Free-diving underwater photography a new sport to protect the environment

The marine coastal environment is threatened both locally and globally in different ways. Coastal habitats have been progressively degraded over the last few decades. Furthermore, an increase in the number of introduced species and climate-induced stressors are contributing to changes in biodiversity, emphasizing the need to foster the surveillance of coastal systems.

Littoral fish communities are threatened by numerous stressors, including habitat loss, global warming, changes in the continental water discharges, artificialization of the coastlines, the introduction of alien species and fishing pressure.

Numerous studies support the use of fish assemblages as biological indicators for marine coastal waters. Studies of fish populations in shallow littoral waters usually rely on underwater visual censures for monitoring the progress towards biodiversity. Valuable data gathered by public agencies or private entities also have informative potential that is worthy of being analyzed. This is the case of recreational fishing tournaments in certain regions, which have extensive spatial coverage and/or temporal continuity and have been shown to be valuable for characterizing and monitoring littoral fish assemblages.

Pic (C) One ocean One breath

Another potential source of information is under water photo contest. The technological developments in under water photography have led to the expansion of a new sport activity: free-diving underwater photography. Participants are given scores according to the number of species photographed, and they, therefore, search in every possible habitat to obtain the largest possible number of species. Consequently, the species richness resulting from these tournaments is expected to be higher than when traditional visual survey techniques are used. In Spain, the country I am from, these tournaments began in the 1980s and have now become regular. In particular, Canary Island has been hosted several underwater photography world championships. In fact, the last CMAS World Championship of Underwater Photography and the World Championship of Underwater Video, organized by the Spanish Underwater Federation and the Canarias Underwater Federation was held in Tenerife, Canary Island, last September 17, to 22, 2019.

This type of contest enhances competition between participants to obtain maximum fish diversity, therefore could be a complementary information source to scientific monitoring.

GoPros could become a tool for citizen science and environmental education.

Aquatic habitats of particular concern are coral reefs, which are under threat from multiple anthropogenic sources. Such threats include warming waters, ocean acidification, eutrophication/pollution, and overfishing. As a result, accurate and precise large-scale assessments of global health, growth and diversity of coral reef habitats are necessary to further assess and monitor such impacts.

Pic (C) One ocean One breath

Low-action cameras that have depth tolerances equal to or below that of recreational diving have become highly popular. The most prominent of which is the GoPro. Due to their relative ease of use and high resolution/low -cost ratio, a number of novel methodologies that use action cameras for marine research have emerged. Recreational use of these cameras and techniques for exploration, scientific mapping, and environmental education have been growing, with community projects that include historical shipwreck mapping or modeling of tourist sites.

However, underwater photography, although it can be a sustainable source of environmental education, it can have also negative environmental impacts if not managed effectively.

Over the last two decades, a growing body of evidence has revealed that numerous unsustainable biological and aesthetic impacts from recreational diving can do occur. For instance, studies conducted on the Great Barrier Reef found that 15% of divers damaged or broke corals, with diver’s fins being the main cause (95%) of all damage.

Last year, Maarten De Brauwer and different colleagues from Curtin University in Australia, published a research paper talking about underwater photography on soft sediment habitats. They assessed the environmental impacts of diving (in that case scuba divers and not free divers) on coral reefs and soft sediments in Indonesia and the Philippines.

Pic (C) One ocean One breath

They found careless diver behavior as a repeatedly cause of damage to corals, and they explained that divers tend to cause the greatest amount of damage at the start of a dive while they are still adjusting buoyancy. It seems this concern should not affect the free diving community but we need to be aware that several studies on megafauna such as sharks and rays have shown that diver interactions can reduce mobility and change feeding behavior. On the other hand, is also reported that high numbers of snorkelers can alter the morphology and growth of seagrass.

It also reported that diver certification level and gender also have an effect on behavior, which should be taken into account when designing management strategies. It seems, during normal dive behavior, male divers made more contact with the substrate than females and beginner divers cause more damage than experienced ones. This difference could be attributed to males being more prone to taking risks, or less likely to follow dive guide instructions.

Therefore, it is very crucial for divers to be educated and made aware of their own impacts, as an awareness of impacts on animals has been shown to increase tourist willingness to make trade-offs that increase animal welfare.

We should be aware of the positive effects of underwater photography but also of its impacts on a global scale. The competitive aspects of photography offer avenues to influence diver’s attitudes concerning wildlife photography. Clear rules from the organizing committees of photo competitions to no lo longer accept unethical behavior would send a powerful signal. Large dive expos dive magazines and wildlife photography publishing agencies such as National Geographic can fulfill a role-model function by not publishing images that clearly the result of photographer manipulation.

The frequent touching of animals and often extended periods of time divers (again, as freedivers, we should feel relief about it) spend with individual animals is likely to cause significant stress and requires the attention of management bodies and targeted research.

To conclude, while underwater photography can be a powerful tool for conservation outreach, care needs to be taken that photography remains sustainable. What is your opinion about the following videos?


Gordoa A. et al. (2018), Free-diving underwater fish photography contests: a complementary tool for assessing littoral fish communities, Scientia Marina, Vol 82, No 2, pp. 95-106

Raoult V. et al. (2016), GoPros™ as an underwater photogrammetry tool for citizen science, PeerJ 4:e1960

De Brauwer M. et al. (2018), Time to stop mucking around? Impacts of underwater photography on cryptobenthic fauna found in soft sediment habitats, Journal of Environmental Management, V 218, 15, pp 14-22

Hammerton Z., (2017), Determining the variables that influence SCUBA diving impacts in eastern Australian marine parks, Ocean & Coastal Management, V 142, 15, pp 209-217

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