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January 2012    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 38, No. 1   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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A Brighter Side of Underwater Photography

how Lembeh resorts are turning their guests into better divers

from the January, 2012 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Even I was surprised by all the comments that my July 2009 blog post, "The Ugly Side of Underwater Photography" produced (go to to read it). Since then, I've wanted to write a sequel focusing on the good things about underwater photography, but I got busy on other projects and a lot of time passed. Then I heard about another ugly event related to underwater photography, and it pissed me off so much I wrote a very short, very angry blog. I held off publishing it, wondering if the situation would change and I could report on some good news for a change. Here's the history and how it all played out.

Several months ago, my wife, Maurine, and I were visiting friends who work in the Lembeh Strait. The dive sites nestled against Lembeh's black sand shores are probably some of the most vulnerable to bad diver behavior, especially among photographers and dive guides. Of course, I've seen this sort of "breathe through a regulator, lose your mind" type of behavior elsewhere, but Lembeh seems particularly susceptible because of the terrain and the overwhelming critter count. I still think it is odd that people travel halfway around the world, then lose all sense of respect for the marine life that brought them there in the first place. Like the unforgettable woman who, during one of our first trips to the strait, was caught standing on the bottom calmly holding a crinoid, picking off its arms one by one so she could get a clear shot of the commensal crab that had probably died of fright several minutes before. I watched as Lembeh pioneer Larry Smith swam over and gave her the ascend signal. By the time the rest of us got on the boat, the crinoid molester was on her way to the airport.

Unfortunately Larry isn't around any more, but people who care about Lembeh are carrying on his good work. Our friends told us about a meeting they attended recently where the agenda was aimed specifically at setting up rules and regulations about marine life interactions in Lembeh. At the meeting, dive staff and managers from various resorts were polled. Interestingly, their attitudes ranged from "always put the animal first" to "we really don't care because getting clients their shots means guides get better tips." At resorts where low salaries are the norm, generous tips means keeping better dive guides.

This is when I had my little freak-out. I couldn't believe there were actually people out there who tip guides to harass animals so they can get the shot. Furthermore, I couldn't believe that resorts would condone such behavior so that guests would over-tip their guides! Even though I know the vast majority of you don't endorse animal torture so you can take pictures of them yawning, showing off their eggs, or performing other tricks, I started wondering how any of us could shout "Save the sharks" or pretend to be concerned about the oceans while at the same time condoning harassment or forced feeding. I can only hope that even in the white-hot frenzy of watching nudibranchs mate, you say to yourself, "Slow down, breathe and don't touch those nudis!" As a professional, I can truly say the shot is just not that important.

Now how does this relate to a kinder, more beautiful side of underwater photography? Well, the folks at Lembeh Resort are serious about stopping animal persecution, but they also want every marine life photographer who travels to every resort in the strait (and beyond) to understand how to dive at critter sites, how to interact with marine creatures in order to get great shots, how guides can help and when they should stop stressing the animals. Underwater photography to the rescue! Steve Fish, the masterful photo pro at Lembeh Resort, has put together a very informative and instructive video about how to dive in muck, how to photograph those unusual critters and what to expect from your dive guide. The best part is that all the resorts in Lembeh have supported this video and have copies of it, which they are free to use to improve dive guide, diver and critter interactions at their own operations. More than 6,000 people have watched this very informative piece. You can and absolutely should watch it, too.

Burt Jones, along with his wife Maurine Shimlock, is an underwater photographer and author of two books about Raja Ampat, the latest being Diving Indonesia's Bird's Head Seascape. See their work at

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