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November 2013    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Vol. 28, No. 11   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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The Fight to Stop Seahorse Photography

but itís not the strobe, itís the manhandling

from the November, 2013 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

It was only a few years ago that the boss of a big diving company based in Egypt's Red Sea region asked my advice regarding the intrusion by photographers on animals underwater. His guides had hit upon the idea of banning the use of strobes by underwater photographers because it did the animals harm, but this was causing customer divers to be upset and losing him a lot of future business.

Although I am not a scientist, my own long experience photographing skittish animals while using vast quantities of studio strobe lighting had never appeared to cause any distress to the animals concerned. This was despite the fact that the amount of energy discharged for each picture was 500 times more than from the most powerful underwater photographic strobe, making a 'pop' that certainly would make an unsuspecting human bystander jump. That was because in those days we were shooting on big sheet-film cameras that needed a huge amount of light. I photographed animals as disparate as chickens and chameleons, dogs and ducks, horses and toucans for use in various big advertising campaigns. The reaction times of animals are so much faster than that of man that they are not startled.

When a larger marine animal like a turtle or a shark is focused on feeding, no photographer is likely to put it off its stride. With smaller animals, it is merely the sheer bulk of the photographer that causes alarm, because in the marine world it's normally the small that get preyed on by the larger predator. That said, the sight of a huge group of underwater photographers surrounding a little hairy frogfish at Lembeh Strait must cause the casual viewer to wonder if, with all the photographers' strobes popping off at frequent intervals, the little animal is not being harmed in some way. It must be so much worse for pygmy seahorses.

Studland Bay, on Great Britain's Dorset's coast, is a well-known haunt of larger seahorses, where underwater photographers are required to apply for a license, and underwater strobes are strictly banned. In May 2011, the use of flash photography was banned on seahorses within the U.K. by the Marine Management Organization (MMO). This month's issue of Diver magazine printed an impassioned opinion by Neil Garrick-Maidment, executive director of the Seahorse Trust, that categorically stated that photographers' flashes (strobe) killed seahorses.

It has been illegal since 2008 in the U.K. to disturb seahorses in their place of shelter. Divers require a license if they dive with the intention of carrying out an activity that is likely to disturb seahorses, such as photography, filming or surveys. The MMO website states, "We are no longer issuing licenses that permit flash photography on seahorses due to the potential impact of flash photography. This follows advice from our statutory advisors, and is on a precautionary basis while we develop our evidence base on potential impacts."

Studland Bay is a popular destination during the summer months for pleasure craft mainly coming from nearby Poole Harbour. They each drop an anchor, many leak diesel or other hydrocarbons, and often sewage is pumped from their heads. Add to that the run-off of chemical fertilizers from Dorset County's heavily farmed land, and we can agree that none of it is very good for the marine life. It's no surprise to hear that the seahorse population in Studland Bay is declining.

Garrick-Maidment lays the blame squarely at the feet of underwater photographers. His annual report and recommendations are based on observations and anecdotal evidence. He even mentions that when one of his tagged study seahorses went missing, the mystery was solved when a well-known photographer published online a picture of the animal in a highly stressed state. He makes no mention of the actual effect of physically tagging a seahorse.

On the other side of the world, in Australia, the only known study of the effects of photographers' strobes on pigmy seahorses has taken place, conducted by David Harasti of Aquatic Eco Systems. His results of his quantitative research were published this year in the Journal of Fish Biology in a document titled "Does Underwater Flash Photography Affect the Behavior, Movement and Site Persistence of Seahorses?" The abstract for the document is quoted here (by permission of Harasti):

"The effect of flash (strobe) photography on seahorse species has never been tested. An experiment was established to test the effect of flash photography and the handling of Hippocampus whitei, a mediumsized seahorse species endemic to Australia, on their behavioural responses, movements and site persistence. A total of 24 H. whitei were utilized in the experiment with eight in each of the three treatments (flash photography, handling and control). The effect of underwater flash photography on H. whitei movements was not significant; however, the effect of handling H. whitei to take a photograph had a significant effect on their short-term behavioural responses to the photographer.

"The Kaplan-Meier log-rank test revealed that there was no significant difference in site persistence of H. whitei from each of the three treatments, and that flash photography had no long-term effects on their site persistence. It is concluded that the use of flash photography by divers is a safe and viable technique with H. whitei , particularly if photographs can be used for individual identification purposes."

So it seems that it is not the light effect but the inappropriate handling of the seahorses that does the damage. Seeing Indonesian dive guides at work with long pointing sticks, maneuvering these tiny animals around on their host gorgonia, for the benefit of guest underwater photographers for example, must obviously be stressful for the animal.

However, has the British Seahorse Trust got it wrong regarding the flashes of light from underwater photographers' equipment? It's an emotive subject and the debate continues. In the meantime, as I pointed out to the boss of that Red Sea diving center, if he was really worried about any of the marine life, he should remove all his divers from the water and take those polluting diesel-driven boats with them.

John Bantin is the former technical editor of DIVER magazine in the United Kingdom. For 20 years, he used and reviewed virtually every piece of equipment available in the U.K. and the U.S., and made around 300 dives per year for that purpose. He is also a professional underwater photographer, and author of Amazing Diving Stories, available at www.undercurrent.org

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