Sea Monsters: Whales

Anyone who has seen a whale or any recent representation of a whale may be forgiven for not understanding why they are featuring in my sea monster section.  Whilst we may revere these amazing animals today, they have been cast as villains and monsters in history.

For a long time, whales (and other marine animals) were depicted as oddly shaped creatures, what we would today consider cartoon like.  It wasn’t until the 1800s that a more accurate idea of the whale started to emerge.  The advent of photography helped of course as previous images were based on earlier drawing and beached specimens.  This vagueness around the reality of the whales allowed for myths and folklore to build up around it, including one of the prevalent beliefs that can still be found today.  That is, the idea that whales can swallow creatures, including humans, and shoot them out their blowhole.  Yes Disney, I’m looking at you and the myth you perpetuated in Finding Nemo!

The monstrous whale

“Whales were likely every bit as exotic, weird and frightening for the Greeks and Romans as the likes of vampire squids or goblin sharks are to us”
Philip Boyes

In terms of whale stories, there is one recurrent theme, that of man being eaten by whale.  We see it in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, in Pinocchio, in the bible and in Rudyard Kipling’s Just So story.  Whilst it is impossible for a whale to swallow a person they could trap you inside their mouth where you’d probably drown as you’d likely to be in there with a lot of water…

Although I guess this take on the whale wouldn’t work so well for the stories…  It wouldn’t show God’s dominion over the whale (or generic big fish) in the biblical tale of Jonah.  And a quick death would have made Jonah’s punishment rather less meaningful – once swallowed, he prayed and prayed until God told the whale, or big fish, to spit him out on dry land.

Despite it not being possible, we hear tales of ‘real life’ swallowings such as in Hull in the 1800s where James Bartley alleged to have been swallowed by a whale and to have survived inside it for three weeks.  Later research found that whilst the ship he was on was real, there was no record of him on the crew list.  It is posited that it was a publicity stunt carried out by a man who then sought to portray himself as a real life Jonah and do the rounds of music halls and sideshows.

We also find tales of sailors who came across whales but mistook them for islands, rocked up to shore and got out, often in search of treasure.  Then the island would suddenly move and dive deep into the sea, drowning the people who’d landed there.

In Leviathan, we find the whale as a biblical symbol of evil, a reminder of the wrath of god.  And in the pictures on old maps, we find the whale presented as an unknowable and destructive force, wild and violent, epitomising the power of the sea.

Outside of literature, in the real world, whales do kill humans, but when they do, it is accidentally or understandable.  In 2002, a whale leapt out of the water and landed on a boat, killing the boat’s owner.  Probably an accident, the result of the whale not looking where it was landing…!  Grey whales show aggressive behaviour when boats approach them and their calves.  I’m betting we would all be a bit angry in the whale’s position.  Their size means that accidents and aggressive behaviour are more dangerous and more threatening to us but the whale is not malicious.

Unlike some of our sea monsters, the attitudes towards whales in history are a bit more nuanced, for whilst the whale may be alleged to kill, it also provides.  And I suspect most whale related human deaths or sunken ships have occurred because of whaling…

The bounteous whale

In Iceland, the word for beached whale is the same as that for windfall, and for many indigenous cultures, a large creature appearing as if from the gods was like winning the lottery.  I’ve read numerous myths, folk tales and stories about communities who were struggling, who were facing starvation and then, by a miracle of their particular deity, a whale, or similar, was found on the shore.

Given the immense size of whales and the multitude of uses for them, it is no wonder they were seen as a gift from the gods.  But, as is so often the case, we got greedy.  And along came the whaling industry.

As a commercial enterprise, whaling began in Europe in the 11th century but it was during the 17th century that it rapidly grew until the 19th century when technological advances meant it was even easier to catch a whale.  In the US, at this time, whaling was the 5th largest industry.  But, with whaling came danger.  It was a perilous way of life, battling the sea and facing the intense struggle between whale and man.  Whilst it’s easy to see how the whale could be portrayed as a monster in these situations, we have evidence that tells of tender, heart breaking encounters as well:

