Upside down abalone

Touch or don’t touch?

This blog post recently came to my attention – it’s by Burt Jones and Maurine Shimlock, and in it they talk about why touching marine life is a bad idea. I agree that, as a rule, it is a bad idea, but I don’t think it’s always totally out of the question.

When (I think) it’s ok


I must confess that when I see an upside down starfish, crab, or abalone, I turn them back over. Call it interfering with the natural order of things, but I can’t swim by and leave them. I know how uncomfortable I feel when I get stuck somewhere in an awkward position, and I just have to help!

Upside down abalone
Upside down abalone (I turned him over after taking his picture)

Assisting an injured or entangled animal

A creature that is entangled with fishing line, or has a fish hook in its mouth, for example, is dealing with something completely outside of what nature intended for it to experience. If the animal allows, I think it’s totally appropriate to assist. In the case of a whale, a shark, or a creature that could potentially hurt you (possibly just by virtue of its vast dimensions), this is best left to trained professionals.

Tony assisted with a moray eel that was tangled in fishing line on a dive on the Coopers Light wreck in Durban – he was the only diver in the party who had a knife, and while two others held the eel steady, he was able to cut it free so that it could swim away. When he speaks about this experience, it’s clear that it was pretty life changing for him. And for the eel.

When the animal initiates it

I’ve experienced this a few times, and every time it has ranked among the most incredible diving experiences I’ve had. I’ve had a klipfish swim right up to my face and bump my mask, and then make his way down my arm and glove – rubbing it the way I’ve seen them rub their bodies on the sand, at Long Beach. I’ve been nibbled more than once by fish in the aquariums in Durban and Cape Town. I’ve watched a ray swim so close over fellow divers’ heads that they had to lift up their hands to fend it off.  My view is that if the animal wants contact, and if the contact won’t harm me or the animal, it’s fine.

To discourage certain behaviour

I never thought this would really be an issue when diving, but last weekend we had a bit of a scary experience (well, I was scared – not sure about Tony!) with the sevengill cowsharks at Shark Alley. Tony and Tami both had to strike a very persistent shark to persuade it to stop gnawing on my first stage – more than once. This kind of situation is very unusual.

Obviously defending yourself is all right. If you deliberately expose yourself to danger, however, I’m inclined to think you must deal with the consequences!

When (I think) it’s not ok

Because it looks fun

I’d include poking jellyfish in this one! Though it may not seem that way, many sea creatures are more fragile than you’d think. They’re not toys, and interactions whose human to human equivalents would involve nose-pulling and cheek-pinching are not cool. They’re purely an opportunity for you to indulge a desire to break or annoy something. Go annoy your little brother instead!

When it could hurt you

Don’t be like the tourists who get mauled by lions in game parks because they get out of their cars to take photographs, or who stick their hands into animal enclosures because the tiger looks so fluffy, or whatever. Sharks are dangerous, whales are very large and probably not even aware of your presence, and many other marine creatures have stings, spines and poisonous body parts that could harm you. Don’t be silly.

When it could hurt the animal

This isn’t always obvious. Touching coral reefs, for example, is not a good idea. For one thing, coral structures may be very fragile, and your touch could break them. The effect of touch on the live organisms inside the hard framework is not well understood – it seems that light touches do not cause damage (after all, a multitude of creatures swim over and brush against the coral every day) but more aggressive contact can be harmful. The rule is, don’t touch at all, and control your fins and buoyancy!

Fish have a protective mucous layer on their skin. If you touch them with dry hands, you can damage the mucous layer – this leaves the fish vulnerable to parasites and infections. This isn’t likely to happen unless you’re a sport fisherman (ugh!) and you’ve caught the poor fellow in preparation for throwing him back so that he can go through it all again next weekend. Touching fish with a wet hand can also be harmful if you are wearing creams or other chemical products.

Many fish tank owners pet their fish – a friend had a big, aggressive fish (I can’t remember the type) who loved having his tummy scratched. As long as Duncan’s hands were clean, there was no risk posed by him putting a hand into the tank so that Oscar could get his weekly tickle.

When it will change the animal’s behaviour

Touching wild animals may alter their behaviour towards humans. It may make them more skittish and afraid, or it may do the reverse, and persuade them that people are not harmful. That’s a dangerous illusion to have. There’s no question in my mind that some of the marine life we encounter at Long Beach is so habituated to divers (on a busy weekend there can be more than 20 divers in the water at once) that one can get really close, and even make contact with the creatures. I’m not sure what the right thing to do here is – the damage (if you want to call it that) has been done already.

Final thoughts

There’s no question that as humans we have a powerful urge to interact with nature, and touch is one of those ways in which we can experience transcendence in the natural environment. We have to put aside ego, however, and think first of the wellbeing of the creature, and then of ourselves.

I would feel more optimistic about a bright future for man if he spent less time proving that he can outwit Nature and more time tasting her sweetness and respecting her seniority.

The Points of My Compass: Letters from the East, the West, the North, the South, E. B. White (1899 – 1985)

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Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.

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