Emma’s Dilemmas: A dive with a friendly Nassau Grouper

I was in absolute heaven with this friendly Nassau Grouper as a dive buddy yesterday. He stayed with me the whole dive and got so close on so many occasions, I couldn’t help but reach out and touch him. He didn’t even flinch, but I am sure I was not the first one to give him a stroke. I couldn’t resist and he would continuously push his body onto my hand…could he enjoy the touch? Does that matter?
None of you would be surprised to know I am one of those divers that hate when people touch things – the guy who reaches out to touch the turtle or the new diver picking up shells or the lady who puts her hands all over the reef … and yet there I was petting a grouper.
Upon reflection, I was struck by this overwhelming sense of how much we underestimate our impact on the ocean and the creatures within her. This grouper has been trained by divers feeding them and they are not alone; in Roatan, the act of culling and feeding lionfish to other predators has lead to daytime free swimming Moray eels, following Dogfish Snappers and over-friendly Groupers. We are trying to solve one problem we created – the infestation of lionfish – while unknowingly creating another one – greatly affecting animal behaviors.
And what about shark dives? Does feeding just one tuna head to a school of sharks for tourism or education justify the benefits? Is it better or worse or the same when a marine biologist dives with sharks and interacts with them on an intimate level versus some buckaroo from Australia who just wants some kicks?
I do not live in a black and white world; I cannot live in a black and white world. I see things in “gray” and in “it depends” and “we don’t know as much as we think we do”. To me, things are never absolute – or maybe some things are?
And so, how do I feel now about my behavior? Well, it was a dream come true to have a Grouper dive buddy giving me googly eyes and sticking with me and letting me touch him. On the other hand, I can’t believe I touched him. Is it ok because I am a marine manager, have been diving all my life and have committed my life to ocean conservation? Do I get an exception as compared to someone who doesn’t have the same background or life commitments?

Seems like I have more questions than answers and perhaps you will have more opinions than questions; that seems to be how the world works these days anyway. And if you have made it this far in my thought piece will you call me a hypocrite or bad ocean conservationist? Or will you empathize with the dilemma that was literally right in front of me?

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