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October 2022    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 48, No. 10   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Rude Divers Can Ruin Trips (Part II)

it's all about competitiveness

from the October, 2022 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Rude divers were once few and far between. Nowadays, just about everyone is carrying a camera, and underwater photography seems to bring out the competitive worst in some divers. Not only do photographers compete to have the best shots in their group, they also compete during the dive to get more time with a specific subject. Go somewhere like Lembeh, Indonesia, and you'll witness groups of divers with cameras jostling for position around some unfortunate hairy frogfish, pushing ahead of the photographer who got there first.

His cameras hit the back of my head, forcing me down, and I was pinned to the bottom by his weight.

In fact, one of our members, Skip Parker (Ocala, FL), thinks rude photographers are the rule rather than the exception. "Every time I see a diver with a massive erector set of camera and lights on board my dive boat, I experience acute anxiety and depression. My dive is going to be ruined. I know it is very likely that a photographer will obscure any good sights underwater, and I will get shoved away by camera gear or wait so long for the photographer to move away that the good sighting will be gone."

And many of our readers share his view.

Photography as a Scrum

One trick rude photographers employ is actually pushing others away with their bodies, often pretending they are unaware of the other divers. Raymond Clark (Whiting, NJ) tells how on a Nai'a liveaboard trip in Fiji, a woman who was pleasant enough topside took to body checking photographers off their subject instead of waiting her turn.

Kathleen Poole (Walnut Creek, CA) tells about a diver in the Solomon Islands who would take his two hands and move people out of his way when he felt they were taking too long taking pictures. On another dive, he obstructed her while she and her husband were finning toward a wreck. "After I shook my fist in front of his mask, he backed off and didn't touch me again."

During a dive on Paradise Reef in Cozumel, Frank Jackson (Houston, TX) was trying to photograph an octopus that was changing colors when he was hit from behind by a diver carrying a huge camera outfit with two lights. "His cameras hit the back of my head, forcing me down, and I was pinned to the bottom by his weight. I pushed off, forcing him up and back ... to say the least, there was a confrontation."

Some divers think their big and expensive camera rigs grant them privilege. Pamela Herbert (Durham, NC) was diving at CoCo View in Roatan when a couple of guys with big rigs took over when the guide found a critter. "These two guys would muscle in, park themselves on the reef, often in ecologically unsound ways, and hang in until they got the shot. Meanwhile, the sediment would get kicked up, and the critter would often bolt. I overheard them discussing how many photos they had taken, and one asked the other, 'what do you do with them all,' and he said, 'Oh, I mostly delete them.'"

Scaring off the Fish

Photographers can become very undisciplined underwater. Tyler Jackson (Jensen Beach, FL), aboard the Mermaid II, recalls a typical response to the sight of mantas at a cleaning station in Komodo. "Photographer after photographer couldn't help but swim directly at the curious mantas. Strobes flashing in rapid succession and a flurry of kicks and excitement ensured we got only two flybys before the mantas were nowhere to be seen."

Some divers try to be underwater photographers before they've got their diving skills buttoned down. In the Florida Keys, Mary K. Wicksten (Bryan, TX) witnessed a grouchy woman who was so badly overweighted she repeatedly landed 'splat' on the seabed. "I saw a big Nassau grouper lazing under a coral branch as little fish cleaned him. It could have been a great photo, but here she came and whirled toward the grouper, which fled, terrified."

Are Videographers More of a Problem?

Divers trying to video their subjects often exacerbate the problem as they dwell on a subject to get a complete story of their critter and its action. "Who among us," asks John Horan (Denver, CO), "has not experienced the diver with the video camera and outrigger lights who think their camera prioritizes their presence? Recently in Cozumel, my group's divemaster from Tortuga Carey Divers spotted a seahorse. As we moved in to take a closer look, a diver with another group, fully geared up with photography equipment, spotted our divemaster's signal to our group. She came in over the top, pushed her way in front, and spent minutes filming, ignoring our divemaster's request to move on. It's tempting to fantasize about what James Bond would do."

And, what about those bright video lights? Mary K. Wicksten (Bryan, TX) says, "I've had trouble at the Bonaire pier and in Hawaii during night dives when mega-wattage lights shine into my eyes. I can only imagine what they do to nocturnal animals. There used to be a hapless octopus living in a discarded scuba tank at Divi Flamingo pier. The poor fellow was flash-bombed by the underwater paparazzi the minute a tentacle appeared!"

Damage and Disrespect for Nature

A few decades ago, it wasn't uncommon to see divers pick up a puffer fish so it would expand defensively, then play with it like a balloon; or wave a sea cucumber around like a flaccid penis; or slip up behind a nurse shark and grab its tail. Or pull up a sea fan or break off a hunk of black coral to take home.

By the '90s, that abuse began to end as respect for nature took hold. Then came digital cameras, video cameras, and an explosion of underwater photographers. Some have become too intent on getting a perfect image to give a hoot about the reef and its critters.

Diving in Thailand on a liveaboard, Jim Spennetta (Middleton, WI) discovered a ghost pipefish that everyone wanted to photograph. "I was polite and let another photographer have access to the fish first. To my horror, he whipped out a pair of chopsticks and beat the coral down, so it was not in his way. I was so mad that I wanted to pop his weights and send him back to the boat, but that would be dangerous, and I would be charged with assault."

