At the end of last year I logged my 2000th dive.  I feel privileged to have spent so many hours in a place so few people have experienced but which represents the last true wilderness on our planet storing a treasure trove of biodiversity.  Since completing my 2000th dive in Red Sea in September 2010 I have been reflecting on what I’ve learnt during my time as a diver, where my favourite dive sites have been and which experiences have been burned into my consciousness.  Originally I thought this would be a short nostalgic blog entry, but as I’ve begun writing I now realise I could fill a book with these memories.  In this first blog of the series I will start with how I originally learnt to dive in a British quarry to becoming the first doctor of pygmy seahorses fifteen years later.

I learnt to dive in 1996 at the age of sixteen.  My best friend learned six months earlier and came back from his exotic travels with stories of remarkable creatures unlike anything I would ever encounter in the rolling hills of the British Cotswolds.  My father and I were planning a trip to visit family friends in Melbourne, Australia so decided a detour to the Great Barrier Reef was in order.  We agreed that it would be a good idea to do our PADI Open Water course before going, to maximise our time spent actually diving the GBR.  The nearest dive centre to our home was Aquarius Diving in Didcot near Oxford, England (I think they’ve closed down now).  For some reason we thought doing the course in November would be a good idea.  So, after training in a pool we went to do our four open water dives over a weekend in Stoney Cove.  For the non-British (where Stoney Cove is a SCUBA institution) it’s an old quarry that has now been converted to a dive training lake.  Given that November is the dead of the northern hemisphere winter we did these first dives in dry suits.  The water was 4˚C and there was a freezing fog above, so we endured these dives rather than enjoying them.  The only living creature I remember seeing was a three-inch long crayfish!  Dad’s drysuit leaked and his BCD dumped air in great bellows, neither of which were ideal for a novice! This harrowing and chilly experience had two consequences: we immediately bought our own kit and head for the tropics without looking back.

The kit I bought back in 1996 is still with me now (see main image).  I love my Buddy Slimline BCD dearly, it started out life luminous yellow but has now faded to off white and brown.  It may appear rather moth eaten, covered in bacterial species new to science and I receive no end of comments about it but it is amazingly sturdy and has survived all the hardships I’ve thrown at it.  I wasn’t until I swapped BCDs with a friend of mine that I realised how much of a hobo I actually look underwater.  My Poseidon Cyklon regulators have stayed with me too, obviously with regular servicing and occasional new parts.  The only problem I now have with my kit is their weight, which wasn’t designed to suit today’s strict luggage allowances.

It may sound cheesy but learning to dive fundamentally changed me and the course of my life.  Ever since I can remember I have been fascinated by nature.  When not watching documentaries or with my head in a book I would be collecting creepy crawlies in the garden or fashioning a home for an odd creature I’d acquired.  Once I ended up with a tarantula from our postman in exchange for some crickets I was having delivered to feed my gecko colony!  I was always determined to study Zoology but after taking up diving my focus began to shift towards the marine environment.

I clocked up 50 dives over my first two years of diving.  In the summer of 1998 we visited the Maldives, but at the time I didn’t have enough experience of coral reefs to fully understand what the pure white corals everywhere were signalling.  As I look back at my (pretty rubbish) pictures from that trip I realise the area was in the grips of the worst bleaching event on record.  Sixteen percent of the world’s corals would not recover from the unusually warm waters, leaving only their stony skeleton as their poignant legacy.

After finishing high school, and before beginning my long anticipated degree in Zoology at the University of Southampton (UK), I embarked on a gap year.  I spent 4 months and completed 200 dives working on a conservation project in southeast Sulawesi.  Here I met some truly inspiring people, probably most influential of which was Dr Monica Sullivan. Wow, I thought, a doctor of fish!  My friend Dougal and I (the original instigator of all this diving madness) became known as the ‘Nudi Boys’.  Not due to a penchant for wandering around naked, but for our ability to find rare and elusive nudibranchs.  Many of the species we found were range extensions for known species and there were even a couple of new species amongst our haul. 

Spending so long in one place and diving the same sites day in day out gave me my first real glimpse into the workings of a coral reef.  Both over the scale of months and hours the reef was ever changing. I relished spending a whole dive covering only a few metres watching the activities of the fish and other animals.  You can learn a lot about an animal by watching and recording its day-to-day activities.  Especially today, with so many species already threatened by man’s activities, I consider it irresponsible of scientists to take an animal’s life to discover something that could be revealed by merely observing natural behaviours and interactions.

