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Interaction ethics

Harassing Marine Life: A Dive Guide's View

Following the row over a dive instructor manhandling an octopus - DIVE's Easy Diving author Crowley gives his view

Aww, that’s cute – shall I poke it? Can I pick it up and take a selfie? Will it entertain other divers if I harass it enough that it visibly panics but stays within range of the camera lens? Believe it or not, these seem to be genuine thoughts that pass through some divers’ heads when they come across an interesting aquatic organism. They certainly seem to be true in the recent exposure on social media of an instructor in Vietnam who is seen to be dragging an octopus out of its hidey-hole, triggering its defensive ink-squirting reaction almost encouraging it to fight back – which it does. The instructor is seen forcefully pulling on the creature’s arms as they are now suckered to his skin, clearly causing the animal further distress and then, in the last few frames of the video, the octopus – a creature that we know to be very intelligent – is seen to take a hold of the instructor’s regulator and pull it from his mouth.

And in these few short minutes of video we have some important object lessons. Irresponsible interaction with aquatic wildlife may not simply distress the creature but it may result in serious harm to – or even death of – not just the animal in question but that of the diver themselves. Furthermore, if you watch the video, the instructor displays appalling buoyancy control, smashing into the rocks and coral around him, clearly damaging the surrounding environment as well as running the risk of severe personal injury to himself.

While this is deliberate, reprehensible behavior on the part of someone who should be acting as an ambassador for the aquatic realm in terms of education, conservation and responsible interaction, one unfortunate side effect of such behaviour is that less experienced divers may believe that interacting with wildlife in such a fashion is somehow acceptable (in a statement on the DIVE website the instructor himself, now suspended from SSI, seems to think it really is), and if adequate training is not given, many divers may simply not know what constitutes an acceptable and responsible interaction with aquatic life.

A few examples immediately spring to mind:

  • A friend of mine was guiding a diver who insisted on trying to pick up a scorpion fish to take a photo with it. He was released the next day from hospital
  • A diver in a group I was leading reached out to pat a passing whale shark and narrowly escaped the lash of its tail fin
  • A fellow guide in Sharm had to pull a turtle out of a crack in the coral because it had wedged itself in there trying to hide from a group of over-zealous camera enthusiasts and was unable to free itself to get to the surface and breathe
  • I’ve heard of dive guides playing volleyball with a puffer fish and while they do look rather comical when they’re inflated (the fish, not the guides) it’s really not acceptable to blow them up yourself, and certainly not to bat them around
  • The YouTube video of an instructor in Thailand getting his thumb removed while trying to feed a giant moray with – of all things – a cocktail sausage.

And yet, such information is a fundamental part of entry-level dive training. Responsible aquatic interaction is even part of PADI’s Discover Scuba Diving briefing and to quote directly from their Open Water manual: (PADI OW manual 1999 edition pp 133 – 135) 

  • Treat all animals with respect. Don’t tease or intentionally disturb them
  • Avoid contact with unfamiliar animals. If you don’t know what it is, don’t touch it
  • Maintain neutral buoyancy and stay off the bottom
  • Watch where you’re going and where you put your hands, feet and knees.

But is it being taught correctly? Is it being taught at all, or are students just left to read through the books with no further discussion from the instructor? Certainly most of the instructors I know would go into detail about the underwater world, with fish books and log book sightings after each dive, but then, I don’t know every instructor out there, and sadly I know all too well that in many cases, such important education is skimmed over, while instructors themselves demonstrate bad habits when it comes to aquatic interaction.

So let’s have a look at some of those basic pointers.

First of all - there is very little under the water that is out to get you (with the exception of nesting triggerish!) As a diver you are a two-metre long monster of metal and rubber and bubbles; you’re bigger than most sharks, which tend to be rather timid creatures, as it happens, and even the most dangerous aquatic animals – such as stonefish – are not going to leap out from behind a rock and stab you intentionally . By and large, most fish are terrified of you. Some are inquisitive and may come to check you out before going back to doing fish things, and the only fish I know of that have actually developed a maniacal thirst for human flesh are tiny little cleaner wrasse who like to eat dead skin and pick the remains of your lunch from between your teeth.

When we talk about treating all animals with respect, we’re not just talking about the classic definition of 'dangerous animals'; we’re talking about all of them. Most creatures, as long as you don’t bother them, really are completely harmless (and in that definition we include the vast majority of sharks) but if you harass them then you may provoke a defensive reaction which has the potential for serious consequences, both for the diver and the animal.

Also the advice about avoiding contact with unfamiliar animals is very sound – but familiarity with the appearance of an animal does not mean familiarity with the behaviour of an animal, nor how it might react to external stress. We may not even realise that we are provoking it in the first place. What a person thinks they know about an animal may, in reality, be very far from the truth – for example:

  • Dolphins - we see dolphins as friendly and playful but if you try to pet one of their calves without warning, you are in for a beatin
  • Nemo – the clownfish – cute and cuddly, according to the cartoon, but one of the few creatures that will attack without provocation if you get too close to its nest. We all know about the Triggerfish but not many people realize that clownfish can be very aggressive and although they are too small to cause serious damage, even a small bite can lead to a nasty infection
  • Surgeon fish, of which there are many species, are amongst the first to gather around a snorkeler with a bag of breadcrumbs; yet with caudal keels (horizontal tail-fin stabilizers) so sharp (hence the name) they can slice through muscle with ease; I know a diver whose daughter had her Achilles tendon severed while snorkeling with surgeon fish
  • Cone shells – they look like a very beautiful shells, but also contain a type of snail that can fire a poisoned dart containing enough toxin to kill a human
  • Coral – doesn’t seem to do very much apart from look awesome, but if you’ve ever been unlucky enough to accidentally brush against some fire coral, or seen divers who have, it can be very painful and leave sores in the skin that can last for weeks on end if not treated correctly.

