We just returned from two dive trips where the focus was on soft science. In Lembeh we hosted a nudibranch workshop with David Behrens. Our group identified over 200 species in 10 days. Dr. Mark Erdmann and Dr. Gerry Allen accompanied our trip to Cenderawasih Bay. In just nine days they discovered three new fish species.
We think that’s pretty exciting news: there are animals out there that have never been identified or, in the case of nudibranchs in Lembeh, never been surveyed for abundance. I’m not saying that all’s well with the ocean.
Far from it. We also saw floating rafts of human debris, especially plastic, way out in remote Cenderawasih Bay (I don’t feel the need to comment about Lembeh). We saw evidence of homemade fish bombs on several sites and we also saw fish nets that had been draped over abundantly fishy sea mounts. But the idea that we, as divers, can bear witness to some of the most abundant and still unknown life on this planet excites me. I give most of the credit to the scientists who accompanied our trips. They were the ones who put their reputations on the line when they agreed to dive with sport divers
About a year ago we weathered a storm of controversy over how scientists behave when they work underwater. The London Guardian published an image we shot of Dr. Mark Erdmann and Dr. Gerry Allen while the two renowned scientists were photographing a possible new species of fish. Some of their equipment was laid on the substrate during the process. Lots of people objected to the scientists and their equipment touching the reef. While Dr. Erdmann gave a succinct explanation that answered most of the questions raised, I worried about this incident for the next 11 months because we had already invited Mark and Gerry to dive with a group of tourists in Cenderawasih Bay.
We asked them to accompany our group because we believe that sport divers should see and understand the basics of tropical reef research. Why are certain areas protected and others not? How are new species “discovered”, and why is it important? Yet, I was concerned because even though our guests are accomplished, experienced divers who genuinely care about the environment and support conservation efforts with money and time, I thought that if they saw scientific work underwater they would object. Equipment does end up lying on coral. Fish and other animals are killed for identification. Sometimes, genetic studies call for a fin clip from a certain animal, and I’m pretty sure that doesn’t feel so great to the fish whose fin is clipped.
This isn’t wanton destruction by people who don’t care about the reef. Perhaps you could say that there’s a higher purpose involved. In Cenderawasih I held my breath after the first dive, then the second, and then throughout the first day. No one said a word; maybe they hadn’t noticed the vials filled with small fishes and the chemicals used to stun and capture them. I was wrong, completely wrong. Everyone had noticed and everyone on the boat was totally engaged by the scientific process. They realized they were witnessing a brief moment of discovery wherein another link in the planet’s biological heritage might be revealed. I used to think that there should be a dividing line between people who dive for fun and people who dive in the name of science. I don’t believe that anymore. I am convinced that we all dive for science every time we go underwater. We bear witness to one of the most extraordinary sights and last wild places on this blue planet. Like it or not, approve of the methods or not, that makes us all members of the same community.