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September 1998 Vol. 13, No. 9   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
What's this?

Are You Paying for Marine Life Harassment?

from the September, 1998 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

When I jump in the water, I'm a foreign observer. So I do my best to follow a "take only pictures, leave only bubbles" mandate. In fact, I consider disturbing a pristine reef or harassing its residents a very uncool thing to do, and it's even more offensive to me when the perpetrator is my guide or divemaster.

I'm not the only one who feels this way. Some of our readers have voiced similar complaints, sometimes with great indignation. Reader Cat Cochran (Gainesville GA), who was in Nassau in February, noted that divemaster Oral of Bahama Divers was looking for better footage for the video he was taping to offer for sale after the dive. The only way to get it seemed to be to use his snorkel to pry an urchin from its resting place, breaking off several spines in the process, then chasing and beating a puffer with his snorkel until it obliged by puffing up in defense. Cochran says she refused to buy the video because "the abuse of coral and aquatic life by the divemaster was incomprehensible!"

In a similar vein, reader Randy Brook (Seattle WA) wrote us in March about diving with Ed Robinson's Undersea Adventures in Maui. He complained that divemaster "Kim pulls out several octopi from their holes-lots of ink. My wife talked to Kim about her treatment of reef critters. Kim's response was that she didn't see anything wrong with it, and it gave the customers a better experience."

Unfortunately, this attitude isn't unusual. Usually, harassment occurs out of ignorance rather than malice. Some divemasters really don't see the problem with it and do construe it as giving the customers a "better" experience, blurring the fine line between wilderness observation and circus stunts in the process.

But even if marine life isn't being taught circus tricks, harassment certainly isn't harmless. Octopi whose ink is consumed fending off goading divers require time to manufacture more, and if their next visit is from a predator, their natural defense won't be available when they need it. Puffers are only induced to puff when they are severely stressed and may have trouble sustaining this defensive behavior over time. And turtles ridden by 180-pound divers are not just in a panic; they're also exhausting themselves and using more oxygen than necessary, while being held down so that they can't surface and take another breath.

In the long run, marine creatures aren't the only ones to suffer ill effects from harassment; we divers are losers as well. The next time a pufferfish who's been beaten by a snorkel sees a diver, he's out of there, and, if he's on a dive site where divers come all the time, he'll move. The dive boats will still be dropping us off at the buoyed sites -- there just won't be any fish around.

Even worse is harassment that's condoned by the dive media or establishment. For years we've suffered through a seemingly endless supply of photos of people basking on coral or harassing sea creatures. Only a couple of years ago the cover of Rodale's Scuba Diving sported a puffed-up puffer with a diver. One can only wonder if that puffer also was beaten with a snorkel. Even more recently, Al Hornsby, Skin Diver's new Editorial Director, flashed a two-page spread in the August issue featuring a female diver and an inflated puffer. The photograph carried the remarkable caption "A White-Spotted Pufferfish puffs up at the sight of this wet-suited marine creature." Will all of the Undercurrent subscribers who have seen a pufferfish blow itself up at the sight of a diver please stand up?

The latest offender in need of consciousness-raising is the Professional Association of Diving Instructors itself. PADI has a new tee-shirt adorned with a swimming sea-turtle -- with a child riding on its back. Where the shirt's designer probably saw a cute and inoffensive logo, underwater environmentalist Dee Scarr, a Bonaire underwater guide and author of Touch the Sea, saw an opportunity to educate a wellintentioned organization that should have known better.

She wrote PADI's chief executive officer, John Cronin, complaining that the shirt "clearly depicts an activity that's been deplored by every person and every organization who/which understands animals, including PADI." PADI saw her point and agreed not to manufacture any more shirts using the image, but stopped short of pulling the existing shirts off the shelves. Cronin defended the graphic as "pure child's fantasy, not any different than children riding on seahorses, unicorns, eagles, and the like." Of course, given that it's not possible to ride seahorses, unicorns, or eagles, it's easy to see jaunts on them as fable, but, as Scarr points out, "turtles do exist and can be ridden against their will. Riding turtles should not be a fantasy, and it certainly shouldn't be a fantasy that PADI supports."

Unfortunately, mixing dollars with principles tends to muddy the ethical waters. Although Scarr acknowledges that PADI neither supports nor advocates riding sea turtles, she also mentions a comment made to her by Mark Schacht, executive director of PADI Project AWARE, who said he'd recently written an article that included the advice, "Don't ride a turtle just because you saw someone doing it on the Discovery Channel." Scarr says, "he was embarrassed to learn that he could have written, 'Don't ride a turtle just because you saw someone doing it on a PADI t-shirt.'"

-- John Q. Trigger

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