Respecting the ocean is a huge part of being a responsible diver, as is the understanding that we are privileged visitors to the underwater world and should conduct ourselves accordingly.

Any good Divemaster’s briefing always includes a reminder not to touch, tease or take anything from the marine environment. Every diver has heard the mantra “take nothing but photos, leave nothing but bubbles” at some point. Respecting the ocean is a huge part of being a responsible diver. We are privileged visitors to the underwater world and should conduct ourselves accordingly. And yet, I see fellow divers ignoring these simple rules all the time. Their actions stem from sheer arrogance or a lack of awareness, from open water students standing casually on the coral in Indonesia to instructors feeding urchins to the reef fish in Greece, to recreational divers collecting starfish for souvenirs in the United States. Touching marine life is never okay, and here’s why.

Why do we touch marine life?

Sometimes sight alone cannot satisfy a diver’s curiosity. I’ve watched divers hold onto the pectoral fins of whale sharks in Mozambique, or taunt clownfish for photographs in the Red Sea. I understand the natural compulsion to touch the things we see underwater; I’ve been sorely tempted many times to reach out and stroke a passing turtle or shark. But the reasons why touching marine life is never okay are sound. We can’t let our desire to connect physically with marine animals stop us from adhering to them.

You may do harm

Touching underwater creatures and corals can not only harm them, but us as well. Many marine animals can injure a diver if alarmed, disturbed or aggravated. We know about some of these, but many more we do not. From innocuous-looking stinging hydroids to the beautiful but venomous lionfish, from poisonous shells to all manner of stonefish, scorpionfish, sea snakes, urchins and jellyfish, it’s best to admire marine inhabitants from a distance suitable for your health and theirs.

You may hurt yourself

We can get nasty wounds from touching the reef. Many of us know from firsthand experience how long coral cuts take to heal, and how disproportionately painful even the slightest graze can be. Most shark bites among divers occur because of inappropriate behavior or reckless contact on the diver’s part. As divers, we are ambassadors for the ocean and all the creatures that live there. Particularly where threatened species like sharks are concerned, our ability to interact with them without incident is key in changing public perception of them and consequently promoting their conservation. If we follow the no-touching, -teasing or -taking rule, we can easily avoid most injuries caused by marine life.

Keep everyone safe

Perhaps even more important than our own safety is the wellbeing of the marine life itself. The destruction caused when we remove animals from the ocean is obvious. Those who collect shells and starfish for souvenirs are selfishly disrupting the marine ecosystem’s balance. The same goes for those who collect live marine fish from the ocean for aquariums. Although individually these actions may seem too small to be relevant, if everyone did the same the ramifications would be devastating. Additionally, removing animals or plants of any kind from the ocean is often against local or national laws, making it not only immoral, but illegal as well.

Most often, the effects of touching marine life are less obvious. But simply touching animals or coral can be as damaging in the long run as intentionally killing or catching them. Many animals, including turtles, rays and many species of sharks, can become vulnerable to harmful bacteria through human contact, leaving them susceptible to disease. These creatures rely on bio-films (a kind of protective slime) to keep out infection, which we can compromise through touch. Corals are equally fragile. Even the slightest contact can damage the polyps’ hard exterior. This leaves them with reduced immunity, which can eventually lead to a complete die off. Human damage to a reef is evident anywhere with constant or prolonged exposure to careless divers or those with poor buoyancy. In some places, divers have transformed what was once a productive and healthy ecosystem into a broken and lifeless rubble field.

Spread the word

As divers, we can to do great good in the underwater world. Through our explorations, we raise awareness about the marine environment and its conservation. Divers tend to be among the most committed and conscientious promoters for ocean preservation. — we’re fighting to protect our dive sites. By refraining from touching marine life, our impact continues to be a positive one.

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