Notes From the Back of Beyond II
We took a busman’s holiday last weekend and went diving on Bali’s north coast. It’s easy diving around Tulamben; porters carry the tanks and you just walk off the beach. Great schools of trevally surround the Liberty Wreck and the black sand slope to the east is a famed critter diving mecca. It should have been a beautiful morning dive, but what we saw underwater shifted our moods a full 180 degrees. We finished the dive almost ashamed to call ourselves underwater photographers.
About 50 feet down the slope, hovering close to the substrate, we spent about 15 minutes searching for unusual species of nudibranchs. We weren’t the only ones in the water-Tulumben is a popular dive area-and another group of divers was nearby. From the amount of silt that drifted our way we figured they had found an interesting subject so we finned over to take a closer look. There were about ten of them, armed with all manner of image-capturing gear, and they had surrounded a Wonderpus photogenicus, one of the recently described long-armed octopuses that is often confused with the Mimic Octopus. A few divers had still camera housings mounted on video housings, a few had both wide angle and macro rigs cobbled together with a tangled web of multiple strobe cords. One diver caught our attention; she had a small video housing and had settled down gently on the bottom, waiting patiently, and so we decided to hang around to see what happened.
For more than 30 minutes we witnessed one of the lousiest displays of buoyancy skills we have ever seen outside of an entry level class. You would have thought that the current was running at four knots, there was that much sand blowing through the water. The lone divemaster vainly tried to keep order so everyone in his group could photograph the creature, but he gave up after about 15 minutes and took off down the slope. A couple of photographers shot 50 or more frames (yes, I counted), and no one wanted to “share”. One anxious, double-rig-carrying oaf couldn’t wait for his buddy to finish with the octopus, so he positioned himself over the top of the offending diver and literally picked the guy up off the bottom by his BC and shoved him out of the way. One “good buddy” yanked so hard on on another’s full foot fin that he pulled it off and just tossed it aside, leaving the diver to try and catch up with his free-floating fin before it was out of sight. “Well,” I thought, “that’s one way to to keep a subject for yourself. What’s next? Slicing regulator hoses?”
Just as it seemed like the lone, patient diver might get a chance, the octopus escaped and the group swam off in a cloud of silt. The remaining would-be videographer didn’t move for several seconds. The she looked our way, shrugged, and headed back toward the beach.
As we were ascending I thought about the octopus, the rude photographers, and I couldn’t help but mutter “get a life” through my regulator. What was so important about photographing that octopus that it could trigger mass behavior like that? I mean, we make our living selling photographs of marine animals, but being able to pay our credit card bill on time doesn’t mean that we need to trash a dive site, harass an animal, or endanger another diver. Sure we’ve all been guilty of taking too much time with a subject, with digital it’s hard stop photographing a charismatic subject. Still, perhaps it’s time to agree to and sign not only the standard CYA (cover your ass) diver’s release form, but also a Photographer’s Code of Ethics that covers how we’ll treat the reef, the animals that live there, and our fellow divers.
Some divemasters, celebrity group leaders, and cruise directors admonish their guests to take care of the environment and share subjects. Others don’t. Are we losing the joy when we senselessly compete for images? Recently a liveaboard owner called us with questions about our upcoming group. “What kind of people are they?” he asked. I wasn’t sure what he meant. He explained, “You know, do they like to sit on deck and watch the sun set or are they staring at their computers or taking apart their cameras whenever they aren’t in the water? I just finished with a group like that and let me tell you it was boring and awful.”
Taking pictures is just one of the reasons we like diving. We like the sunsets, talking about good books, sharing stories with friends, new and old. Let’s cut out the competition and bring back the joy.