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September 2014    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 29, No. 9   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Fish-Mauling Divemasters

stand up and speak out against divers who harass marine life

from the September, 2014 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Early last summer, I was hiking in the Rockies and our guide pointed out a wolf den; he thought there might be wolf pups inside. We waited quietly at a distance, our cameras ready, but none emerged, so after several minutes we moved on. If our guide had been a divemaster like some of those our readers and I have encountered, he would have approached the den with a shovel and dug out the pups, picked them up by their scruffy necks, and held them out for us to photograph.

What's with these dive guides and divers who feel compelled to pull out any creature they find and treat it like so much chopped liver? What is it about the attitude of these people who, once underwater, think the rules of engaging animals on land don't apply? Would they climb a maple tree and grab a handful of baby robins so the bird watchers they were guiding could get good shots? Of course not. So why is it that for many guides and divers, it's just fine to pull octopuses from their holes, squeeze and inflate pufferfish, or float an arrow crab, so the photographer can get a shot before a snapper picks it off?

I'm probably preaching to the choir, because most Undercurrent readers share my views. However, take this non-subscriber, Zachary Nims, a diver from Dallas, who thinks an octopus is little more than his personal rag doll. Check his charming video from a recent Bonaire dive titled "Octo Hunt" that he posted on his personal Facebook page ( https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=456095754536787&set=vb.100004090981275 ). Brave Zachary -- the octopus squirted ink!

We posted Nims' video on Undercurrent's Facebook page to raise a stink, and it received the most comments for one of our Facebook posts so far. A sample of (profanity-free) comments from divers included, "Divers like this need to have their certification revoked, and their picture put in every dive shop and resort in the world so they won't let him dive again" to "Hopefully, public backlash will make this dude think twice about this bad behavior." Unfortunately, the backlash hasn't been strong enough -- Nims still has the "Octo Hunt" video on his Facebook page for the world to see. This man remains clueless.

Divemasters as Dirtbags

What's even more shocking is that professional divemasters are engaging in the same behavior in front of paid customers. Blue McRight (Venice, CA) dived in Kauai last summer with Sea Sport Divers and had a horrible experience with her bald-headed divemaster. "Not only did he rocket along the reef, he found an octopus and harassed the thing relentlessly, causing it to ink four separate times! It was appalling. He was very arrogant when I expressed my concern about that after the dive, and proceeded to do it again on the next dive." Years ago, Kathryn Boucic (San Diego, CA) had a similar experience on the Big Island when the divemaster pulled an octopus out, grabbed it, even as it inked as it tried to swim away. She complained, but the divemaster's rationale was that he was trying to make a good experience for customers. She called it bunk, and moved to another dive operator.

Unfortunately, that marketing stance of "trying to make a good customer experience" has rubbed off on some customers. One Undercurrent reader wrote: "I dive in Maui often and have seen divemasters catch the occasional octopus; they always seem to be as interested in the diver as we are with them. I have never seen one harmed in the process . . . I think the divemasters typically know their critters and how they need to be treated." Of course, we disagree -- an octopus in the natural world should not be a diver's personal toy.

"He was very arrogant when I expressed my concern about harassing an octopus to ink, and proceeded to do it again on the next dive."

Some divers have no problem with fish being fed, but there's plenty of proof that it does change their behavior (and if they're being fed cocktail wieners, hard-boiled eggs or Cheez Wiz, it's changing their innards for the worst). One reader mentions a friendly, 40-pound grouper at Grand Turk named Ales that came to divers when they arrived and swam alongside them. "He occasionally bumped divers' arms or came up under them to receive attention. Divemasters all but wrestled with him, but he seemed to love the interaction with divers." You'd think being wrestled by divemasters would put Ales off mankind for good, but it might be fish feed that kept him coming back. I'm skeptical that he was being "friendly," which I doubt is a word in a grouper's lexicon. On the other hand, I guess I can't object to an occasional chin chucking.

The Worst Places for Seeing Bad Behavior

The Philippines are mentioned routinely as a nation where divemasters act unbecomingly. Regina Roberts (Alameda, CA) went to Crystal Bay Resort last year and was appalled by both divemasters and divers harassing sea life. "They were moving, holding and surrounding nudibranchs, octopuses, etc. We were very vocal to the divemasters, resort and our trip leader, which calmed but did not eliminate the problem."

Tim Rock (Tamuning, Guam) says he has seen similar behavior in Indonesia and Malaysia in his 30 years of diving. "They use a macro wand to hit and coerce subjects. They make stargazers pop up out of the sand and do other things that are more harassment than guiding. I think some guides get bored or weren't trained to respect marine life and use the wands wantonly, disturbing marine life or impatiently coaxing a subject into position for a photo. If encouraged by the photographer, then both are complicit. If I mention the behavior to abusive guides, they usually change their actions, at least around me. I also praise, in public, those guides who set up a nice photography shot with care."

