I’ve always been fascinated by seahorses. Who isn’t? A horse under the sea… and the males carry the babies! They are so cute, you just want to put them in your pocket! But how does the presence of divers affect these fascinating creatures
In 2019 Maarten De Brauwer and his colleagues conducted research on how divers’ (and specifically photgraphers’) interactions affect benthic fishes and especially seahorses. They found that influence on these creatures by the use of flashes while divers were photographing them was no worse than the influence caused by the presence of the divers alone (without flash photography).
The general consensus is that gentle flash photography is no brighter than that of sunlight being reflected off of the sea bed in shallow water. The researchers found no impact on the ocular and retinal anatomy by the presence of flash photography. Nor was there any change in the animals’ feeding success. Using more powerful flashes (in order to achieve a dark or black background could have a higher impact on the animals, though. CITES advise not to use flash, as do many local laws, so while it does not necessarily effect the animals, care should be taken when using flash photography to capture their images.
What did, however effect the animals was the way that divers interacted with them. Seahorses exhibited a strong stress response when they were being physically manipulated by photographer divers. Touching, moving or manipulating animals in order to get the perfect image could cause abrasions or even breaking of physical structures of the animals. While most scuba divers live by the phrase ‘look but don’t touch’, sometimes it is tempting to move that piece of coral or shift the animal ‘just a touch’ in order to get the perfect shot.
Giglio and his colleagues also studied the interactions between dive photographers and seahorses in 2018. They found that divers who made use of action cameras that were attached to an extension pole came a lot closer to seahorses. This close proximity increased the number of times the photographers touched the animals and caused the animals to try to escape (a behavioural disruption). Repeated behavioural disruptions could negatively affect seahorse habits like feeding, reproducing and resting.
The researchers suggest that divers (and photographers) should keep a minimum distance of 36 centimetres away from seahorses to reduce stress to the animals.
Some tips for photographing seahorses
- Stress not only affects the animals’ feeding, reproducing and resting habits, it can also shorten their life span. Attempt to cause them as little stress as possible.
- Do not touch or move them or the flora around them in order to better preserve them and their natural surroundings.
- Allow them space (at least 36 centimetres) and leave them an escape route in case they feel threatened.
- Look at their behaviour. If they seem to flop over or unwell (or even dead or dying), turn their back to you or swim away it means that your presence is causing too much stress- gently back away.
- These well camouflaged animals are also social animals. Which means if you see one, another one might be nearby. Be aware of your body, and especially your fins. Try not to disturb the bottom by using frog kicks and hovering in these environments, rather than scissor kicking.
While flash photography does not directly effect seahorse behaviours, the presence of divers, and more specifically touching and moving them, could cause heightened stress levels in the creatures. Taking pictures of them while doing your best not to disturb them or their environment is strongly suggested- as long as local laws allow it.
*A version of this article first appeared at www.scubadiverlife.com