“Close nestled to her side was a youngling of not more, certainly, than 5 days old, which sent up it’s baby-spout every now and then about two feet into the air.  One long, wing-like fin embraced its small baby, holding it close to the massive breast of the tender mother, whose only care seemed to be to protect her young, utterly regardless of her own pain and danger… could a mightier example have been given of the force and quality of maternal love.”
– Frank T Bullen, 1898, an account of his time on a whaling boat

Whales were used in many ways that to catch one would truly provide a bounty.  Whale oil was used in products ranging from paint to soap to candles.  Baleen plates were used in corsets and skirt hoops.  Whales were used as fuel, for food and their vomit was even used in perfume…  Heading back to medieval times, we have evidence of whale ribs and mandibular being used as yokes and harnesses for animals.  In ancient Ireland, baleen was used to make saddles and sieves.  We also have houses built using whale bones, whale scapulae used as tomb covers, and whale bones hung outside town halls in whaling societies in the Netherlands as a sign of the wisdom of the authorities.  Whale faeces were even used to dye clothing apparent…

As late as 1939, whales were being killed in large numbers, around 50,000 a year. And in the 1950s, to get footage for Moby Dick, whales were killed on camera.

In so many cases, its hard to see how we can cast the magnificent whale as a monster, given the actions of humanity.

Whale research

One reason we may have feared, or disrespected, whales for so long could be down to lack of scientific research.  Between 1324 and 1913, the law said that the British monarch owned all cetaceans and sturgeons in the water around the UK.  This meant that if dead specimens washed up on the shore, they belonged to the king or queen and scientists, natural historians or curious amateurs couldn’t turn up and start dissecting them.  Now, when whales, dolphins etc wash up on our shores, a group of scientists get a call and can head off and do their thing, the result being better knowledge of this wonderful animals.

On a similar note, because of the size and lifestyle of whales, it wasn’t so easy for a scientist to just pop out and see one.  Yes, whales were caught by the whaling communities but these were cut up and made into things, they weren’t kept as a whole beast and used to increase our knowledge about them.  Also, they were dead by this point meaning any understanding would be predominantly anatomical, not behavioural.

Whales today

Today whales are seen as a symbol of gentleness, of peace, of song and, because their numbers declined, of fragility.  Instead of being viewed as a resource to be exploited, they are seen as a wonder to be protected.  This is illustrated well by the outpouring of concern over the whale which got stuck in the Thames in 2006.

We show whales our compassion, our concern and instead of hunting them, we now head out on boats to try and see them.  NB, this is not without it’s problems as boats can affect natural behaviour, cause pollution, create noise etc but action can be taken to protect them whilst also allowing us to get close.

Knowing more about whales has fostered our relationships with them.  We know that they communicate and once humans found they had a song, the whale started to have a voice.  This created a sense of connection and gave the whales a sentience.

Our attitude towards whales had a complete turnaround.  The whale went from monster to be killed to kin that we need to save and protect.  Despite this, there are still countries who continue to hunt whales today and there are the ‘sanctuaries’ which keep whales in tiny, unfit pools for long and painful lives.


Totally off topic from everything I’ve been talking about but whales used to live on land!  These are creatures which evolved out of the sea, onto land and then went back into the sea, isn’t that amazing?!


Sea Monsters: Octopus

“Here is an animal with venom like a snake, a beak like a parrot, and ink like an old-fashioned pen.  It can weigh as much as a man and stretch as long as a car, yet it can pour its baggy, boneless body through an opening the size of an orange.”
– Sy Montgomery

I’ve already written a love letter to the octopus but not everyone is such a fan.  Take Victor Hugo for example, on the subject of an octopus attack:

“The spectre lies upon you; the tiger can only devour you; the devil-fish, horrible, sucks your life-blood away.  The muscles swell, the fibres of the body are contorted, the skin cracks under the loathsome oppression, the blood spurts out and mingles horribly with the lymph of the monster, which clings to the victim with innumerable hideous mouths.”

Perhaps the way octopuses attack could be a justification for fear or dislike of this fantastic creature…  All octopuses are venomous and when they release their venom into their prey it stops involuntary muscles from working so the victim can’t breathe.  Clearly not a nice way to die.  But they don’t tend to attack humans.  Perhaps it’s more appropriate to be afraid of getting caught in their suckers.  These create suction, allowing the octopus to attach itself to things and can also fold to create a pincer grip.  Each octopus has many many suckers of different sizes and each one is incredibly strong.  Its been estimated that a 2.5 inch diameter sucker could lift 35 pounds of weight.  And remember that the octopus has 8 legs so those suckers can get everywhere.

