April 10, 2020

Easter Egg Hunting In The Great African Seaforest

Faine Loubser

As a young girl, Easter was a time filled with much excitement fueled by the promise of chocolate and heightened by the allure of hunting for treasure hidden by a mystical rabbit.

I grew up on a farm, so naturally, the possibilities for egg-hiding were endless, to the point that I sometimes found eggs a few days after the initial hunt. As I grew older and wiser, it became apparent that the Easter Bunny was particularly tall, perhaps even as tall as my Dad, who’d often have to help pluck the eggs from a tree 2 meters up — although, any suspicions faded in the face of my acceptance of the great, mystical unknowns. Who says there isn’t a 2 meter rabbit hopping around with chocolate eggs? Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

Nowadays, I spend my time very differently: Swimming through an underwater forest tracking down elusive cuttlefish eggs, assessing predatory marks in shells and trying to ascertain the particular species of some strange and curious egg casing — adult stuff. If the farm felt big to little 5-year-old me, the kelp forest feels cosmic in scale, and finding the eggs hidden by my pare… I mean, the Easter Bunny would be the equivalent of hunting for bright orange traffic cones, in comparison to the cryptic lifeforms of the Great African Seaforest.

In this environment, predators are everywhere, which accounts for the ingenious measures these creatures have undertaken in order to ensure their species’ survival. The common octopus is a fantastic example. In all of my years (in fairness, only four), I have not once seen the eggs of these animals. The female lays them at the back of her den. She then seals herself inside and awaits her own demise, using all of her energy to oxygenate and guard the growing octo-babies in an ultimate form of self-sacrifice, or perhaps (depending on the level of consciousness one credits to octopods) the greater knowledge that the death of one thing can be the flowering of a new thing.

Just few meters away, hidden in nearby sargassum (seaweed), a future octopus predator lurks, in the form of a striped catshark foetus. These are one of several shark species in the kelp forest which are oviparous (egg layers). For up to 8 months, these little shark babies are incubated in a strong egg casing, and during this time they continuously wriggle around, maintaining a fresh flow of oxygen inside their egg. Apart from the substrate to which they are laid, and the protection of the egg casing, these sharks are super vulnerable, often predated on by whelks, starfish, otters and even baboons in the intertidal zone. It’s a pretty tough start to their lives, but to increase their chances of survival, they have one trick up their fins. These little shark babies engage in a fascinating threat response known as playing possum. Essentially, upon the detection of an electrical impulse, be it movement or light, these sharks immediately stop all movement inside their egg (the shark equivalent of holding one’s breath) and “play dead”. This reduces their own release of electrical impulses and mitigates the spread of odour cues for predators that rely on smell.

While the catsharks and shysharks can be seen displaying threat responses inside their eggs, tuberculate cuttlefish, a species endemic to our coast, practice wizardry. The eggs, which look like milky, white breasts, are translucent enough for one to watch the fully formed baby cuttlefish shifting colour, pattern and shape inside. But the translucent nature of these eggs doesn’t just allow us to see in, far more importantly, it allows the developing cuttlefish to see out: observing and absorbing visual information from the world which will shape their behaviour in adulthood. It is said that this can determine their preferences for food and camouflage. I can’t speak to the internal workings of the cuttlefish’s mind, but I can say from the perspective of my own time in the womb, that my mother and I do share remarkably similar tastes in music, food and life.
One of the strangest eggs I have ever seen were those belonging to helmet shells. These predatory mollusks are usually creatures of the night, but at a very specific time of the year in summer, they abandon their nocturnal practices, rising from the sand in broad daylight to congregate around a rock or other substrate on which they lay their eggs. Over several weeks, this grows into a giant communal tower of eggs. By giant, I mean relative to their size: the largest tower I have ever seen was probably around 30cm in height. Contained within each egg capsule are thousands of tiny veligers (larvae), and in one big tower there are approximately 2 million of them. When they eventually hatch, they enter the water column in their larval phase, joining a giant ocean of plankton. The few that survive eventually descend back to the benthos, where they commence their lives as snails. Personally, I think I’d be quite happy to remain a free-floating veliger, even if I do get swallowed by a passing humpback whale.
Though, my memories of the Easter Bunny feel far away now, the origins of Easter feel particularly present in my mind. Deriving from the goddess of spring: Eastra, Easter was a celebration of rebirth and renewal and an acknowledgment of the radiant dawn. It seems silly for me to continue any further, when I live in the Southern Hemisphere and am passing into Autumn. Yet in simple contemplation, it matters not, Spring is eternal, even if it is buried below Autumn’s unleaving and Winter’s starkness. Life, death, Spring and Autumn are all woven into a single fabric, out of which, everything that we know and don’t know can arise. It is something which we encounter on a daily basis, as things, people, memories, hopes, dreams and fears, bud, flower and die all around us. The myth of the Easter Bunny may have died along with my childhood, but this opened up new spaces for a different kind of magic. And whether it is myth or legend, the idea of celebrating the dynamic force of life is, to me, an incredibly beautiful and worthy thing.
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