Friday, October 9, 2009

Bermuda Sun: Renowned naturalist's voyage into Bermuda's waters

10/9/2009 10:27:00 AM
Renowned naturalist's voyage into Bermuda's waters
A queen conch fish is not the kind of creature to get everyone's pulse racing.

Compared to a hump back whale, a tiger shark or a manta ray, the tiny shell-dweller barely registers a blip on the interest level of most amateur ocean ­explorers.

But when you've classified, described and photographed almost every known fish in the ocean, coming across something you haven't seen before is a genuine thrill.

Ned de Loach wrote the book on scuba diving - literally.

His encyclopedic 'fish identification' manuals, compiled along with Paul Humann, are bibles for divers everywhere.

A soggy well-thumbed copy of the regional edition - a consultative manual that put a name and a face to the mysterious creatures that lie beneath the ocean's surface - can be found on most dive boats around the world.

Mr. de Loach has been diving for forty years - taking pictures of sea creatures and documenting their behaviour.

The founder of the Reef Environmental Education Foundation is here with his wife Anna, also a renowned underwater naturalist, and a team of recreational divers surveying and documenting fish populations on Bermuda's reefs.

For them, the thrill is not in close encounters with the 'sea monsters' that populate those breathless Discovery Channel documentaries and dwell in the imaginations of armchair enthusiasts.

The real joy lies in the discovery of something new - like the queen conch some of the group discovered on their first trip with Triangle ­Diving on Sunday.

This obsession with the minutiae of marine life - with finding, naming and classifying the ocean's ­diverse complexities - might seem a bit like trainspotting to those who don't share the passion.

But for Mr. de Loach it is a voyage of discovery that is elemental to what it means to be human.

"To understand that you have to get a bit philosophical about it. It is a human need to understand our place in the environment, to know about the living world. We've been doing it for years, so why stop now?

"We're the first generation that has been able to swim with the fishes. We've been studying the natural world on land for eons, we're only just beginning to look at the oceans.

"People always say 'there must be some really fascinating stuff out in ­thousands of feet of water but I could take you out in waist deep water and show you stuff that would blow your socks off. I've been diving for 40 years and I love it just as much as I always did. Every dive I see something new. The more you know, the more you realize there is to know."

Mr deLoach is a 'rock turner' - someone who is always exploring, always looking under the next new rock to find something unique.

The group of divers he has brought with him to Bermuda are cut from the same cloth.

They are part of his REEF organization, set up to enlist recreational divers in the quest to bring order and understanding to the chaos and mystery of the underwater world.

They are here conducting fish surveys - counting and recording the variety of different species on Bermuda's reefs.

The surveys - also ­conducted periodically by Bermuda based volunteers - help contribute to a worldwide database which scientists and environmental planners can use to ­inform future policy.

The more we understand about our reefs, says Mr. DeLoach, the easier it is to protect them.

He believes Bermuda's reef system is among the healthiest in the world. And he praised the island's forward-thinking environmental policies for helping to preserve it.

But he said Bermuda could make the most of the reef as a valuable resource by doing even more to protect it.

"I haven't seen any healthier coral in the western hemisphere. The reefs in the Caribbean are degrading to the point where if you want to see a good, rich coral habitat you have to come to Bermuda. That's something worth ­preserving."