Home Features The ART of Diving

The ART of Diving

This wonderful coffee-table book started out as a feature called ‘The Zen of Diving’, written by UK journalist and author Nick Hanna for a special edition of the ‘body and soul’ section of The Times newspaper on holistic holidays. During the research, Nick happened to come across Dr. Alexander Mustard’s work and was immediately taken with the freshness and creative depth of his underwater photography. Nick’s evocative copy and Alex’s incredible photographs combine together to make this stunning book an absolute MUST for everyone – diver
or not.

Described by David Doubilet as 'The best diving book since Cousteau's Silent World', The Art of Diving offers a 21st-century view of the underwater world, and as the writer Nick describes, a 'voyage into the soul of diving.' The text covers a multitude of subjects as diverse as Fish watching, Underwater landscapes, and Why we dive.
The subject matter is presented in a fantastically engaging format, complimented by the stunning and colourful images that have made marine scientist Alex Mustard’s name as a top underwater photographer. Alex has won many awards for his photography including being a multiple winner in both the BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition and the World Festival of Underwater Photography in Antibes, France.

This book is about the joys of diving and the exhilaration of animal encounters. It is the absolute nearest thing you can get to diving… without getting your feet even the slightest bit wet.

So when the wind is biting and you can’t face getting back into that soggy suit for a second time, put your feet up, grab a coffee and relax with this book and let it show you what you’re missing and inspire you for another dive.

In this excerpt from The Art of Diving, Nick Hanna and Alex Mustard consider The Art of Fish Watching…

“The best way to observe a fish is to become a fish.”

Jacques Cousteau

SEX ON THE REEF

Fish watching is an acquired skill – and few aspects of fish behaviour are harder to watch than spawning, particularly since it mostly takes place at dusk, when many divers are    already engaged in their own mating rituals, sipping sundowners on a tropical seashore.

Although most dive resorts offer night diving, very few schedule dusk dives. Late afternoon is usually the time that boats are moored up at the quay, being rinsed down for the day. And on a live-aboard, most people have finished their quota of dives and are ready for a hot shower and cold drink – or they’re thinking ahead to a night dive. But if you’re familiar with the location and are suitably qualified, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t go off with a buddy and have a gentle look around at dusk to see what you can spot. It doesn’t need to be a deep dive. But do take a torch, since it will get dark.

Timing is crucial: the optimum time for watching spawning is the last forty-five minutes before sunset and the first thirty minutes afterwards. “Watching these forms of fish behaviour is a key element of dusk diving,” says Alex, who has made a speciality of shooting spawning behaviour. “And it’s all the more amazing because so few divers have seen it. This isn’t because it’s difficult to see,” he adds, “but because divers just aren’t in the water at the
right time.”
 
So, you’ve managed to get your buddy and yourself underwater in good time. What should you be looking for? “Once you get your eye in, you will know spawning every time that you see it,” explains Alex. “It’s very easy when divers first start looking to think that every behaviour they’re seeing is spawning behaviour – parrotfish voiding themselves for instance, or two fish fighting.” What you’re really looking for is two fish pairing up and swimming quickly off the reef into the open water, releasing a small cloud of eggs and sperm as they reach the top of their upward flight, and then returning to the safety of the reef.

The fish are trying to maximise the chances of their offspring surviving by releasing their gametes into the great planktonic soup as far away as possible from their hungry neighbours. It makes addictive viewing, he claims:

Once you start watching for them you’ll realise that courtship patterns are very elaborate and it can be the most fantastic time of day to dive. It gives you such a huge insight into the reef, because all these fish that seem to have been swimming around pretty aimlessly all day are suddenly doing things with a purpose, and you begin to understand what it’s all about.

Understanding fish behaviour enriches the diving experience a hundredfold. But how do we know what’s going on down there? Luckily for us, ichthyologists have spent thousands of hours underwater trying to put the pieces together. A lot of their knowledge has been brought together in the indispensible Reef Fish Behavior, by Ned DeLoach and Paul Humann, which focuses on the reefs of the tropical western Atlantic. For author Ned DeLoach, there’s no question that dusk diving is the best opportunity to find out what’s really happening on the reef:  “That is the greatest time to be underwater,” he told me, “because that’s when all the reproductive activity is taking place.”

As well as spawning, there are the extended courtship displays that precede it and which, according to DeLoach, are often “entertaining, passion-packed melodramas”: Courtship behavior varies but always revolves around a basic theme: a revved boy fish relentlessly chases, cajoles, corners, nudges and shows-off to a seemingly indifferent girl fish. To an untrained eye courtship often appears as nothing more than fish milling near the bottom. But after observing one or two fish trysts, the signs become unmistakable.

Telltale clues to courtship behaviour include colour and pattern changes, body twitches, fin displays, swollen abdomens, females hovering in mid-water and males swimming quickly in and out of the area and chasing away competing suitors. The males come to the party ready to shed their sperm, but the females need more time for their eggs to hydrate before they’re ready to release them. The courtship allows time for egg preparation; as the female gets ready, she becomes more receptive to the male’s advances and often initiates spawning by rising up and hovering off the bottom.

Once you know what spawning looks like you may be Once you know what spawning looks like you may be able to spot up to a dozen or more species at it. Because reef fish live in warm water and have fast metabolic rates, they often spawn every day. Some species do it during daytime, but most prefer dusk: in the Caribbean and Indo-Pacific, about 80 per cent of species that spawn by broadcasting their eggs and sperm do so at sunset. Tangs, wrasses and parrotfish are among the more obvious species to look out for. Some destinations schedule dusk dives specifically to watch spawning events: in Indonesia, Malaysia, Yap and Fiji, for instance, you can join mandarinfish dives to watch these gaudy creatures emerge from the reef, fight and spawn.

Spawning is usually triggered by sea temperature: in the Red Sea, May to September tends to be peak season; in the Caribbean it varies from the southern islands, where many species spawn during the northern hemisphere’s winter season, to the northern islands, where the very same species will spawn during the ‘summer’ season. But temperature is not the only factor: in the Maldives, for instance, it is the relative strength of the tides that acts as the main catalyst for spawning.

There are still great gaps in our knowledge, especially since observations tend to be limited to particular reefs or islands where researchers have been working. “Trying to figure out when fish spawn can often be a challenge,” says DeLoach. “Some species in the Caribbean – although we’ve dived with them hundreds and hundreds of times, we’ve never actually been fortunate enough to see them spawn.”
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