New publication: Finding the species that make a muck diver tick

Now that my PhD thesis has been submitted, it is time to start blogging again! In the very near future I will write a new blog about this whole PhD-writing experience, but for now I will tell you about a new paper that has been published recently in the scientific journal Ocean and Coastal Management.

The paper, “Known unknowns: Conservation and research priorities for soft sediment fauna that supports a valuable scuba diving industry“, describes which species are most important to muck dive tourism, and how much research and conservation work has been done on them. I investigated this using a specific method that is pretty new and has not been used in conservation work until now.

Froggie pair_MDB

Who doesn’t like a frogfish (Antennarius pictus)?

Since these the method and the results will be of interest to different people, this blog is split in two parts:

  1. How did I do the research?
  2. What are the results?

If you are a scuba diver, a dive professional, a travel agent or otherwise mostly interested in the cute animals, it’s completely fine to head straight to number two (even though you will be missing out). If you are a resource manager, work for an NGO, are interested in marketing, or conduct research on flagship species, definitely read the first part of this blog as well!

First section: the Best – Worst Scaling method and why everyone should start using it

wwf-logoIt is important to first think about why anyone would care about which species are important to muck dive tourism, or any kind of tourism by extension. The obvious answer would be “marketing”, if you know which species attract the tourists, you can use them in your advertising and that way attract more tourists. If that is too capitalistic for you, remember that dive tourism provides (mostly) sustainable incomes to thousands of people around the world. But there is more, people might not visit a destination, but still care very deeply about certain species. This principle has been used (very successfully) by many conservation organisations to set up fundraising campaigns. The best known example is probably the World Wildlife Fund, which uses the panda bear as a logo, even if they are trying to protect many more species.

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Blue ringed octopus (Hapalochlaena sp.) are popular with divers, maybe because of the cuteness combined with its deadly bite?

With that in mind, how do you find out which are the animals that people care about? You can obviously just ask people what they like, get them to make a list of top 5 animals, rank a number of animals in preferred order, give scores to certain animals, etc. But there are some serious problems with most of these methods such as:

  • They are not always reliable, since some people will be consistently more or less positive, or have cultural biases, throwing off your scaling
  • They can be very labour-intensive (=expensive) to properly design and collect data on
  • Statistical analyses of the results are usually very hard to get right
  • It is very difficult to say how the preferences vary between different groups of people (male-female, age, nationality, etc.)

To overcome these issues, we used the “Best-Worst scaling method” and compared it to a traditional survey. This method has been around for a few years, but is mostly used in food marketing (wine!) and patient care in medical research. The big benefit of Best-Worst scaling is that doing the stats is really easy, and without too much extra effort you can also easily interpret how different groups have different preferences.

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Flamboyant cuttlefish (Metasepia pfefferi) might not be popular with researchers, but divers love them!

Without going into too much detail, the basic design of Best-Worst scaling is that you ask people what they would like MOST and LEAST from a fixed set of animals (or any other thing you are investigating). There are plenty of online platforms (we used Qualtrics) that allow you to design this kind of question, so it’s quick, easy and cheap. Getting results is as simple as subtracting the amount of times an animal was picked as most preferred and the number of times it was least preferred.

Figure 1

Example of a Best-Worst Scaling question

The reason I am describing this method here, is that it is just not known enough in the conservation, or even tourism world. It has the potential to allow all kinds of organisations with limited funding (NGOs, marine parks, or even dive centers) to investigate why people would visit / where they will go / what they care about. Which, eventually, might lead to more research and conservation on those species.

Second section: Which species drive muck dive tourism?

