Scottish Diver is the magazine for the members of the Scottish Sub Aqua Club. I submitted the following article a little while ago. Today it was published.
On holiday in Corfu many years ago, I had my first try dive. During the dive, the guide smashed a sea urchin to get some larger fish to come closer to feed on the soft insides. These dive guides were in the same spot every day during the holiday season. Urchin smashing must have happened a lot. The fish were so conditioned to this practice that you didn’t have to actually crush an urchin; the sound of two rocks clacking together was enough to get the fish to come closer.
Smashing urchins happens all the time in the UK. A diver will smash a few large urchins to get a shy wrasse to come in closer for the inside guts of an urchin. Though I haven’t done any urchin bashing myself, I have been on dives where I have been entertained by the site of fish mobbing the broken remains of urchins. You can get a good close up view of fish that wouldn’t normally risk getting so near divers. The lure of a free meal is more than these fish can resist.
I have been thinking about why I was feeling uncomfortable about the practice. I can be a bit of a tree-hugging nature lover. I guess it’s the act of killing something for my own amusement that bothers me. Urchins are really fascinating if you look at them closely. They have such delicate tentacles between the spines.
Smashing urchins can be justified in many ways; there are hundreds of the things around, urchins inhibit the growth of kelp and other seaweeds by eating them before the plants can get established, Urchins can even create underwater deserts if they get too plentiful. There are places in the Mediterranean where urchins are so plentiful that it isn’t safe to swim. A hand or foot in the wrong place will result in a bit of urchin spine in your skin. If you step on one or get one in your finger, it HURTS. The spines are painful and it is quite tempting to think that their kind deserves to die.
When my family and I go diving in Egypt, we are told how precious the marine environment is. Coral is as delicate as it is beautiful. A hand on the coral is enough to crush and kill the fragile polyps and leave a big dead bleached handprint on the coral. Divers are not even to wear gloves, bring along sticks to steady one long enough to take a photo. If you have to put your hand somewhere, it had better be on completely barren rock or sand. The thought of smashing an urchin in that climate is naturally completely forbidden and could land you in some trouble.
Along the west coast of Scotland, there are no delicate corals or restrictive diving practices. Things are a bit more robust up here in the north. Does that mean that we don’t have to mind our diving manners? Is it right that urchins get smashed? Is it okay that an octopus is yanked out of a hole and played with (stressed) until it squirts ink? Is it okay to stress out some crabs if you’re not going to eat them?
We’ve got our very own no-take-zone in Lamlash Bay on Arran. You can’t go smashing urchins there. You certainly can’t kill them in the Marine Reserve near St Abbs.
In a conversation I had recently with somebody from a conservation group it was thought that the few urchins that are broken open during sport dives in Scotland really wasn’t going to make a dent in the population or alter the balance of any ecosystems
I have thought about proposing a policy of no killing urchins for fun during dives to the club. I am sure there will be eyes rolling heavenward on that one. I know I will be asked to justify that request with the fact that I will pick up a nice fat King scallop if I see one and pop it into my pocket. My husband and I have dined on some particularly fine (if gritty) mussels collected during a dive. I have the same rule for shellfish and crustaceans collected on a dive that I have for hunting and fishing. I’ll only catch and clean fish or fowl that I intend to eat.
I hope I find that I have more support for the no-smashing policy than expected. The couple of divers I have floated the idea to have agreed that it is a good idea.
I have always been unwilling to smash any urchins. It upsets my nature loving sensibilities. As a diver, I’m there to groove on the sea life below the waves, not to smash it up. Urchin smashers please consider why you are diving in the first place. Respect our sea life. Don’t smash any more urchins.