Underwater Naturalist

By Sophie Read

For The Bali Times

SEMINYAK ~ Amongst the many PADI courses available to divers and snorkelers, perhaps the most interesting and relevant is the Underwater Naturalist Specialty. Anyone who has been diving or snorkeling, and observed and enjoyed the marine world, is in a sense already an underwater naturalist.

Underwater naturalists observe patterns and behaviors in the natural world and hopefully learn enough to predict future behaviors and events. They study the “interrelationship of living things and their environment.”

We are all the sum of our parts: our reactions are determined by what we have experienced and what we have learned. The underwater world follows different rules from those on land and so basically the PADI Underwater Naturalist Specialty teaches divers and snorkelers those rules.

The course explains how, in the same way as on land, the differences in the underwater environment determine the form and function of the species that live there. It focuses on the ways in which the visitor to the aquatic environment can experience this incredible world whilst causing minimum impact.

Living underwater determines the form of the creatures that live there. Have you ever tried to turn quickly underwater? Water is 800 times denser than air, and this density restricts motion. How many divers, laboring against a current, have looked enviously at the fish zooming past them with the barest flick of the tail? Divers wear fins to allow them to propel themselves with relative ease, but the creatures living there have developed streamlined shapes to allow them to move with comparative ease through the water.

One of the greatest attractions of diving is the feeling of being weightless – of no longer being controlled by gravity. The buoyancy of water creates this weightlessness, counteracting the effects of gravity. When not constrained by gravity, organisms can survive without the bones we need on land, and those that have the added benefit of bones can grow to sizes unheard of on land. The largest dinosaur that ever walked the Earth would still have been dwarfed by the Blue Whale.

The PADI Underwater Naturalist Specialty course also aims to dispel myths about the underwater environment and its inhabitants. As on land, our opinions of the behavior of aquatic life are colored by our perceptions of the hazard they pose to us. We tend to (erroneously) perceive a shark swimming towards us as threatening behavior, whereas the same behavior from a dolphin or turtle would be welcomed.

As on land, the vast majority of “attacks” by underwater creatures are nothing of the kind. Sea urchin stings are painful, but their spikes are purely defensive. An underwater naturalist will understand these reactions, and be able to avoid them. The student learns to identify possibly hazardous animals and their habitat, and to avoid them – recognizing a moray eel, for example, and understanding that reaching into its hole could provoke a natural defensive reaction. The late, and sorely missed, Steve Irwin was not “attacked” by a sting ray; he was simply too close and provoked exactly that: a natural defensive reaction.

Aquatic life “attacks” for four main reasons: to defend themselves from a perceived threat; to defend territory, or young; to obtain food; and, quite honestly, by mistake. Even animals that are perceived as harmless, or even friendly, like dolphins, can become aggressive if they believe their young to be threatened by divers. At some sites around the world, normally passive fish bite divers’ hands and extremities as fish-feeding has taught them to view us as a source of food.

Humans/divers are not the natural prey of any underwater creature, and as such, attacks are normally a case of mistaken identity. With the best will in the world, no one would describe a shark as a particularly intelligent creature (“superb,” “beautiful,” “magnificently designed,” yes, but “intelligent,” no). Millennia of evolution have taught sharks one thing – if it looks like a seal and behaves like a seal, it is a seal. If humans behave like seals, especially wounded seals (lying on the surface and splashing for instance), then in the shark’s tiny mind, you are a seal – and therefore, dinner. Luckily, we apparently don’t taste so good.

The perception of the danger posed by underwater creatures is exacerbated by our own helplessness underwater. In reality, most underwater organisms simply do not notice divers – they are too busy feeding themselves and their families, staying out of harm’s way and generally going about the business of survival.

An underwater naturalist is also aware of the other main myth about aquatic life: that some species are more “human” than others, and therefore benevolent to humans. There is no denying that dolphins, for example, are demonstrably intelligent, but try getting between a wild dolphin mother and her calf, or kissing a wild sea lion (as you may have seen at SeaWorld or other aquaria), and “friendly” is the last characteristic you would probably use to describe the behavior you see exhibited.

The aim of the course is to teach the diver to apply what they have learned about the underwater environment, and not to blindly expect the same reactions from underwater life as you would on land. For example: coral looks like rock, and if one applied land-learned lessons, it would be safe to stand on it. In truth, standing on coral will break and kill it. All interactions with the aquatic environment should be measured by the effect it will have on the organism involved, not the enjoyment gained by the diver/snorkeler.

Passive interactions (those that only minimally, if at all, affect the environment) are best – photography for example. Riding on aquatic life (turtles, manta rays), or poking it to see how quickly it can move (Mola Mola), is not a passive interaction. Mola Mola (Oceanic sunfish) for instance, live life quietly at 300 meters, ascending occasionally to be cleaned by bannerfish that inhabit much shallower depths – the depths at which recreational divers are found – meaning these days the Mola Mola here in Bali may find themselves blinded by underwater flashbulbs, and mobbed by hundreds of divers.

The primary and most important rule for interacting with the underwater environment is “Look, but don’t touch”: Don’t pick it up; don’t ride on it; don’t handle it; don’t stand on it; don’t hit it with dangling bits of equipment. Simply look at it, enjoy it, marvel at it.

The writer is sales manager of AquaMarine Diving – Bali.

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