When you’re learning how to snorkel or scuba dive, most instructors will make it a point to go over the reasons not to touch marine life. Being a responsible diver means respecting the ocean and the lives that call it home. You are a visitor to an underwater world and should do your best to not harm the environment. Unfortunately, there are divers out there that will ignore this rule. If you’re new to snorkeling, then it’s important that you know why it’s never okay to touch marine life and the reasons behind it.
How You Can Harm Marine Life
Those new to snorkeling or diving don’t usually realize the harm they’re doing by touching marine life, their goal is to just take a great photo, or they may desire a closer connection to underwater life. But your diving instructor warned you against touching these animals for several important reasons.
Equipped with a good dry snorkel, a mask, and some fins, you’re probably more than eager to hit the water and do some exploring. For some divers, sight alone is not enough to satisfy their curiosity. You’ll see some divers holding on to the fins of dolphins or harmless sharks or provoking marine life to get them to spread their fins.
Unfortunately, touching coral and other types of underwater creates can stress them out and do serious harm to both the marine life and you. Many animals found in the sea can injure a diver if they feel threatened, aggravated, or disturbed. From jellyfish, urchins, sea snakes, and scorpionfish, to poisonous shells, venomous fish, and stinging hydroids, it’s best to admire these creates from a distance.
The Many Dangers
New divers make many mistakes, but one of the most important to avoid is messing with a marine animal, especially one that you know nothing about. Some animals may look perfectly harmless until they’ve been poked and prodded. Others, such as coral should be steered clear of for many reasons, but many new divers are not aware of how brutal a coral cut can be.
You can easily get a deep wound from touching coral. Many divers know that coral cuts will take a long time to heal and just how painful this type of injury can be. Many shark bites occur due to reckless contact or inappropriate behavior. As a diver or snorkeler, you’re an ambassador for the ocean and the creatures in it. This is especially true when it comes to threatened species such as sharks. A diver’s interaction with sharks without a serious incident is very important in order to change the public’s perception of them so that conservation can be promoted. If you follow the no taking, teasing, or touching marine life rule, then you can easily avoid most types of injuries. Many of these mistakes can be made right in the beginning, when you’re first learning how to snorkel, how to hold your breath, and how to remain aware of your surroundings. But these common mistakes can easily be avoided if you practice snorkeling techniques away from marine life and avoid heading to reefs and active waters until you’re better prepared.
Protecting Marine Life
Not disturbing marine life can cause them physical and mental harm. The destruction that’s caused when a diver removes an animal from the ocean is very obvious. People who collect starfish and shells for souvenirs are disrupting the delicate balance of the marine ecosystem. The same applies to divers who collect live fish from the ocean to put them in their aquariums. Aside from disrupting and harming marine life, the actions of removing plants or animals from the ocean is against national and local laws.
Below, I’ll go over the five main reasons you should avoid touching marline life, what harm it can do, and how to stay safe underwater.
You Can Cause Marine Life Death
While the effects of touching marine life may not seem very obvious, simply touching coral or animals can be very damaging in the long run. Many animals, such as different species of sharks, stingrays, and turtles, can become very vulnerable to harmful bacteria caused by human contact. This leaves them susceptible to disease. Marine life relies on biofilms which is a type of protective slime. The biofilm works to keep out infection. When touched, the biofilm can be compromised. Coral is also very fragile. Even the smallest touch can damage the polyp’s exterior. This will leave the coral with compromised immunity, which can lead to death. Damaged caused to a reef as the result of humans is evident by poor buoyancy or anywhere there is constant diver traffic.
There are some reefs that have been totally transformed to lifeless rubble, when it was once a healthy and productive ecosystem.
You Could be Severely Injured
Many underwater animals possess defense mechanisms. If you don’t know much about marine life, then you may not realize how dangerous a particular animal is until you’ve set it off. While the dangers of touching a sea urchin are obvious, many fish have defense mechanisms concealed. Many fish have spines that are located on their fins, which form a structural strength that’s similar to fingers. These spines can be moved around when necessary and they’re very hard and sharp. Most fish will use them to defend themselves.
There is also a large number of hard and soft coral that possess mechanisms that are designed to inflict damage. Jellyfish possess structures that are called nematocysts that will inject small syringes of toxins into anything that touches them. The fire coral gets its name from this type of painful defense mechanism.
You Could be Poisoned
Scorpionfish and stonefish are a couple of examples of an animal utilizing camouflage to hide. These fish also have fin spines that are loaded with poison that’s designed to inflict a fatal injury. You can easily fall victim to this fish if you’re not paying attention or you decide to touch every fish that crosses your path.
The toxins that these fish carry can cause significant tissue death. The sting is also very painful, while the wound itself can take several months or years to heal.
You Will Disrupt Feeding Behaviors
When a diver attempts to pet marine life, they will usually bring food along to entice the animal. Very often, small scraps of food will be offered by the diver in order to get the animal to come closer so the diver can pet it. This can be very harmful since it will disrupt the animal’s natural feeding behaviors, which can have a disastrous effect once that animal becomes used to being fed by the diver and expects food, biting the diver when there is no food available or the animal mistakes the diver’s hand as food.
The Animals Will be Vulnerable to Predators
When you handle marine life, they become very stressed. During this time, they will use up their energy stores, just to get away from you. They will also use up their energy stores to try and intimidate you, to get you to go away. As an example, a puffer fish will use their defense mechanism to get you to leave them alone. This involves inflating themselves, tripling their size. When a puffer fish is inflated, they are stressed and less mobile, which also makes them very vulnerable to predators. Once these fish have inflated it can take several hours for them to return back to their normal size. Some species of puffer fish will require even more recovery time after each inflation. Eventually, the fish may not be able to inflate any longer. A puffer fish will not hold their breath but inflate themselves with water.
To learn more about swimming safely with marine life, click here to read my article on snorkeling tips for beginners.
You Can Cause Ecosystem Devastation
While they may look like rocks, coral is alive. They’re slow growing and incredibly fragile. When a diver touches a piece of coral in order to stabilize themselves or when they want to take a photo, the diver ends up killing off dozens, sometimes, hundreds of polyps. Coral can become vulnerable and sick from infection since you are damaging the layer of protective mucus. Breaking pieces of coral off is another major risk. This is especially true for table coral which is often severely damaged by divers that touch it or bump into it because of strong currents. Dead coral is no longer able to provide a safe habitat for the animals that live in and around it, which means the whole ecosystem will suffer.
As you can clearly see, making contact with marine life can do more harm than good. It can even destroy an entire underwater ecosystem. The results of interacting with these animals can be very devastating and can have severe consequences.
The five reasons to not touch marine life that I’ve discussed here will hopefully prevent you from touching and disturbing these animals in the future. Many of these animals are very fragile and susceptible to stress induced conditions that can lead to death. Others are very dangerous and can cause a serious injury or death in the diver who does not keep their distance.