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Avoiding Damaging Reefs

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#1 DS256


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Posted 15 June 2016 - 08:51 AM

I heard that some jurisdictions are closing off dive sites because of coral bleaching. One justification is "High tourist numbers produce problems such as litter and food waste, as well as gasoline from tour boats leaching into waters". There is also references to direct diver impact "Holding and fin contacts were the most common potentially damaging behaviors of divers, particularly those with cameras or gloves. Guides identified natural impacts (63% of respondents) and divers (34% of respondents) as the primary causes of damage to coral." which has led some other groups to suggest restricting or closing dive sites to allow for recovery.


So, my question is, as a community, are we doing enough to promote safe diving with respect to the reef while taking pictures?


I know myself I've abandoned shots because I felt I could not take the picture without coming in contact with the reef. However, I think most of us have found ourselves in situations we did not expect and too close or in contact with the reef unexpectedly. This brings up mitigating tactics that I have not really seen expressed before. It all has to do with experience and remembering training but I fear it's not reinforced enough outside of "Don't touch anything"


Below are some guidelines I've thought of. Looking for others ideas in particular, when you find yourself in a compromised situation, how to safely get out of it without damaging the reef.



  • Take and practice the PADI Peak Buoyancy course
  • Do not touch anything in the water (I say this because some divers think it's ok to pet turtles)
  • As part of the pre-dive buddy planning
    • Identify how you will help each other if it appears you are coming in contact with the reef. Special signal, special tap.
    • Check to make that each of you do not have anything hanging that could brush against the reef.
  • If you know you will be getting close to the reef, consider purchasing a diving stick to hold yourself away from the coral. Do not use gloves.
  • If you are taking pictures, plan how you can safely get into position to take the picture with touching anything. Leave room for error and unexpected movement in the water. If you can't do it safely, abandon the shot. There will be others.
  • If you find yourself in contact with the reef, or about to, stop, do not move, think.
    • If you are in the open, fill your lungs with air to try and float out of the problem.
    • If you are under an overhang, and in contact on the shelf above you, exhale your lungs to sink away.
    • If you need to back out of where you are, try and look behind you to plan your exit. 

Edited by DS256, 15 June 2016 - 08:52 AM.

#2 Glasseye Snapper

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Posted 15 June 2016 - 05:08 PM

I personally strive for zero damage, while accepting that some damage is implicit even if only by increasing economic development near shore.


The closer you want to get to the reef the better your buoyancy has to be. So either keep a distance or perfect your buoyancy, although not necessary by PADI or other course.


Do not touch any LIVING thing underwater. One or two fingers placed on a carefully selected piece of dead coral just to stabilize, no force, is much better than jojoing and kicking your fins to stay in place. You could do this equally well with gloves and the whole no-gloves rule is imho just because people expect you to be more careful without them. If you ever see parrotfish scraping the corals you also realize that if corals could not handle any mechanical contact they would have long been extinct (not an excuse to be careless, just some perspective).

I don't like diving sticks, assuming you mean the metal pins, as you don't get any tactile feedback and you create a point-pressure unlike a finger with or without glove.


Buddy signals to help each other out of a tricky position sound complicated to me. You really should not get into such situations in the first place.


Tucking away any dangling pieces of equipment is a good point as are most of the others. In the rare cases that I do touch the reef it is virtually always my fin tips. Retracting your legs while stopping finning and using your hands and/or lungs to move away from contact works well.


I also make an effort not to kick up a dust storm when swimming close to sand substrate, but I have no problem touching or even lying on the bottom after ensuring it is "clean sand".



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#3 flavitie



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Posted 16 June 2016 - 02:13 PM

I think that uw photografers in general, while of course there are exceptions, are more aware of how to dive correctly in order to avoid damages to marine life and have on average a correct buoyancy control.

Perhaps diving instructors and diving guides have the hardest task in teaching new and occasional divers how to interact and how to move underwater... 

#4 DS256


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Posted 20 June 2016 - 04:56 PM

Thanks for the feedback and comments. Makes me feel some of the comments and approaches the the articles are overkill.

#5 Pajjpen


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Posted 07 December 2018 - 04:35 AM

I think that uw photografers in general, while of course there are exceptions, are more aware of how to dive correctly in order to avoid damages to marine life and have on average a correct buoyancy control.
Perhaps diving instructors and diving guides have the hardest task in teaching new and occasional divers how to interact and how to move underwater...

Couldn’t agree more.

#6 TaxiDiver14


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Posted 07 December 2018 - 10:27 AM

When you see a full boat of chinese divers wearing knees protectors to avoid damage while taking pictures you know the war is lost...

#7 lasbaegas



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Posted 16 January 2019 - 02:33 PM

I was in Raja Ampat with a diver who I saw knock over a 15"-17" diameter colony of tabling acropora right off the rock it was encrusted on with his fins while trying to get the most useless/mundane shot (probably of a lionfish, probably the 50th we encountered, which he would shoot again and again without fail). It fell over, top down into the sand bed and he didn't even bother to turn around to see what he came in contact with. I really wanted to disengage his stage two from his oxygen tank

#8 dreifish


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Posted 16 January 2019 - 04:19 PM

Unfortunately, I cannot agree that photographers are more careful about damaging the reef than other divers. If anything, in my experience, they are much, much worse.


I've been working in Indonesia for several years now and it's all too common to see inexperienced, overweighted divers with (sometimes large) camera systems, no control over their buoyancy and no awareness of where their fins, knees, legs, and dangling equipment is. It's really a travesty, and "no glove" rules are an ineffectual way to address it. The root of the problem isn't gloves; it's bad buoyancy skills, bad propulsion skills, and lack of awareness/care for their positioning and the reef. Bad instructors and bad dive guides create and exacerbate the problem. 


