Wednesday, July 18, 2007

A little controversy in the underwater world here on Saipan.

Well I can’t very well call this the Saipan Scuba diving blog without weighing in on the Tritan Trumpets shell controversy. Problem is I’m one of those people that take forever to write even a simple email. A full post covering all the issues this topic generates would take me days to write. A logical question would be why am I entering the blogging world in the first place if writing takes so long. Good question! My intention has been to tell the story with images. To this point I have fallen short of offering regular Underwater video segments but that will soon change as I’ve finally determined the work flow I intend to use for importing and cataloging over 25 hours of underwater footage. No easy task and this does not include destinations outside the CNMI. So soon my entry into the blogging world may become a little more regular and a little more fun.

I’m off track already! For those not following the Tritan Trumpets shell controversy a short recap and links to the blogs involved is in order. Basically Harry, an avid longtime diver, shell collector and recent newcomer to the world of Underwater photography posted an entry and photos describing how he found and evicted two hermit crabs from their residences (the Tritan Trumpet) during a night dive at Lau Lau Bay. In response Bree, whom I do not know personally, but from all accounts is a shining light when it comes to educating the students here, used Harry’s pictures to post an objection to his actions and to provide well-researched rationale as to why such action may be looked upon as unfavorable or even as detrimental to the critters involved.

From there, well you’ll need to read the comments and the follow-up posts but for me this becomes an issue of respect. Respect not only for the marine environment but also respect for each other and respect for the limitations and power of the blogging world.

First, when I read Harry’s original post (now removed) I was fuming! I even asked my wife - what am I going to do - I love Harry’s blog, his posts are fascinating and he brings the diving world to people in a way I can only dream of. But, on the other hand, I have been a dive instructor for over 12 years and have always stood up for the creatures that can’t do it for themselves. At times, nearly losing my job. As an instructor, you learn very quickly that actions speak so much more loudly than words and that your actions can influence a life of diving, not just a single experience. In her wisdom my wife suggested I talk to Harry the next day so I could go to bed rather than stay up till 3AM agonizing over writing a post! A good idea - I agreed.

The next day I was both happy and concerned. Happy because someone had thoroughly researched the ecology and relationships between these critters and this information would help illustrate many of the things I hoped to discuss with Harry. Concerned because, for reasons Harry has expressed, he was unsure if he would continue to blog. The thought of not being able to read his stories, well, I didn’t want that to happen. I love his blog!

At this point I patted myself on the back for marrying such a smart gal and decided to call Harry and hopefully go for a beer. It was just after I released the Underwater World of Saipan DVD in October that I realized Harry was such a big diver. Since then we have had brief conversations at various meetings, they always turn to diving usually with each of us suggesting we go for a dive but to this point it hasn’t happened. This beer was long over due!

Nearly two and a half hours later, we had touched upon almost every aspect of life here on Saipan and even some diving too! I will preface any summarization of our conversation with suggesting that it is well worth the price of a glass of wine (Harry's choice, mine's a FAMB)to hear this self-confessed diving dinosaur recount a dive tale or two first hand! Talking about diving for me (and as I have learned for Harry) is the exact opposite to my difficulty and dislike for writing so I could go on and on…..

But as I said this for me this is about respect.

First, as an educator, one of the most important things to assess is where the student lies in their understanding of the concepts or principles about to be taught and that no one ever likes to be wrong or publicly humiliated. Doing so prevents any concept from ever being accepted.
Second, as a result of their life experiences and beliefs, what may seem obvious to one person may not be so obvious to another and that beliefs can only be changed through education and the resulting paradigm shift.

Very early into our conversation it became clear to me that Harry had missed out on the “environmental code of ethics” making its way into diver education courses over the past decade. (This is not limited to PADI) Dive programs continue to evolve today, the debate as to how much training and what type of training is required to safely dive has been ongoing for years. The fact is when Harry learned to dive, requirements needed to pass the course and the attitude towards the environment in general was very different than it is today. Many years ago you had to, among other things, jump into the deep end of a pool with no gear on, dive down to the bottom and don a set of equipment (in no way shape or form resembling today’s stuff) then ascend safely to the surface before passing the course. Project AWARE, PADI’s arm of the reef protection movement, didn’t exist and nearly all divers were male! A lot has changed.

Couple that with Harry’s obsession for shells (which he admits is now taking a back seat to the photographs) and you can begin to see why his actions on the night dive did not seem like a big deal to him. I’m not making excuses, I’m just determining the facts. It also became clear to me that he had reviewed the references in Bree’s post and that this information alone had already given him cause to think about how people interact with marine life and given the opportunity to take another Tritan in the same manner, he would likely pass.