Maybe it is the 8 appendages that we are afraid of.  We can’t keep track of 8 independently operating legs with our two eyes… And between the 8 legs and the powerful suckers they can take down sharks…

Eww… It’s slimy… A lot of sea creatures make use of slime in one way or another, it can help reduce drag when moving in the water, it can be used to help catch and eat prey as well as escape predators and it can be used to keep skin healthy.  The octopus is one of these ‘slimy’ creatures.  It helps them squeeze into small spaces, it keeps them moist when they leave the water and protects their delicate skin as they scrape against rocks and sand.  But it doesn’t help it when it comes to PR.  We don’t seem to like slime, we seem to, unfairly, associate it with primitive beings or alien lifeforms.  And there is nothing primitive about the octopus.

If you are going to fear the octopus, I think it should be because of their intelligence.  If any other creature could take over humanity’s rule of the world, it could easily be the octopus.  They are clever in the ways that an octopus needs to be, they learn and problem solve and they have theory of mind.  Theory of mind is considered to be a sophisticated skill which means that you are self aware and that you know others may have different thoughts to you – I think this, but you might think that.

Their ability to understand others may think differently helps them when it comes to camouflage.  They have to assess whether their disguise is working, that is, does the other creature believe it.  And they have to predict how animals will react to certain colouring and patterns.  For example, whilst fish have good memories, will they realise that the red octopus is the same threat that was presenting as a pale, spotted creature a second ago?

“Mischief and craft are plainly seen to be the characteristics of this creature”
– Claudius Aelianus, 3rd century

Instead of fearing these creatures, instead of turning them into sea monsters and symbols of evil, I think we should admire them.  They are curious, inventive and adaptable.  They take multitasking to the extreme having to coordinate all their limbs whilst changing colour, shape and texture, at the same time as going through cognitive processes such as learning, thinking, deciding and remembering.  And they have to interpret the intense amount of sensory information that’s coming to them via the suckers which are tasting and touching all the time.

These are beautiful, interesting and inspiring creatures and I hope that as we learn more about them, they will be portrayed in a more accurate way, as remarkable beings who have much to teach us.

Further reading

Sea Monsters: Squid

Squid and octopuses* are both cephalopods and they are very similar.  Indeed, the names are used interchangeably by some people.  But the are different.  I’m going to be doing a separate post on octopuses** but when I’m looking at myths and legends its best to assume that they refer to a tentacled species and not make strict divides about whether it’s octopus or squid.

Squid or octopus?

Squid Octopus
More bullet like shape and a more hydrodynamic body Rounder in shape
More fixed shape Very flexible, can change shape and squeeze into tiny spaces
Active swimmers Tend to stick to the sea floor
Have two fins, a mantle, a head, eight arms and two tentacles, which are equipped with hooks and suckers or sucker rings Have a mantle, a head, eight arms equipped with one or two rows of suckers but with no hooks or sucker rings
Have a stiff structure called a pen which acts like a flexible backbone No bones or shell
Use tentacles to reach out and grab prey Inject poison into their prey which paralyses it

The Kraken

Today I’m going to look at the giant squid and sea monsters.  Most cultures have a form of tentacled sea monster in their mythology.  Sailors were terrified of the Kraken, a sea monster who, legend told, liked the taste of human flesh and who enjoyed sinking ships.  These legends will have arisen from a number of different sea creature sightings but these almost certainly included the giant squid.

The stories from northern Europe tell us that the kraken would start swimming in circles around a ship, creating a deadly vortex into which the ship would be dragged.  Larger creatures would just drag the ship down with their tentacles.  Amber found on the beaches of the north sea were believed to be the Kraken’s excrement…

The giant squid’s main predator is the sperm whale so perhaps some of the reported kraken sightings came from whaling boats who were seeing the tangle between predator and prey at the same time as seeing the giant squid for the first time.

Today we see aspects of the kraken, or the tentacled sea monster, in literature and film where portrayals of aliens often have cephalopod features.

