Good Touch, Bad Touch

Ocean animals are so cool.  They are the most alien of creatures that can be found here on earth, and for most of us: they are why we go diving in the first place.  What is even cooler is being able to pick up and interact with these animals, but interaction must be done carefully and considerately.  Many people choose to not touch any marine life whatsoever.  They remain neutrally buoyant and glide over the reefs exchanging glances with the animals.  I have nothing but respect for this attitude in the water, and for those who are new or just don’t know how to interact with the animals respectfully, just looking is a fine way to enjoy your dive.  However, I am more hands on and many divers like the personal interaction they get by touching the animals, but I see lots of bad choices being made when it comes to wildlife handling.  So in the interests of both us and the wild animals, I present : Good Touch, Bad Touch

There are many animals out there you do NOT want to touch for your own safety.  Some of these are pretty obvious.

Cuddly
Playful
Not Grumpy at all

Touching these animals will quickly lead to bodily harm.  Sharks, eels, and many other animals will bite if they feel threatened, and yes the first thing they feel when you approach is threatened.  Other animals like sea urchins are just big balls of very sharp spines.  Do not hug sea urchins it will only end badly.
Other animals are just as dangerous, but maybe not so obviously

Scorpionfish, lionfish, stonefish, and others have venomous spines that will cause pain, paralysis, and in extreme cases death to humans.  Most of these fish look like the bottom and can be difficult to spot.  They are a good reason to move slowly in the water and look carefully before you touch anything, even the bottom.
                                                                                  Triton’s Trumpet Snail

Some snails can be deadly too.  Be careful collecting shells, most marine snails have a specialized radula that acts as a harpoon to spear and poison predators and prey.  The picture above shows the opening in the snail’s shell for the radula.  Cone shells are particularly dangerous as some of them have toxins strong enough to cause permanent nerve damage and even death.  There is no ‘safe’ place to hold a cone shell.  Their radula can be 1.3 times longer than their shell.  The strength of the toxin varies from species to species, but unless you are a marine biologist, stay clear.  You don’t want to be the guy killed by a snail.

After all of this negative talk, there are some animals that you can pick up and safely handle.  It is important to be careful with the animal and treat it with respect.  Remember that it is a living thing and above all do not hurt the animal.

Most sea stars can be safely handled.  They have a tough armored skin that makes it nearly invulnerable to human hands.  There are times when a sea star is feeding and has its stomach extruded from the center of its body.  If you find a star in this state be careful with the stomach tissue, wait for it to retract it into its body before excessive handling and do not remove it from the water.  One must also remember to return the sea star right side up as close as possible to where it was picked up.  Other animals related to sea stars, such as sea cucumbers and short spined urchins, can be handled in a similar fashion.

                                                                Collector urchin and its prized possessions
One animal that seems most misunderstood is octopus.  Many people refuse to interact with octopus because they are very smart animals, and I respect that, but be careful anthropomorphising wildlife; their world view is different than yours.  Octopus can be respectfully tickled out of their holes and played with.
Octopus inking

In order to delicately handle an octopus, one needs to understand its mindset.  Nearly everything in the ocean eats octopus and his first reaction upon seeing you is to flee so that you don’t eat him too.  In his defense, he may swim away quickly, bury himself under rocks, or even ink.  It does not hurt the animal to ink, dogs bark, octopus ink.  Very little is scientifically known about the inking process, such as how long it takes to refill the ink sack, or even how much ink their actually is; but chances are that in the time you spend interacting with the octopus, he won’t run out of ink.  In fact, small octopus ink like crazy, much more than larger ones.  It seems like the only trick they know.

Once the octopus is out of his hole, some old time tako hunters will grab it by the head and shake it.  Of course this disorients the octopus, great if you want to kill it, but we want to be respectful.  Controlling the animal is as simple as keeping a cupped hand over his head.  They swim head first and can’t turn very well, so he will keep bumping into your hand not going anywhere.  If you can, get the octopus to settle down on your arm and rub him gently between the eyes, don’t poke him in the eyeball.  This seems to have a calming effect on the animals.  Once you convince the octopus that you are not going to eat it, they get very curious.  Biologists speculate that octopus are about as smart as a three year old human.  They only live one to two years….and are as smart as a three year old; think about that.
Calm octopus will usually crawl around on the diver to investigate him.  They have been known to try to pull off masks, climb into the space between the diver’s back and BC, even to wrap around an arm and not let go.  If it doesn’t let go don’t panic!  They can feel your tension through your body.  Best is to relax and try to slide a hand under the animal’s legs one by one.  Do NOT pull on it’s head, not only is this just mean but it also seems to cause the animal to bite; and yes, they do bite.  Bring your arm close to the reef, peel off the tentacles one by one and it will usually let go and crawl back down to the bottom.
Many animals can be safely handled, but not all.  It is important to understand what you are touching, why it is or isn’t ok to touch it, and a safe handling technique.  Always follow the ancient advice: When in doubt, don’t touch it!