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Don’t Touch the Seahorses

Touching seahorses to manipulate them for pictures (and using a strong flash) is a big no-no, as it causes the animals much stress.

Seahorses are fascinating creatures ­— they can change color, they occupy a variety of habitats, and the males carry the babies. But how does the presence of divers — especially photographers — affect these fascinating creatures?

In 2019, PhD candidate in marine ecology Maarten De Brauwer and his colleagues conducted research on how divers’ (and specifically photographers’) interactions affect benthic fishes and especially seahorses. They found that the effect of the flash while divers were photographing them was no worse than the presence of the divers alone, without flash photography.

Strong flash photography is a no-no

The general consensus is that gentle flash photography is no brighter than the sunlight being reflected off the seabed in shallow water. The researchers found no impact on the ocular and retinal anatomy created by the presence of flash photography. Nor was there any change in the animals’ feeding success. Using more powerful flashes, in order to achieve a dark or black background, could have a higher impact on the animals, though. CITES advises divers not to use flash, as do many local laws. So, while it does not necessarily affect the animals, you must take care when using flash photography to capture a seahorse image.

Do not touch seahorses — period

What did, however, affect the animals was how divers interacted with them. Seahorses exhibited a strong stress response when they were physically manipulated by photographers. Touching, moving or manipulating animals in order to get the perfect image can cause abrasions or even break parts of their body. While most scuba divers live by the phrase ‘look but don’t touch,’ sometimes it is tempting to move that piece of coral or shift the animal ‘just a bit’ in order to get the perfect shot.

Other researchers studied the interactions between dive photographers and seahorses in 2018 and found that divers who used action cameras that were attached to an extension pole came a lot closer to seahorses. This close proximity increased the number of times the photographers touched the animals and caused the animals to try to escape (a behavioral disruption). Repeated behavioral disruptions can negatively affect seahorse habits like feeding, reproduction and resting.

The researchers suggest that divers (and photographers) keep a minimum distance of 14 inches (36 cm) from seahorses to reduce stress to the animals.

Some tips for photographing seahorses

  • Stress not only affects the animals’ feeding, reproduction and resting habits, it can also shorten their life span. Attempt to cause them as little stress as possible.
  • Do not touch or move them or the flora around them to get a better shot
  • Allow them space (at least 14 inches/36 cm) and leave them an escape route in case they feel threatened.
  • Look at their behavior. If they seem to flop over or look unwell (or even dead or dying), turn their back to you or swim away, it means that your presence is causing too much stress. Leave them alone and gently back away.
  • These well-camouflaged animals are also social animals. This means if you see one, another one might be nearby. Be aware of your body, and especially your fins. Try not to disturb the bottom — use frog kicks and hover rather than using scissor kicks.

While flash photography does not directly affect seahorse behavior, the presence of divers — and more specifically touching and moving them — could cause heightened stress levels in the creatures. Taking pictures of them while doing your best not to disturb them or their environment is best, as long as local laws allow it.