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Fish Conditioning: Do fish become conditioned by contact with divers?

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In Mauritius, some of the species are completely relaxed, and others extremely nervous around divers. The most remarkable are the sharks in the shark pit in Mauritius. We have been there with a small group to find as many as 23 sharks finning around in the washing machine current. To them we do not exist. They completely ignore us.

Once they have got used to the fact that the air-breathers are harmless they go about their business happily, unafraid of the invaders.

In Mozambique the Potato Bass are happy to interact with divers, lying on the sand, eyeing them hopefully, swimming beside them and rubbing against them. The legendary Bert was among these.

The controversy over Cage Diving and chumming for sharks rages on, and although we enjoy the adrenalin rush of the Tiger Shark Dive at Aliwal Shoal, there is always a nagging doubt that we are supporting something that could lead to later danger. It is extremely rare for a diver to be attacked by a shark, unless he is in a bait ball or in the wrong place, or behaves foolishly. The Dive Operators who offer these extreme experiences have never themselves felt in any danger.

The raggies at Aliwal shoal are like bull terriers. They are completely familiar with divers, and they are unfazed by photographers. The pregnant females at Sodwana fin trance-like around groups of divers.

I watched Walter Bernardis brush a piece of sardine away from my buddy’s head just as a Black Tip was diving for it, and the Black Tip veered away from his hand. Shark diving is exhilarating, but I have never felt threatened by the animals themselves. After five years of diving with the Tigers, I have noticed that the grey reef and black tips that come to feed are no longer wary of divers. They brush you out of the way to reach the bait ball. Once they lose their fear of divers, these sharks are completely relaxed in the water.

The one animal that always seems completely aloof, has never changed, and which completely ignores diver and which typifies the apex predator is the Tiger. Nothing changes their behaviour that I have ever seen. They are always looking for something to taste. They are always alert to anything new in their world. They will always nibble on anything unfamiliar, and a nibble from a tiger can remove most of your torso.

Is it a bad thing for fishes to become conditioned to the presence of divers in their private domain? Theoretically, anything that changes the behaviour of a creature in its natural habitat is unwarrantable interference. However, the test of stress in a creature is whether it continues to live, to eat and to breed and the evidence of stress-free fish life is everywhere.

In the bad old days, Dive Masters in Mauritius used to conceal pieces of uneaten cheap Government bread in their BC pockets. Unnoticed by the early naiive Resort Course divers, the DMs crumble the bread into the water around them, and are soon mobbed by shoals of damsels, who like nothing more than a little French loaf for breakfast.

When you dived with certain Dive Operators there you had to swat away the aggressively seeking damsels. They bit your hands or the naked areas on your face. Their teeth are too small to draw blood, but the nip was painful nonetheless. Conditioned to expect something from divers? Absolutely.

At Sodwana Bay on Stringer Reef and on Quarter Mile Reef the Sergeant Majors (Abdadufduf abdadufduf ) lay their eggs in nests in the hollows of the eroded rocks and caverns. In December they can be seen hovering anxiously over their nests, but if a diver gets too close they dart away, and the wily wrasses pile in and gobble their eggs.

Incredibly, the Wrasses know they fear divers, and we have often been plagued by colourful wrasses weaving seductively in front of the camera lens, and then darting towards the Sergeant Majors’ nests hoping we will follow them. It’s almost as though they are saying, “Come on guys, come and look at these eggs, come and photograph these fish.” We have often seen pairs of mournful-looking Sergeant Majors rushing back to their eggless nests after an oblivious dive group has finned down for a closer look.

Conditioning? Looks like it.

Less obvious conditioning is on new or undiscovered reefs, where the fish are much more nervous when a group of divers arrives, and whole shoals will fin away from the intruders. I’ve seen this happen at little –known Reefs like Fusilier, or Snapper College at Sodwana.

Perhaps, just as we are learning about Reef Fish, they are learning about us – and if their behaviour is anything to go by, once they get to know us, they simply accept us.


Words Jill Holloway

Pic David Holloway

Copyright Ocean Spirit

www.osdiving.com

Jill Holloway lives in Mauritius and at Sodwana Bay Isimangaliso Wetland Park in South Africa. A PADI qualified Nitrox diver with over 1,500 dives, she is a passionate observer and preserver of the marine environment, and has a database of over 35,000 fish pics and hundreds of Gopro videos on fish behaviour, which she shares with her readers.

