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February 2008    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 34, No. 2   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Those Guides Who Manhandle Fish

and why we should avoid them

from the February, 2008 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Undercurrent reader Don Wilson (Caldwell, NJ) was diving with a friend who owned a dive operation on Hawaii’s Kona coast, when the latter caught an octopus and held it. The hapless animal depleted its ink reserve. “When my friend finally released the octopus, it darted toward cover, but too late. A fish shot from the sidelines, grabbed the doomed octopus and hauled it away.”

Maybe it was the octopus’s destiny to become dinner for a fish, but it probably would have had a longer lifespan if a human hadn’t played such a part in its death. Wilson hollered at his friend, but what do the rest of us divers do when on trips with dive operators who have no qualms about handling marine life?

Obviously, divers want to dive with lots of fish and interesting marine life all around them. Knowing this, dive businesses do what they can to guarantee that happens, from offering shark feeds to holding creatures up close. They mean well, but they are also changing animals’ natural behavior, modifying their eating habits, and making them more fearful or more aggressive. Can dive operators and divers find a happy balance between seeing lots of fish and letting them be?

“Pretty Much Everyone Here Does It”

It’s not an even balance in some popular dive destinations. In our travel story about San Pedro, Belize, in this issue, our writer described how divemasters from Amigos Del Mar grabbed nurse sharks to let divers rub their bellies, and pulled lobsters and crabs out from under rocks to let underwater photographers get better shots. Turns out they’re not the only one.s Many Undercurrent readers told us about similar experiences while diving with San Pedro dive operators, who seem to delight in manhandling critters.

Subscriber Stu Mapes dived with the Ramon’s Village dive operation last fall and was appalled to see divemasters riding nurse sharks, chasing and sometimes catching sea turtles, picking up and passing around various creatures, and handling coral. “One of the first things stressed to me when I certified was to look, not touch, and I’ve found most divers follow that advice,” he says. “However, in Belize it seems to be the norm.”

“I’d rather photograph fish acting
naturally instead of being held in
someone’s hands.”

Rick Sutherland, the dive shop manager at Ramon’s, denies that happens and told Undercurrent that he tells divemasters not to touch anything. “I don’t want people doing that kind of thing in my home, so why should we do that in theirs?” He says Ramon’s is not an operation that throws out chum in the Blue Hole, and that boats only feed fish at two Ambergris Caye dive sites, Shark Ray Alley and Esmerelda.

Amigos Del Mar confesses to handling fish and feeding shark and grouper, and manager Gilmar Paz is very blasé about it. “I know it’s controversial for the environmentalists but most of our divers like it because the marine life comes to them.” He says Amigos Del Mar has no official fish-touching policy, nor is any mention made in dive briefing. “We leave it up to the divemasters to decide what to do, and we do tell divers that if they don’t like what’s happening, then tell us so. We try to please everyone. But pretty much every dive operator here does it.”

He’s probably right, as Undercurrent readers wrote of similar experiences at Ambergris Divers and Patojo’s Dive Center. However, in our Belize story our writer gave Aqua Dives divemasters on the Blue Hole day trip thumbs up for not touching marine life.

“It’s Hard to Play Scuba Cop”

Subscriber Susan Goudge (Lake Zurich, IL) had an octopus experience similar to Don Brown’s while diving with Kauai’s Seasport Divers on a trip to Niihau. “Our divemaster Luke took an octopus from its crevice and held his hand up so that each time the octopus tried to escape, it swam into Luke’s palm. There was ink everywhere, and a great photo op of an octopus with tentacles extended, but it seemed more like a bully-in-theplayground situation.”

Seasport owner Marvin Otsuji told us he has heard that complaint often but says he can’t do much. “I can’t be there on a day-to-day basis. We don’t have an official policy about touching, but I do tell the crew to be 100 percent professional.” He says divers can sometimes be the problem as many are overeager and do similar grabs. “We try to say don’t touch as best we can, but we can’t constantly tell people not to without making them upset.”

It’s a copout for businesses to say they don’t have a policy and can’t control their employees. Having no policy about pulling critters from crevices means that it’s ok to do it. And it’s another copout to place blame on divers and make employees solely responsible when many are failing to set good examples of marine life interaction.

While diving with Cozumel’s Dive Paradise last spring, subscriber Deborah Brown was one of the few divers with a camera, so a divemaster decided to find her photo subjects. “He managed to find a splendid toadfish tucked under coral, as is customary. I was ecstatic because Cozumel is the only place to find it, so I quickly moved in to snap some shots.” But then the divemaster took a stick and started prodding at the fish, using his other hand to pull it from its hideout so Brown could get a better shot. “I was so irritated that he would go to such lengths that I quickly turned and swam away in hopes he would leave the fish alone. To me, no picture is worth harming the subject. I’d much rather have a shot of a fish acting naturally, even if that means I’ll only get to see part of its body, rather than being held captive in someone’s hands.”

