Bleached by Phoebe Evans

Bleached by Phoebe Evans

Winner (young adult)

The small girl floats silently in the water, breathing quietly as she can through her snorkel mask, worried she might disturb the hundreds of creatures darting in the water around her. She is a slight girl, unlike many her age. Her flowing, brown hair suspended in the water about her is impossibly long for a girl of just five years. Her eyes are startling. They are always changing; one day a placid sea green, the next a stormy grey. Like the ocean tides, always changing, never stopping.

Suddenly, she senses change. The fish the girl has been watching stop swimming. She is afraid she has scared them but they aren’t scurrying to find a hiding place, instead they stop where they are and turn to face an alcove, partly concealed by a large lump of protruding coral. There she sees what they have halted for. Moving slowly, in no hurry to vacate the niche, a great fish of varying shades of green and blue emerges. It has full lips and fanning fins but its most prominent feature is the large hump on its forehead, making it look like it wasn’t watching where it was going and bumped into some very hard coral.

The girl giggles at the sight of the lump, letting out a stream of bubbles. At this, the fish that earlier, she had been so careful not to scare, hasten away. But before the King – for that was what she has been calling it - turns away, he gives the girl an imposing glare as if to say, that’ll teach you to laugh at me.

That was the first time Lauren saw a Humphead Wrasse.····

The young woman floats silently in the water, breathing as quietly she can through her snorkel mask, worried her search for healthy coral may prove futile. The day began badly enough with Lauren having to wake up at half four to meet her fellow researchers at the Townsville Marina before heading out to the reef. Lauren is in her mid-twenties and has just completed a degree in marine biology. But even that achievement can’t mask her worries. The reef is dying and she knows it. Everyone knows; they have known for years since the first outbreak of coral bleaching back in 1998. It’s now 2030 and more than half the coral has been lost.

Lauren takes a lungful of air and dives down into the clear water. No longer is the reef here bright and colourful and full of life. It is bleak and unhealthy with hardly any inhabitants. It is an underwater wasteland, nothing like how it should be. It is bleached.

However, there is still one resident left. The King comes and goes, somehow knowing when Lauren and her team of biologists are in the area, never turning down a free feed. But lately Lauren has noticed change in him. He might still have that same imposing glare she first encountered as a child, but he has lost his energy. He seems frail, unhealthy even. Lauren knows this is only him aging, and it’s perfectly natural. But somehow she feels it’s her fault, as if, had not been for her people wreaking the planet and oceans, he might not be so…old.

As if knowing she was thinking of him, the King suddenly emerges from behind a rocky outcrop. He swims towards Lauren with urgency in his eyes. When he eventually reaches her, she gasps in shock, sucking in a mouthful of water. A deep gash stretches from the tip of his bulging hump to his right fin. It looks fresh and Lauren can see it is already badly infected. A boat strike. She just hopes it wasn’t her own. Her first reaction is to call out to the boat but she can see from the familiar imposing glare, the King is determined. For what, she doesn’t yet know but instinct tells her to follow him. So she does.

For a fish with a potentially fatal injury, the King swims remarkably well. He twists and turns with ease, diving down into small crevices in the half-dead coral. For a moment, Lauren thinks she has lost him but he reappears again and shoots straight for a cave-like mound. There she sees it. For the second time that day, Lauren swallows a mouthful of water from shock. Coughing and spluttering, she readjusts her mask before diving back down to take a closer look. It is breathtaking. A whole colony of new and thriving corals are settled in this underwater cavern. Hard and soft corals mingle together while tiny, tropical fish dart endlessly through nooks and crannies. Lauren is mesmerized by it’s beauty. She cannot believe it. It is new life; new hope. Perhaps the reef will survive after all.

In her wonder, Lauren has forgotten the King. When she turns to him, a grateful smile plastered on her face, he is not there. Frantic, she searches for his familiar, motley body. Finally, she finds him, lying on his side, a few meters from the cave. His beautiful scales have lost their shimmer; even his hump seems to have shrunk into itself. Lauren plunges torpedo-like through the water, despair enveloping her. She stays under with him for as long as she can, powerless. Eventually, she has to return to the surface but through her foggy snorkel mask, she sees his eyes, whitening more with every second. His look is as imposing as ever but there is more to it; he is telling her something, there will always be hope.

·····

The old lady lies silently in the hospital bed, breathing as quietly she can through her oxygen mask, worried she might disturb the nurses scurrying in and out of the room. Lauren is tired but she is content at last.

She closes her eyes and rests her head on the hard hospital pillow. She is the opposite of her reef: old and frail with no energy left in her. She is bleached.