Giant squid

The giant squid lies in the murky waters between fiction and reality.  Portrayed in literature as a monster lurking in the depths, this huge creature lives between 300 and 1000m down and isn’t actually the largest squid species.  That honour goes to the colossal squid which weighs in about 500kg compared to the 275kg of the giant squid.

If we turn to literature, we find Tennyson’s kraken is a slumbering monster in the cold, dark depths of the ocean.  In 20,000 leagues under the sea, a squid like beast tries to drag a ship underwater and devours the terrified crew.  But the first known piece of literature to suggest a giant tentacled sea being was the Odyssey from ancient Greece where it was portrayed as a beast to be slain, or at least avoided.  These depictions all suggest something creepy, scary and certainly Other.

In the giant squid, or the kraken, we find a scapegoat for our fears of the sea, like the shark.  This creature lives in a world far from ours, a world beyond the reach of sunlight.  And hence it embodies our fears of the dark, of the shadows, of the unknown.

There is also something around their bodily organisation that unsettles some people.  They have clearly identifiable features – hands, arms, head etc – but they are clearly different.  They are like us and yet not.  They have a “grotesque suggestion of a face” (HG Wells).  There is a parallel here with disability and bodily difference; the space between the self and other blurs and with it, the fear of becoming other rises.  (NB, I’m not saying you should be uncomfortable or afraid of disability but bodily difference can and does create emotional reactions in people.)

They look unnatural to us and our encounters of them further confirm our predetermined opinions.  When we see giant squid, it tends to be at the surface*** and these animals are almost certainly dying.  We see them when they are fighting for their life, when they are scared and so it is no surprise that they lash out at boats.

To focus on their association with monsters is to deny the extraordinary beauty of the giant squid, and all the other squids by association.  Far from being the terrifying killer from the deep, they are gentle and fascinating.  They peck delicately at their food, not being able to swallow large pieces, and are scared of loud noises.


*yes, that’s correct.

**still correct!

***It wasn’t until 2012 that we got the first footage of a giant squid at it’s natural depth

Animal Allies Oracle Cards – Crab

I’m going to come back to the subject of sea monsters as there’s plenty to discuss but first I feel drawn towards a post about the crab. This is one of the cards in the Animal Allies Oracle Deck and so this post will form my thoughts about what that card means to me.

As with all my animal spirit posts, this is my personal feelings and not affiliated with the very talented Jessica Swift who created the deck.

One of the angles to approach the crab from is through the astrological sign of cancer. And this has been helpful to me in the past, but yesterday I learnt that the sign of cancer used to be represented by the turtle and that blew my mind. It really deepened my understanding of cancer and in doing so it also helped deepen my understanding of the crab card.

So, first a bit about the turtle… If this idea resonates with you I would recommend having a look at the turtle post as it’s more detailed.

  • We have the idea of coming out of your shell, sticking your neck out, when you feel comfortable, when you are in a safe place or when you’re with your tribe.
  • Links with the moon, and I’ll look at how the crab has ties with the moon in a bit, but for now it’s worth noting that the sign of cancer is ruled by the moon.
  • Despite diving deep into the ocean, and the emotional world, the turtle still needs to come up to the surface to breathe. And cancer is a sign which is associated with the development of the self, of going into that emotional world.
  • The turtle thrives in some environments and dies in others despite facing the same challenges and this feels like it could tie into the first point about comfort and feeling safe. Having your clan around you or starting from a secure (physical or emotional) base really affects how you meet challenges.

Ok. Back to the crab!

Crab Basics

Crabs live in all of the world’s oceans, in fresh water and on land. They range in size from the tiny pea crab to the Japanese spider crab which has a leg span that can reach 18 foot from claw to claw… So maybe we still are thinking about sea monsters!

In general, crabs are covered in a thick exoskeleton, their shell, and this is an important part of the crab card. If you ponder nothing else when you draw this card, think about the shell.

Crabs tend to be aggressive creatures, fighting with each other over who gets the girl crab and over the best hiding holes. They communicate by drumming or waving their pincers, both of which could seem threatening to someone who speaks a different language.

However, when it comes to family, they have been known to work together to provide food, to protect he clan and to find a good spot for the female to release her eggs. This feels like it ties into the idea of the turtle and how it faces challenges differently depending on the environment (physical or other). In this case the crab is working cooperatively to protect and defend because it’s family is important.

