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January 2014    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 40, No. 1   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Sounding Off on the Seahorse's Plight

from the January, 2014 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

In the November issue, our veteran writer John Bantin wrote about the United Kingdom's recent ban on the use of flash photography on seahorses, but that the real threat to the creatures may be the manhandling of them by over-eager divers, and the dive guides who want to please their paying customers. Undercurrent reader Randy Preissig (San Antonio, TX) wrote us to express his thoughts, and why divers shouldn't immediately be the ones to blame for the seahorse's sad situation.

Ben, how many seahorses do you think are photographed by all the underwater photographers in the world in one year? I would guess 10,000 to 20,000. Of course, some are photographed multiple times on multiple dives -- a dive boat can return to a known seahorse site week after week, and be relatively assured the seahorse will still be there for up to 20 obsessed photographers each time. This alone makes a strong statement regarding the effect of flash photography on seahorses, i.e., it can't be that bad. But compare whatever harm might be done to these few animals to the estimated 20 million seahorses killed each year [they are used in traditional Chinese medicine]. Or the somewhat less-impressive hundreds of thousands taken for home aquariums each year. Or the impossible-to-quantify die-offs due to "loss of habitat" and poisoning due to sewage, chemicals, etc. There are places where seahorses used to be seen commonly, and where a sighting now is literally news. Every last one of them can't have been traumatized by diving photographers!

Scuba divers and photographers get blamed for far more harm than they inflict. Diving Grand Cayman after its last major hurricane would convince anyone of divers' relative unimportance. No, I don't support or defend divers that plop down on coral or similar behavior. And having experienced a famous underwater photographer photographing her first seahorse (she made the entire boat of students stay out of the water for 30 minutes while she got "first dibs" on the find) and the resulting damage to the poor critter, your article's subtitle, "It's not the strobe, it's the manhandling" is right on.

I think the emphasis should be on controlling each diver's access to each seahorse. For most divers, the chance to see and photograph one is often a once-in-a- lifetime event, and they get excited. For some photographers who should know better, the quest for the perfect shot can lead to dozens, even hundreds of pictures, along with manipulation. I've sadly seen physical abuse of seahorses -- always unacceptable. But the article is about flash photography, and I just don't believe that's killing off our seahorses. I do my share of fuming at "bad" divers, but our impact on the reefs and oceans has been exaggerated, in my opinion, which isn't good for scuba diving's reputation. We can always do better, but let's not miss the forest for the trees on this issue.

We asked John Bantin to answer Preissig's letter, and here's his response:

Randy has it spot on, but it is an emotive subject. Marine biologist David Harasti has done some proper research and found that light does not damage seahorses, but it's obvious that interfering with them -- or any other small creature, for that matter -- has ill effects ( a summary of Harasti's recent study is at ). Underwater photographers need to be patient in waiting for the right moment to press the camera's shutter release rather than trying to force the issue.

It's most important for divers to respect the environment for their own self-esteem. After all, if you are prepared to trash a place, what does it say about you? However, once you've seen a large green turtle making a place to roost or a hawksbill chomping its way through soft coral, you realize that it isn't divers who necessarily do the damage. No, it's more likely to be the millions of people who burn fossil fuels either directly or indirectly, or those who use and discard plastic packaging far from the ocean without giving it a second thought who do the big damage, and we are all part of that greater conspiracy.

I was recently followed round on dives at Cocos Island by a lady with a GoPro, intent on proving that I touched the coral. The terrain, of course, is all volcanic rock with little or no coral, and holding on to the rocky substrate in the fierce currents in order to use a camera is probably the only option. Her zeal made her feel better, but I doubt my intrusion made much difference to the place.

The marine world is in jeopardy, without a doubt, but it's the hazards presented to it by the plastic ocean, chemical imbalance and events like that at Fukushima that far outweigh the slight amount of damage any scuba diver, however careless, might do.

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