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 😉

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

Seahorse and pipefish blog collection

syngbioI am currently in Florida at the University of Tampa, to attend Syngbio 2017. Syngbio is the global conference about Syngnathidae. “Syngnathidae” is the scientific name for the group of animals that consists of seahorses, pipefishes, etc. The conference is being attended by over 100 experts from across the world, who are discussing topics ranging from behaviour, to genetics, husbandry and conservation.

Once the conference is over, I will write a blog about the main conclusions of the conference. But since I am currently in a syngnathid mind-set, I figured it made sense to have a look at previous blog posts I wrote about seahorses and their relatives and combine them for anyone interested to learn more about these fascinating animals.

  • Little known seahorse facts: an overview of interesting facts about seahorses you might not have heard of before
  • Winged pipefish: one of my favourite pipefish species that I feel deserves more attention
  • Seadragons and other critters found in the cold waters around Sydney
  • Ruby seadragons, deep sea seahorses and other critters beyond the reach of divers
  • Keeping seahorses in tanks: a rant on how I struggled keeping West Australian seahorses in tanks. Read this blog if you are considering keeping seahorses in tanks yourself
  • Ornate ghostpipefish: ghostpipefishes are gorgeous animals, but very understudied. This blog is an overview of what we know about the ornate ghostpipefish.
  • Fluo seahorses: A photo compilation of some of the fluoresence work I’ve done, including fluo seahorse shots

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Growing up

Growing up isn’t always easy, going from the playful life of a child to become a (seemingly) functional adult takes blood, sweat and tears. Anyone reading this blog who longingly remembers the awkward changes your body goes through puberty, please feel free to share in comments below whether it was the pimples, the voice changes, gangly limbs or any other similar affliction you’d like to get back in your life. I am fairly confident the comment section won’t be overly populated. If you think growing up was hard for you or any other human, take some time to consider how much more extreme becoming an adult is for fish.

As you or may not know, most fish start their life as transparent larvae, floating through the blue. Once they are large enough to become proper fish, they “settle” on the reef. This settling is the first big growing up fish have to do.  Forget about years to grow from a baby into a teenager. Typically within less than 2 days, the freshly arrived larvae change colour and massively grow in size. If you think changing colour and doubling in size within a month isn’t hard enough as a childhood, consider the following. Over 50% of baby fish arriving on the reef get eaten within the first two days of arriving on the reef! Talk about a bad first day at school…

Childhood might be the most dangerous time for fish, but that doesn’t mean puberty is any easier. While we humans complain about acne and high pitched voices, fish have got other things to cope with. Many fish change colour again as they become adults, which is a minor nuisance compared to the fact that some radically change shape. Good examples are batfishes, which start by looking like leaves or flatworms to then turn into a relatively boring plate-looking fish.

Shapeshifting is peanuts compared to a process many fish have go through during puberty: sex change. Many fishes are born as one sex, but will turn into the opposite sex as they grow up. The best known example are clownfishes, which are all born as a male, but turn into females later in life. Including this process would have made “Finding Nemo” a much more interesting film in my humble opinion. Other species, such as parrotfishes and wrasses are born as females, but then turn into males as they grow up. While surprising to most people, the whole sex change thing is actually very common in the ocean.

Part of growing up in humans is learning to appreciate different kinds of food: whether it’s vegetables, olives or alcohol, children like different things than adults. The same goes for many fish species. Frogfishes for example start by mostly eating small shrimp, and then evolve a more delicate palate including fish like seahorses, lionfish, or pretty much any other fish that fits in their mouth. Interestingly, for frogfish growing up can mean that you start of as prey for a fish, but turn into a predator for that same fish once you’re big enough. Conclusion: growing up can be difficult for any animal, but some have it worse than others.

Critter getaway in Bangka

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Mangroves at Bangka Island

At the moment I am back in Lembeh Strait for what will be the last visit to Indonesia during my PhD. So I am making the most of it, enjoying every moment and taking time to visit friends spread out across the archipelago. A few days ago I went to Bangka Island to visit Sophie and Simon, who own Nomad Divers, a very pleasant small dive resort. I wrote about Bangka before, so check it out here if you want to know what the island is all about.

I enjoyed a few very relaxed days, playing (and losing ) board games, teaching their kids how to behave badly and philosophising about science while enjoying gin-tonics. But I also got to appreciate the abundant critters that live in the mangroves and jungle of Bangka Island. Those few days of not working (not a single dive done and no computer in sight), and just enjoying nature reminded me why I fell in love with the tropics in the first place. The beauty of Indonesia (and much of the tropics by extension) is that there is so much wildlife all around you, as long as you just keep your eyes open…or just get plain lucky.

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Tarsier in the ceiling! I never realised how long their tails were…

On my first night, while we were catching up and sharing stories about science hobbits, a small tarsier decided to have his dinner in the restaurant. These small primates are rare and vulnerable to extinction, they are only active at night and are usually very shy. If you want to see them in the wild, your best bet is to find yourself a good guide who knows where they roost during the day, so you can see them waking up and moving out to hunt when night falls. Just seeing one is great, having one sitting just above you, while eating a gecko is dumb luck and freaking amazing. For Sophie and Simon, this was a first in 4 years on Bangka!

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Nomnomnom. Tarsier (Tarsius Tarsier) eating a gecko (Hemidactylus frenatus) in Bangka Island

There was plenty to see by day as well. I had a great time wandering through the mangroves, looking around for interesting crittersAs you may or may not know, mangroves are important nursery areas for all kind of fish, so it was no surprise to see lots of baby snappers, damsels and other small fish darting around in the shallows. But there was a lot more, loads of mudskippers (skipping around in the mud, as they do), kingfishers in the trees, and the always busy fiddler crabs in the intertidal zone.

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Two male fiddler crabs facing off

Fiddler crabs are colourful little crabs, and are named for the males’ disproportionally large claw. One claw is small and used like any other crab uses its claws, the huge claw is used to show off (what did you expect?). The males wave their big claw around to get the attention of females, and to ward of other males encroaching on their territory. If you  ever find yourself in a mangrove with plenty of time on your hands, I can highly advise watching these little guys at work for a while, it’s pretty captivating and highly entertaining.

While I didn’t go into the jungle, there were plenty of little lizards to spot while strolling along the beach or heading to my room. Apparently, there are quite a few snakes to find in the jungle, and legend has it there’s even deer around, maybe I’ll have to bring shoes next time and go have a look.  If mangroves or jungle or jungle trekking aren’t your thing, you can always just chill out, have a beer and watch the geckos on the wall eating bugs or fighting each other. The tropics really are accommodating for any life style 😉

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Sophie and Max enjoying the ocean view