By Bob Halstead
I am going to start this story where it hurts.
On a deep dive to search for a rare fish, I spotted an unusual sea star. I picked it up and carried it to shallow water so that I could leisurely take photographs while decompressing. It had no spines, but I soon realised that it was stinging me. The stinging cells were able to penetrate the tough skin on my hands. I have never been able to get the sea star identified, but that sting hurt, and the pain lasted nearly a week.
There is no controversy about touching marine creatures that possess sharp spines. We all agree; you definitely should not do it. Sea urchins and the Crown of Thorns Sea Star can inflict nasty wounds. The risk from other creatures is not so obvious. Once (and only once!) I picked up a giant nudibranch on a night dive and, feeling nothing, brought it back to the boat in my hands, to show my fellow divers. After transferring the nudibranch to a bucket of seawater, I foolishly lifted my mask and wiped my face. Ouch! It stung like fire! Some nudibranchs eat hydroids, and can transfer the stinging cells to their surface. I had wiped the cells onto my hands, and then my tender face.
I was not expecting to be stung by the sea star and the nudibranch, in fact I had never heard of a stinging sea star other than the obviously evil Crown of Thorns. But fire corals, hydroids and corallimorpharians have also stung me. Thus I discovered that divers just have to learn what creatures may be touched, and which are dangerous. I mostly learned the hard way. Reading this may save you a lot of pain!
Beginning divers were, and maybe still are, told not to touch anything. To enforce this, divers may be forbidden to wear gloves. But what started as sensible caution rapidly turned into paranoia. Fear of marine animals became rife. To counter this a wonderful lady, Dee Scar, started to run “Touch the Sea” classes for divers at Bonaire in the Caribbean. She also wrote two charming books Touch the Sea (1987) and The Gentle Sea (1990). She taught many divers that gentle interactions with marine critters could be safe and include touching. Dee, whom I was fortunate to meet and dive with, inspired many with a love of all marine life. She replaced fear with respect. Around the same time Australian diving legend and marine life lecturer, Reg Lipson, started his own “Feel the Sea” programs.
All this encouraged me to start my own “Eat the Sea” and “Poke the Sea” dive adventures. Not really, they were jokes, but had some truth to them. I do love eating seafood, but I hope I do so responsibly from sustainable fisheries. I never eat shark fin soup for example, and prefer pelagic fish to reef fish just in case I inadvertently eat one of my friends.
We all “Poke the Sea” when we dive and by that I mean that we inevitably change what we go to see underwater by the act of diving. The art of diving well includes minimising this underwater “finprint”. We should try to be in harmony and not blundering invaders. We should not damage corals through bad buoyancy control; we should not keep pursuing or poking critters that do not like it. If you try to touch fishes some will dart away and hide, or swim off. Others do appear to like, or at least accept, interactions with divers. Empathy, and Dee Scar’s gentle approach, is the key.
At the same time we should not be precious about it. For a while an ignorant extremist promoted “Touch Me And I Die” referring to coral. This is rubbish. Touching a coral will not kill it. Parrotfish eat corals by biting huge chunks out of them, but corals are resilient and re-grow quickly.
In Port Moresby we had made friends with a large moray eel. We even had a name for it, “Nessie”, and I admit it did look like a monster. When we dived, it got so excited it would swim from its lair in an old ship I had sunk, meet us on the way down, and allow itself to be cuddled. My wife Dinah was its favourite, but it would allow any diver to handle it, and it never bit anyone. Eel skin, by the way, is silky smooth underwater, and not at all slimy. Unfortunately another group of divers visited the site and were alarmed when Nessie swam out to greet them. One grabbed his dive knife and slashed Nessie across the head. The wound healed eventually and Nessie became friends with us again. The diver told bold stories of his attack by a moray, what ignorance!
In the Eastern Pacific, manta rays are known to approach divers and offer themselves for a ride. They actually seem to enjoy themselves – but I have never experienced that with mantas in PNG. If you stay still they will approach within millimeters – but if you try to touch, then they will take off. At the famous Cod Hole on the Great Barrier Reef, Potato Cod will allow a very close approach, but slide away if touched.
In the bad old days, divers would sometimes grab a sleeping turtle and go for a forced ride. The gentle approach is much better, and turtles that have been treated well become fascinated by divers and approach them. I recently visited the resident Green Turtle at Lighthouse Bommie on the Great Barrier Reef. She was quite happy to have my model Leigh Paine swim right next to her, and even came back for more, though it seemed to me that the turtle was actually interested in Leigh’s long blond hair, perhaps confusing it with the delicious tentacles of a sea jelly.
On another dive at this great site the climax was an encounter with an Olive Sea Snake. Using a gentle caress, without gripping the snake, Leigh was able to guide the snake and I was able to get some spectacular photos.
These snakes are highly venomous, but are more curious than aggressive, and I have never heard of one biting a diver. But there is always a first time, so I do not recommend you try touching them. They have certainly bitten fishermen who have tangled them in nets and treated them roughly. The fishermen should have tried a little tenderness.
I should also remind you not to suddenly touch your dive buddy. You might think it fun to watch him/her jump, but, armed with a dive knife, a dive buddy is incredibly dangerous.