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  • christophe chellapermal

    The other face of underwater photography: ethical dilemmas

    Hi Everyone,

    I would like to share with everyone this article that i have published on my site. In a time where we are constantly pushed by social media to publish images faster and faster i am noticing around me more and more malpractices on land and of course also underwater.

    This is an article initially in french translated by myself in English do forgive me if there any errors.




    Thanks for reading

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    This is a very difficult topic.
    The issues of feeding animals in nature photography have been discussed for decades. Due to the fact that there are significantly fewer underwater photographers, it started here later.
    At the same time, the very fact of protecting marine life is even more pressing. People far from the sea do not pay attention to what is happening under water.
    And now the question is not even that feeding in certain places changes the behavior of animals. The problem is that soon there may be no more of these animals left (and no fish either).
    Therefore, attracting attention (including through underwater photography) is now critically important.

    An example from personal experience:
    Philippines. When you dive in some places you are told that the use of gloves is not allowed as it can damage the corals. In my experience, one fishing boat that forgot to remove its anchor destroyed more coral than all the underwater photographers combined (for all time).

    Examples from history:
    On the one hand, tourism in the Red Sea causes a lot of damage to the reefs. On the other hand, in the south where there is no tourism, fishing with dynamite has destroyed almost everything.

    The Queen's Gardens remained almost shark-free until the advent of tourism.
    And there are many such examples.

    Of course, a strict violation of ethical standards during underwater photography is not acceptable. But things like feeding... especially if it goes hand in hand with learning and advocacy like in Fiji. This is the best option we have.

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    Tell us more about the Fiji example.  Because the one time I did the Beqa Lagoon shark dive, admittedly a long time ago, it was a feeding frenzy free-for-all.  And personally I would much prefer that sharks do not learn that motor + splash = food when I’m usually the one making the splash!  

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    A timely article for me, Christophe, as we recently spent 12 days on a liveaboard in the Jardines de la Reina, Cuba (Queen's Garden, mentioned by Andrey).  The trip was heavily oriented to shark photography--in fact, I have a reef shark image open in Photoshop as I type.  Bait boxes were used on every dive of 32, there was chumming, and guides routinely fed lionfish off their spears.  The liveaboard has sailed, as it were, on the ethical question of manipulating the behavior of big predators through baiting; and, as I reminded my wife, we feed birds in our yard without a second thought, and beg them to raise their offspring in our boxes.  


    But your article is not about that ethical issue per se, but about whether it is ethical, as a photographer, to offer such images as representing what happens in the wild.  I can say that our experience was "in the wild," in the sense that we were 40 miles offshore and totally surrounded with full-grown sharks (Caribbean reef and silky), but of course without humans, there would not have been eight or 10 animals showing up as soon as a guide picked up a mooring ball.  Are the photographs which were taken by the two-dozen photographers on board, a number of whom are pros, properly used without a disclaimer?  Good question, which goes to the second part of your article:  Manipulating scenes to get the photograph.  If a guide uses his stick to nudge a pipefish into the open, is that an ethical issue?  There are certainly excellent arguments in favor of that view, and I very much prefer guides who don't.  But if the guide does, and I end up with a great photo of that pipefish and enter it in a competition, should I disclose the guide's action?  What about clearing spiny urchins away to get a better view of the mandarin fish ballet?  


    As Andrey says--a difficult topic.  I would certainly not publish a photograph of a rhino in the zoo and claim it was in Sumatra, and in my images from the Jardines, I include information about the scent boxes--in fact, I include a picture of one.  But are the pictures less interesting--or the animals less beautiful, for that matter--because of the circumstance?  The underwater-photo-industrial complex says no, I think, but it's a serious question which deserves the community's thought.  Thank you for writing your article and re-posting it here.


    Aquabluedreams--I had some trouble with your link, for some reason, but the rules you published are compelling.  Thank you.


    Edited by RickMo
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    Thank you everyone for the awesome feedback and the input just as a reminder it's not about putting the blame on anyone but really about opening what i believe is a discussion we don t hear about enough, i also want to emphasize how lucky we are to have such cool hobby and time for a passion while some on the planet have much pressing issues..


