New publication: How well do divers, cameras, and critters play together on the sand?

A new paper from my PhD research was published two weeks ago. This paper is the first of two papers that investigate the impacts of scuba divers. The title of this one is: “Time to stop mucking around? Impacts of underwater photography on cryptobenthic fauna found in soft sediment habitats” and was published in the Journal of Environmental Management. In the paper I describe how divers behaved while interacting with critters on muck dive sites and coral reefs.

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Underwater photography is fun, but what are the impacts? (Photo: Luke Gordon)

First a bit of context to this particular piece of research. It is well known that divers can cause serious damage to coral reefs, for example by accidentally kicking down coral with their fins, dragging equipment over the fragile bottom, or even breaking off bits of coral as a souvenir. We also know that wildlife photographers (under water and at the surface) can sometimes get carried away in their quest for the perfect picture, and show some very unethical behaviour while doing so. I have written about this before on this blog, but the recent story of yet another wildlife photography winner that was disqualified shows just how common this problem can be.

The goal of my research was to investigate how diver behaviour changes when divers are close to critters, if there is a difference between photographers / non-photographers, and how this changes on the sand versus coral reefs. Importantly, my goal was NOT to investigate if muck diving is a bad thing, or if photography should be banned. Ultimately, what this paper aims to achieve, is to help improve the sustainability of dive tourism.

I had some good fun observing divers in Indonesia and the Philippines during the fieldwork for this research. Divers were not told what research I was doing, to make sure they did not change their behaviour. Instead I explained that I was investigating the habitat requirements of little critters. This meant I had to pretend to be very interested in the bottom, while cheekily observing what divers were up to. To the point where all my notes had to be coded, so divers could not accidentally read what I was doing either.

So I was basically doing university-approved spying on people…the kind of things you end up doing for science 😉 In case  you were worried, all divers were informed of the real purpose of the research afterwards, and were asked for permission to use the (anonymous) data I collected.

The results of the research mostly confirmed what I expected and won’t come as a surprise to people who often go muck diving. When divers were close to critters (either just watching or taking pictures), they caused more impacts than when diving around normally.  During these “critter interactions”, divers touched the bottom three times as much than when they were not close to critters. During these interactions, divers that were taking pictures touched the bottom much more than the divers that were just watching marine life, or showing it to their buddies.

 

Luke1

Luke photographing like a pro: great buoyancy control, no equipment dragging over the bottom, and touching nothing except his camera

Divers on coral reefs had much less contact with the bottom than divers on muck dive sites, until they started observing or photographing critters. Once divers were near small marine life, they touched the bottom just as much on corals as on sand. Basically, divers pay attention not to damage coral reefs, until they get distracted by an interesting little critter.

Using a camera underwater caused some clear impacts. Compact camera users caused more damage than divers without a camera, or those with a dSLR camera. All camera users touched the bottom more often than non-camera users. Finally, divers with a camera spent much more time interacting with critters than divers without a camera.

Picture1Finally, throughout this study, I very frequently  observed divers touching marine life. Despite the fact that every dive training organisation teaches people not to touch anything underwater, touching animals seems to be a common thing while observing and photographing critters. Sometimes this touching is limited to a minor “prod”, but at its worst, divers can rip of arms of feather stars, smack fish around (you read that correctly!) or crush frogfish under big cameras. It is clear that this cannot be the goal of muck diving.

How can we use these results to improve the sustainability of dive tourism? These three guidelines could already make a big difference:

  1. Better education for divers and dive guides on how unethical behaviour impacts marine life. At the very least during briefings, but ideally using programs such as Green Fins or by incorporating it in diver training.
  2. Developing a (region-specific) code of conduct that is supported by all local stakeholders. This would include: dive centre operators, dive professionals, local government, training agencies, NGOs, etc.
  3. Increasing awareness of the impacts of wildlife photography on a global scale. This can only be achieved when the big players get involved. By this I mean not only organising committees of photography competitions, but also dive magazines, dive expos, wildlife magazines like National Geographic,… If all these organisations would send a clear signal to no longer publish pictures that were clearly the result of wildlife manipulation, keen divers would be far less likely to try and do it themselves.

