To Feed or Not To Feed
Images & Text by Mike Gerken
©All Rights Reserved
Photo: Napolean Wrasse
Date Taken: Dec 2008
Camera: Nikon D200
Feeding wild fish is often good for tourism but, is it good for the fish? This magnificent Napoleon Wrasse depicted in the images above was a regular on one of the reefs in the Maldives. His name was George. George was a very friendly wrasse who was inquisitive and sought out the attention of visiting divers. I found George to be a very cooperative animal for my photography where most Napoleons are weary of humans and normally keep their distance (and I can't say as I blame them). It can be said that this species of fish is highly intelligent and with one look into their sentient eyes you too may agree with that assessment.
After taking numerous images of George with his face nearly pressed up against my dome port, I wondered why was this creature so fearless. It became apparent when I spotted the dive guides feeding him whole hard boiled eggs shell and all. He would swallow the egg and cleverly spit out only the shell. This Napoleon had been tamed by the feeding. A technique often applied to allow close encounters with tourists. At the time, I didn't see the harm and made no protest. After all, I just scored some nice images.
Months later I was honored when Sport Diver Magazine selected one of these images as a cover-shot. George just made me a very happy photographer. Some time later, maybe months or years (I don't recall), I heard George had died. Apparently he was autopsied and found to have dozens of undigested eggs in his digestive tract. Poor George ate himself to death and the guides unwittingly played a hand in his demise. I too was not innocent. I increased the demand for this type of feeding with my tourist dollars.
Before I continue let me state that I can not confirm that George died from eating eggs. I only heard through casual conversation. Based on what I saw though this story is plausible. George was fed many eggs in the mere 20 minutes I had with him.
From that point forward, I no longer participate in animal feeds where foods that are not part of the natural diet are fed to the animals. In fact, it can be argued that feeding these animals at all is not a sound environmental activity and I am now more discerning of the practice. However, tourism is responsible for communities striving to protect their marine resources because tourists are paying top dollar to participate and photograph these animals. In turn, these dollars help drive local economies. I wouldn't want to see these economies dry up and George, a rare reef fish species, end up at the local fish market rather than in front of a lens. Options must be explored and changes made on how we interact with marine life and seek to do what is best for the people, environment and the animals.
In hindsight, I would gladly give up this image of George to bring him back. He is far more important to the reef and our marine ecosystem than any photograph, cover-shot or not. RIP George.
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