    It is a very difficult topic and the line is very thin it is also very hard to define if tourism is a good or negative thing for habitats i have seen places that thrived thanks to tourism others like in sharm where i have seen the reefs in really bad shape my first time there was in 96 last one was in 23... I know for example in hawai they have strict rules about approaching marine mammals... Like always there are those with good practices and those without a care... my approach has always been to be as humble as possible when in the sea.. i ve always taught one motto to all my dive student a good diver is a diver that never stops learning i believe the same applies in uw photography.. heading out for a cruise in thailand tonight will be off the grid for two weeks apologies if i don't follow up in the threads, merci to all 

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    I am afraid that there is no place left on this planet where human influence is NOT happening. Thus, we can only resort to finding the best compromise rather than dreaming about an ideal scenario.

    Eco-tourism is an oxymoron, but some ways of doing it are certainly better than others. And the mere fact of flying around the globe to reach a remote location is creating more of our problems - so the baiting may to be that much of an add-on. We will only protect (sort of) what we know, can experience and love, I think Sir David said that first. There’s no shortcut here: Even conservation efforts WILL leave a footprint. But less so than brutal exploitation.

    For the animals like sharks it has been said above: They must be worth more alive, or else they will be slaughtered and sold. This just does not work without baiting, and there is no point arguing with fundamental economic principles. You cannot run a shark expedition with negligible chances of seeing a shark. That said, I have not been able to really accept this and perhaps will never join such a trip. But that is personal choice and I do indeed find it slightly reassuring that baiting at least still works…

    Annotating the pictures is certainly a good option, even more if you include the name of responsible operators. The animals are NOT less fascinating when they have been baited, so there is no need to hide it. 


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    9 hours ago, Klaus said:

    For the animals like sharks it has been said above: They must be worth more alive, or else they will be slaughtered and sold. This just does not work without baiting, and there is no point arguing with fundamental economic principles. You cannot run a shark expedition with negligible chances of seeing a shark. That said, I have not been able to really accept this and perhaps will never join such a trip. But that is personal choice and I do indeed find it slightly reassuring that baiting at least still works…

    Annotating the pictures is certainly a good option, even more if you include the name of responsible operators. The animals are NOT less fascinating when they have been baited, so there is no need to hide it.


    On the other hand, you do have places like French Polynesia (Rangiroa, Fakkarava) or even Palau (reef sharks for the most part, but also bullsharks and oceanic black tips on the spawning dives, and the odd tiger at German Channel), where sharks baiting is illegal, yet where sharks (and related dive tourism) play a major part in the local economy.

    Same goes for the hammerhead schools and sharks in the Eastern Pacific or the Banda Sea for instance, that attract a lot of divers to see sharks in unbaited, more pelagic settings, or even the (slightly iffy atm) oceanic white-tips and other sharks encounters of southern Red Sea itineraries, where shark expeditions are run quite regularly.

    In the end, it really depends on the type of sharks you want/expect to see - baiting focuses on attracting mostly larger, more pelagic species that are more difficult to see in a non-baited context (with a special focus tiger sharks and bullsharks, great hammerhead or even great whites for the now banned Isla Mujeres operations etc).

    As a slight counterexample to this "fundamental economic principles", there are Marine Protected Areas - these can do a lot for rebuilding the ecosystem, and while enforcement of the MPA can be an issue, they probably do more good than baited diving operators do, especially on the long term.

    The Misool Eco Resort in Raja Ampat was built on what was primarily a shark-finning camp, and shark populations did rebound after the establishment of the MPAs - sure, we're talking reef shark here, but this does not mean there aren't bigger pelagic sharks around.

    However, you will probably not see them.

    This is normal - the bigger, pelagic sharks which are the stars and highlights of chummed-dives are actually around in quite a few diving areas that do not practice such baited/chummed shark dives.

    If you could bait/chum in Palau, you would surely get all the bigger sharks as well - fishers or people looking for whales on the outer reefs see silkies, tigers, great hammerhead, bulls, oceanic white tips and black tips - they're definitely around.
    But just not on the main dive sites.

