Maurine and I have been receiving some very negative comments on one of our photographs originally published last year in our Bird's Head Seascape diving guide, which we produced for Conservation International. The image has recently been published in the Guardian and it has created quite a controversy. (Interestingly, we have had no negative feedback from any of the 1000's of divers who have bought the book.) We feel we should share the image in an attempt to help the community understand the context. Here is the image. Although some people think the image is of us, it shows Dr. Mark Erdmann (left) and Dr. Gerald Allen photographing a recently collected fish. The image was taken to show them at work. We are only the photographers.
I have forwarded a few of the more negative comments to Dr. Erdmann and I think his words help explain the context. I hope this helps everyone understand.
Mark's reply: "Thank you for your email of concern about the image of Dr. Gerry Allen and I photographing a new species in Cendrawasih Bay. I very much respect your concern, and I have no desire to create a polemic, but I do feel it may be of use for me to quickly clarify this photograph. Firstly, I note that Burt Jones and Maurine Shimlock should be absolved of any responsibility or blame; they were accompanying a scientific expedition (biodiversity survey) to Cendrawasih Bay with my organization (Conservation International) and were simply documenting the scientific process. As for the scientific equipment that is seen laying on the substrate in the photograph, this is indeed a real-life situation after I had just collected a new species of cryptic dottyback fish from 70m depth and we were taking specimen shots to document the live colouration of the fish for the purposes of the scientific description of the new species. I can imagine that this photograph may look as if there was significant coral crushing going on, but I can only assure you that:
a) the scientific equipment was carefully placed on the reef in a manner so as to not break any coral;
b) though Dr. Allen and I are indeed very close to the substrate to get the shot required for the description of the fish, both of us have well over 10,000 dives under our respective belts and most definitely are not "laying on the coral" and crushing it.
c) though the process of collecting and documenting new species may seem objectionable to some (and I certainly respect that opinion), it is in fact a "necessary evil" if new species are to be described and our global biodiversity heritage cataloged properly. I note that our efforts to describe patterns of biodiversity across the East Indies (and especially to highlight areas like Cendrawasih Bay that have high numbers of endemic species found nowhere else in the world) have helped governments in the region to prioritize where they invest conservation dollars and has led to the gazetting of millions of hectares of new marine parks - including the 1.5 million hectare park that now protects the marine biodiversity of Cendrawasih Bay.
Again, I have no desire to quarrel and I very much respect your concern for diver/photographer behaviour on reefs. I only note that the activity documented in this image is an important part of the scientific process that documents new species and directs governmental attention for conservation efforts, and I can assure you that we actively strive to minimize any damage to the reefs from our surveys. Thank you for your concern on behalf of the world's reefs - I can only affirm that we also share this concern. Thanks for your understanding."