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Jeff chats to… Underwater Photographer Ellen Cuylaerts (Watch Video)

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In this exclusive Zoom interview, Jeff Goodman, Scubaverse Editor-at-Large, chats to Ellen Cuylaerts about her diving and underwater photographic career.

As an underwater and wildlife photographer, Fellow of The Explorers Club and having a front seat in exploration being part of the Flag and Honours Committee, Ellen is also a Member of the Women Divers Hall of Fame. She travels the world and tries to make the most of every destination and the path that leads her there. Ellen acts as an ocean citizen and believes as divers we should all be ocean ambassadors and lead by example. She is now based in the UK after many years in Grand Cayman.

Find out more about Ellen and her work at www.ellencuylaerts.com


Rather listen to a podcast? Listen to the audio HERE on the new Scubaverse podcast channel at Anchor FM.

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Marine Life & Conservation

Huge thresher shark is the latest of six murals to be painted around the Solent this summer

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The murals celebrate the Solent’s extraordinary marine life – marking National Marine Week.

Secrets of the Solent have commissioned street artist ATM to paint a series of marine-themed artworks at various locations around the Solent this summer. The latest mural to be finished shows a thresher shark on the Langstone Harbour Office. Langstone Harbour is an important area for wildlife as well as a bustling seaside destination for sailing and water sports.

Artist ATM, who is painting all six murals, is well-known for his iconic wildlife street art. This, his second artwork of the series, took three days to paint freehand, from a scaffolding platform. The thresher shark was chosen out of six marine species to be the subject of the artwork by the local community, who were asked to vote via an online form or in person on the Hayling Ferry.

Secrets of the Solent hope the mural will become a landmark in Langstone Harbour and inspire visitors to learn more about this enigmatic oceanic shark. The project, which is supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, works to celebrate and raise awareness of Solent’s diverse marine environment.

Aiming to highlight the exotic and unusual creatures found close to our coasts, artist ATM says: “I really enjoyed painting the thresher shark because it’s such an amazing looking animal, with a tail as long as its body. I hope when people see the murals, they will become more aware of what lives under the waves and the importance of protecting the vital habitats within the Solent.”

Dr Tim Ferrero, Senior Marine Biologist at Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust says: “The thresher shark is a wonderful animal that visits our waters every summer. It comes to an area to the east of the Isle of Wight, and this appears to be where the sharks breed and have their young. Not many people know that we have thresher sharks in our region, and so having our mural here on the side of the Langstone Harbour Office building is a fantastic way of raising awareness of this mysterious ocean wanderer. I really hope that people will come away with the knowledge that the Solent, our harbours and our seas are incredibly important for wildlife.”

Rachel Bryan, Project Manager for Secrets of the Solent at Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust comments: “We are really excited to have street artist ATM painting a thresher shark on the side of the Langstone Harbour Office building. We chose this building because of its prominent location right on the entrance to Langstone Harbour so that anyone who’s visiting, whether that’s walkers, cyclists or people coming in and out of the harbour on their jet-skis or sailing boats, will all be able to see our thresher shark. People on the Portsmouth side of the harbour will also be able to see the mural from across the water.”

The thresher shark is a mysterious predator which spends most of its time in oceanic waters. It uses its huge whip-like tail as an incredibly effective tool for hunting its prey. Herding small fish into tight shoals, the shark will lash at them with its tail, stunning several in one hit and making them easier to catch.

Secrets of the Solent hope to work with the species this summer to discover more about its behaviour.

Dr Tim Ferrero explains: “Nobody really knows where thresher sharks go in the ocean. Later this summer we are hoping that we are going to be able to attach a satellite tag to a thresher shark and monitor its progress for an entire year. This will provide really important information that will help us learn so much more about the shark’s annual life cycle.”

The new thresher shark mural is a fantastic start to National Marine Week (24th July – 8th August), which celebrates the unique marine wildlife and habitats we have here in the UK. Over the two weeks, Wildlife Trusts around the country will be running a series of exciting events to celebrate the marine environment. We really hope people will be inspired by our murals and want to learn more about each chosen species.

Events in the Solent include the launch of a new Solent marine film on the 29th July, installation of a new Seabin on the 4th August to reduce marine litter, and citizen science surveys throughout summer.

For more information click here.

Header image: Bret Charman

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