Tim Tomlinson – Death, Sex, and
Transition on the Coral Reef

Tim Tomlinson LE Mag V2 Dec 2022

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Live Encounters Magazine Volume Two December 2022.

Death, Sex, and Transition on the Coral Reef by Tim Tomlinson.

Parrot fish courtesy pixabay
Parrot fish, photograph pixabay


In Roatàn, Honduras, they say every dive is a wall dive, and that’s true at least on the lee side. There, the fringing reef begins a few meters from shore. I walk in geared up, slip into fins, and deflate my vest in less than five feet of water. I belly down over a wide swath of turtle grass divided by something that resembles a footpath—a narrow white-sand furrow that could very well be the result of foot traffic (dive booty traffic). But I’m a Pacific diver, an Indo-Pacific diver, and I don’t like taking steps on any surface near a reef, booties or no. Venomous creatures might, and often do, lurk unseen in the sand or the rubble, especially the sand and the rubble that look like there’s nothing lurking there at all, and dive booties, no matter how thick-soled, don’t offer sufficient protection.

Once, in Coron near Palawan in the Philippines, I saw a young man, eighteen or twenty, wading around in crystal clear water up to his waist. He took a step, exclaimed, then sat down. In the few hours of his life that remained, he never took another step. I read about it the next day. No one knew what happened, not even the kid. EMT workers didn’t remove his booties until they’d wheeled his gurney onto the airport tarmac, not that it would have mattered, since Coron (at that time) did not maintain a supply of antivenoms. In the sole of his foot were signs of envenomization from the dorsal spines of a stonefish. [1]

He was flown to Cebu for antivenoms, but it had taken close to two hours just to get him on the plane, at which point he’d already gone comatose. What was doubly sad was that the young man was off on a tryst—his first—with a lover, an older man, his literature professor. They had chosen Coron to be as far as possible from anyone who might recognize them; they were from Baguio, up north, where the kid was not out, at least to his family. On TV news footage, the professor, in tears, proudly proclaimed their forbidden love.

I don’t know why these kinds of stories cross my mind every time I enter the water, but in a way, I’m glad they do—they make me extra cautious, not necessarily a bad thing to be, and they intensify the experience: each dive survived, no matter how ordinary, becomes a tale to tell.

Now I’m in twelve feet of water, my belly inches above the grass blades, taking my time getting out to the wall. A lot of divers hustle right over the grassbeds. They completely miss an environment rife with diversity, rife with life. As are the stretches of rubble and sand, the lesson that unfortunate young man learned the hard way. Here in the turtle grass I find urchins covered with roe, juveniles puttering among the grass blades, shrimps the size of fingernails and smaller, coin-sized crabs with pincers raised, ready to do battle, an ocellated moray[2] poking its head under empty shells. And just ahead, where the seabed begins to slope and the blue turns a darker shade, I see something shining, something that appears irradiated from within.

Instantly I know what it is—something I’ve looked for dozens of times and found only once, off Coron. A star anemone[3], transluscent as cellophane, perched like an ornament atop a Christmas tree right at the tip of a grass blade, its fingers noodling for nutrients in the water column. From its central disc, the size of a quarter, a ray of light shone—which, I knew, wasn’t possible in the scientific sense of things.

No anemone of any kind generates light. What I was seeing resulted from sunlight refracted at the surface, one of the rays finding the very center of this creature and setting it aglow. Genetically, the anemone is nearly identical to a coral polyp, but the experiential differences of the two animals are significant: the anemone lives alone—it does not dwell within colonies; and it’s exposed, often completely—it neither creates nor inhabits the limestone structures that serve as the protective exoskeletons of corals. This anemone—exposed, alone, and isolated as a star in the night sky—is, I decide, the sea’s tribute to that unfortunate young man who’d stepped on the stonefish.

Of course, that’s an association utterly divorced from science, but there’s so much that goes on down here in this informal laboratory that’s not science, so much that occurs only in the diver’s mind, my mind, that nebulous entity that often feels inseparable from the sea, its majesty and its meaninglessness. I observe the anemone for many minutes, its translucent tentacles fluttering in the ebb and flow. One of them snags something from the stream, something planktonic, and the arms contract toward the oral rictus. The Delmore Schwartz line occurs to me: The scrimmage of appetite everywhere. But sometimes it’s not even appetite.

Sometimes what happens lacks even that base meaning. I think of the young lover who sat down in the shallow water, the professor holding him by the armpits, calling for help, and later, the professor’s face in the newspapers, soaked with tears. What appetite did that serve: the kid’s body, his life, his partner and his family’s grief, a complete waste. I’m not a religious man, but I know a few prayers, a few chants. Gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha. A few lines from Leonard Cohen songs.

For me, the anemone is the most magical, the most numinous creature. No eyes, no ears, no sense of smell, just arms, mouth, and a digestive tract. Hunger. In that, the anemone and I are simpatico. I wish it could be vegetarian, but fine. If it were, there might not be any turtle grass to perch on, to hide in, and I might not have had this evocative encounter. When I move on, the light has changed, the rays are more slanted. I descend the slope, a journey from pale blue to an inky supersaturation, from robin’s egg to navy—red disappears at fifteen feet—and reach the wall. I hover there in the traffic of chromis and wrasse and stare down into the fathomless blue, the abyss that’s come to feel more and more like a home.