Mimic Octopus

The mimic octopus (Thaumoctopus mimicus), number 1 on many muck divers’ wish list

The results of the surveys won’t come as a shock for avid muck divers or people in dive tourism, but do seem to surprise from people unfamiliar with muck diving. Here is the top 10:

  1. Mimic octopus / wunderpus
  2. Blue ringed octopus
  3. Rhinopias
  4. Flamboyant cuttlefish
  5. Frogfish
  6. Pygmy seahorses
  7. Other octopus species (e.g. Mototi octopus)
  8. Rare crabs (e.g. Boxer crabs)
  9. Harlequin shrimp
  10. Nudibranchs

While other species such as seahorses or ghostpipefishes are also important to muck divers, a dive location that does not offer the potential to see at least a few of the top 10 species is unlikely to attract many divers.

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Nudibranchs (Tambja sp.) are always popular with photographers

Some differences did occur between diver groups of divers. Older and experienced divers seemed more interested in rare shrimp than other groups. The preferences of starting divers was poorly defined, but their dislikes were most pronounced than experienced divers. Photographers in particular are interested in species like the mimic octopus, potentially because of their interesting behaviour, although that would have to be investigated in a follow-up study.

The final step of our study was to look at how much we know about the animals most important for muck dive tourism. The answer is simple: not much. For most species researchers have not yet investigated if they are threatened, or not enough is known about them to assess their risk of extinction. It does not look like this will chance soon either. The combined amount of research conducted on the top 10 species in the last 20 years is less than 15%  of the numbers of papers published on bottlenose dolphins (1 species) in the same time. Which are not threatened by extinction in case you were wondering. To give you another comparison, from 1997 until now, 2 papers have been published on the flamboyant cuttlefish, compared to more than 3000 on bottlenose dolphins.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying we should stop researching dolphins, but perhaps it is time that some of the research effort and conservation money is also invested in the critters that make muck divers tick?

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Harlequin shrimp (Hymenocera elegans), popular with divers AND the aquarium trade

New publication: Big bucks for small critters

One of the most important chapters of my research has recently been published in the journal Marine Policy. The paper explains that scuba dive tourism focused on small critters (“muck diving”) has a very high value and how muck diving can be a sustainable alternative to more destructive uses of the environment. This is the link to the paper, but since it is behind a paywall, is rather detailed and perhaps a bit to dry for those of you who are not economists, below is a summary that is easier to digest.

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A typical muck diving scene: a sandy bottom with few defining features. In the foreground an Estuary seahorse (Hippocampus kuda) holding on to algae (Photo by Dragos Dumitrescu).

If you don’t know what muck diving is, I invite you to have a look through this site to get a feel for it. But in short: muck diving is scuba diving in sandy areas, usually without coral or other landscape features. The goal is to find weird critters (like flamboyant cuttlefish or hairy frogfish)  that you’d rarely see on normal dive sites. It is very popular in places like Lembeh Strait and Dauin in Southeast Asia, but it is done by divers and photographers all over the world.

Typical for muck diving is that the people doing it are very experienced, with an average of 580 logged dives. Most of them (73.5%) use underwater cameras, often the expensive dSLR cameras, to photograph all the weirdness down there. Many of the divers are well-educated and have a high yearly incomes. Importantly, most divers would be willing to pay for marine conservation if it benefits the species they come to see.

So what does it matter if some fanatic divers like to spend their holidays rooting through the sand instead of cruising by pretty coral reefs? Well, for starters, those fanatic divers spend a combined whopping $152 million per year in Indonesia and Philippines alone. The real value is probably much higher, as this estimate is only for dive centres that specialise in muck diving, and does not include liveaboards or more general dive centres that visit muck dive sites. The real value could be over $200 million per year! Also bear in mind that this number is for Indonesia and Philippines only, it does not include muck dive tourism in Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, or the rest of the world. With more than 100,000 divers visiting Indonesia and the Philippines to go muck diving, you would expect to get the attention of people managing tourism or ocean resources. Especially since many of the divers said they would not have visited the region, or even the country, if they could not muck dive.