Although some critters are not strong swimmers and are susceptible to predators if moved from their homes, some photographers are oblivious to the critter's safety. Heejae Cho (Cayman Islands) witnessed inexcusable behavior by a professional photographer. "The Sea Saba divemaster found a pipe fish, so the photographer picked it up with his hand and moved it for a better photo. We were horrified."

Photographers can become very undisciplined underwater

Kevin Tierney (Bronx, NY) remembers the terrible guy in Dominica "who thought he had a better location for the seahorse - so he moved it."

Those who manipulate wildlife in such a manner aren't excellent photographers. They are poseurs, editing nature before they take a shot.

Some divemasters have become complicit. Keeping their tips in mind, they turn their backs on such idiots and even assist them.

"A divemaster at Lembeh," says Paul Moliken (Portland, OR) "twirled his pointer around some small fish, stunning about three of them so that the camera people could get pictures of a frogfish eating them. He repeated this for a mantis shrimp shot. It was disgusting."

And some divemasters are padding their own portfolios, while ignoring the needs and safety of the divers. Jim Schoeneck (San Diego, CA) told Undercurrent, "On the Komodo Dancer in Indonesia, one of the dive guides was overly focused on her photography and would jump in front of almost everyone to get pictures and then linger while the guests waited."

Are Professional Photographers Worse?

Many professional photographers supplement their income by leading photography tours. Some divers who join them pay big bucks expecting to have an underwater tutor, only to discover that most professional photographers run trips to add to their own portfolio. They get the first pick and don't want the divers in their way as they pursue a great photo. They can be so focused on getting the shots they want, those who paid to join them miss out.

Ed Brakus (Fort Meyers, Florida) says years ago, he was on the Solmar V with two semi-famous photographers who were fully comped and several knowledgeable and patient amateur photographers. Every time we encountered a manta or something else interesting, the 'professionals' would kick full-speed toward the animal, get in one or two shots, while chasing away the animal before anyone else could enjoy the encounter. Toward the end of the trip, fewer and fewer divers were bothering to go in the water."

Often such people are working with commissions from diving magazines, advertisers, or the boat and are given priority treatment. Ed says, "Maybe liveaboard operators could find a way to keep the paying customers from paying the price for their marketing windfall."

Tom Van Leeuwen (Greenwich, CT) says, "Years ago, we had a professional photographer and his model on our dive boat in the Cayman Islands. They were first in the water, and nearby a turtle fed on coral. While the rest of us waited patiently, he took endless photos of his model next to the turtle until it grew tired of their presence and swam off. He should have been able to capture what he needed in just a few shots and moved off. The rest of us deserved shots of our own."

Of course, rude divers can affect underwater photographers, too, as Jeff Bloomer (Bettendorf, IA) points out. Telling us how he stays away from other divers, he recounts: "On a recent trip to Bonaire, I was hovering in the prone position to get a shot of a super male parrot fish off of Salt Pier. A woman from our boat swam under me while exhaling bubbles through the shot and then ran into me. I told her [later] I was hovering to take a picture, and she should be more aware of her surroundings."

His divers agree to limit themselves to three shots or 30 seconds with a subject

So How to Deal With It?

Some divers have avoided taking up underwater photography as Heidi King (North Palm Beach, FL) did for 10 years after seeing divers "pulling a nurse shark out from under a ledge in the Florida Keys to position it for an image, or taking pics of divers squatting over an ancient barrel sponge as if it were a toilet in Puerto Galera, the Philippines, or distractedly churning through beautiful fan corals pursuing a shot in Bonaire, or simply clanking down the reef dragging their equipment."

Rod Bauer (Monument, CO) writes that due to his disgust with the picture-taking fraternity, he gave away his underwater photography equipment but "continues to watch the underwater rudeness play out dive after dive." He says one thing most picture takers have in common is that they all are after the best publishable picture and lack situational awareness of other divers, with or without cameras. "I have watched them get in other divers' space, push them out of the way, hit them in the head with their fins or tank, some with very poor buoyancy control, and some take so long or swim directly toward the subject in open water taking multiple shots, that others with cameras lose their opportunity for a picture because the subject spooked and left the area."


We should acknowledge that much underwater rudeness is not intentional, and the perpetrator is often oblivious. Peter Wallingford (Seattle, WA), who developed the unique Diamond Reef Diver Training System, which provides buoyancy skill training, says that "Although divers who touch corals and kick up silt don't intentionally mean to be rude, they most often are unaware of their impact on the environment and fellow divers. Rude divers and the incredible diver dropout rate have been the result of a desperate, greedy industry."

And one trip leader enforces a system that puts an end to the scrum and lets divers get their shots. Ken Kurtis, whose Beverley Hills business, Reef Seekers Dive, runs trips worldwide, employs a "3 or 30 rule." His divers agree to limit themselves to three shots or 30 seconds with a subject. If they want more, they go to the back of the queue and wait for their next turn. Those who disregard the rule may be subject to a discreet talking-to between dives. Maybe other operations should try that," he says.

- John Bantin

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