In conclusion: muck diving and underwater critter-interactions have clear impacts, but it is possible to do something about it. The most important thing to start with is changing the mentality of quite a few divers who seem to think that their pictures are worth more than the damage they might cause to marine life.

PS: The paper is behind a paywall, but if you want to read it, please contact me via email or in a personal message on any social media (instagram, twitter, researchgate)

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7 thoughts on “New publication: How well do divers, cameras, and critters play together on the sand?

  1. This is so interesting, without even going to underwater photography I’ve seen a lot a debate whether scuba diving training must include making the student kneeling on the sea floor. In a world where we accept that shark feeding can be conservation, you realise the gap we have in understanding if touching the seabed can do any harm. To be fair, I totally recognise the behaviour you describe, I’m trying myself to control as much as I can my buoyancy and touch as little things as possible, but I’m not perfect and sometimes too I can get carried away by the excitement of seeing a critter. In the process of doing better, I would suggest two things: 1) Dive guides in Indonesia and the Philippines are the first one to touch the critters for their customers hence being poor role models but doing it for the purpose of tips, something about fair wage maybe could help avoid this? 2) Having separate groups of divers photographers/ non-photographers with a dedicated dive briefing, then uw photographers have more time and are not in a rush while messing around the seabed or the coral reef. My 2 cents. I would be interested in your paper 🙂

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    • Hi Florine,
      Thanks for your comments, you raise some very valid points. I can send you the paper, just send me a private message or an email with contact details.
      Everyone can get carried away and make honest mistakes, no matter how much experience they have. For me, the main issue is that some people put their own (short term) enjoyment above the (long term) wellbeing of marine life.
      To address your points: 1) I address the issue around dive guides more extensively in the paper. While they do touch more marine life, they indeed only do it to satisfy customer demand. Once divers stop making requests that lead to poor behaviour, that behaviour will stop. Fair wages and the support of management is crucial to help this process though.
      2) This already happens in some dive centres, but in my experience does not improve unethical photographer behaviour. Quite the opposite sometimes…

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  2. How about instructors and dive guides with cameras? Can the certifying agencies please make this completely forbidden? Also diving with any camera should be a certifiable activity. I don’t see how it is any less (if not more) dangerous then going 12 meters deeper. This would at least keep DSDs and fresh open water divers from destroying the reef with their selfy sticks underwater.

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    • Hi Adam,
      interesting suggestion, though I’m not sure how much it would be welcomed by tourism operators or training organisations. I agree wholeheartedly that photography more education should be in place for photographers, but from my experience, enforcing such a regulation would be very difficult. Though maybe the safety-aspect could be used to argue for a change in rules for insurance companies?

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      • There are many dive centers that already uphold this rule as far as staff not bringing cameras nor uncertified divers. Usually these are the shops that pride themselves with having high teaching and safety standards. I think this (at the very least) should be adopted across the board by all of the certification agencies. Over the years I have seen more incidents related to people using cameras (GoPros) then any other. That is aside from the damage I have seen inexperienced divers with cameras create to the reef. There are always going to be shops that break standards but until the training agencies make official guidelines regarding this there will be no reason to follow suit. The accessibility and affordability of cameras such as Gopros is a relatively new phenomenon. With this social media and selfy culture I see about 80% of all divers with some sort of camera with them, most before they understand simple buoyancy.

        In full transparency I am a full time dive center photographer and I have lots of images of people doing idiotic stuff with and without cameras 😉 I appreciate you shedding some light on this subject.

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      • You’re right, many dive centres indeed have those guidelines, and I do feel that divers should get their buoyancy right before they start using any kind of camera. Having said that, most of the divers with cameras in this last study were much more experienced than DSD/Open Water (most had over 500 dives), so it’s clearly not just an experience thing.

        Being in the water so often you’d see a lot of “interesting” things happen for sure. Though depending on the location and the kind of divers visiting the divecentre, they seem to cause damage for different reasons.

        For me, the most important thing you touch upon is that it depends on the dive centres, without the support of dive centres owners / managers, it will never be possible to change the behaviour of divers (or dive staff).

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