Diving allows us entry into a breathtaking, and otherworldly seeming domain. The ability of being able to spend an hour or longer, breathing underwater, floating, amongst a world that is normally completely hidden from view is incredible. It’s a landscape we can’t easily walk amongst, cut down, colonise… for now anyway, it’s relatively unscathed by humans directly… Indirectly though, is a whole other matter. Plastic pollution, overfishing and climate change are looming, and we aren’t far away from irreversible damage.
This world doesn’t just belong to us… it belongs to the wildlife that lives within its setting too. Whether ancient beds of coral, vast forests of seagrass or the depths of a trench that even we haven’t even fully explored…
The privilege of diving comes with a number of responsibilities and acts that we must uphold to protect the inhabitants of these underwater worlds that we explore. So I’ve collected together all the information that has been drilled into me by marine biologists, dive guides and passionate instructors.
1. Don’t Touch, or Take
A hugely important one. Whether it’s an inquisitive turtle, a spongey looking coral that you want to poke or a whale shark gliding past. It’s important not to touch, hug (yep) or disturb marine life in any way. Not only is it potentially dangerous for you, it can cause stress (bleaching in corals), and the oils from our skin (and even residue suncream) can have a serious effect on the skin, scales and mucus membranes of an animal/coral that has protective coatings suited to underwater life. From this damage they can obtain infections or even become weakened, leading to a potential loss of life.
Besides, coral can be sharp or even provide a sharp sting, so not only will you damage the coral but yourself too. Not to mention the large array of poisonous animals, from the spiny lion fish, lethal cone snail and camouflaged stone fish. It’s best to just not touch…
If you’re in strong current or find that you need to stabilise yourself, you can gently support yourself on rock, but really examine where you’re placing your hand. (Remember that some corals and fish look like rocks!)
2. Wear reef safe sunscreen
Whilst it’s important to keep ourselves safe from sun rays, we can’t do it at the expense of marine wildlife. Sunscreen contains chemicals that just do not belong in the ocean… and over time, with lots of divers and tourists visiting certain reefs, this can build up and cause significant damage. The two main culprits are oxybenzone (BP-3) and benzophenone-2 (BP-2). They can cause problems with coral growth, and damage to the mucous membrane that protects coral (basically our equivalent to skin), so whilst we may be protecting ours, we’re damaging theirs.
Look for bottles with reef safe labels that don’t include these chemicals, or even make enquiries to the dive shop/company you will be using. They may have their own supply that you can borrow (saving a budgeting backpacker money!).
3. Look where you’re going
Some animals can be inquisitive, and whilst you’re contentedly swimming along staring at a reef wall, watch out for a curious animal heading your way. Aside from bumping into a turtle (a girl I knew was once slapped in the face by a turtle on a night dive!), generally making sure not to bump into corals and of course other divers, is very important.
4. Only get close if you can control your buoyancy
It can be hard to resist moving close to a reef to peer between a gap to see where that octopus went, or to examine a fan coral looking for tiny seahorses. This should only be done however if you can control your buoyancy, and even ‘reverse‘. Constantly moving up and down can not only increase your air usage, but you are less stable and more likely to damage things around you. Reversing is harder than it looks… so to save you touching the reef, use special leg kicks and manoeuvres instead of using the reef to push off from.
This also refers to caves or large openings, not only does this keep you safe, but it lowers the chances of you accidentally knocking and damaging any corals as you manoeuvre.
5. Stay aware of your fins and any loose equipment
Whether you’re carrying a large underwater camera housing, trying to get up close for a shot, or wearing fins you’re not quite used to. Masks can distort the size and closeness of objects, so keep an eye on where you are kicking or the handles of your camera, to make sure you aren’t damaging any corals or wildlife.
Integrated dive computers or pressure gauges can also sometimes hang from your BCD (buoyancy control device), you should usually be encouraged to loosely tuck these in to the waist clip fastening of your BCD, but if they are hanging loose, keep them close and don’t let them drag if you float across the top of a reef.
6. Don’t get too close…
Whilst some wildlife can be closely examined safely, it is generally not recommended to stick your GoPro into the face of say, a moray eel. You might get a sharp reminder as to why that’s not a good idea, and the animal may damage itself or become stressed if it feels unsafe and needs to react to your close proximity. Some animals like the carpet shark (or wobbegong) seem very docile, but putting a hand or camera too close may cause them to pounce as they think you’re an unsuspecting fish, and that your hand is their next meal!
7. Don’t litter
Just as important as on land, if not more so. Don’t leave anything behind. Generally you won’t be carrying much, and anything you are holding (cameras!) you would always try and recover. But anything from a writing slate or pen, a little part of an old wetsuit that falls off, a fin or a headband, make sure to recover it if safe to do so (e.g. it’s not too deep).
8. Remove litter left by others (if you can)
Only do this if safe. From a length of fishing rope wrapped around a stag horn coral, to floating pieces of plastic. Most BCD’s will have a side pocket that you could store small items in. But anything large should generally not be attempted to be dragged to the surface, unless you’re an experienced diver, as you could endanger yourself. Try and signal a guide if you have one with you. Perhaps on the surface you could put a plan together to remove something. This moves us on to another crucial point…
9. Animals in danger
If you see any wildlife entangled in rope, or in any other distress involving plastic or rubbish, help only if you feel safe in doing so. Many recreational divers may not have the experience to know how to handle a situation involving tangled wildlife, so if you’re unsure, make sure to safely signal/inform your guide or instructor if present. It would be tempting to rush to the aid of a turtle trailing a length of rope (we’ve all seen the shocking videos online of entangled wildlife), but sometimes it may need an experts ability to free the animal safely (for the safety of both you and the animal).
10. Stop giving sharks a hard time
Sharks have an extremely unfair reputation. The general population will most likely picture bite marks in surfboards, the monotonous but strangely terrifying ‘Jaws’ theme and the news stories of missing legs, and sadly deaths, that flash up once in a blue moon. Some sharks are indeed dangerous, but most are not. Just as wandering into the territory of a bear is dangerous, so is wandering into the territory of some shark species.
The shark fin trade, and being caught in fishing nets as by-catch are both huge problems for sharks, and many species are now endangered as a direct result. Let’s try and turn the tide on the bad rap that sharks get. They need to be conserved and protected just as much as the cute (but not cuddly!) turtle. As apex predators, they’re play a critical role in marine ecosystems, and honestly I think reef sharks are pretty cute…
11. Don’t let your responsibility finish as you leave the water
Talk, spread awareness, show photos, join conservation projects, share their research and media, show your passion for this world. The painful truth for many ecosystems, is that because we cannot easily view them, or appreciate them, many people may not think to give them the support or care that they so desperately need. So we need to keep the conversation going.
I think it’s important to remember that this is an environment that hasn’t evolved with us as a member. Trees and plants can generally recover (and quickly) from being trodden on or broken. Corals are like a living sculpture, slowly moulding and forming themselves into the landscape. They are not quick to recover from being stepped on or broken, so we must treat them like the precious art form that they are. They also aren’t responsible for an increase in sea temperatures, we are, and we must do all we can to help.
“Take only memories, leave only bubbles”.
Gary Farr was the photographer for the Mike Ball trip I took to the Coral Sea and Northern Great Barrier Reef, and Ocean Collective took the photos from our trip on the Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia. Both of them are incredible underwater photographers!