Crabs tend to walk sideways, although some walk forwards or backwards, and some crabs can even swim. But the walking sideways may be a reminder that you can’t always head straight for the destination. Sometimes you need to go the long way round or try a different approach. Paths in life are rarely ones we can follow by walking forwards, we find we take detours, fall off the path, get distracted by another path, but these are all part of the journey.


Generally, crabs have shells. This hard layer doesn’t grow with them, instead they have to moult, a process coordinated by their hormones. As they prepare to moult, the old shell starts to soften and erode and a new shell starts to form underneath it. When it is time to moult, the crab takes in a lot of water, expands and cracks open the old shell. They then have to get out of the shell, a process which can take hours, and which can be difficult – imagine trying to get yourself out of your skin! Once they’re entirely out of the old shell, eyes, legs and all, they have to hide. They are incredibly soft and vulnerable at this point and need to avoid predators until their new shell has hardened.

This feels like a huge metaphor for so many aspects of our lives and I’m not going to unpick the process much, but I want to note that there is merit in avoiding people who are likely to hurt you when you aren’t in a strong place. It is ok to practice self protection when you are vulnerable. It is ok to set boundaries.

With this idea of self protection, comes an aspect of sensitivity. As a society, we have a terrible tendency to think of sensitivity in emotional terms and tend to view it as a bad thing. Firstly, emotional sensitivity isn’t a bad thing, like most things in life it’s how you approach it and how you manage it. But there is also environmental sensitivity, feeling overwhelmed by the sensory information that’s coming at you or by intense external inputs such as too much noise or people fighting. I know that my reaction to these types of situations is to almost literally retreat back into my shell. I pull away, I try to get out of the environment and I close down. I no longer have my true self fully available, I pull my heart and my soul tight inside myself. But then, when I’m out of that situation and I’m surrounded by people who have earnt my trust, I start to put my head back out.

The crab asks to us consider when to leave your shell and when to stay, when to focus on the external and when to focus on the internal, when to tend to community and when to tend to yourself.

There is a resilience and a strength to the crab. They are survivors. And the shell is obviously an important part of that. But shells can become stifling and we can outgrow the clothes, or the mask, we wear. To break free and to step into another self is a difficult, painful and vulnerable thing to do. But if you don’t, the pain of wearing an old version of you will get too much.

This may be a time when you are doing some personal development or rebuilding who you are. None of us remain the same forever, perhaps this is a cue to stop and check in with yourself.

Whilst shells provide excellent armour, they can also act as a divide between us and the world. Are you feeling connected to what is going on around you? Are you putting up walls to protect yourself? Are these walls helpful or hurtful right now? Are you letting anyone see beneath your shell?

Returning a moment to the idea of the turtle as the symbol for cancer, we find an interesting difference in shells. Where the shell of the crab needs replacing and leaves the crab vulnerable during growth, and creates more of a dramatic process of growth, the turtle’s shell is made up from it’s backbone and it grows with the turtle. Turtles can also feel things through their shell and they cannot live without their shell. Crabs can live without their shell, as indeed they have to when they are changing shells. Whether they can feel someone touching their shell or not seems to still be up for debate. But for my perspective, mulling over metaphors, I think it’s an interesting thinking point.

If you’ve felt drawn to hermit crabs in particular, you’re going to have a bit more thinking to do as they don’t have a shell themselves, they step into those which used to belong to other animals. They are scavengers, mask wearers and actors. They are disguised and they are much more vulnerable than other crabs.


As they are often found in or around the sea, crabs are affected by the tides and hence by the moon. For example, they tend to mate at new and full moons. This means that the female will release her eggs to the tide at the next new or full moon when there is greater tidal flux meaning the eggs are more likely to be swept away to the sea safely.
But as mating needs to happen when the female crab has just moulted, this means that their moulting cycles are also governed by the moon and the tides. This also means that they are at their most vulnerable during new and full moons so perhaps the crab is calling you to look into your self care at these times.

There is a lot here to think about, especially if you reach out to see what the turtle has to say as well. If it’s all a bit much, perhaps ponder your relationship to the sea and the moon, both play a huge role in the life of a crab.

