I expected…well, I’m not sure what I expected. I expected sharks, I guess, and the Reef, in all sorts of dazzling colours, maybe a fight scene between a couple of belligerent Picasso triggerfish and an elegant barracuda. Mushroom and staghorn coral standing around sagely, taking in the spectacle. Jules Verne. Planet Earth. That sort of thing.

What I got was four feet of cool disregard. A sharp current tumbled little bits of algae past the openings of goby holes, whose tiny architects padded around, looking vaguely amused but a bit bored at the piece of human driftwood roiling the sand. That afternoon, I wildly exaggerated the splendor of the morning’s snorkel while joining Iain, Margaret, and Jonathan for a ride out to Blue Pools, on the western edge of Heron’s fringing reef. Here was something different. Parrotfish, trumpetfish, pineapplefish, and bannerfish zipped past bommies of great coral color. I was feeling more warmly toward those precious preconceptions of mine.

But that was true only when I wasn’t swallowing saltwater. My ideas about what I was supposed to be experiencing were stumbling all over the inconvenient facts that my body was cold, my mask kept coming unstuck, and I was disoriented by the chop of the water. (In defense of my mask, I suspect my beardedness was to blame.) Whether I was keen to tumble to it or not, the Reef and its lagoon were compelling me to understand that this was not a sequence of moving images projected onto the floor of a heated pool, and that I would need to find my own equilibrium, were I to take much notice of my surroundings. I adjusted my mask for the fourteenth time, and focused.

Then a remarkable thing happened, a thing I now remember as my first productive exchange with the Reef. I was paddling along, somewhat more equably than before, when a school of small, bright, blue fish gathered above, below, and on each side of me, shimmering my field of vision. Suddenly, the shimmering stopped, and for a termless moment, everything around me seemed to freeze. And then it shattered: the school shot ahead, and to my left, as a big fish burst from my right-hand side, screaming in silent pursuit and disappearing into the blue before I’d the vaguest hope of figuring it for what it was. (I thought, later, it might have been that elegant barracuda at last.)

I can only describe what I experienced in the limited vocabulary of my limited human experience. What I felt – and thought I shared – was elemental fear, a change in the atmosphere as before a storm, if you knew the storm was aiming its lightning for you. That’s melodramatic, yes, but it’s what I got then, and it’s what I’m left with now. And this is one of the things the undersea does: it transforms our experience, as it transforms us, from terrestrials more or less comfortable with our surroundings to sea monsters requiring gadgetry and experience (hard-sought, for many) to go on breathing, let alone make much of our surroundings. We can’t even trust our eyes – things appear distorted, displaced, and discolored, and the deeper you go, the stranger things appear.

Ovid, one of the great poet-explorers of the boundaries of the human, was fascinated by coral. In the Metamorphoses, he tells the story of Perseus, who slays a sea-monster, saves Andromeda, and arrives at his grateful in-laws’ carrying Medusa’s head. He takes some seaweed and makes a pallet for his trophy, so it doesn’t get damaged. Incredibly, the “plants” react “to the influence of the Gorgon’s head, and harden at its touch, acquiring a new rigidity in branches and fronds.” So impressed are some attending “ocean nymphs” that they “try out this wonder on more plants, and are delighted that the same thing happens at its touch, and repeat it by scattering the seeds from the plants through the waves.” Presto, coral. “Even now,” the legend continues, “corals have the same nature, hardening at a touch of air, and what was alive, under the water, above water is turned to stone.”

The story was an object of enormous fascination for Renaissance artists, entranced by the classics, and by renewed interest in exploration and the boundaries of the known. The Italian Mannerists, such as Giorgio Vasari and Giulio Romano, seem to have been especially intrigued. These images – and Ovid’s poem – stick in our heads because they recognize coral as both aesthetically beautiful and existentially discomfiting. I didn’t die underwater, or turn to stone, but the Reef did turn me upside down and shake from my pockets whatever expectations I’d had of the place, and of what it would be like to be there.

Obviously, this was not unpleasant. It was fabulous. There is a kind of Gothic thrill in being confronted with the unfamiliar, and with the fearful, a thrill with profound connections to the aesthetics of Romanticism, and of the sublime. In the 1750s, Edmund Burke famously argued that things which tend “to excite the ideas of pain, and danger,” and those which strike us “in a manner analogous to terror,” are sources of “sublime” aesthetic experience. This is important, because for Burke, the sublime is “the strongest emotion,” and has the power to strike us more powerfully than anything straightforwardly pleasurable. The sublime has inspired writers and artists ever since, but it was crucially present for Romantic poets like George Gordon, Lord Byron, who recognized something honest in the sublime’s tendency to point up the insignificance of human action in the face of nature, which often looks – and feels – a lot like chaos.

As scholars like Greg Garrard have reminded us, Romanticism is a risky business: it has been accused of promoting anachronistic and solipsistic visions of the natural world, and when last I checked, it hasn’t saved the planet. We’re right to be skeptical, but the Reef made me realize that we ought not discard Romanticism, but enlarge it, and enrich it. Openness to wonder, and the contemplation of one’s imbrication in a world beyond oneself, are virtues. This is one of the things the sublime has the power to teach us, and one of the reasons it remains valuable, not only as we try to forge more ethical relationships to the future, but as we attempt to understand and expand the scope of our aesthetic intelligence. Concepts like the sublime, which we refer to in our criticism and aspire to in our art, flourish like brain coral at the intersections between what the Earth does to us and what we imagine and enact in return. And now you know where it grows, and thrives.

Killian Quigley is a PhD candidate in the Department of English at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. For the current academic year, he is teaching at Université Sorbonne Nouvelle – Paris 3, in France.

Image: Andy Tyler