Ethical issues in Underwater Photography

During my PhD I have written and talked a lot about the value of scuba diving and particularly of muck diving. Dive tourism often provides an income to communities who have limited sustainable alternatives to make a living. Over the last years, there have been big changes in dive tourism, such as the increasing popularity of underwater photography. Muck diving in particular has a large portion of divers who use underwater cameras: I found out that on average 73% of people visiting muck dive destinations use a camera of some sort.

More people using cameras underwater can be a good thing. Photographers often spend more time and money in dive locations, meaning a higher income for local communities. Having a lot of photos taken underwater can directly help science by giving us information about species distribution (via initiatives like iSeahorse) or even by helping researchers discover new species (the story of the “Lembeh Seadragon“). Finally, more beautiful photos of ocean critters can help conservation by creating awareness with people who would otherwise never go near the ocean.

Kyonemichthys rumengani

The “Lembeh Seadragon” (Kyonemichthys rumengani) was first brought to the attention of scientists by underwater photographers.      Photo: Maarten De Brauwer

However, there are some serious issues with the use of cameras under water. Using an extra tool while diving is distracting and often leads to poor buoyancy control. Multiple studies have looked at the effects of divers who use cameras on coral reefs, and it is very clear that photographers cause more damage on coral reefs than divers without cameras. Possible solutions for this problem include buoyancy training, good dive briefings that create awareness with the divers, and attentive dive guides who can adjust diver behaviour before too much damage is done.

Another problem with underwater photography is that it is a goal-driven and therefore often competitive activity. Photographers want to see rare species, shoot interesting behaviour or get a unique shot that will impress fellow divers in off- and online communities. But the reality is that rare species are hard to find and often really shy. You have to be lucky to observe eye-catching behaviour and it takes a lot of skill to get creative shots underwater. The desire for beautiful pictures too often leads to divers trying to “force” a photo to happen, and forcing wildlife is never a good idea.

This is not just an issue with underwater photography, it happens on land as well. In 2010 a Wildlife photographer of the year lost his title when it became clear he faked his winning shot. In India, the bad behaviour of tourists trying to take pictures of tigers has led to the creation of a guidebook for ethical wildlife photography. There are worse stories out there and this article explains just how bad “getting that perfect shot” can get.

Underwater wildlife photography has its own specific problems. Unlike terrestrial photography, divers can often get within touching distance of the species they want to photograph. At that point it is often very difficult to resist the temptation not to touch or harass the animal. There are many reasons why you shouldn’t, and you’ll find most of them explained clearly here. Luckily most fish, especially the bigger species like sharks or manta rays can swim off when things get too crazy, but this doesn’t work for all ocean critters.

Animals that cannot swim away because they are too slow or rely on camouflage instead of speed, are popular with photographers because you can take your time for a picture. Frogfishes, seahorses, nudibranchs, scorpionfishes … never had to cope with humans and cameras, so they don’t have any defence against them. Some of the poor diver behaviour I have seen seems relatively harmless, like gently coaxing an animal in a better position. But it can go as far as smacking Rhinopias around to daze them so they will sit still, pulling of arms of feather stars to get pictures of the fish living inside them, or breaking off seafans with pygmy seahorses on them and bringing them up to shallow water so divers can spend more time taking pictures. In these extreme cases, diver behaviour can lead to serious harm or even the death of rare animals.

Froggie yawn

Pictures of interesting behaviour like this yawning frogfish (Antennarius commersoni) are popular, but the yawn might actually be a sign of distress.

To a large extent it remains unknown what the effects of diver manipulation are, though it is clear to see that it at the very least stresses animals. I am currently working on a project to find out which negative diver behaviours around critters are most common and how it effects the animals. The goal is to enable the dive industry to focus on preventing the behaviours which have the highest impact.

While most divers don’t approve of this unethical behaviour, industry leaders like organisers of photo competitions or dive centres still seem reluctant to admit there are serious ethical issues in underwater photography. Maybe out of fear of giving underwater photography a bad name, or out of fear to make less profit when strict rules are applied. What we need is a change in mentality from divers and industry leaders. Well known photographers like Dr. Alex Tattersall and Josef Litt are increasingly making themselves heard to set the right example. Organisations like Greenfins work closely with dive operators to improve destructive dive practices. A lot of this unethical behaviour can and will disappear with the support of divecentres, dive magazines and role models from the underwater photography community. So if you enjoy taking pictures underwater, consider signing this petition that asks for higher ethical standards in dive magazines and photo competitions.

Blue-ringed Octopus: cuteness with a twist

I am definitely not the first person to write about the Blue-ringed Octopus, and once you’ve seen one for yourself it is quite understandable that people get excited about them. Blue-ringed Octopus are probably one of the only invertebrates you can call “cute”. With their small size, interesting behaviour and iridescent blue rings they look like something out of a cartoon. Add the intriguing fact that these animals are also one of the world’s most venomous animals, and it becomes logical that people are interested in these critters.

Blue-ringed Octopuses are several species in the genus “Hapalochlaena“, depending on which source you check, there are anything between 3 to 10 species. They are all small octopuses, with the biggest one (Hapalochlaena maculosa) growing to only 15cm (body + arms). They are found from the centre of the Indian Ocean to the west of the Pacific Ocean. While their colours might make you think they belong in similarly colourful tropical reefs, they are actually more frequently found in the temperate waters of southern Australia.

A fact that is repeated very often is just how venomous these little guys are. So I won’t spend too much time on it here, but if you want to read more about it check out this link to learn all about the technical toxic details. The short version is: if you get bitten, you’d better hope to have someone nearby who is highly skilled in CPR. One of the more fascinating effects that occur when bitten is “locked in syndrome“, where you appear to be dead, but are actually still aware of what is going on. If that and near-certain death doesn’t stop people from harassing them to get a nice picture, I don’t know what will 😉 .

The most conspicuous features of the Blue-ringed Octopus, its blue rings, are actually hardly visible for most of the time. When you find one while diving and you don’t bother it too much, they look like any other well camouflaged octopus. The blue rings are a warning signal they only show when spooked or threatened. The mechanism of how they show those rings is a really neat one. The rings are pigmented cells that are usually covered by muscles that are contracted above them. It is only when the octopus relaxes those muscles that the blue rings show. Like a blanket that’s pulled away when unveiling a work of art. For more details, check out this paper.

One of the most interesting things I could dig up about this critter is about the way they mate. It turns out that Blue-ringed Octopuses can’t tell the difference between males and females! Males will try to mate with any other Blue-ringed Octopus they encounter, pouncing (that’s the technical term, trust me) on the potential partner and inserting their hectocotylus into the mantle cavity of the partner. It’s only after they insert this modified mating arm into the other octopus, that they can tell if their partner is in fact female or not. If the partner turns out to be another male, they amicably part ways, no harm done. In case they get lucky and their partner is a female, the male clings on for a long time: usually more than 90 minutes, but sometimes to over 4 hours! As a matter of fact, it seems the male tries to hang on as long as the female allows it, only breaking contact when forcefully removed by the female. If you are interested in the love life of small octopuses, you can read the original study here.

There is a lot more to find out of the Blue-ringed Octopus, such as the very basic question “How many species are out there?”. Considering that this animal is one of the most popular critters in muck dive tourism, it is surprising how little we really know about them. For my research I mostly look at fish, though I am always on the lookout to see what the best places are to find and study other interesting species. So who knows, I might just have a closer look at them in the future.

Best of Dauin_Blue ringed octopus_small.jpg

Photo: Maarten De Brauwer