So what is the diving code of ethics! Different things for different folks but….
Generally, passive participation in the marine world is the diving method of choice. Being unobtrusive, sitting back and watching the action not only prevents any harm to the animal but to the human as well and offers the best opportunity for an extended observation of the organism in its natural state. This is not to say that some animals cannot be touched or handled in a responsible, non-harmful way but such encounters are grounded in the diver’s knowledge of which species can tolerate such contact. Without knowledge the negative affects of such encounters are often not manifested until well after the encounter has occurred.(1) In other words, if you don’t know what it is or how your interaction will ultimately affect the species, don’t touch it! If you’re not sure of a reproductive cycle, a habitat requirement or anything else about it, observe and move on.
Again, respect, we are in their world. Imagine this big creature coming into your living room and rubbing you up and down with large rough cloth or taking you out of your home all together. Most people (other than Angelo) probably would not take to kindly to it but in fact this is exactly what every diver who wears gloves for protection is doing when they touch something underwater. Gloves remove protective mucus from coral and other organisms leaving them prone to disease and death. It seems to me nearly every dive shop on this island issues their divers wet suits and gloves. The water is 86 degrees. One of the reasons I live here is that I can dive and my hands never get cold. In fact, I’ve worn a wet suit twice in nearly 5 years. So why do people need gloves and a wet suit – for protection. Not to protect the coral or marine life but to compensate for bad instruction and inappropriate interactions with the reef. If every instructor said No to gloves, students would learn very quickly that touching things is not a good idea. Put gloves on them and do the same yourself and they will never know, propagating the negative effects of gloves multiple times over for years to come. Set a good example and see the opposite result, the formation of an environmental champion in a diver with good buoyancy.

For me this was the issue I had with Harry’s post. Not so much that he evicted the crabs but because with his blog and his status in the community as a radio personality and a diving nut (I mean that in a good way) he has the ability to influence divers especially new ones. Although I have seen people do things underwater far worse than what these crabs experienced, I didn’t want anyone thinking that this type of interaction was ok because it’s just too easy to propagate the attitude and often very difficult to change it. Divers offer a unique perspective to the cause of environmentalism and often are at the forefront of conservation because they are taught (hopefully) that the ecosystem is not well understood and that our actions, whether diving or not, do have a profound effect on its health. It’s my hope that Harry will help with that cause because if divers don’t do it, no one will and I know a lot of divers are reading Harry’s world. By the way, did anyone notice that after an entire weekend of fishing the recently completed Saipan derby netted only 3 Marlin! Why? The reasons are likely much more complex than anyone really knows but what if a few hundred divers touching the reef with gloves and a few years of shell collecting did alter the food chain in some way. I realize it’s far-fetched but my point is we just don’t know so we should limit the things we can control and be passive, gloveless divers!

Respect the blog, its power and limitations.
How far reaching will this story go, how many people will relate to it or alter their behaviors one way or another? The Saipan blogger and walt his partner in crime I’m sure would argue that the potential, if it is not already happening, is huge. The problem is they (posts) will never (one should never say never) replace a good ol’ one on one chat. Come to think of it the telephone never really replaced that either. They (2) say communication consists of 7% words, 38% tone and 55% body language. I think we should build Harry’s new bar and put more body into our Saipan Blogging network!

1 PADI Encyclopedia of Recreational Diving
2 My sister-in-law Sue.

PS. I just read Brads post! Well done that’s a good chuckle!


Harry Blalock said...

An excellent synopsis. You cut through all the issues, made the points very clearly, and did it in a way that no one could take offense at. Now that's is truly the way to publicly educate that will be embraced and remembered. Again, I can't thank you enough for getting together the other day, and taking the time to explain your point of view and your concerns. Yes, this diving dinosaur is still learning an awful lot, and needs some help from time to time on understanding all the interactions taking place.

I'm glad you'll be doing more blogging, your sense of humor came shining through and it's just a great read!

Bruce A. Bateman said...

I think you covered it pretty well, Mike. Since you and Harry haven't got together yet let's the three of us dive this weekend. And others too.

As an aside, I will tell you that you hit the nail on the head when you talk about training being different back then. The equipment, other than tank and regulator, is far superior now with guages that work and bouancy compensators (other than legs and lungs)etc.

The trining I took was often accompanied with a spear gun, Yes, I know, but there were very few of us back then, and a lot less pressure on the resource. Many early divers carried it for 'protection'. It took a while to realize just who needed the protection.

Harry, so glad you will continue to blog. Let's breath some compressed air!