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Diver and Ornate ghostpipefish (Solenostomus paradoxus) in Dauin, Philippines

While these numbers might not change anything in your life, they make a huge difference for the thousands of local people that work in this branch of the dive industry. Muck diving is often done in remote locations with limited other forms of income besides fishing. Working as a dive guide and looking at fish is not only more sustainable than catching fish, it also pays a lot better. Roughly $51 million is paid in wages to the local staff working in muck dive tourism annually, and dive guides can earn nearly 3 times more than the minimum wages in the area….

Just stop and think about that for a minute. Imagine the minimum wage in your own country, now triple it. Got the number? OK, now imagine this choice: you can either make that amount by showing cool animals to divers, or you can work your ass off in a factory or risk your life fishing for a third of that amount. Small wonder that many people prefer the first choice, which is great news for marine life in the area, because it means less people fishing and more people trying to protect this valuable source of income.

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The future generation of muck dive guides? Not without a healthy ocean (Photo: Luke Gordon)

That is what it comes down to in the end, protecting these extremely interesting and valuable ecosystems. Make no mistake, muck sites can be threatened as well. Coral reefs might bleach because of climate change, mangroves might be cut to make space for shrimp ponds and seagrass might be dredged to mine for sand, but sandy habitats could face other risks with equally bad consequences. All the habitats above receive far more research and conservation attention than the “barren” sandy sites in the tropics. If this paper proves anything, it is that soft sediment habitats have a very high value, and that it should get more attention to avoid loosing amazing biodiversity and the subsequent loss of income for the thousands of people that depend on it.

And that does not even consider loosing that feeling of pure joy when you finally find a critter you’ve dreamed of seeing for years 😉

Luke_Snoot_Black Hairy

Muck diving scene: a diver (the science hobbit) taking a picture of a frogfish (black Hairy frogfish – Antennarius striatus)

Fluo time

If this isn’t the first time you’ve read this blog, you probably know I am interested in the phenomenon of biofluorescence. I’ve previously talked written about what it is and what it might be used for. In the near future I’ll be tell you all about the details what I was actually doing. But I realized I haven’t shared any pictures recently that show just how beautiful and otherworldly it can be. So here is a random selection of fluo shots I took over the last two years. Enjoy!

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A bubble snail (Hydatina physis) photographed in Lembeh Strait, Indonesia

 

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Thorny seahorse (Hippocampus histrix) in Bima Bay, Indonesia

 

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West Australian Seahorse (Hippocampus subelongatus) in Perth, Australia

 

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Amazing coral in Raja Ampat, Indonesia

 

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Reptilian Snake Eel (Brachysomophis henshawi) in Amed, Indonesia

 

lizardfish

Lizardfish (Synodus sp.) in Lembeh Strait, Indonesia

 

ablabys

Cockatoo Waspfish (Ablabys sp.) in Lembeh Strait, Indonesia

 

picnogonid

Sea spider (Pycnogonid sp.) in Tulamben, Indonesia

 

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Painted frogfish (Antennarius pictus) in Lembeh Strait, Indonesia

 

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Juvenile Painted frogfish (Antennarius pictus) in Dauin, Philippines)

 

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Barred moray (Echidna polyzona) in Nusa Kode, Indonesia

 

Critters in the cold

Squid

Squid during nightdive in Camp Cove (Photo: Greg Lecoeur)

I have been back in Perth for well over a month now and it had been close to two months without diving, so I was starting to get anxious to get back in the water. I don’t really have the time to go abroad at the moment, so I jumped on the opportunity to do a short trip to Sydney. A good friend (Greg Lecoeur) had an extended stopover before flying to Europe and asked me if I wanted to join him to find and photograph the elusive Weedy Seadragon (Phyllopteryx taeniolatus). Not only would it mean interesting dives, it also gave me the opportunity to catch up with another friend (the amazing Emma Camp) who does some great research at the University of Technology Sydney. The departure of the trip was a bit rushed but I managed to bring everything, except for my actual camera. Luckily both Emma and Greg are great underwater photographers, so I could enjoy the dives and get better pictures than I could ever take of them, win-win!