When Undercurrent told Dive Paradise owner Renee Applegate about the incident, she was very upset. “He shouldn’t have done that, and all the divemasters here know they’re not supposed to do that. It’s in the briefing for divers. We dive in a marine park and the rules are supposed to be observed.”

“Anything you do to make a fish
change direction is something you
shouldn’t do.”

You can’t always blame the operator for the actions of one grabby divemaster or diver. But those who see harm being done should speak up and tell the manager who, at the least, should pull aside the offender for an explanation. Subscriber David DeBoer (Dallas, TX) took it further and left after two days of a scheduled dive week with Scuba Mex, south of Cancun. “Both owners and divemasters would bother anything to provide interest for the divers. The grabbing of pufferfish to induce defensive inflation was a favorite. Latching onto turtles and yanking lobsters out of crevices by their antennae were other specialties. It makes no difference whether it’s your neighbor’s cat or a marine invertebrate, it’s animal cruelty.” Scuba Mex did not reply to our calls or e-mails.

Marta Arensberg (Issaquah, WA) was diving last September on the Palau Aggressor when she noticed two divers taking underwater photos of a small turtle. They had pinned it against a wall, allowing it no escape. “They kept their lenses less than 18 inches from this little guy for over five minutes, so I motioned to one of the divemasters to stop them. He did nothing, just shrugged his shoulders at me.”

When Undercurrent asked Wayne Hasson, president of the Aggressor fleet, about that episode, he replied that there was nothing the divemaster could have done just then. “You can’t scold them in front of other people underwater. Who wants to create an embarrassing situation? It’s better to take them aside and say, ‘You’ve harassed turtles and upset divers; do it again and your diving privileges will be revoked.’”

Hasson says all Aggressor boat briefings state no touching, no feeding. “That doesn’t change the fact that people still do. Some can’t help themselves. What do you do?”

“There Is A Right Way to Touch Fish”

Many Undercurrent subscribers recommended dive operators who set good examples about not touching coral or disturbing animals. Susan Goudge says Smitty, formerly of Sea Eye Divers in Grand Turk who now has his own shop, keeps divers’ encounters with animals as natural as possible. David DeBoer applauded Saba’s Golden Rock Dive Center and Sea Saba for upholding the marine park’s strict rules. Scott Okhuysen (Stephenson, MI) says Crystal Clear Watersports in the Florida Keys continually stressed the importance of being only observers. “On one dive, it was reported that a diver caught a ride on a turtle. The divemaster very nicely asked this person, who admitted it. Then he not so nicely explained that if the diver did this again, he would never dive with the operation again.”

Many readers have raved about diving with Touch the Sea in Bonaire ( Owner Dee Scarr takes four divers maximum, gives them 45-minute briefings and aims to get them close to anemones, octopuses and cleaner shrimp. Ed Stevens (Austin, TX) describes his memorable experience. “We entered the water a little before sunset under Town Pier and came across a shy octopus in her den. We sat on the bottom and waited quietly. Slowly, the octopus emerged from her cavern and approached me. I slowly put out my bare arm and the octopus, about three feet in diameter, gripped me and climbed up. Then came the unusual part -- instead of continuing her climb, she started to tug on my arm and swim back toward her den. I slowly moved with her, not imagining what she was up to. Dee wrote on her whiteboard, ‘She’s taking you home!’ This adorable octopus and I had to split up because I was running low on air. Did we do wrong by socializing with this wild creature? I certainly benefited. Did she?”

Yes, says Scarr. In her opinion, interacting can be done in ways that are educational and respect the animals. “The simplest way to look at it is the wording of the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act,” she says. “Anything you do that makes a fish turn the opposite direction is something you shouldn’t do.”

Even venomous animals can be approached in the right way. Scorpionfish lying on the sea floor raise a dorsal fin to show discomfort. Scarr tries to find one lying low in flat sand so she doesn’t approach it from above. “If it raises the dorsal fin, I back off. If it doesn’t, I position my four divers in positions so that they’re not making a semi-circle around it and the fish sees that if he wants to go, he can. You can’t pen in anything or it will feel uncomfortable.” Scarr reaches out a finger, then raises the dorsal fin a bit. If the scorpionfish hasn’t moved, she brings divers in one by one to pet it in the safe spot behind the fin. “The goal is to make the fish comfortable.”

It’s apparent that too many dive operators let their divemasters manhandle marine life. Some operators encourage it while others turn their backs. Their goal is to entertain their customers, regardless of the effect on the natural environment. In most cases, they are threatening the security of the animal, forcing it into a defensive mode. Dee Scarr’s approach is not only entertaining, it is also gentle and educational. Others should follow her lead. As it is now, reckless dive operators are another element in the destruction of our reefs and marine life. Divers ought to avoid them.

- - Vanessa Richardson

Next month, we’ll take a look at fish feeding and the diving industry’s overall stance on human interaction with marine life.

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