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How To Be a Responsible Underwater Photographer

Love taking photos of the fascinating critters you see on your diving or snorkeling trips? Follow these best practices to make sure you’re photographing responsibly and not harming marine life.

What is the best (and most sustainable!) souvenir that you can bring back from a tropical getaway? While a new hat or bracelet might be kind of neat, nothing beats taking home photos of all the remarkable marine life you see! There’s no better reward than getting the perfect shot of that giant manta ray or rare nudibranch you spotted on your diving or snorkeling trip. Not to mention, underwater photography is an exciting hobby! 

Along with being priceless keepsakes, your underwater photos can be used for marine conservation and research. Citizen science programs, such as our NEMO program, rely on visitor observations to collect scientific data and track the health of coral reefs. Even something as simple as sharing your photos on social media can help motivate others to protect coral reefs.

When exploring sensitive coral reef ecosystems, it is important to be conscientious of how your behavior affects the species that live there. To be a responsible diver or snorkeler, you must exercise caution when taking photos underwater. 

Below, we’ve shared a few simple tips that will help you capture spectacular underwater images without harming coral reefs or marine animals. Remember these best practices the next time you head below the surface to snap some pics!

Snap, Don’t Touch! 

Ever see a photo of someone holding a seastar? While the person may have had good intentions, touching marine wildlife is a definite no-no.

Why? Touching marine creatures puts them in danger for a number of reasons. Starfish and many other marine animals have fragile bodies with delicate structures. When we pick up or touch them, we can tear off body parts and hurt them without even realizing it. 

Even if touching an animal doesn’t result in immediate physical harm, it can make them more vulnerable to threats such as predation and disease. Many fish and other marine creatures are covered in a slimy coating. This layer of mucus protects them from infections and deters predators. If you touch them, it can destroy this coating and put them at risk. Not to mention, the bacteria and chemicals on your own hands can get on animals and make them sick.

Clownfish are covered in a protective layer of mucus which prevents them from being harmed by their host anemone's sting. Touching a clownfish can remove this coating and leave them vulnerable to stings. Photo: Gregory Piper / Coral Reef Image Bank

On top of this, holding animals can come at a cost to you as well. Some animals will become aggressive, expel lethal toxins, or sting you if touched. This natural response helps them fend away in predators – which in this case is YOU!

When taking photos of marine wildlife, abide by the rule of snap, don’t touch. Keep your hands to yourself to keep everyone safe.

Lionfish can deliver an extremely painful sting to divers that touch their spine. Photo: Jill Heinerth / Coral Reef Image Bank

Don’t stand on or grab coral

Similarly, you should not touch coral reefs. Though they are often mistaken as rocks, coral structures are actually made up of tiny little animals called polyps. Corals are also very sensitive creatures and can be easily damaged. 

One of the differences between taking photos underwater and taking photos on dry land is that the water current makes it harder to remain in a steady position. Because of this, it can be tempting to hold onto a piece of coral to avoid floating away. Some divers even stand on the reef or remove pieces of coral to get a better angle.

Though they might look strong and sturdy, coral reefs are actually very fragile and sensitive. Touching them can lead to disease, damage, or even death. Photo: Shaun Wolfe / Coral Reef Image Bank

Unfortunately these types of activities can cause coral to break off, get sick, or even die. Some coral structures take thousands of years to grow, so it can take years to repair the damage caused when a diver breaks off just a small piece of coral. If you must hold onto something when taking a picture grab onto rock or a dead, isolated coral formation.

Watch where you kick your fins

Taking photos can be distracting, so it can be easy to forget that the fins you’re wearing are more than double the size of your bare feet. As a result, fins often end up in places where they don’t belong. Keep your fins up to avoid kicking the reef or stirring up sand. In addition to leaving you with a murky image, floating sediment can block out the sunlight that corals need to survive. 

One reason that divers accidentally bump into reefs or the seafloor is because they don’t have good control over their bodies and gear. Neutral buoyancy and proper body position, or trim, are the most important skills that underwater photographers should perfect to avoid bumping into the reef.

It’s important to possess good buoyancy control and keep your fins up to avoid kicking the reef. Photo: Amanda Cotton / Coral Reef Image Bank

Keep your camera and gear in check

Your fins are not the only dive accessory that poses a threat to coral reefs. Your camera and other dive gear can also cause damage if they come into contact with the reef. Make a conscious effort to be aware of where your gear is and know how large you are with it on. Make sure to secure all equipment and tuck in your gauge and regulator so that they don’t end up dragging across the reef. 

It is important to note that buoyancy is different when holding a large camera, so it can be easy to lose control when trying to take a photo. Before you even think about lugging along any camera gear, be sure you’ve already mastered the basic skills and possess excellent buoyancy control.

Some underwater cameras are big and bulky. Make sure you are comfortable maneuvring with your camera and other equipment before getting close to sensitive reefs.

Minimize disturbances

No matter how awesome a photo opp is, it’s never worth stressing out an animal to capture a cool shot. Doing so can alter their natural behaviors and throw off the balance of the entire ecosystem. 

When photographing a marine animal, approach your subject slowly and give it plenty of space. Avoid overwhelming an animal or surrounding them with a big group. Don’t ever chase, ride, or harass a marine creature. If an animal looks uncomfortable or shows signs of stress such as changing colors or fleeing, then leave it alone. If a seahorse is hiding in it’s seagrass or seafan home, it’s probably there for a reason. Don’t prod or poke at it to get it to come out. Animals that are scared away from the reef by intrusive divers can be very vulnerable out in the open water.

When photographing a marine animal, watch for signs of stress and give it plenty of space. Photo: Amanda Cotton / Coral Reef Image Bank

Use your flash sparingly

Marine animals are used to a fairly low-light or dark environments and so the use of camera flashes and other bright lights can scare them. To avoid causing them unnecessary shock or stress, use these lights sparingly and only take a few photos of any single animal. You can also minimize the number of shots you take by adjusting your settings while practicing on other subjects.

Minimize use of bright lights which can stress out marine animals.

No feeding

It can be tempting to bring along treats to lure swarms of fish into your photo, but feeding fish and other marine life can actually cause a lot of harm. When fish get their food from people, it can make them sick or aggressive. It can also alter their natural feeding habits. 

For example, certain fish graze on the algae that grows on coral reefs. However, if these fish start to get their food from another (human) source instead, then they may stop eating the algae. If this happens, the algae can grow out of control and smother the coral.

Parrotfish play an important role in marine ecosystems by feeding on the algae that covers coral reefs. Photo: The Ocean Agency / Coral Reef Image Bank

Contribute your photos to citizen science

In addition to following the tips above, you can also use your photos to protect reefs. There are a number of citizen science programs that rely on visual data collected by divers and other visitors. Divers can act as citizen scientists by taking photos of the coral, marine life, and even pollution they see underwater. These images can help scientists monitor marine health, track the migratory patterns of marine species, and better conserve underwater environments.

Divers can participate in citizen science and marine research projects by taking photos of their observations underwater. Photo Shaun Wolfe / Coral Reef Image Bank

Our NEMO citizen science program for instance empowers divers and snorkelers to watch over the Mesoamerican Reef and fight coral disease. Individuals can share their photos of diseased coral and marine life with scientists by participating in our #SupportNEMO social media campaign. We are currently raising funds to launch a new NEMO online citizen science platform which will make it even easier for divers to submit their photos and scientists to analyze data. You can support the expansion of this reef conservation program and grow the movement by participating in our crowdfunding campaign and making a donation today.

Next time you’re out taking photos on the reef, remember these tips so that we can keep these ecosystems healthy and pristine!

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