Ocean Watch

By Susan Scott

Monday, July 19, 1999

Laissez-faire is
best policy for
sea critters

RECENTLY, while snorkeling off the Kona coast, I watched a scuba diver beneath me lunge toward a crack in the reef. Seconds later, the diver was cradling a pufferfish in his two hands. The fish, which had inflated itself nearly round, looked like a living, breathing balloon.

The man passed the puffer from diver to diver. When it was my turn to hold the fish, about the size of a small cantaloupe, I looked into the fish's fat little face and was charmed to see its round mouth pursed like it was blowing kisses. The skin of the fish felt soft and bristly, like the hair of a young boy's buzz cut.

When the last diver let the fish go, it hurried away, deflating as it swam, slowly losing its inhaled water. Soon the fish ducked into a hole to finish shrinking and recover from its encounter with humans.

When my dive companions and I emerged from the water, we talked excitedly about the extraordinary little fish. One novice diver lamented, "I missed my chance to hold a pufferfish."

"You didn't hold it?" I asked. "No. When the dive master showed it to me, I didn't take it."

"Why not?" I asked, thinking she was concerned about the potent poison these fish carry in their bodies.

But she surprised me. "I was afraid I might hurt it," she said.

OH, I felt guilty when I heard that. How do I know I hadn't hurt the little pufferfish? At the very least, passing a terrified animal from person to person was cruel and disrespectful.

Years ago, when I was first learning to dive, I believed divers should neither touch anything on the reef nor take anything from it. Therefore, when my dive master handed me a sea cucumber during a practice session in Kaneohe Bay, I didn't know what to do.

I stared at her and the offered sea cucumber for so long that finally the instructor picked up my hand, plopped the animal down in it and swam away.

Oh, that sea cucumber was interesting. It felt squishy and leathery at the same time and it seemed to be changing shape right there in my hand. When I finished admiring the creature, I spent a lot of airtime trying to put it back in the exact place I had seen the teacher pick it up. What do we know, I thought? That particular spot may be the best within miles for a sea cucumber to live.

Later, after we emerged, the instructor asked me if I liked the sea cucumber.

"I did," I said. "But I thought we weren't supposed to touch anything on the reef."

She laughed. "Well, you certainly don't have to. But you'll be about the only one who doesn't."

AFTER years of diving and writing about marine life, I still believe that marine animals deserve more respect than they usually get. And the best way to do give them respect is to leave them alone.

For me, it seems wrong to disturb the creatures. How do I know what they're doing? What if that cowrie I find is brooding eggs and a massive reproductive effort is ruined for a few seconds of amusement? Or perhaps after playing with a nudibranch, an observant predator sees where I leave it and then eats it. And why should I jeopardize an octopus's life by making it use up all its ink and energy defending itself from me?

Yes, it's wonderful to watch a marine animal do its stuff, which is often pretty amazing. I loved feeling the unusual texture of that pufferfish's skin and seeing its round body and face up close. Still, I would never have chased and caught the fish myself just to watch it struggle for its life.

After all, marine animals have feelings too.

Marine science writer Susan Scott's Ocean Watch column
appears Mondays in the Star-Bulletin. Contact her at

E-mail to City Desk

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