During my undergraduate studies in Southampton I continued to dive and converted many friends along the way.  I also continued my dive training up to Dive Master, a semi-professional standard.  After graduating things took an unexpected turn for the best, changing the course of my future.  Whilst sitting on a quaint street next to the Seville Cathedral I noticed a motorbike out of the corner of my eye.  It slowed down and grabbed my rucksack from the chair next to me.  I knew Seville was renowned for pick pockets so I’d had the presence of mind to clip my bag to the chair; however, I hadn’t expected that someone on a motorbike would grab it.  Off he went down the busy cobbled street clutching onto my bag with a chair in tow, making quite a ruckus.  I set off after him but a knee injury prevented me from being of much use.  My friend Ben also set chase but wasn’t wearing his glasses so quickly lost sight of the perp.  The only able bodied one amongst us stayed at the table so the proprietors of the restaurant didn’t think we were leaving without paying the bill!  Very British!!

You may think it odd that I consider all this as a good thing, but luckily the SLR camera and various lenses within the bag were fully insured and there was no underwater housing for the camera that disappeared off into the lanes of Seville.  I previously hadn’t wanted to spend lots of money to buy a new one and this had been the hurdle stopping me from nurturing a passion for underwater photography beyond playing with an old point and shoot.  The thief had solved this problem for me and with the insurance money I bought a F100 Nikon film camera and Sea & Sea housing for it.

Several weeks’ later dad and I went to Komodo, Indonesia.  It had been three years since working on the conservation project in Sulawesi and I had been dreaming of the vibrant Indonesian reefs ever since.  As well as being my first trip with a camera I also fortuitously met Yann, an extraordinary dive guide who showed me a host of amazing, tiny and cryptic creatures, including my first pygmy seahorse.  He also became a close friend and years later would assist me daily with the fieldwork for my Ph.D.

Soon after, I began my Master’s degree in the field of ecology and evolution at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia.  Here my studies most definitely focused on the tropical marine environment and study trips to the university’s field stations on Stradbroke and Heron Islands added to my practical knowledge.  I also dived frequently with the university dive club ‘UniDive‘ and made many great friends.  My logbook was filling fast and I had reached 500 dives by the start of my Master’s degree in

Relocating to Australia was a dream come true and I travelled to many sites within both Australia and neighbouring countries.  My portfolio of images grew and I began to write a few articles here and there and sold some of my images. I stuck with my prized film camera until 2007, much longer than many other photographers who by then were extolling the merits of digital photography.  The learning curve was steep with film but this was a great basis for my future move to the digital medium.  Being limited to 36, or if you were lucky 37, images on a dive seems almost inconceivable now.  You really had to pick your shots and wait for just the right moment lest a valuable shot be wasted.  There’s also no doubt that ten years ago the retinas of popular reef creatures like pygmy seahorses and Rhinopias were in much better condition.  The technique popular with digital photographers today, of shooting dozens of images with the hope that one will turn out, is certainly not in these creatures best interests.

Fast forward to early 2007 and I had completed just over 1000 dives and would soon begin my Ph.D (although I didn’t know it).  At this stage my aspirations to study a Ph.D were completely up in the air and an opportunity to study biodiversity on coral reefs had recently fallen through.  I was on a dive trip with my dad to Milne Bay, a region in the southeast corner of Papua New Guinea with healthy and extremely biodiverse reefs.  During a dive I found a group of three Denise’s pygmy seahorses living on a gorgonian seafan, as they do.  As I observed these tiny fish moving around their home the scientific side of brain began whirring and several questions about these creatures began forming in my head.  After about ten minutes watching this group the four main questions later representing the chapters of my Ph.D thesis had already formed:

1) I had dived extensively throughout Southeast Asia and the west Pacific and seen pygmy seahorses on relatively few but memorable occasions.  Were pygmy seahorses really as rare as they seemed?  What were their favoured habitats and were some gorgonians better than others as hosts?