There’s probably a way to mind-meld with blue, to silence the monkey mind and conjoin with it the way a monk sitting lotus in a field becomes the field. I don’t know how to do it, but sometimes when it’s almost happening—that near total suspension of self—I catch myself. I’m afraid that when it happens, if it ever happens, it will be the last thing that happens, and that’s something I don’t feel ready for, nor will I be for for a very long time, if ever.

On my return to shore, I look for the star anemone but amidst all the nearly identical grass blades, I can’t find it. Maybe it’s moved on. I hope it’s moved on. Because even here in the grassy shallows so close to shore, the sea is alive with predators. And predators don’t care about glowing tributes, or young dead lovers two oceans away.


In New York, where I live, I’ve seen a lot of fucking. Pigeons, of course, on fire escapes and rooftops and in the parks. And dogs, in the dog runs, on the sidewalks, sometimes right alongside their owners who blithely carry on conversations with their cell phones while their pets get to know each other. In Morningside Heights I had a neighbor, a Polish girl, whose bedroom window was blindsless and just opposite my own across the alley. She entertained a rotation of at least six partners, each more bald than the last (balding men, take hope!). I recognized one. He had a recurring role in an HBO series concerning corruption in Washington, but in that role he wore a toupee. I didn’t scrutinize my neighbor’s trysts, as such, but I admit I looked probably longer than I should have.

She was quite attractive, this Polish girl, and her lifestyle was, well, inspirational. And wouldn’t you look, too, if absent-mindedly one morning you happened to raise your blinds and there she was, hardly more than an arm’s length away, going at it without a spark of modesty as though she were a performance artist at an exhibition? I mean, I look at pigeons, of course I was going to look at her. But that’s all on land. Underwater, acts of public affection have not been as ubiquitous.

Once, near Malapascua, I entered a tunnel on the side of Gato Island, an uninhabited stone in the Visayan Sea. The tunnel became lightless a short way in, but up ahead twenty or so feet, a play of light appeared. There must have been a crack somewhere on the island’s surface. I proceeded toward the light and there, in a stone grotto that had the appearance of a diorama at the Museum of Natural History, nearly a dozen reef sharks, white tips, slept or rested one on top of the other.

When they sensed my presence (it’s hard to hide underwater when you’re blowing bubbles) they became quite agitated. What ensued was like the Dance of the Seven Veils, shark after shark after shark making loops on and around and over each other, all within the space of the grotto. They were belly to back, belly to belly, face to hind-quarters, around and about and through each other, gliding and sliding and looping like figures slick with oil in a Roman orgy. And the light so dramatic—shades of brown so dark they were almost black, back- and top-lit like a Rembrandt, with this radiant golden light illuminating the gray-brown trunks of the bodies, the white bellies, and the faces all twisted up like the horses of Picasso.

Unlike my Polish neighbor, the sharks engaged in no sexual behavior, but I had the distinct feeling of having compromised an intimate scene and I stared, in awe, for well over five minutes, at which point I thought either their hearts or my air would expire.

The only actual fucking I’ve seen underwater occurred with a much smaller species: the lettuce sea slug. These are, essentially, snails without the shell about the size of a child’s thumb. This pair was green and white, crinkly little things you could imagine in your salad. Their copulation took place on a blighted boulder of brain coral shadowed by soft fans and sea rods bending in mild current. And, if I had my genders correct, quite conventional it was. He mounted her, not missionarily but from behind in what Henry Miller liked to call “back-scuttling.” I’m reminded that when teaching English to a group of bored French boys, Miller introduced lectures concerning the physiology of love among our friends in nature, which culminated, evolutionarily speaking, in the “whale with his six foot penis.”

On this sea slug Romeo I could discern no such appendage, even with my mask just inches from his passion and my camera on macro, but I will say this for him: he gave his partner what I’m sure she regarded as a full and proper treatment, sliding slowly and deliberately from the rear tip of her leafy self, over the dorsal cerrata and rhinophores right up to and over the oral tentacles, where he detached and lifted off, then bellied down the coral slope, presumably to find some algae or plankton to nosh.

He had performed; an appetite had been raised. She remained in place, in position, as it were, like an aloof odalisque running an emery board across her nails. Moving on, I noticed another lettuce sea slug making its way down the fan. And another. Males of the species, I deduced, and thought again of my Polish neighbor and her hairless suitors. The scrimmage of appetite everywhere.