Mary Wicksten (Bryan, TX) says the most grabby divemasters she has met are in Belize, "where it seems to be mandatory to chase, poke, grab or otherwise harass any turtle, shark or ray nearby, thereby ruining many a photo not just of the big animals, but also the terrified small fry. Fish feeding is supposed to be confined, but the dive masters did it everywhere, including over the pit of the Blue Hole."

Kristin Farrag (Dundee, IL) has also had bad experiences at Captain Don's Habitat in Bonaire, at Ocean Encounters in Curacao and at Scuba Club in Cozumel. "Mind you, it's not all divemasters there, only some. I've been to too many places where over-zealous divemasters pick up, move, and otherwise maul the sea life. I take underwater photos and resent when I see someone moving an animal to get a better shot. To me, it's like golf -- shoot it where it lies! Where's the challenge in 'posing' an animal?"

"To me, it's like golf -- shoot it where it lies! What's the challenge in 'posing' an animal?"

Moreover, it's happening right here in the good old USA, where people ought to know better. Michael Lewis (Vonire, TN) dived in March with Islamorada Dive Center in the Florida Keys, and chides their bad environmental practices. "The divemasters picked up arrow crabs, conchs and even a scorpionfish to show the patrons. That shouldn't be allowed, anywhere, and especially not where we dived, since I'm pretty sure it was in a marine sanctuary. I guess they think they'll get bigger tips, but they got much less of a tip than I normally leave."

What Should Divers Do?

Many readers show their disdain of fish-handling divemasters in different ways. When a divemaster handles reef critters for photo ops, Jeff Robertson (Roseville, CA) backs off and stays away from the crowd. "Twice in San Pedro, Belize (at Amigos Del Mar and Ramon's Village), I've been asked by the divemasters afterwards why I didn't get in to take a photo. I explain that I thought he wouldn't want photo evidence of him handling marine life. That's pretty much a conversation stopper."

Hilary Elder (Seldon, UK) takes a physical and a verbal approach. "I'll remonstrate whilst underwater and make my views clear when above water. I refuse to dive with someone who did not heed me." Kristen Farrag uses a three-strikes approach. "I signal underwater that this is a no-no and then I leave the area. If I see it continue on more than one dive, I will bring it up with the dive operation manager. If I still see it continue, I do not use that dive operator again."

Samuel Johnson (Greensboro, NC) chooses to hit molesting divemasters where it will hurt them most: tips. "I was recently diving with Oasis Divers in Grand Turk. I had one divemaster for five days, then two other divemasters the other two days. I left tips for the two but I stiffed the guy who had been with me for five days because of the way he abused the reef, with his fins as well as with his hands. And he was the senior divemaster who had instructed the other two! I left notes for all three divemasters, explaining what I was doing and why."

However, sometimes fear of ruining their vacation will keep divers from being frank with dive operators. One reader says "I am afraid to say anything to a divemaster for fear of angering him or her, and then having to deal with various forms of pettiness that would ruin my vacation." Carol Keller (Derby, KS) agrees. "I never repeat business with divemasters who handle the marine life, but I do not like to discuss it while I am diving with them, as I fear revenge -- not that they would do something unsafe to me, but that their treatment of me would be affected. But often we have no option to change mid-vacation. Not only are their actions disrespectful to the marine life, they are also teaching new divers to behave wrongly."

And that is why divers need to speak up, when they can. Divemasters who show a lack of respect for marine life are also training new divers to exhibit that same lack of respect. I think experienced divers have a responsibility to call someone on his inappropriate treatment of marine life. Yes, some dive shops will react with pettiness, but most, when confronted by customers with examples of bad behavior from employees, will take steps to change their practices and policies. When we've called attention to such practices in Undercurrent, we usually receive a quick mea culpa and an offer to prevent it.

If you don't want to tell the dive operator, tell your travel agent. Dirk Wenber-Lutrop, who owns Diversion Dive Travel in Redlynch, Australia, listens to his customers and changes the way he does business to accommodate. "We have acted numerous times on comments passed on to us by our clients about underwater misbehavior. Most operators share our beliefs and have acted accordingly with pulling their staff in line. The few that didn't, we no longer support."

Or put it in writing. Undercurrent subscriber Greg Yarnik (Palatine, IL) wrote a complaint on his comment card during a stay this spring at Anthony's Key Resort in Roatan. "My wife and I observed divemasters daily feeding and mishandling grouper, turtles, nurse sharks and other species, and it became so annoying, I gave a pointedly critical review on a comment card as we departed." Yarnik was surprised to receive an e-mail from Mandy Wagner, the resort's director of operations, who wrote, "We just had our department head meeting, at which your card was read to the staff. We took your comment seriously about the feeding of fish on the dives. As a result, the practice will be discontinued. The shark dive is an outside operator and we cannot affect that change. [But] thank you for taking the time to give us your observations."

These days, abusive operators and guides are on the decline, but there is still a lot of work to be done to educate Third World countries about harassment -- as well as those dive guides in Florida. You're an experienced diver, and a paying customer. Your trip experience should be as important to the dive operator as it is to you. If they -- or other divers -- are disrespectful of the marine life, speak up.

-- Ben Davison

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