Maarten de Brauwer: Time to stop mucking around?

Maarten de Brauwer: Time to stop mucking around?

For any diver with more than a few dives under his belt, it won’t come as a surprise that we can occasionally cause damage to our beloved underwater world, even if we try our very best not to avoid. Starting divers or divers with poor buoyancy control are more likely to damage fragile coral reefs, but they are not the only ones that can do harm.

Divers that are distracted by cameras can also do more damage than they’d like to admit to. The incredible rise in the number of divers that uses a camera underwater could have serious consequences for the marine environment. In my latest research, I studied how photographing small critters affects diver behaviour, and if this behaviour changes when divers are in a coral or a muck dive environment.

For those unfamiliar with muck diving, it is a type of diving on mostly sandy environments, looking to find (and photograph) rare marine life. Muck dive sites might not have much in the way of fragile corals, but they still harbor a lot of living creatures that can be damaged by fins, pointers or divers’ knees.

What I found is that the biggest factor that causes divers to touch or do more damage to the environment is whether or not they are close to small critters. Interacting with animals had more effect than the environment divers were in, their experience level, sex, or type of camera they used.

During those interactions with small critters, divers that used a camera touched the bottom up to five times more often than divers without a camera. Photographers, especially those with dSLR cameras also spent much more time close to the animals. Divers without a camera spent an average of around 30 seconds with individual critters, for dSLR users this was closer to three minutes. Although interactions of more than double that were not exceptional.

Taking your time to frame a shot is not a bad thing, as long as it is done in a way that does not disturb your subject. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Despite what every dive training organisation teaches, divers touched animals very frequently. This was usually done to get the animal in a better position to take a picture or to try to make the animal show a behaviour that looks interesting in photos. Some of these contacts might have seemed innocent, but others, such as breaking off arms from brittle stars to get a better picture of commensal shrimp, harassing animals carrying eggs, or breaking coral to get a closer look at mandarin fish are far from harmless. Probably the worst example was a photographer who slapped a Rhinopias multiple times, apparently to daze the animal so it would stay put on the top of a small rock, where the photographer had just chased it onto for a nice blue background shot.

It is clear that such behaviour is unethical and gives the majority of underwater photographers who do respect the environment a bad name. None of us would treat our pets this way, so what makes it ok to do it underwater? Sites such as Lembeh Strait or Anilao receive a lot of divers, and what might seem like a harmless little nudge from one diver is unlikely to be a one-off occurrence. In the long term, such manipulation comes at a high energetic cost for marine life that depends on camouflage rather than flight to stay safe from predators. Being handled by an overenthusiastic photographer or dive guide makes the metabolism of these animals skyrocket. For animals like seahorses, which do not move much and feed on prey with a low nutritional value, any time spent burning a lot of energy and not feeding can have serious consequences.

What can we do as photographers to ensure we minimise our impact on the marine environment? Besides being a role model yourself by having excellent buoyancy skills and by not touching animals, I would suggest the following three guidelines:

1) Educate yourself and your dive buddies guides about the impacts of unethical diver behaviour.
2) Tell the dive centre or dive guide you are diving with that you do not want them to manipulate marine life. When divers start making it clear that they do not appreciate low ethical standards or marine life harassment, dive centres will make sure to follow best practices.
3) Spread the word. Insist that dive exhibition, photography competitions, dive magazines, etc. have clear guidelines on ethical dive behaviour. A clear signal from photo competitions to no longer accept, or even worse, reward, photos that are clearly the results from diver manipulation will make it clear that such behaviour is not acceptable.

If you have questions about this research, have a look at crittersresearch.com for more information.