There are many other examples, and the octopus in the video is a good one – it tries to flee but can’t, it squirts its ink, but the instructor won’t let go, and so eventually it goes on the attack. Octopuses have very sharp beaks, those suckers can remove skin, and most of my diving friends and colleagues would consider that the removal of the instructor’s regulator at the end of the clip was most definitely not an accident….

Far more important than the danger to us from aquatic animals is the danger that we are to the animals themselves. Again, what we think of as benign interaction may cause more damage than good. Taking a bag of bread to feed the fish, for example, is a highly entertaining experience but baked goods are not exactly a natural source of food for fish, and even though they gobble it up with great enthusiasm, some species are unable to digest the bread properly which may lead to life-threatening intestinal dysfunction, or bloating that causes them to be incapacitated to such an extent that they become easy prey for predators. Fish are also capable of learned behaviour – that is, they learn to approach certain areas because there is a plentiful supply of food, and are subsequently unable to forage for food naturally.

When it comes to buoyancy control, this is fundamental to all good diving, of course, but also to aquatic interaction. Of course we want to avoid bashing into the coral in the first instance, but also if we want to get a close look at something, or take pictures, then this is fine – stonefish are excellent subjects and it’s actually difficult to get them to move at all, but the last thing you want to do is lose control of your buoyancy, flap your arms and get a stonefish spike as a result. I’ve dealt with the aftermath; it’s not pretty. Even if it’s not a stonefish, that flapping of arms and rapid movement as you attempt to re-establish your position may just have the unfortunate effect of pushing the creature into a flight response which is disappointing in and of itself, and if it was something really cool – like a manta ray – then your buddies may never talk to you again!

Even with the best of intentions and the greatest control of your buoyancy, sometimes accidents do happen. Perhaps your attention as a diver is focused on something else (and it’s really difficult to pay attention to anything else at all when a whale shark is passing by), or perhaps you are coming to the aid of another diver, perhaps it’s simply the surge or swell or current that pushes you into something no matter how hard you try to avoid it, and even the most experienced of dive professionals have probably had to hang on to the coral at some point to maintain the safety of a dive team.

Deliberate, unnecessary contact with the coral is, however, a definite no-no. Don’t forget that even though it might look like a rock, or some form of shrubbery, coral is, in reality, a multitude of tiny animals all bonded together in a spectacular colony. Putting a finger or a fin in the wrong place may kill a number of these animals, effectively leaving an open wound that is ripe for infection. Once the infection takes hold it may spread to the entire colony and although this process takes some time, in the course of a dive season it is enough to wipe out even a large head of coral – which may be home to hundreds of tiny fish, crabs and shrimp that are almost invisible to the naked eye. Too often I have seen divers hold back a soft coral to take a photograph of something underneath it, or lay down on the hard coral to get the perfect close-up – I even saw a guy in Egypt use a table coral as a platform for his camera.

If you have to hold onto something, find an empty piece of rock, or put a finger in the sand to minimize your interaction with the environment and yes, be very careful where you’re putting your fingers, fins and knees. There might be something buried in the sand that you didn’t notice at first glance, or your body might be in the right place but the extra length of your fins means that they are breaking some fragile coral behind you. Unless you really need to hold onto something for safety, then don’t.

So what constitutes responsible interaction with aquatic life? Clearly that depends on what you wish to interact with but I think most responsible dive professionals would say don’t touch anything. Picking up a sea cucumber might seem innocuous enough and they don’t appear to be especially disturbed one way or the other, but that does not say that they are not harmed at all. Furthermore, picking up one thing sort of gives tacit permission to pick up other things and unless you know exactly what it is you’re picking up, then you may be in for a whole world of pain. PADI’s Open Water video used to have footage of an instructor picking up a sea urchin and placing it in a student’s hand to which I objected most strenuously and told my divers to ignore. Some urchins have painful spines; some are venomous, and thinking that it’s okay to pick up one species may mean that a diver will go ahead and pick up another, thinking that all sea urchins are okay to handle.

Certainly most of my colleagues would simply deliver the classic line 'Look but don’t touch' and when it comes to interactions with creatures that might be a bit more – well – interactive – such as sharks, rays, octopuses, seals and so on then by far and away the best advice that can be given in these circumstances is to allow them to happen on the animal’s own terms, and one of the finest examples from my own career is the briefing we give for the manta interactions in my last job in Indonesia: Divers should not approach closer than 3m to the manta (but nobody told the manta to stay 3m away from you!) Watch your buoyancy, do not make any aggressive or rapid movements, do not try to chase or touch the manta, stay still and let the manta approach you if it wishes.

Apart from being environmentally sound, this is guaranteed to grant you a much better aquatic interaction than chasing an animal around with your camera; I’ve seen hordes of divers swimming after a manta which meant they would only ever get a blurry photo of its bum, whereas I floated happily and motionless while one of them approached me so closely that it tapped me on the shoulder as it glided by.

And the same is often true of many aquatic interactions. If the dive team in the octopus molestation video had just waited for a few minutes, then the octopus probably would have come out of its hole, inspected the dive group, done something cute and comical and wandered away. Instead, this group got a petrified animal and a face full of ink.

Be a responsible diver. Let the animal get on with doing what it does best. It’s better for them, and I absolutely guarantee it will be better for you.

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