5 Tips for Interacting with Marine Life

JDC Scopion Fish by Cheryl Hillesheim

Summer vacations are underway and as any experienced traveler knows, when immersing yourself in an unfamiliar world it’s important to learn a bit about the local etiquette.

It’s the same when you go diving. It’s easy to forget that as a diver you are visiting a foreign place. Sure, there are rules divers have to follow—don’t hold your breath; watch your remaining bottom time; try not to lose your buddy—but taking the time to learn a bit of etiquette will make your interactions with the local marine life you meet more enjoyable and safer. Jupiter Dive Center offers these tips to help you fit in like a local!

Look, don’t touch

This should be obvious, but touching marine life is a big no-no. Yes, we’ve all seen the photographs of divers reaching out and stroking a turtle or shark, but not only is that a bad idea, in many instances, it’s illegal. The Endangered Species Act of 1973 protects endangered and threatened species and critical habitat—this includes all of the sea turtles in our area, goliath groupers, manatees, some sharks, and our coral reefs.

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Coupled with the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the legislation is meant to keep both animals and people safe while offering guidelines on how to act when you encounter marine life. Throw in the state statutes and in a nutshell, most laws prohibit the molestation, harassment, mutilation or destruction of protected species and their habitats. We dive because we want to enjoy the marine life, so it’s in our best interest to do what we can to protect them. 

Need more reasons? Most animals are quite adept at protecting themselves, and while that moray eel may look chill, it can put a serious hurt on the finger you just used to poke it.

JDC Parrot Fish in mucus bubble

Curious about the mucous cocoon parrotfish spin around themselves at night? It’s a barrier against parasites that during the day are held at bay by a visit to the cleaning stations. It’s also believed the cocoons helps disguise a parrotfish’s scent, possibly protecting them from predators while they sleep. That bubble takes at least an hour for the fish to manufacture. A single touch will destroy it.

Social distance

This goes hand in hand with look, don’t touch. But if you’ve ever tried to sneak up on a critter, you know that moving in too close often chases it away. 

We’re fortunate to be home to some resident goliath groupers, but in the late summer, more of these gentle giants arrive and aggregate in our waters to spawn. It’s a bucket list experience to dive with dozens of these massive fish, but divers should maintain a six-foot distance. If possible, approach them from below. If they start barking at you—and you’ll know it. The sound will reverberate through your body—back off, they’re letting you know you’re too close.

DC Goliaths infront of Wreck Walt Stearns
DC Women behind loggerhead turtle Walt Stearns

This time of year, sea turtles are often resting on top of the reef after they’ve nested, or you’ll see them with their head concealed under a ledge or in a cave. Keeping six feet away will prevent you from startling them—which in turn keeps you both safe.

Oh, and fun fact; if a turtle is swimming towards you quickly, they may just think you’re a sexy turtle. Tis the season, after all.  

Take only photos, leave only bubbles.

This section addresses a couple of things. We’ll start with the obvious—taking photos. Photographers know a slow approach works best, otherwise, you’ll have shot after shot of tails, turning, and retreating fish. The less obvious part is what you leave behind, and it starts on the boat. If it doesn’t grow in the ocean, you shouldn’t toss it overboard—even if it’s edible.

JDC Women taking photo of green moray eel Walt Stearns

Fish will eat darn near anything, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for them and plastics have been found in the stomachs of fish at all levels of the ocean. There are also concerns about the possibility of training wildlife to associate divers with food and Florida law prohibits the feeding of fish, sharks, or other marine species while diving or snorkeling.

Stay off the reef

JDC Coral reef Walt Stearns

Florida’s coral reef stretches nearly 350 miles from the Dry Tortugas to the St. Lucie Inlet and is comprised of forty-plus species of corals. It’s easy to forget that the reef is a living organism that supports plenty of other small creatures that are fragile and easily hurt. Bouncing against the reef, kicking it with your fins, and dragging your loose equipment over the reef’s surface damages this slow-growing organism.

Buoyancy control is one of the critical skills divers need to master. Do your buoyancy skills need a bit of work? Check this course out. The reef thanks you.

Be careful with your flashlight and strobes

Remember that time your buddy blasted you in the face with his flashlight during a night dive? You were blinking spots away for several minutes, right? Now think about this: most fish don’t have eyelids to blink.

You are also leaving them vulnerable to other predators—some of which hover near divers and wait for their flashlights to shine on their next meal.

JDC Turtle at dusk Alan C Egan

While they sleep, sea turtles lower their heart rate to a few beats per minute to avoid frequent trips to the surface to breathe. The beam of your flashlight may confuse, stress, or disorient them. So how do you manage your light? Shine the beam to the side of the animal and let the ambient light illuminate your subject.

It doesn’t take much to make a good impression while traveling. And while you can’t learn how to say hello to a sea turtle or thank you to a shark, you can ensure you don’t annoy your hosts. Who knows? You may even score a photo of them looking right at you! Book your dive now with Jupiter Dive Center—no passport required!

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