Sea Monsters: Jaws

Deep below the depths of the ocean, strange things lie. Hidden in the dark within sea caves, your fears reside.
Folklore Thursday

After Darwin and the 19th century, monsters changed from the mythological creatures they were into real species who have been demonised for simply trying to stay alive.  They knock us off the top of the food chain, they hunt us as prey and this terrifies us.

Where once we feared sea serpents, today we fear reality.  Or at least, the version of reality we have spun for ourselves.


Jaws was a watershed moment for the sharks, taking them from the shadows to centre stage, from un-thought-about to villain.  Jaws portrayed a ruthless maneater who killed for cruelty.  This idea of the vengeful shark infiltrates our language.  We talk of seas infested with sharks, sharks menacing our coast lines, sharks invading our beaches…

Sharks merge into the large fish category when it comes to looking at myth and legend and older texts so it’s not always clear to see how literature has reflected this creature.  And whilst there are few clearcut examples of literary sharks, those that do exist don’t seem to expand our understanding of the species, often being cast as monsters and more recently, in animated films for example, as cute and cuddly.  The reality being somewhere in between.

Humans are far more of a threat to the shark than they are to us.  We kill millions every year to eat them, for their fins, for their teeth or simply because of our fear.  When we come face to face with this apex predator, our sense of self and our place in the world is challenged and we react with fear and we lash out.

Between 1986 and 2000 in the northwest Atlantic ocean, the hammerhead shark population fell by 89%, the great whites fell by 78% and for tiger sharks there was a 65% decline.  In contrast, about 5 people a year, worldwide, are killed by sharks.  Far more people die from bee stings or lightening strikes than from sharks.

Sharks are not a threat to human life but they threaten our importance, reminding us how small and vulnerable we really are.  They become a scapegoat for our fear of the unknown seas.  Where once we drew mythological monsters on our maps as a symbol of the uncharted and dangerous waters, today we have the shark.  A painful reminder of just how little we know about life in the deep.

But communities who live by or on the oceans tend to have a more nuanced view of sharks.  In some cultures, for example, the shark is revered, respected for its strength and hunting prowess.  In Hawaiian culture the shark is seen as a protector or a brave warrior and deceased family members are thought to be transformed into guardian sharks.  Sharks can also be a boom for the tourist industry.  A single living shark is allegedly worth $50,000 a year in tourist revenue according to a report from Fiji.

These magnificent and complex creatures are terribly misunderstood.  If we can step outside our humancentric way of thinking and seeing, we can appreciate how wonderful sharks are, how fantastic they are at being sharks and we can gaze upon them with respect.


Plant, animal or other? Sea Anemones

Described as the flowers of the sea because of their colourful appearance, sea anemones are actually animals.  They are made up of stinging tentacles and a mouth, with a column shaped body and a sticky foot which it uses to attach to rocks etc.  Most are a few centimetres in diameter but some species can exceed a metre.  And as well as the variety of size, you find a huge range of colour, pattern and shapes.  These bizarre beauties have been said to inspire ‘whimsy and fancy’, but only when alive; their colour fades very quickly after death, making them difficult to preserve.

Fear is a universal experience. Even the smallest insect feels it. We wade in the tidal pools and put our finger near the soft, open bodies of sea anemones and they close up. Everything spontaneously does that. It’s not a terrible thing that we feel fear when faced with the unknown. It is part of being alive, something we all share.

Chödrön, Brain Pickings

So what do anemones have to be afraid of?  Well, there are the pom pom crabs which pick them up and use them as weapons.  And the wonderfully named butterflyfish who eat them.  There are also the humans, especially Victorian humans…

Naturalist Philip Henry Gosse used lavish prose and scientific acumen to inspire the Victorians to a love of anemones and a desire to collect them.  Unfortunately, this craze put pressure on some areas of wild anemones.  And those which were collected didn’t necessarily have a great life… Anemones need oxygen to survive and Victorian fish tanks didn’t come with pumps… More recently, finding nemo put pressure on anemone populations with a rush of interest from buyers.

Other dangers come from snails and sea slugs, not your typical predators, with some species living almost exclusively on the anemones.  Sea stars wrap themselves around the anemone, essentially engulfing it with their stomach.  And then there are loggerhead turtles who use their powerful jaws to munch down on the tentacled creature.

