Hands off the reef

“We are detective!” sang the 80’s band, the Thompson Twins. While they were referring to Thompson & Thompson, a fictional pair of identical twins who were inept detectives in The Adventures of Tintin, they could have been referring to humans in general.


One of our primary tools for exploring is touch. We are a tactile creature. So reliant are we on our sense of touch we’ll even ignore other senses, such as sight, and run our thumb over a sharp knife blade “to see” if it really is sharp. We’ll even let our desire to touch something override common sense and try to pet a fluffy dog because “it looks so cute”, despite its growls.

When you were a small child, did you ever break something after someone, usually a parent or sibling, had said “Don’t touch that”? Yes? We can’t help ourselves, we just want to reach out and touch things.

We like to explore. We like to investigate. We are, indeed, detective. And that’s probably why we find it so hard when someone tells us not to touch something, weather it is a parent, sibling or dive guide.

Every good dive briefing should, and does, include a reminder to touch nothing. It’s part and parcel of being a responsible diver, and every diver should know this.

The two main reasons we shouldn’t touch anything underwater are:

  • It protects the marine life – The skin of most bony fish (of which there are about 28,000 species), turtles, sharks and rays contain glands that emits mucus (Eww!) which keeps the scales slippery and flexible and also acts as an anti-septic, protecting the fish from bacterial infection. And it is not just fish, most corals also have a special mucus (Eww! again) they cover themselves with that also combats bacterial infections. In addition, it also protects some corals, those that are exposed at low tide, from harmful UV sun rays and stops them becoming dried out. This mucus can be wiped off through contact, exposing the fish and corals to the above factors.

    Imagine this – you’re sat in your house, eating your dinner, when a mysterious giant rips off the roof of your house, rummages inside for a moment, and then pulls you outside, where he prods and pokes you, there’s a blinding flash and you’re unceremoniously dropped. Assuming you can actually find your home, and assuming it hasn’t been damaged beyond habitation, you’re probably going to feel, as Elvis was wont to say, all shook up, a little rattled. You’re probably not going to want to finish your dinner. Possibly you’ll think about an immediate relocation, even though you’ve no real idea where would be a good place to go, but it has to be better than were you’ve just been attacked, surely? And, while you’re looking for some new digs, one of your sworn enemies just happens to swim by and finds you in the open. Chomp! Chomp! and goodnight. Doesn’t sound like a particularly good evening really, does it?

    Unsettling an animal from it’s location, even if you have every intention of placing it back “exactly where you found it”, just isn’t right. It can really mess things up for the wildlife and divers shouldn’t do it. Okay? Moving on …

  • It protects the divers from the marine life – Most animals can cause injury if alarmed, frightened or aggravated, and those in the ocean are no different. There are plenty of marine organisms, some we know and others we don’t, that can inflict serious, and sometimes, deadly injuries. When people think of underwater attacks they immediately think of sharks or, if they’ve a little marine knowledge, triggerfish (especially the titan triggerfish) but, in reality, it isn’t the larger animals you need to worry about, it’s the innocuous-looking things such as the geography cone, for example. It only grows to a maximum length of 15cm, has a beautiful, mottled shell that is highly prized by shell collectors, and a harpoon-like tooth propelled from an extendable proboscis with which it can deliver one of the world’s most potent toxins. To date, the geography cone has 30 human fatalities to its name. Some people like to play with octopuses, so how about playing with the blue-ringed octopus? Again, not very big with a maximum size of 20 cm, but when provoked can deliver a venom strong enough to kill a human. Would you know what one looks like? How about just resting your hand on some rocks? That could be a bad idea with a variety of venomous scorpionfish that blend in perfectly with the rocks. How about just kneeling on the sandy floor? That can’t be bad, surely? Well, funny that, as some fish, such as the stonefish, like to bury themselves and ambush prey. Stonefish aren’t looking to sucker an unwary diver, but their defence mechanism, spines that deliver a another potent venom, do not differentiate between being attacked or being accidentally knelt on. You may think that those beautiful corals are Okay to mess with, and you’d be mistaken, especially with something like fire coral (altogether now, “fire coral isn’t a coral, it’s a hydrozoa, more closely related to jellyfish and anemones”). No, it’s better to simply not touch anything when diving … as much for your own wellbeing as for the wellbeing of the marine life.

 

As divers, we should be the ocean’s ambassadors. Our impact on the ocean, and its myriad of life, should be a positive one. Through our exploration, we should be raising awareness about the underwater world and why it is important to preserve it.

We shouldn’t touch anything underwater out of respect – respect for the marine environment.

Hands off the reef