2) I knew most seahorses were considered monogamous and remained faithful to one partner until the very end, but I was looking at three pygmy seahorses sharing a gorgonian home.  The old saying ‘two’s company, three’s a crowd’ was rather appropriate.  It seemed unlikely to me that they would risk relocating to a new gorgonian so what were the implications for the remaining unpartnered seahorse?  Would they wait patiently for a new pygmy to arrive or try and get in on the action thus breaking the monogamous pair bonds?

3) Did these pygmy seahorses in fact stray away from their gorgonian home when no one was looking?  Did the same animals stay together for their whole lives?  How active and social were they?

4) I had heard terrible stories from guides and been unfortunate enough to witness many divers and underwater photographers showing these animals absolutely no respect during dives. I wondered whether pygmies were measurably suffering at the hands of divers.  Did pygmies play an important role in SCUBA-related tourism and could certain diver actions be linked with upsetting the seahorses?

I came back from the trip buzzing with a fully formed idea of where I wanted to go with my Ph.D research.  I approached my principal and associate supervisors, with my ideas and laid them out in a proposal to the school, which, to my relief, was accepted.

Next job was solving the small problem of finding a place to study pygmy seahorses in their natural environment.  I knew I had already visited the most ideal place to study these elusive animals in the wild a couple of years previously, in 2005.  The reefs of Wakatobi Dive Resort accommodate four species of pygmy seahorses and the resort’s house reef was easily accessible from shore, absolutely pristine and covered in abundant gorgonian seafans harbouring pygmies.  I had become good friends with a dive guide at the resort during our family holiday and we were still in touch.  Through her I contacted the resort’s owner, Lorenz Maeder, a passionate conservationist who single headedly founded the resort and made it his mission to protect the surrounding 20 kms of reef from fishing, destructive fishing and anchoring.  Anyone who has visited Wakatobi will attest that his hard work has paid off.

Lorenz generously offered me the opportunity to spend many months based at the resort over the course of my Ph.D to investigate the biology of pygmy seahorses.  These were some of the best times of my life; I was in my element.  I would do four or five dives a day between dawn and dusk conducting transects to estimate population sizes and record the movements and observe social and reproductive behaviours of pygmy seahorses.  The staff and guests were all so interested in my work there would always be someone to regale with stories from my ‘family’ of pygmies off the end of the jetty.  I did presentations several times a week about my research and other aspects of marine biology, which were very well received.  During my studies I was lucky enough to see Ultimate Death Match style fights, males giving birth and even mating pygmy seahorses.

During my hundreds of dives at Wakatobi, many of which were carried out in the same small patch of reef repeatedly, the reef’s inhabitants accepted me.  This was one of the most special and memorable aspects of my dive career so far.  You might think it would be boring return to the same family of seahorses on the same gorgonian day after day but it was absolutely fascinating.  Usually timid creatures would carry on as if I weren’t there: I could set my clock by the male Bartel’s dragonet mating with his harem and the shrimp Leander plumosus leaving his daytime hide to feed at night.  Many creatures also became curious of me and I would occasionally turn round to find an enormous green turtle, great barracuda or trumpet fish peering over my shoulder.  There is something very special about being accepted into such an alien environment.

During my Ph.D studies I was also fortunate enough to visit areas including north Sulawesi, the Togian Islands and Raja Ampat in search of pygmy seahorses.  I saw the Togian island pygmy seahorse (Hippocampus waleananus) at Walea Resort and the exceedingly rare Satomi’s pygmy seahorse (Hippocampus satomiae) in Raja Ampat aboard the Paradise Dancer thanks again to Yann.  Less than a month after submitting my Ph.D thesis I completed my 2000th dive having seen six of the seven described species of pygmy seahorse and of course many other amazing animals along the way.

People often warn against turning your hobby into a profession.  My hobby of fifteen years as a diver has somehow morphed into work without me really noticing it.  My photography and writing now regularly appear in various publications around the world.  I also love doing presentations to divers about my research as well as other aspects of marine biology and conservation.  Sharing the amazing wonders of the underwater world to both divers and non-divers alike is vital in creating the will to protect this fragile ecosystem.

My next blog will focus on the sites and dives that have been most memorable.  I hope you have enjoyed this blog, it may well have gone slightly off topic at times but I’ve really enjoyed taking some time to reflect on the past fifteen years as a SCUBA diver!