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.

Divers and Seahorses: ADEX

Last week I had the pleasure of attending the annual ADEX Dive Expo in Singapore. If you want to find out what scuba diving is about, or want to realise what a big deal it is, this is the place. Just to give an indication of the growing interest in diving: the expo received close to 60 000 visitors in 3 days! Besides the many stands from dive centres, resorts, photography shops, etc. who were trying to convince people to buy dive trips or equipment, there was a lot more to see and do. Throughout the weekend, there were non-stop presentations by marine biologists, NGOs, photographers, writers and even mermaids.

This year’s theme was “Seahorses“, so some of the world’s seahorse experts such as Dave Harasti, Amanda Vincent and Richard Smith were around to talk about these funky critters. There were speakers from the Coral Triangle Initiative, Greenfins, iSeahorse, Blue Ocean Network and many more NGO’s. It wasn’t possible for me to see them all, but I saw enough to learn a whole lot of new interesting things about seahorses and their conservation.

I was quite honoured to have been invited as well to give two talks. I talked about fluorescence in camouflaged species and how valuable muck diving can be to small coastal communities. From the chats I had with people afterwards, it seems I wasn’t talking absolute nonsense and people were actually interested in what I had to say. While it is too early to tell, in the future there might even be some interesting projects coming out of these meetings.


Explaining the value of Muck Diving

The most interesting facts I’ve learned this weekend? It seems seahorses often end up as prey for frogfish, scorpionfish and even the occasional octopus. This is also the reason why successful marine protected areas with lots of predators might lead to less seahorses in those protected areas. I’ve also noticed once again that there is more and more demand for truly sustainable dive tourism in a way that really benefits local communities and not just the owners of dive resorts.

Spending a few days in the comfort of modern Singapore was nice, but now it’s time to get back to work. And for now work = fieldwork!  😀 Yesterday I arrived in Dauin accompanied by none other than Luke, my very good friend and trusty science hobbit! Keep your eyes on the blog for our adventures looking for baby critters…

Mandarin madness

My last trip to Komodo was a successful one, not only because of the data I collected or the nice group on the boat, but also because I managed to have a good look at two very elusive critters, one of them a first! I had seen Mandarinfish (Synchiropus splendidus) before, but this was the first time I had a proper look at a Picturesque Dragonet (Synchiropus picturatus).

Both species are closely related Dragonets belonging to the genus Synchiropus. They are exquisitely coloured, which makes them big hits both with divers and marine aquaria hobbyists. The colours and patterns of the picturesque dragonet have earned it the synonym of “psychedelic mandarinfish” or even “LSD-fish” in German! Of the two, the mandarinfish is best known to divers, probably because it is found more frequently in areas where divers are likely to dive, unlike its psychedelic sister-species.

Both species are found in the Indo-West Pacific, they range from the south of Japan to the north of Australia. The best places to spot them are Indonesia and the Philippines. They are found in sheltered lagoons, usually in areas with coral rubble. You can also find mandarinfish in stands of branching corals. Picturesque dragonets are more frequently found in areas with silty bottoms close to mangroves. Both species are shallow water fish that are rarely seen deeper than 20m.

The best time to see mandarinfish is at dusk or late in the afternoon on overcast days. At these times the fish come out of hiding to spawn. Both species live in small social groups which usually consist of a male and a few females. The males are easily recognized by their larger size and long dorsal fin.

Synchiropus picturatus_2_MDB

Two Picturesque Dragonets (female in the front, male at the back)

As is the case with many secretive critters, we don’t know very much about them. The things we do know show that there is more to them than just a pretty face. For example, they secrete a thick mucous that might even contain toxins. According to the literature, this mucous smells bad and tastes bitter, which makes me wonder exactly how they found this out 😉 Regardless of research methods, this toxicity means that the highly visible colours could in fact be a warning signal to potential predators, much in the way nudibranchs advertise their toxicity. For those interested in impressing their fellow divers, this trick is called “aposemetic colouration“.

Best of Lembeh_Synchiropus splendidus2_MDB

Mandarinfish – a fierce predator?

Mandarinfish are tiny carnivorous fish, which feed on tiny prey. Too bad they are so small, just imagine how much fun it would be to see a great white shark in the colours of a mandarinfish?!? Until the day an evolutionary trip-up creates a giant mandarinfish stalking the oceans, they feed mainly on small crustaceans, small molluscs and fish eggs. Which might be more convenient for the many people that keep these small fish in aquariums.

And make no mistake about it, both species are VERY popular in the marine ornamental trade. Research in Batasan Island (near Bohol) in Philippines showed that in 2000, between 1800 to 2400 mandarinfish were exported per month! If you have ever searched for mandarinfish while diving, those numbers will seem even more impressive. Fishermen usually catch the fish with miniature spearguns, since other methods are not as successful. This method obviously inflicts damage on the fish, often leading to the fish dying either shortly after being caught or during transport to aquariumshops. Another problem with catching mandarinfish for the aquariumtrade is that people prefer larger fish. A trend that causes the larger males to disappear first, which can in turn lead to reduced reproduction rates for the remaining fish.

These lovely critters might be very popular with aquarium enthusiasts, unfortunately they are difficult to keep alive in a tank. The fish require specific food and shelter, lack of those are the cause of many mandarinfish dying shortly after they’ve been bought by their new owners. There have been some reports of mandarin spawning in tanks, but raising the larvae to healthy adults is still difficult. As far as I could find, the vast majority of mandarin fish sold in aquarium shops are still caught in the wild, which might have a big impact on fish populations in the ocean.

Might have a big impact, since we don’t really know. Neither species has been assessed by the IUCN, so we don’t know if populations are in decline and if they are at risk of extinction. So until we do, enjoy looking for them during your dives, but think twice before buying one!

Best of Cabilao_Mandarinfish_MDB


Psychedelic Frogfish!!!

There was some VERY exciting news last weekend, the elusive Psychedelic Frogfish (Histiophryne psychedelica) has been spotted again in Ambon! This very rare and very trippy frogfish has only been described in 2009 and has hardly been seen again since. Practically nothing is known about them, except for the fact that they are amazing! Here is a video (property of Dive into Ambon) to prove it:

The psychedelic frogfish has only ever been seen alive in Ambon and they don’t seem to get much bigger than 10cm. Their exceptional colouration provides excellent camouflage and is thought to mimic coral species like Symphyllia sinuosa, Pectinia lactuca and other corals with similar morphology.

Symphillia and Pectinia

S. sinuosa (A) and P. lactuca (E). Photos: D. J. Hall from Pietsch et al. 2009

As a species of the genus Histiophryne, Psychedelic frogfish are “egg-brooders”, meaning they keep their eggs attached to their body to protect them from predators. It is even believed that they might use their eggs as bait to lure fish in that don’t recognise the eggs are attached to a predator larger than themselves! This is what it looks like:

Psychedelic frogfish_eggs

Psychedelic frogfish with eggs. Photo: Francesca Diaco from Dive Photo Guide

Who could not get very enthusiastic about a fish this bizarre and beautiful? Just too bad I don’t have time to go to Ambon myself any time soon 😉