Composing Great Underwater Photograhs

By Jean-Michel Cousteau

The Year of the Ocean is moving into the final quarter and weve all been deluged with a single unsettling message: The pressure on the undersea environment is heavy and real. Runoff and pollution harm water quality, while development destroys wetlands and freshwater estuaries that serve as nurseries for fish, crustaceans and seabirds.

Coastal zones fringed with coral reefs have an extra challenge. The reefs are easily damaged by carelessness or just plain overuse.

During the past five years, I have been working with the dive industry, cruise ship companies, national tourist boards and this magazine to develop guidelines for responsible diving techniques;eco-diving. And, there are signs that, at least as far as the individual recreational diver is concerned, a degree of ecological consciousness has taken hold. We still have a long way to go, but the word is out and it is spreading.

This is important, for divers have a unique responsibility. Out of a population of almost six billion people, we are a tiny minority, yet through our masks we have access to 70 percent of the Earths surface;the sea. I believe divers have a responsibility to be ambassadors of the ocean, to observe and record the beauty and the fragility of the sea and communicate their discoveries to those who dont dive but whose actions still affect the sea.

I think the same advanced consciousness is making itself felt in other institutions connected to the sea. More and more people are beginning to realize ecology makes good economic sense.

The Cayman Islands are a case in point. More than one million people visit this tiny country every year; more than one-third of them dive. The Caymanian Government realizes its reefs and shorelines are its natural capital. If they are ruined for short term gain;either through overdevelopment or overfishing or overdiving;the country as a whole will suffer long term economic decline. The Caymanians have a golden goose but decided not to pluck it. Instead, they passed the Marine Conservation Law in 1978 and strengthened it in 1986.

Under this law, coastal waters are divided into Replenishment Zones, which allow some fishing but not the taking of conch and lobster; Environmental Zones, in which anchoring and fishing are prohibited; and Marine Park Zones, in which ship discharge is not allowed, motorized watersports are limited and divers are prohibited from taking anything. In these areas, divers are asked not to wear gloves so that they are not tempted to touch corals. Throughout the Cayman Islands, the use of anchors is restricted to sandy bottom areas. Cruise ship visitors are limited to 6,000 per day. Land and sea patrols are frequent and heavy fines are levied against violators, but the government prefers to work creatively with the tourism industry rather than adopt an adversarial stance. Thus, it has encouraged the dive industry to voluntarily rest sensitive sites.

It has also created new sites farther afield, diversifying its economy and taking pressure off crowded areas. One such effort was the sinking of a Russian destroyer off Cayman Brac, in which I was honored to participate. Renamed the Captain Keith Tibbetts, it is now a popular wreck dive, already visited by some 8,500 divers. The last time I dived the wreck, I observed some 26 species of fish had made their home here. Recent divers have spotted Eagle Rays, Garden Eels, Hawksbill Turtles and other exotic species in the vicinity. The wreck is also helping Cayman Brac. Before the ship was sunk here, employment was scarce and the population had dropped to 1,100. Today, business is booming. The island currently hosts 1,600 residents and hotel occupancy is rising.

In an excellent survey of these developments, Catherine Leech (UK and Europe Regional Manager for the Cayman Islands Department of Tourism) tells of a very unique turn of events that illustrates what is possible when business and government work together to preserve natural capital.

In 1996 the Maasdam, a cruise ship of the Holland-America Line, slipped anchor during a storm and collided with Cheeseburger Reef. Immediately, the cruise line sent two scientists to work with the Department of Environment to rebuild as much of the reef as possible. Early estimates put the maximum salvageable potential at 20 percent. But they did better than that. Through painstaking recovery of fragments by local divers and identification and reconstruction by scientists, they were able to piece together 30 percent of the damaged reef. The cruise line also financially supported a monitoring program that will extend into the future.

How refreshing is it when a large company acts as responsibly as individual citizens are expected to!

And that is the point about setting environmental standards as high as possible: they have the power to educate. Too often we think of ecology in terms of money. Well, living on Earth always costs something. And experience has shown that taking care of natural capital;living lightly on the planet;ultimately costs less than despoiling ecosystems for short term profit. Our challenge, I think, is to move away from dollars and cents and to develop a more holistic way of looking at our life. Its not really a question of our money but of attitude. In the Caymans, economy and ecology are not predator and prey but dive buddies.

Ms. Leech put it best, I think, in describing the Caymanians as people who have learned to see themselves as custodians of the extraordinary natural world which surrounds them. It is a privilege which is taken seriously and with diligence, responsibility and vigilance.

It is an example worth emulating.