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Underwater photography is hot! These days it seems divers can’t get into the water without bringing their underwater camera or video equipment. Underwater photography is probably one of the most popular activities among divers. Go diving with a group of divers and try to find the one diver that does not bring an underwater camera: will be tough… And I understand it, because the underwater world is fantastic and we all want to bring some memories back with us. Bringing back actual marine life is a big no, so a photo or video is the next best thing.
But underwater photography has become one of the biggest threats to the marine life.

Remember the days?

Analogue Motomarine II EX underwater photography equipment

My old Motomarine II EX

Years ago I started my underwater photography hobby with the purchase of a Motormarine II EX, a true amphibic camera (later upgraded to a Nikonos V). It was hard to take good pictures for a number of reasons:

  • digital cameras didn’t exist, you had to use actual film. So you couldn’t see the result until after developing that film
  • Use the viewfinder and take into account that you’re underwater, so adjust to that fact. I can’t even begin to remember how many shots missed the actual subject
  • You had to learn how to handle the camera under water and still dive

A lot of emphasis was on protecting the marine life. Reefs and fish alike. My underwater photography teacher was very strict about this: you’re a visitor underwater, so behave. Don’t touch the reefs, leave the fish alone, don’t replace artifacts, etc. And not following the rules would mean a tough conversation after the dive.
I remember that I was very often the only person on a boat with an underwater camera. They were expensive and it was hard to take underwater pictures, so most divers settled for looking at pictures from other divers.

Digital underwater photography arrived!

When the first digital cameras hit the market it didn’t take long before underwater housings became available. And it changed underwater photography forever: you would get instant feedback on the shot. Specifically for the novice or the amateur this was a blessing! Yes, the displays on the back of the camera were initially small, but what the heck, you could see the immediate result. You could change the lighting, the composition, etc. and get so much better results.

And now it seems as if every diver these days brings along some underwater kit. Small cameras in a cheap housing, big cameras in expensive setups. In fact, these days you’re the exception if you do not bring along some underwater electronics. And I understand: the underwater world is magical and you want to bring back memories.

But we destroy marine life…

Underwater photography harms marine life

I remember a few years ago when I was snorkeling on the shore of Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt. Many tourists (mostly Russians…) were taking underwater snapshots. And what better way to position yourself then standing on the coral reef, holding on to fish, etc. It was horrible to see: big chunks of coral were breaking off, and the marine life was scared away.
I hoped this was an exception, but we all know it is not true.

Underwater photography gone bad

Underwater photography gone bad

It is easy to get your dive certification, buy some underwater housing for your camera and start taking pictures. But watch these ‘photographers’: they are lying in/on coral reefs, breaking off pieces of reef to get a better shot at some critter, positioning seahorses for better pictures, holding on to sharks (!) to make that ‘killer’ photo, feeding fish to get spectacular situations, etc. There are many, many examples of divers that harm the reefs and chase away marine life. Very often these divers can’t even dive: they bump over the reef because they are not in control of their buoyancy and still try to take pictures.

On my last dive trip, we were diving off Nusa Penida, a small island off the coast of Bali, known for the Mola Mola. The challenges around Nusa Penida are the treacherous currents. Our last dive of the holiday started easy enough on a gentle slope. But within 10 minutes the current picked up drastically, and we found ourself in ripping upward and downward currents, and every other direction you can think of. 6 divers in the water, including the dive guide. Me and Karin decided to break off the dive, since it was not fun to dive but also dangerous. The other three divers could not control their diving and were being bullied by the currents. Two of the eventually shot up and went straight to the surface. Bad to see (no, the dive guide was nowhere to be found).
Why am I telling this? Well, all three had their underwater cameras with them. The equipment was seriously in their way to finish the dive safely, and even in these horrible conditions they wanted to take pictures. So they are a danger to themselves, but guess how thoughtfull they were for the underwater environment… Indeed: forget the underwater world, I need pictures, before the current kills me…

Not an experienced diver? Don’t bring your camera!

It is really that simple. Too many people have very little experience and bring  their cameras when they go diving. They have a difficult enough time to dive, to maintain proper buoyancy,  to remain calm underwater. Heck, many of them don’t even take the time to simply enjoy the underwater world! But they want to take pictures anyway. So they lie/stand/bump on/into the coral reefs, destroying them. Chase after fish, big and small, making sure the marine life is scared away whenever divers come. And since they don’t pay attention to the diving, they often don’t watch their air consumption and they don’t pay attention to other divers. In other words: they forget all the basic rules of scuba diving. And they eventually end up with a bunch of poor snapshots…

So, how do we make underwater photography safe for the marine world?

This is a tough one. Personally I’d like to see a ban on underwater photography, unless you have proven that you can dive and that you can dive AND take pictures (or video’s) underwater. But I know this will never happen. So what would be the next best thing? First of all, I think that all the underwater photography courses should also focus on the capability you have as a diver. If you are a good diver, the risk of doing harm to a reef is a lot smaller. But diving AND taking pictures is something different all together. You’re busy with your equipment, busy with the marine life, and forget that you are also diving. So, I guess these courses should certify divers as certified underwater photographers when you meet a number of requirements, for example:

  • you’re a good diver and have great buoyancy control. You probably have a good number of dives in your logbook (let’s say, 100 dives or more)
  • you can handle the underwater equipment very well, so you don’t need to figure out under water how your camera or underwater housing works
  • you can dive AND take pictures. I mean: you still maintain buoyancy, look after the environment, don’t interfere with marine life, etc., while taking pictures

But most divers do not take courses. They just buy equipment and dive with it.  So how do we handle that? I guess the responsibility of a dive guide or dive master is important here. Dive operators should make divers sign a document where they state that they commit to a good number of rules that focus on underwater photography. And when divers don’t adhere to these rules, or the dive guide/master notices that a diver does not have the skills to take underwater pictures, that diver should be forbidden to bring equipment in the water. Sounds harsh, but that is what is needed. The question is whether dive operations would be willing to do all this, because it is a potential commercial issue: they might lose customers because of this set of rules. On the other hand, it might attract the more serious underwater photographers and divers.

I am curious to find out what you think. Is underwater photography indeed a danger to marine life? And if so, what do you think that we can do to prevent more damage in the future?

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