a scuba diver amongst many fish over coral

Is Marine Life Dangerous to Scuba Divers?

When a new diver enters the ocean for the first time, they are likely excited about all the possible things they can see. However, many beginning divers may also be a bit apprehensive about some creatures they may encounter. 

One very common question involves whether types of marine life are dangerous to scuba divers. So are they?

The risk of danger to scuba divers from marine life is incredibly low. Additionally, most injuries to divers from wildlife are the direct result of actions by the diver. While there is no such thing as zero risk, divers who learn about the behavior of different animals and basic concepts for interacting with marine wildlife will have little to worry about.

So what animals should divers learn more about? Are there general guidelines about interacting with marine life? These are some of the questions that this article will answer.

5 scuba divers on the seafloor in a wreck

What Animals are Divers Most Concerned About?

There are a number of animals that have gained a reputation as being dangerous or problematic to divers. 

However, many of these reputations are overblown or simply not true. In fact, experienced divers have likely encountered many “dangerous” creatures and found them to add to the enjoyment of a dive. 

Let’s review some of the wildlife that has gained a negative reputation.

Sharks

First on the list has to be that of sharks. The negative reputation of sharks largely developed after the popularity of the movie Jaws. It is understandable why people may be scared of sharks. 

After all, many are very impressive and top members of the food chain.

The reality is that there are over 400 different species of sharks. Very rarely do any pose a danger to humans. In fact, there are three species that comprise the vast majority of attacks to humans: great white sharks, tiger sharks, and bull sharks.

Most cases of shark attacks are the result of provoked attacks where the diver did something to clearly cause the attack. 

Things that divers do to cause attacks can be feeding sharks, encroaching on their space, or touching them.

In 2019, there were 64 unprovoked shark attacks around the world, two of which were fatal. 

Most of these occurred on surfers, who are thought to sometimes be mistaken for seals, a popular food for some sharks. Only 3% of unprovoked attacks were on scuba divers. 

When thinking about the vast number of divers who enter the ocean each year, this means it is incredibly unlikely to have a negative experience with a shark.

Sharks are relatively shy around scuba divers. Often, your only glimpse of them will be from the rear as they swim away. Some sharks, such as reef sharks, may be a bit curious and swim around at a distance. 

Of the “dangerous” sharks, a diver is most likely to encounter bull sharks as they congregate around shallow water and reefs. However, they generally pay little attention to divers. The reality is that we simply are seen as prey for sharks.

a great white shark

Moray Eels

Morays tend to be another animal that can make new divers a bit hesitant. After all, they do look a bit menacing with their heads poking out of crevices and large teeth. 

However, morays pose no danger to divers.

Moray eels are found in a variety of species and many beautiful colors. A diver will usually find them peering out from rocks, although they can sometimes be seen swimming along reefs.

You may have heard stories about divers having hands bitten by morays. These divers typically engaged in unadvisable behavior such as feeding them or sticking their hand in a hole in the coral. 

Generally speaking, you should never stick your hand in a dark hole, whether in the water or above the surface.

Morays will defend their home if they feel threatened. It is important to remember that we are guests in their ecosystem. Give morays distance so that they don’t feel threatened. If they begin frequently snapping their jaws, you are likely too close.

Stingrays

Stingrays have sharp barbs on their tails (the ones without the barb are actually skates). This may seem dangerous and is certainly used by the creature for protection; however, stingrays also pose no threat to divers.

Stingray injuries do occur quite frequently, with an estimated several thousand injuries from stingray strikes each year. 

However, the vast majority of these cases occur when someone wading in water accidentally steps on a stingray as the animals can camouflage themselves in the sand quite well.

Stingrays are relatively shy and very peaceful. They only use their barb when they feel threatened. Divers can generally swim fairly close to stingrays without incident. 

However, it is important to know that the barb can pierce neoprene and go fairly deep into the body if struck.

Perhaps the most recognizable attack is that which led to the death of Steve Irwin. In this situation, Irwin apparently made the stingray feel threatened by following closely to video it and was struck in the heart before he could move away. 

