Ocean Cops

By BonnieJ. Cardone, Editor

Not a month goes by at Skin Diver without at least one letter or e-mail from an Ocean Cop. These people scrutinize the pages of our magazines looking for photos of divers touching;or seeming to touch;marine life. Then they write to complain. One man recently e-mailed a list of photos on 18 pages of one issue showing divers interacting with marine life including Southern Stingrays, Nurse Sharks, a Manta Ray, Nassau Grouper and dolphin. Then he asked, Whats going on???...Do you realize what you are promoting????? Come on guys, you are representing the destruction of mother nature.

Excuse me, but just how does this represent the destruction of mother nature? In all of the photos this man objected to, the animals shown are alive, well and thriving. And, none of them was forced to interact with divers.

I have enjoyed numerous marine life encounters over the past 25 years with wild dophins, Manta Rays, stingrays, sea lions and sharks, among others. During all of these encounters/interactions, one thing was very clear: The animals could have avoided divers easily. They can swim faster, farther and deeper than we can;but they choose to stay.

A few years ago I was snorkeling off Bonaire as divers entered the water. From above, I watched as a few of the marine residents unhurriedly departed the scene. They could hear divers coming and those who didnt want to be seen left. Those remaining;the majority;were totally unconcerned by the presence of humans. They continued to do what they had been doing before the divers arrived.

Humans are notoriously curious. As babies we touch everything;usually just before putting it in our mouths for a taste test. By the time we reach adolescence we have a pretty good idea of what we can and cannot do. We know we shouldnt try to pet the brown bears at Yosemite but that the neighbors cat is going to welcome such attention. We know we can touch a rose petal but should avoid the thorns on the stem. We have learned thousands of facts such as these and dont even have to think about them, our responses are automatic.

When we first go under the sea, however, were starting over. Were clueless.

That the worlds first divers killed everything they encountered (and probably tasted it, too) is pretty clear when you peruse the first few years of Skin Diver. If such wholesale killing had continued as the number of divers increased there would be little or nothing left now. There needed to be limits, there needed to be laws, divers needed to become aware the oceans resources were not infinite.

Today, however, I think in our desire to protect marine life we have gone too far. We are producing newly certified divers;Ocean Cops;who think all marine life interactions and touching and all harvesting of all marine life is bad. (Although eating seafood killed by somebody else seems to be OK.) There needs to be a middle ground.

When you walk through a forest you interact, touch and avoid: You check out the texture of leaves, you smell flowers, you may eat a ripe berry or two. You avoid poison oak, poison ivy and bushes with thorns. You get as close as you can to life you know is not a threat to you (and you try not to threaten it), but you leave if something that is a threat appears.

The undersea world is not all that different. Its just not the world you grew up in. You need to learn a whole lot more: what you can touch (surprise;there are things you can touch) and what you cannot; what marine animals welcome or tolerate interactions and which ones dont. You need to learn when you should simply watch some other, specially trained person interact and when you can do it yourself. Luckily, there is an incredible selection of books and dive specialty courses that will help you;check them out. And think about this: What man understands and respects, he protects. That about which he is ignorant and fears, he tends to destroy.