I don’t know what to think about a former girlfriend who’s transitioned. She was taller than me by several inches—that’s not a difficult or even a masculine achievement: at my modest height, I’ve had to stand on footstools to kiss lots of girlfriends. This one I remember as particularly vital. Une vrai femme, is the French phrase I believe—so much woman packed into her native skin. I may have been supplying those impressions—she was younger by quite a few years, a fact, and a condition, that I found stimulating. In the end, she felt that I’d wronged her emotionally, psychologically. She started working in adult films and sent me screen shots of various degrading scenarios. Then she began writing. She wrote about my abuse of her, my manipulation. She blamed me for the trauma that drove her into pornography. She tried to destroy me professionally, politically.

She called me the most resourceful player (she’d written “playa,” which at first I interpreted to mean “beach”) she’d ever encountered. Now she is a he. S/he looks butch. S/he looks biker, a ringer for S. Clay Wilson’s cartoon virago, Ruby the Dyke. Nowhere in evidence the generator of hot electric current that once had fused us at the sockets.

These reflections occur to me at a fringing reef off Koh Thao, Thailand, a nation where numerous ladyboys with exquisite bodies and unfortunate Adam’s apples present on street corners, pool halls, and night clubs. I’m watching a young parrotfish work the reef. Today the parrotfish [4] is female, her predominant coloring brick red to dark brown. She is doing what parrotfish of both sexes do: chewing on corals and sponges, excreting clouds of sandy waste. An immodest species, perhaps, female or male, but then all fish are.

Next week, or next month, or next year if she’s lucky enough to live that long, she will be male, a he—unless she insists on a non-gendered pronoun. She will have transitioned, and she will have changed coloring to the predominantly aqua-green of the fully mature parrotfish. It’s a process known as protogynous hermaphroditism, of which the parrotfish is by no means the only practitioner among citizens of the reef.

Here transitioning is unremarkable and not uncommon. Reef dwellers have no problem with it. They don’t waste time dwelling on it. Think of it: how could they? In many species, the anemone for instance, the anus is the mouth—talk about shitting where you eat! And if that’s your anatomical situation, how are you going to mount a credible critique of your neighbor’s habits, no matter how debased? It’s a kind of gift, this collective affliction, one might call it, but really it’s just a state of being. No one’s hung up, no one thinks, oh, if she’s now a he, does that mean I’ve fucked a man, many times, crazily and with wild abandon?

And if so, what does that mean in the big picture of my gender identity? The female parrot lifts from the coral, lets out a fecal cloud—I love the way she looks right at me when she evacuates, like, what, you got a problem? Again, S. Clay Wilson’s Ruby comes to mind. She settles at the base of a purple tube sponge, beaking grooves into the algae. If she continues to eat well, to avoid traps and hooks and predators, she will become big man on the reef, where s/he will continue to eat and excrete and avoid predators, and not once will s/he stop to think, what are my pronouns, and who’s the one responsible for the decisions I’ve made, the transitions I’ve undertaken?

End Notes:

[1] Size: up to 14 in. ID: Globular and poorly defined shape, appear as algae-covered stone. Venomous spines deadly; may bury in sand. (Gerald Allen, Roger Steene, Paul Humann, Ned DeLoach, Reef Fish Identification: Tropical Pacific.)

[2] Size: 14-20 in. Habitat and Behavior: Inhabit seagrass and sandy areas with algae and other plant growth. Forage in open during the day. Reaction to Divers: Appear unconcerned; usually allow a close approach. (Paul Humann, Ned DeLoach, Reef Fish Identification: Florida, Caribbean, Bahamas.)

[3] Size: disc to 2 cm (¾ in). ID: translucent tentacles most commonly extended at night. Attach to seagrass blades. (Paul Humann, Ned DeLoach, Reef Creature Identification: Florida, Caribbean, Bahamas.)

[4] Size: to 48 cm. ID: Green with pink to lavender scale edges. Habitat: fringing reefs, lagoons and outer slopes, 3-35 m. (Gerald Allen, Roger Steene, Paul Humann, Ned DeLoach, Reef Fish Identification: Tropical Pacific.)

© Tim Tomlinson

Tim Tomlinson is the author of the chapbook Yolanda: An Oral History in Verse, the poetry collection, Requiem for the Tree Fort I Set on Fire, and the short story collection, This Is Not Happening to You. Recent work appears in The Antonym: Bridge to Global Literature, Beltway Jerry Jazz Musician, Lighthouse Weekly, and the anthology, Surviving Suicide: A Collection of Poems that May Save a Life. He is the director of New York Writers Workshop, and co-author of its popular text, The Portable MFA in Creative Writing. He teaches writing in NYU’s Global Liberal Studies.

2 Replies to “Tim Tomlinson – Death, Sex, and
Transition on the Coral Reef”

  1. Loving diving alongside you and following the shifting currents of your mind Tim .
    This paragraph rode a wave in me :

    “There’s probably a way to mind-meld with blue, to silence the monkey mind and conjoin with it the way a monk sitting lotus in a field becomes the field. I don’t know how to do it, but sometimes when it’s almost happening—that near total suspension of self—I catch myself. I’m afraid that when it happens, if it ever happens, it will be the last thing that happens, and that’s something I don’t feel ready for, nor will I be for for a very long time, if ever.”

    I have felt the same kind of fear and excitement of being so close to that disappearing edge.

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