By C. David Conner
“Look, but don’t touch.” Despite its status as a fundamental rule, one that’s hammered home from the moment one begins his dive career, I see this admonition broken on almost every dive. People have a natural curiosity to look, touch and even taste. If something is pretty we often want to hold it and feel its texture. Who isn’t intrigued by a tall, snow-capped mountain rising in the distance; the touch of a soft flower petal; the rich, earthy taste of a curry bursting with flavor?
Although we’re out of our natural element while diving, we’ve still got that innate (and sometimes inane) need to touch the things that pique our curiosity. The problem is that often, an innocuous looking creature can have a harmful bite or sting. Once, while diving in Dominica, I watched as my dive partner noticed something moving along the coral. It looked like a flattened, fluffy, red caterpillar. To my surprise he swam over to the creature and began doing his best to coax the 4-inch long animal onto his naked hand.
I kept shaking my head no but he refused to stop. My main concern was for the creature, but luckily his poking and prodding did not injure what turned out to be a bearded fireworm. For his irresponsible actions he got stuck by some of the prickly spines, which made his hand burn and itch for several hours. Luckily for him, the burning sensation from touching this fireworm was the worst of his symptoms; other species, such as a box jellyfish, can kill a person with the slightest sting.
Another, and just as important reason to avoid contact with marine life is that many underwater species are fragile and threatened organisms. Corals can take decades to grow, but a careless diver can break off a piece in seconds with little effort. Part of scuba training is the triangle shape one forms by keeping both your arms out of the way and equipment within easy reach at all times. This prevents gear from dragging along rocks and getting damaged while also protecting coral from careless divers.
Although what we see underwater can be vivid, enticing and look harmless, remember, for bot your safety and the safety of the animals that you’ve come to observe: Look, but don’t touch.