The elusive Harlequin shrimp (Hymenocera picta) has long been at the very top of my macro wish list. Whilst I’ve been privileged enough to dive in places where they have been seen. I’ve spent hours staring at blue starfish (Linckia laevigata), hoping to see a pair gobbling on one of its arms, to no avail.
My diving friends know of my unfulfilled lust to see these incredible shrimp. If someone sees one on a dive, it is perfect ammunition to tease me, goad me, and fill me with envy. Unfortunately, by the time I get round to trying to find them myself, the pair has vanished. The slight of hand that delivers this trick is less magic, and more the transfer of the pair to an undisclosed location where rival operators have the monopoly on the shrimp.
In today’s diving industry, the customer satisfaction, the return of business, the word of mouth and the competition for tips overrides environmental responsibility. Not for every dive center, not for every dive guide, but enough to see some frightful behaviour underwater.
I’ve seen people walking across corals, incessantly blinding cuttlefish or turtles with strobes. I’ve seen guides poke mantis shrimp out their holes so someone can take a photo, divers grabbing onto live coral because they haven’t mastered their buoyancy. The list goes on.
Coral reefs face immense pressure from global, regional and local threats. Climate change: increasing storms, temperatures and acidification, pollution from land run-off, plastic and over fishing. This list too, goes on. There is no question that today’s reefs are in serious trouble.
As divers, we are connected to marine life in ways other less fortunate than us are not. We see the magic on the reef, the plethora of colours and shapes, and the diversity of life. Baba Dioum, a Senagalese poet once wrote:
‘In the end, we will protect only what we love.
We will love only what we understand.
We will understand only what we are taught.’
Most of us have a real love affair with the reef. The tank on our backs allows us to understand it better. The stories we hear from buddies, dive guides and instructors have taught us its wonder. We have the opportunity, and some say responsibility to be stewards of the ocean. To protect our passion and for some, our livelihood.
I have been lucky enough to encounter several individuals and dive centers that take this responsibility seriously through my work with Green Fins, a United Nations Environment Programme project that works with dive centers to implement environmental standards through a Code of Conduct designed to reduce the impacts of the dive industry on the marine environment. My role as project coordinator has me working with member dive shops, assessing their adherence to the Code of Conduct and providing consultations for improvement. I also work with the dive staff, training them on environmental issues and helping to empower them to pass this information onto their guests.
One of the things I love the most about my job is meeting those whose passion rises above all else. The dive guides whose briefings include environmental content and go further to explain the reasons behind not touching, or watching your buoyancy, those who correct diver behaviour by tucking away a dangling SPG or lifting a distracted diver’s fins off the coral. The dive centers that don’t tolerate divers who cause damage, who spend a little extra money on reusable batteries or biodegradable cleaning products. The dive instructors who go beyond the teaching requirements, and make sure they teach their students a thorough grounding and respect for the reef. I see the industry slowly changing for the better, and I hope this is something we can all begin to support.
I will forever be a student of the sea. Not just of its life, but also my diving technique. When we dive, we dive with professionals, and we can learn from them. We can watch how they don’t use their hands to steady themselves, or how they control their buoyancy. We can ask their feedback on our finning techniques, or our weighting and we don’t have to pay for those lessons.
Most importantly we can all do our bit to drive the industry for the better. We can tip guides that don’t just spot critters, but respect them. We can tip guides who correct our positioning so we don’t cause damage. We can recommend dive shops that have clear environmental policies in place, or that organize regular clean up dives.
Diving is not the biggest threat to coral reefs, but we can do our best to be the stewards that it needs, and we can enjoy them whilst giving them the breathing room that they need to build up resilience to those other major threats.
The Green Fins network is growing fast, and there are several member dive centers in Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. Look out for the Green Fins logo and promote dive centers that operate according to environmental standards. You can show your support by donating to The Reef-World Foundation, the regional coordinators of Green Fins. They would be happy to receive your emails and let you know what achievements you have supported. To find out more please visit www.reef-world.org and www.greenfins.net.
Harlequin Shrimp by www.tommyschultz.com
Other photos by Chloe Hunt, Falk Siedel and James Harvey of The Reef World Foundation and The El Nido Foundation.