The waters around Sydney might be a lot colder than what I am used to, but they do offer some sweet diving and a lot of really interesting critters. The best known and most sought after critters in temperate waters in Australia are without a doubt the Seadragons. Seadragons are endemic to Australia (=found nowhere else) and only live in its southern, colder waters. Two species exist within reach of divers: The Weedy Seadragon (Phyllopteryx taeniolatus) and the Leafy Seadragon (Phycodurus eques). We went looking for the Weedy Seadragon, as the leafy variety is only found further south. I had been told where to look and that there were a lot more interesting critters to find, but when looking for critters it’s always a good idea to have a local guide. Through a friend I got in touch with a very keen local diver who knows the waters around Sydney better than anyone. Andrew (check his site here) kindly offered to take us diving and promised us dragons and much more.

Seadragon

Checking out a gorgeous Weedy Seadragon (Photo: Greg Lecoeur)

Our first dives were in the southern part of Botany Bay, Kurnell is known as one of the most reliable spots for seadragons. After the shock of hopping in 16 degrees cold water (I’m used to nearly double!) I managed to have a look around and appreciate the site. Descent visibility, kelp, rocks, sand and critters, what more do you need? After a mere 15 minutes Andrew delivered on his promise and showed us a beautiful seadragon. We would find a total of 7 that day! They really are amazing and stunningly beautiful animals. While they are related to seahorses and pipefishes, they are still very different. They are quite a bit larger and seem to be the result of a crazy drunk night between pipefishes, seahorses and some strands of kelp. Our presence did not seem to bother them at all, most of the ones we saw were happily pretending to be kelp and didn’t even stop feeding when we came in close for a good look.

Pygmy pipehorse

Find the critter, a Sydney Pygmy Pipehorse (Photo: Greg Lecoeur)

We found some other members of the seahorse/pipefish family that day. Besides a Potbelly Seahorse (Hippocampus abdominalis), Andrew also showed us some Sydney Pygmy Pipehorses (Idiotropiscis lumnitzeri). I was under the impression Pipehorses were a tropics only kind of family, but was happy to be proven wrong. This particular species is only found in the greater Sydney area, but is closely related to the ones I was observing in Dauin and Lembeh. They are at least as beautiful as their tropical cousins and in my opinion a lot braver for spending their days in the cold water. That cold water made Emma and me cut the second dive a bit short, diving in Sydney is all fun and games until someone gets hypothermia.

Pyjama Squid

The beautiful Pyjama Squid (Photo: Greg Lecoeur)

Our second dive day started at Bare Island. I only went for a short dive, but saw 3 juvenile frogfish! What’s more, they were Painted Frogfish (Antennarius pictus), which I also (wrongfully) assumed to be found in the tropics only. It’s funny how after nearly two years of studying critters there is still a LOT I can learn about them. That evening Greg and me went for a night dive at Camp Cove to find a little guy I had been dying to see for years, the Pyjama Squid (Sepioloidea lineolata). The site is a pure muckdive: a calm bay, no structures to speak of, just sand with a smattering of seagrass and some bits and pieces of debris. Needless to say I had a great time in that kind of environment, as would any other diver who likes critters. We found nearly a dozen Pyjama Squid, the first one about 20 seconds after we put our heads down! They are the cutest little things and pretty much nothing is known about them, I might have to consider them for my next project 🙂  We also found a lot of other critters: Bobtail Squid, a juvenile Hairy Frogfish, Toadfish, Bottletail Squid,… Basically everything a muckdiver could want.

Conclusion: Sydney is a sweet place to dive, both for muck and other kinds of diving. But beware of the very real risk of hypothermia (as Emma can attest to), especially if you are doing long dives and not moving much. So bring your warmest wetsuit, tea/coffee for surface intervals and most importantly, don’t forget your camera!