Too many photographers place the image first and don't realize how much damage their are doing in the process of pursuing those images. Worse, dive guides out here for the most part are not willing to confront such bad divers (whether out of a cultural dislike for conflict or simply because they don't want to risk a reduced tip). Generally, the guides try their best to make the guests happy, and if a guest wants to get a particular image, they'll facilitate that behavior even when the guest really shouldn't be allowed to dive with a camera at all.


Personally, I would like to see dive operators take a much harder stance and not allow divers to bring cameras underwater when their skill is clearly lacking. I would like to see a new Underwater Photographer dive certification offered that would only be available to divers who can demonstrate excellent spatial awareness, buoyancy and propulsion skills in water. This card would be required before operators would allow divers to bring a camera with them on their dives, especially in protected areas like Raja Ampat. 


I'm not talking about a PADI specialty certification or anything so banal. It would have to be a rigorous standard. GUE Fundamentals comes to mind. To pass the certification you'd have to be able to demonstrate:

  • Excellent buoyancy. That means being able to hover in place a few inches off the bottom with a camera in a horizontal position (like you might use while taking images) without moving your arms or legs at all for at least one minute. As a practical prerequisite, that means not being 2-4kg overweighted, which is an all-too common occurrence I see. If you need to rest on the bottom or support yourself with a stick to take pictures, perhaps you should work on your buoyancy first before working on your photography. 
  • Excellent propulsion technique: Moving in the same position described above while maintaining neutral buoyancy. Being able to perform helicopter kicks to turn in place, modified flutter kicks with your knees bent at 90* angle, small frog kicks in the same position, and to effectively be able to swim backwards in the same position. Basically, the kind of skills required to get a cave diving certification or GUE Fundamentals certification at a bare minimum. If you get in close to a subject to take a picture, you should be able to swim backwards and exit using the same vector you used to approach.
  • Situational awareness: Maintaining awareness of your surroundings while taking images. Ensuring no dangling bits of gear, and being aware of where your limbs and other body parts are at all times.

I recognize that this is an elitist view and a pretty stringent set of requirements.  Most people would require competent instruction and 100 or more dives to master these skills. But climate change is already having a massive impact on our reefs, and there are an increasing number of divers that want to experience the few remaining fantastic dive sites. Apart from implementing quota systems in these places to restrict diver pressure, I believe curbing bad underwater photographer behavior is one of the most effective ways to protect these fragile environments. 


If you're an underwater photographer and care about your impact, there's steps you can take to make yourself a better diver:

  • Make sure you're not diving overweighted. Do a proper buoyancy check: at the end of each dive, with ~50/700psi left in your tank, while doing your safety stop, fully deflate your BCD and hold your arms and legs still so you're not finning yourself up. You should be neutrally buoyant. If you find yourself sinking, it mean you have too much weight.
  • To facilitate buoyancy, dive without a neoprene wetsuit where possible. Because neoprene compresses at depth, it requires more air in your BCD to compensate. Air in your BCD changes in volume with changes in depth. Simply put, the more air in your BCD, the harder it's going to be to maintain your buoyancy. Resist the temptation to add weight to make yourself sink easier at the beginning of the dive. Instead, concentrate on being calm and still and breathing out fully to go down at the beginning of the dive. If you're wearing a very thick wetsuit, it's ok to kick yourself down the first few meters until that wetsuit compresses sufficiently that you can descend the rest of the way. Much better to be slightly underweight at the beginning and end of the dive than to be overweighted throughout the main portion of the dive which is spent at depth. 
  • Take a GUE Fundamentals course or a cave diving course to really fine-tune your buoyancy, trim and propulsion techniques
  • Until you've really mastered your buoyancy and propulsion techniques, leave the camera behind or dive only in places where there's no coral or other fragile environment to damage. 

Edited by dreifish, 16 January 2019 - 04:43 PM.

#9 ChrisRoss


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Posted 16 January 2019 - 10:42 PM

I agree you don't want a PADI cert, it's be another chance to put another dollar in the PADI pot and the only thing you are sure of is to get another cert card to add to your collection.  If you were going to certify it should be possible to do it by demonstration as well and not have to undertake a massive course if you have already mastered these skills as some people obviously have. 

#10 String



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Posted 20 January 2019 - 06:52 AM

When you see a full boat of chinese divers wearing knees protectors to avoid damage while taking pictures you know the war is lost...




I think photographers (i mean proper ones, who know and understand the concepts, NOT the GoPro on a 5ft selfie stick people) are generally less damaging than normal divers.  Yes we have some idiots among us and yes some arent as ethical as we like but as a whole i say its above average awareness.


I work on liveaboards and its depressing every day to see the sheer amount of bad divers cause damage and allowed to do so by equally as bad guides.

I see knee protectors, most wearing gloves, people walking across the bottom, zero awareness of fins and so on.  I see large chunks of remaining coral kicked and snapped off in real time on a regular basis.


So while yes, a code of conduct and ethics for photos is fine, unfortunately i think its a tiny issue compared with the absolte battering the reefs in asia are getting on a daily basis from huge numbers of inept divers escorted by equally as inept "guides".


Theres also the national parks issue allowing gloves, knee pads, divers at OW level or a small number of dives etc into the park in the first place.  That said, some so called advanced with 400 divers are worse than a 4 dive OW diver at times.


Ive got a growing collection of images and videos as a wall-of-shame type gallery but no way can i make it public as im fairly sure i wouldnt be able to work in this town any more!

Edited by String, 20 January 2019 - 06:55 AM.