This post is about families and togeterness, but unlike the last few blogs it’s not concerned with human families, made up of more or less autonomous individuals and their children who live together in societies, nor is it about the many other animals who live together in family groups, or sometimes in herds or flocks or shoals, competing with each other but also helping each other to survive and thrive. 

The animals in this post have a very different life strategy. Corals are associations of identical individual animals that feed together, spawn together and look and act as though they were one organism. There is no hierarchy, as there is in beehives and ant hills, where the queens lord it over the workers, corals are animals that live in colonies that no one rules. 

Hard corals, like those in the Great Barrier Reef, have a hard base of calcium to support the colony of tiny animals, known as polyps, but in soft corals the polyps are supported by gelatinous material.  

The minute coral animals are very simple, their body plan is much like that of a sea anemone, an animal which sticks to the rocks looking like a blob of jelly until the tide comes in and it opens a fringe of stinging tentacles which reach out to catch food. Here are some anemones at

The soft coral Alcynonium digitatum, commonly known as dead man’s fingers, can be found in the waters around the UK at depths of between 20 and 50 metres. There’s info and photographs at

I’ve never been scuba diving so I’ve never seen one in the flesh to take photographs. Instead I include a picture of the front at Barry Island overlooking the Bristol Channel. The lights on the promenade only faintly illuminate the surface of a realm where soft corals and other animals live largely mysterious lives a world away from the human experience.

The undersea world is vast and momentous even though one individual coral animal is very small and insignificant and does no more than feed and spawn. They can’t sing of course, except in my imagination, where anything is possible.


My proper name is Alcyonium digitatum –
in time I’ll declare my soft familiar name -
all my family are soft – and so very close -
every polyp 
nudges another 
softly softly my siblings hold me safely – we cling
softly but firmly to the sea bed – living as one soft body -
our mouths open in unison to savour the ocean -
always always 
I touch the flesh
of those close to me - they define me as myself – we are soft
as the sea swollen fingers of dead sailors waving from the depths - 
whose lifeless hands nudge you towards our soft familiar name -
dead man’s fingers -
say it softly -
in memory of your ancestors – their dead fingers 
touch you - their unfeeling hands mould you softly, 
waving insistently under your skin 
always, always 
part of you  
only in dreams or nightmares
can you float alone in a sea
of infinite possibilities. 

Anne Bryan