But it isn’t all bad for them, they have a friend in nemo!  Clownfish have a protective coat which means they don’t get stung by the tentacles of the anemone.  In exchange for this shelter, the clownfish aggressively protect the sea anemone from predators.

And they don’t need to be so concerned about getting hurt as some species are almost immortal – if you cut them in half you get two, if you cut off their mouth they grow a new one.  They are constantly replacing their body and cells – a strategy which may provide scientists with insight around ageing and human immortality (not that I think that’s a great idea…).

In addition to this, they are active predators.  The slightest touch against their tentacles fires a paralysing neurotoxin into their prey which is then helpless to defend themselves.

So, despite their shy seeming demeanour and their vulnerability to slugs, sea anemones are a lot more robust and resilient than we might give them credit for.

Plant, animal or other? Coral

Most of us know coral when we see it and I think everyone has probably seen a picture of a coral reef at some point but what exactly is it?

An individual coral is a polyp, a very small, simple creature which has been described as essentially just being a stomach and a mouth surrounded by tentacles.  Living inside the polyps are algae which provide the coral with food and gives it colour. Thousands of identical polyps live together in a colony and this forms the reefs we are familiar with.  Different coral grow at different rates but to form a reef takes a very long time, with estimates for todays reefs being started 5-10,000 years ago.  That being said, not all coral are reef builders.

An alternative take on the creation of reefs comes from Greek mythology.  It was said that they were created from the blood that was shed when medusa was decapitated.  This blood mixed with the seaweed to create the stone reefs.

“With no Pharaoh to lead them, this army of tentacled midgets has built the greatest of the ocean’s wonders, working together for millions of years on their mighty projects.”
– Jeffrey Levinton

Cooperation is a theme amongst the creatures of the reef.  A symbiotic relationship between coral and algae allows the reef to grow and provides the coral with their colours. Coral reefs are home to lots of organisms and provides cracks and crevices for fish and crabs to live in.  So when a starfish comes along and attacks the coral, the fish and crabs step in and defend it.  This allows the coral to keep growing and creating more cracks and crevices for future fish and crabs.  There are also fish which ‘farm’ on the coral, growing algae and in doing so, they are creating ideal conditions for more coral to grow.  And then there are the cleaner wrasse; fish which clean other fish, a service which improves the health of the sea life around the reef.

“No other marine habitat shows so well the intricacies of biological interdependency”.
– Jeffrey Levinton

But despite this incredible interdependency, the reef is a dangerous, cut throat world.  Coral use barbed, venomous tentacles to catch zooplankton and tiny fish and they can also extrude their stomach and digest neighbouring coral…

The competitive nature of the habitat means some coral dwellers have developed nasty chemical defences.  For example, the sea squirt makes sulphuric acid to burn predators and also a poisonous metal that could kill a horse.  The sea whip produces higher amounts of prostaglandin than other creatures making them taste terrible to most predators (although a type of snail and worm can eat them).  Poisonous fish live among the coral and sharks patrol the edges.  This beautiful underwater garden can be a deadly place.

But those deadly poisons and chemicals may actually be of use to us.  We may be able to use some of them to develop cancer cures, to help neurological diseases, to treat infections and to fight drug resistant bugs.  Corals themselves can be used in bone graft surgery as well.

As well as medical value, coral reefs provide coastal defences, tourism, food (an estimated 0.5 billion people rely on coral reef fisheries worldwide for 95 percent of their protein) and jobs.  The Great Barrier Reef has been valued at at AUD $56 billion, contributing 64,000 jobs and $6.4 billion a year to the Australian economy.

But despite their importance, we are not treating them kindly.  Coral reefs are threatened by overfishing, pollution, invasive species and ocean warming and acidification caused by rising carbon dioxide levels.  In the last 30 years, we have lost 50% of the coral and scientists predict that we will lose 90 percent of coral reefs globally by the year 2050.

This would be catastrophic.  Life on the reef is a diverse one, paralleling that of the rainforests.  Apparently, despite reefs covering less than 1% of the earths surface, a quarter of ocean biodiversity depends on reefs for food and shelter.  Without the reefs, the health of the ocean will suffer and without a healthy ocean, we cannot have a healthy planet.