    Same goes in many diving areas, even Bali's Lombok strait, off the macro-focused Tulamben area actually has its share of big sharks, fishers on rumpon fish aggregating devices see tigers, hammerheads and more - a random great hammerhead showed up on a Tulamben dive site last month.
    They're around, and baiting/chumming would most likely work, for instance, even in a place where (now illegal) shark-finning is still a major, ongoing issue.
    Bigger sharks play their role in the ecosystem, but are not generally seen by divers, for behavioural and habitat reasons.

    I hear the conservation argument (basically: if it wasn't for the chummed shark dives locals would be shark fishing/finning), and I'm also with you in that it's not for me.

    As for the only protect what we know, can experience and love idiom, we need to remember also very good at commodifying natural highlights, and in a bigger picture, the impact of such a commodification of ressources can also be quite high, and the conservation argument can easily turn into some sort of self-justifying greenwashing.
    Seaworlds and similar venues have long used the educational agreement to justify their debatable practices, such as the captivity of large marine mammals, for instance.

    Sure, shark chumming is not the same thing, but even if the animals are not less fascinating when they have been baited, divers have to keep in mind that they are taking part in an artifical animal-encounter activity which is repeated daily, sometimes multiple times a day, with a definite impact on animal behaviour.

    As often, the frequency of the event is key - same goes for touching marine fauna and flora, fish feeding - the impact of such micro-events might be relatively small, but exponentially amplified if repeated daily on a large scale.

    Practically, when I see behind-the-scene footage of divers kneeling in front of the chum buckets waiting to take pictures in Fiji or the Bahamas (or the "shark scramble" in Japan's Chiba prefecture...), I know deep down this is not an experience I would want to be a part of, regardless of how cool the end footage would be.
    Even more "open water" settings like blue shark dives in the Azores or shark dives off Cabo San Lucas are not super appealing to me to be honest... I get it, but don't really want to do this.

    I would much rather pay to try to see a few seconds of a baitball in Bahia Magdalena for instance, or cross-finger to hammerheads in Alor or the El Bajo in the Sea of Cortez (to give a sad example of dwindling shark populations, primarily due to poor handling of the shark breeding area...).

    But then again I'm not a fan of zoos and aquariums as well, and consider that when it comes to animals and fauna spotting, diving is (and should remain) more a gamble than a fully-marketable, bang-for-your-buck experience.

    I personally hit my limit when I was working in the sea of Cortez and doing California sea lion dives daily.
    Sure, it was taking divers to a sea lion colony (rather than artifically attracting them), but it started to feel like I was working in a zoo, and that made me increasingly uncomfortable, and realise that this was not really the kind of diving experience I was interested in facilitating, regardless of how fantastic the sea lions are (they are!).


    Returning to shark dives, (so-far) more "unintentionally chummed" (tuna fishery) tiger dives in the Maldive's Fuvahmulah sound a bit more fluid, as it's taking advantage (again, for now) of an existing man-made situation. I think the bull-shark dives in Cabo Pulmo are similar.
    Same goes for observing mantas at cleaning stations, which, if done reasonably, doesn't really have the same impact as light-pooling (plankton aggregating) operations for instance.


    As with most conservation issues, it is far from black-and-white, good/bad, but chummed dives are taking the diving experience in a direction that I'm personally not interested in - again, regardless of how amazing the resulting footage of animals that would not be encountered otherwise would be - and find that the conservation argument is also somewhat debatable.


    Edited by bghazzal
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    I think you have created a nice resource collection here for anyone who wants to try sharks without baiting! 
    I agree on the dose-effect and greenwashing risks, but I suppose we can start way before the bait-box with that. Hence I would not want to break into an ethical discussion because someone publishes a respectful (!) picture of a shark that has been baited; this may have been a minor contribution to the total impact of the journey.
    I throughly enjoyed a dive with big groupers on Madeira this summer, although they were clearly way more accustomed to divers than they should be. Whatever their routine may be, or have been in the past - it is for vacationers like me. And it was a cool photo opportunity! So I‘m not that much „better“, if at all.

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