Chasing the seadragon

dragon sign_mirrorOne month ago I realised one of my absolute critter dreams. I got to see Leafy Seadragons (Phycodurus eques) in the wild!  We had to travel to southern West Australia to find them. An area which is absolutely stunning and worth checking out, even if it didn’t have dragons. Since it was so much fun, I decided to share some of the highlights of the trip with you. Get ready for lots of pictures and start checking your calendar when you can go dragon hunting yourself!

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Dragon hunting in Bremer Bay and Cape Le Grand (Western Australia)

We started in Bremer Bay, a sleepy little town that only really gets busy in summer tourist season. Since we got there well before high season, we practically had the town (and more importantly the ocean) to ourselves. Before we even got to hunt for dragons, we explored some of the many beaches and oh my, was that worth it!

Beach view

Banky Beach

Tanika clifwalk

Climbing down to Banky Beach

Surfing native dog beach

Surfers at Native Dog Beach

Obviously our main goal was to find seadragons, preferably Leafy Seadragons. So we decided to go for a dive with Craig from Bremer Bay Dive. Craig is known as the expert to find dragons and knows the area like the back of his hand. Weather conditions were not ideal and unfortunately we only had one chance for a boat dive, so the stakes were high when we set out on a blustery morning.

Bremer Bay faces the Southern Ocean (the one around Antarctica) so the water tends to be on the chilly side. On the bright side, the water is a LOT clearer than what I have gotten used to in Perth. An average day will often have more than 20m visibility and I have been told it gets much better than this. Just dropping in and enjoying the views of the rocky reefs covered in kelp and schooling fish is worth diving here.

Schooling fish

Good conditions for dragon searching

Blue Devil

A Western Blue Devil (Paraplesiops sinclairi)

Now this might be obvious, especially for someone who studies cryptic critters for a living, but seadragons have some pretty damn good camouflage! 30 minutes into the dive we still hadn’t caught as much as a glimpse of one. I was still enjoying myself and I know better than most that the ocean is not a zoo. But I also realised that with the bad weather coming in, this was likely to be our only chance of seeing a Leafy Seadragon.

Leafy seadragon profile

The beautiful Leafy Seadragon (Phycodurus eques)

So when a few minutes later Craig enthusiastically pointed out a dragon, I was more than a little bit excited. It’s hard to describe just how amazing these animals are, or how I overwhelmed I felt to actually get to see one. But I’m getting goosebumps just writing this and thinking about the dive. Leafy Seadragons are without a doubt one of the most outlandish, beautiful and downright weird fish that roam the seas, and I count my lucky stars that I got to see them underwater.

Having fulfilled our Leafy Seadragon mission, we relaxed a few more days in Bremer Bay, hoping for the weather to clear before driving to Cape Le Grand National Park in Esperance. The area is known for it’s stunning beaches, great hikes, and outstanding marine life.

lucky bay

Lucky Bay, Cape Le Grand National Park

We camped in Lucky Bay, while we were not very lucky with the weather (thunderstorms and tents are not the best combination), the bay itself is gorgeous. If you’ve ever seen a picture of kangaroo lounging on a white sand beach with turquoise waters, chances are very high it was taking in Lucky Bay (see below). More interesting for us is that you can also dive right off the beach, and that dragons are rumored to roam the waters.

Despite the less than ideal conditions, we decided to give it a go and hope for the best. The rocky dive site is surrounded by vast seagrass meadows, which make an ideal habitat for the Leafy Seadragon’s cousin; the Weedy Seadragon (Phyllopteryx taeniolatus). Weedies have less frills, and are a bit more colourful than Leafies. They also seem to be more common, and are found higher up the Australian coast than Leafies. We don’t know much more about them, but their preferred habitats are disappearing, which is cause for concern.

Weedy seadragon Tanika

Tanika watching a Weedy Seadragon (Phyllopteryx taeniolatus)

Initially we started looking for Leafies (which are sometimes present at the site) near the rocks covered with kelp, but the swelly conditions really weren’t helping. Once we changed our focus to the seagrass instead, it did not take us very long before we found two beautiful Weedy Seadragons. It was interesting to see that these Weedies were much more green in colour compared to the ones I’d seen before in Perth and Sydney. Perhaps an adaption to the high seagrass cover in the area? Food for thought!

The day after, it was already time to head back to Perth, although I would have loved to stay around much longer (even with the crappy weather). I definitely hope I’ll make it back there soon, not just to chase more dragons. There is more to do in the areas than just diving and snorkeling. Next time I’m definitely bringing a surfboard and my hiking shoes. Most of all, I’ll make sure to have more than just a week to do both spots.

Tanika beach 3

Beach walks, not a bad way to spend your time between dives

If you’ve made it this far in this blog, well done! As a reward I can offer you some more pictures of the trip, enjoy! 🙂

Leafy seadragon Craig

Craig the dragon-chaser and a male Leafy Seadragon (Phycodurus eques)

 

Coastal flowers

Bremer Bay flora

Tanika bushwalk

Heading to a hidden beach

Tanika beach

Wandering the beach in Bremer Bay

Dragon gate

Fancy seadragon gate

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

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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)

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.

Best of Dauin_Blue ringed octopus_small

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.

flamboyant-cuttlefish2

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?

Harlequin shrimp_MDB

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

Poll: alternative muck diving terms

voteAfter the recent blog about the history of muck diving I received some interesting suggestions about alternative names to describe the activity. Because this is a democratic blog, it’s time for a poll! Tell me (and the rest of the world) which name you prefer and who knows, it might just catch on!

While less talked about than the term “muck diving”, a few people suggested the world needs a fitting name for muck dive enthusiasts (maniacs?).  In bird watching the most fanatic bird watchers are called “twitchers“. I reckon finding an appropriate term for those divers that love nothing more than finding new critters could be interesting.

I have been offered some suggestions, but feel free to add others. For the sake of inspiration, the name “twitcher” actually stems from the nervous behaviour of a well-known bird watcher in the 50s and 60s. So feel free to make fun of your photograph happy critter-enthousiast dive buddies 😉

Luke_Snoot_Black Hairy

Muck-enthusiast in action (can you see the black hairy frogfish?