Michael Durfee, OWU 2017, is an Environmental Studies and Medieval Studies dual major, and participated in a summer 2016 master diver apprenticeship in Cozumel, Mexico.
October 27, 2016
One of the first lessons we are taught as divers is that we are the stewards, the voice of, and the ambassadors of the underwater world. Nobody else has the means to be so intimate with this environment. Even if for no reason other than we love being in it, we must help protect it.
The Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) stresses the importance of the environment throughout a diver’s training. They teach us how to be careful of sensitive aquatic ecosystems (by maintaining good buoyancy, kicking properly, by knowing we won’t be attacked by animals unless we harass them, or simply by not touching things). PADI provides examples in their training books of ways to be active in the fight to keep our waters healthy.
PADI also advertise and teach Project AWARE both as an independent project and movement and as a specialty course for certification (AWARE Fish Identification, AWARE Shark Conservation, AWARE Underwater Naturalist for example). Project AWARE is the environmental movement within diving, started years ago by PADI and broken off into something grander. AWARE stands for Aquatic World Awareness Responsibility and Education. At its most basic we are given its Ten Ways a Diver Can Protect the Underwater Environment. These are: 1) Dive carefully, 2) Be aware of your body and equipment, 3) Keep your dive skills sharp, 4) Consider your actions, 5) Understand and respect underwater life, 6) Be an Ecotourist, 7) Respect underwater cultural heritage, 8) Report environmental disturbances or destruction, 9) Be a role model, and 10) Get involved.
I went to Cozumel, Mexico to earn my PADI Professional Divemaster rating. I chose a very good location for this dive training. Reasons for this are many, but primarily for the fact that the waters surrounding the island are a huge Marine National Park. All divers are required to be extra careful and mindful. For example, nobody is allowed to dive without a local Divemaster. There are extensive, complex coral reefs along the entire west side of the island. There was greater pressure for me to become a better, more skilled diver here. I have confidence in my abilities to observe sensitive organisms without any accidental harm occurring.
Diving these world famous coral reefs was remarkable and eye opening for me. I can hardly express what I have learned. I am familiar with numerous species of fish and am only just beginning to understand how they interconnect to form this ecosystem. I learned how a coral reef works in its most fundamental sense and how nearby wetlands like Mangroves can be essential to the reef’s continued survival.
Simply by observation while in over 60 dives, I got to see how some aquatic animals rely on the health of their coral environment. Health has multiple aspects.
I’ve chosen a few examples.
The sea turtles around Cozumel, most commonly the Green Sea Turtle and the Loggerhead Turtle, depend on coral reefs for food and protection.
The turtles will lie there chomping on coral, digging at it with their beaks. I may postulate that the type of coral matters, which makes the coral and sponge diversity important to the turtles.The relative shallow depths of these reefs allow turtles to live and feed well while still having fairly quick access to the surface for air. Here is a Green Sea Turtle who was eating but is now looking at the diver taking the photo.
Often while I was diving I thought to myself how odd some of the fish I see are. Many seem to be just generic and what a human might expect, but others not so much. Filefish are one of these oddities. I love to wonder why they look like they do – inspiring research on my part.
Watching The fish feed is the biggest clue. Their mouths are specialized for a certain diet. What exactly they eat I do not know, but they use their outwards-pointing teeth and elongated mouth to scrape their food off the bottom and the coral. Being so specialized may indicate an existence more vulnerable to environmental changes. Of the animal species here, it is the oddities, the curiosities and the fantastic that are the first to leave when conditions change.
The Drumfish is one of the most elegant and beautiful species of fish I was ever fortunate enough to observe. They are shy and love to hide under small, shallow ledges. Diversity of structure is one of the most important aspects of coral reef health. In this case, structural diversity allows for the shy to hide their faces and the very shy to hide their entire body. An example of the very shy would include the endemic species to Cozumel, the Splendid Toadfish who hides in a hole day and night.
Another species which appreciates the structural diversity of coral reef systems is the Stonefish, the most poisonous fish in the world.
Stonefish are docile, though, and are named for their ability to blend in with their surroundings and look like a stone or piece of coral. They are one reason why divers in the Caribbean try not to touch the reefs. If we imagine a reef that has been bleached or depleted in its various diversities, a Stonefish would not survive.
There are dozens of animals species which rely on the existence of coral reefs and their diversity. A diver’s awareness of this as connected to their choices and advocacy on land is an essential power. We can help advocate for more Marine National parks and sustainable fishing regulations. We can use sustainably produced products which would not create by-product which ends up in the ocean. We can use sustainable energy sources and/or cut back on overall energy consumption. Our mindful choices have a say in whether these beautiful places and animals will survive.
Having learned in a Marine National Park in Cozumel gave me a heightened sense of my duty as a now Professional diver. My Divemaster training stressed that one of my most essential duties is to be a good role model. This means being a skillful and knowledgeable diver, embracing and adhering to PADI Standards (which keep divers and the environment safe) and embracing and adhering to Project AWARE teachings.