By: Alyson Lundstrom
If you didn’t get the shot, did it happen at all? For scuba divers chasing a bucket list, you know that are only so many splash-ins and so little time. You might only get to a dive destination once, but the dive photography that hangs in your office while you daydream is there for a lifetime. However, every respectful diver should know; is your dive camera bad for the reef? Not if you know how to wield it.
You’ve done it. You finally booked one of your bucket list diving destinations to see the Museo Atlantico in Lanzarote or maybe the Namena Reef Reserve in Fiji. You’ve thrown all the travel dive necessities into your bag; your fins you’ve broken in to perfection, your travel BCD, and that brand new dive camera to record every moment.
As the old conservation saying goes, “take only pictures, leave only footprints,” and while the latter will leave reefs cringing, the former isn’t as innocent as it sounds.
Dive photography has evolved to bring us some of the most stunning underwater images as technology has advanced. The colors are brighter, the subjects are crisper, and the range is farther than ever. These shots are not only great for remembering what is likely a short hour of sheer joy, but also play a crucial role in “citizen science.”
Dive shots of reef systems can capture ecosystems at a particular point in time and are valuable for assessing their health. Reef photos can be used to track the status of reefs and offer a snapshot comparison for species diversity over time.
The downside to scuba photography is that both experienced and inexperienced divers alike who dive with cameras can be detrimental to the very reef systems they covet. Let us break it down below.
How Can Dive Photography Affect Reef System Health
The vast majority of scuba divers are underwater in the first place because they have a deep respect for the ocean and the life that it supports. Reefs make dynamic targets for new and old divers alike because:
Reef-building corals are generally found within a comfortable diving range of 5 - 30 meters.
They house a massive amount of colorful biodiversity and offer a lot of visual value for a diver.
They attract spectacular megafauna.
No diver goes in with the intention of damaging a reef system. In addition, any qualified, responsible dive operator will give a briefing beforehand with reminders about reef respect and safety. However, things happen, and a diver with a dive camera is more likely to be the culprit to reef destruction than one without.
Lack Of Camera Equipment Knowledge
Research has shown that specialist underwater divers cause more damage on average, 1.6 coral breaks for every ten minutes, from divers without cameras. Interestingly, those dives with more minimalist single-use cameras caused no more reef breaks than those without cameras.
A fumbling diver trying to figure out the controls on their new high-tech dive housing or camera is akin to a distracted driver. If your eyes are on the equipment and not the reef life in front of you, there is a high likelihood of accidental bumps, which can easily damage corals.
Get to know your equipment before a big dive by practicing in an open area.
Lack Of Buoyancy Control
If a lack of knowledge about your dive equipment is akin to you being a distracted driver, a lack of buoyancy control is like being a drunk driver. This is especially true for new divers who over or under-correct and end up grazing the top of the reef system or, worse, end up feet down and crushing a living ecosystem like the foreign giant you are.
Before heading out on an adventure with photography as a focus, practice advanced buoyancy techniques, preferably in the safety of a pool.
Lack Of Awareness
Nothing is worse than a diver that gets so excited to catch a shot of a passing subject that they lose all awareness in the process. The subject you’ve been waiting for has passed over you, the fins start flying, and a less than graceful U-turn has made all your extremities a flying wheel of destruction to the reef underneath.
Remaining calm, assessing your surroundings, and learning to fin slowly backward to catch a shot is crucial to keeping the reef intact. Relax, go slow, give yourself space, and stay aware of your body movements.
Unsecured equipment with or without a dive camera involved, can drag and cause you to unknowingly bulldoze the reef below or get caught in corals and cause breakage. Often we get so swept up in catching the reef life in a shot that we might not notice a dangling gauge that is wreaking havoc. Gauges, regulators, straps, and other equipment should be securely attached with a check above and below water to be sure.
Prioritizing The Shot
Prioritizing the shot is less about buoyancy and equipment control and more about self-control.
The reefs are most vulnerable to this kind of dive photographer. The diver who wants to get the shot at all costs. The diver that shrugs off an accidental fin sweep to a sea fan or shines a bright torch on night dives to manipulate sea life to suit the shot.
Other dive offenders include those who shake or poke the reef to draw out wildlife or otherwise disrupt the natural rhythms of the creatures who call the reef home. These behaviors are poor modeling for less experienced divers and disrupt and stress reef systems. Before you jump in the water, make peace with not getting the perfect shot. Enjoy the dive and take only memories if you have to.
Best Practices To Use A Dive Camera Without Damaging The Reef
Most divers are heart programmed to conserve the oceans that they love to explore. No one intentionally seeks to damage a reef system; however, these scenic dive spots receive a lot of recreational traffic and need to be explored with care.
Tips On Using a Dive Camera Responsibly
Always secure your equipment with extra care when you know you might be distracted by photographing the reef.
If it is a first dive at the destination, have a guide walk you through the terrain and build a plan which will increase overall awareness.
Relax and move with intention! Fin slowly and cautiously taking care to not stir up sediment or kick corals accidentally.
Make yourself aware of the situation and evaluate the current and conditions and a place that you can shoot from that leaves a buffer between you and the reef with a little extra room to be cautious.
Be considerate with your torch at night when trying to light up a shot. Prioritize the ocean life first.
Practice advanced buoyancy skills if you are fresh to diving and want to take a camera on your adventure.
Don’t touch. Just don’t! It may be tempting to manipulate a coral or provoke a reaction from sea life, however, this can be detrimental to their natural behavior, and can cause damage and stress to the ecosystem.
Adding dive photography to your bucket list destinations can create a new depth to the diving experience. A responsible photographer is one who is prepared, aware, and prioritizes the reef’s health over the perfect shot. The shots will come and go, but we need our reefs forever!
Alyson Lundstrom is an amazing storyteller that is has the ability to meld her passion for conservation with her years of scuba diving to share how we can enjoy the ocean for our dives, and the divers of future generations.