This situation serves as a reminder to take great care when being around wildlife.

a single Barracuda swimming along the seabed

Barracuda

Most of us have observed barracuda if we’ve dived in the Caribbean. These are the long, narrow shiny fish that seem to float completely still in water.

Barracuda may seem a bit intimidating to many divers. First, they are often curious and will sometimes follow divers for a bit. Additionally, most people have heard stories about barracuda attacks with their razor sharp teeth.

However, barracuda are not a threat to divers. Attacks typically result from them darting at glimmering things. Jewelry in the sun can be mistaken for prey, one of the main reasons divers or snorkelers should never wear jewelry in the water.

Are There other Animals I Should Be Aware Of?

It seems like most animals many people are concerned about are not actually threats. However, is there any wildlife that divers should be cautious about? There are several others that, while not direct threats, are important to understand.

Lionfish

Lionfish are very cool looking and also a threat to many marine ecosystems as they are an invasive species. They also have very large spines that are venomous. Diverse should take care never to attempt to touch a lionfish as a poke from the spines will be quite painful.

Stonefish

Stonefish are the most venomous fish that is known. They are found in the Indo-Pacific region near shores and tend to sit on the bottom, lying in wait for prey. They resemble a stone (hence the name), which often makes them difficult to see.

The problem can occur when people accidentally step on them. Stonefish venom can be fatal to humans. Thus, divers should be careful when walking on sandy bottoms.

Coral

Coral being on this list is likely a surprise to many. After all, coral may seem like nothing more than rocks to a novice diver. In reality, coral reefs are composed of millions of coral polyps, little invertebrate creatures bonded together by calcium carbonate.

Most people know that divers should never touch coral as touching it can rather easily kill the entire colony. 

However, coral can also cause significant pain for divers. Some species deliver toxins and cause extreme pain, perhaps most notably fire coral.

Divers should be particularly cautious in strong currents that could accidentally knock them into a reef. Additionally, new divers who are not confident with their buoyancy should give some extra space between them and reefs so as not to accidentally float into them.

2 scuba divers amongst coral

Triggerfish

Triggerfish likely do not seem dangerous at all by their looks. In fact, they look a bit comical. There are many species of triggerfish. Some are very calm while others are a bit protective of their territory.

Most triggerfish are extremely protective when they have eggs. Perhaps the fish that attacks divers most frequently is the Titan Triggerfish, which lives in the Indo-Pacific region.

While triggerfish are not a major threat, their bites can require medical care and their charge can knock your mask off. When a triggerfish holds its dorsal spine erect, it is signaling that it is threatened and time to back away.

If you will be diving in an area where triggerfish are an issue, you will typically receive information about how to act in the pre-dive briefing. However, learning for yourself is always helpful as well.

Blue Ringed Octopus

Octopuses (yes, that is actually the correct plural) are one of the most popular creatures for divers to see. They are extremely intelligent but also often prefer to hide in coral formations, particularly in the daytime.

Blue ringed octopuses are beautiful creatures. They get their name from the coloring on their bodies. However, they are also one of only four species of octopus that are venomous. 

They are found in coral reefs and tide pools throughout the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

Their bites are often painless; however, they have large amounts of venom and can kill a person in minutes through respiratory failure. 

Additionally, there is no antivenin available which means the only treatment is to place someone on life support until the venom interaction wears off.  

Fortunately, blue-ringed octopuses are not aggressive and will only bite a diver if they feel threatened. 

Thus, be sure to give this animal plenty of space and observe from a distance. If their rings begin to flash brightly, move away immediately as this is a warning.

a scuba diver going through an underwater rock cave

What are General Rules for Interactions with Marine Life?

There are actually a number of things that divers can do in order to ensure that their dive trips are safe from any unexpected encounters with marine life.

First and foremost, it is important to understand that we are more of a threat to marine life than they are to us. We are in their habitats and have the potential to disrupt them, particularly if we lack knowledge.

Thus, most unpleasant encounters can simply be avoided by respecting marine life. This means observing but not directly interacting. Divers should not attempt to touch, grab, or feed fish or other animals. This is one of the leading causes of issues.

Additionally, divers should take care not to make an animal feel threatened. This means not positioning one’s self in a manner that makes an animal feel trapped. 

Additionally, while it is tempting to want an extended look at an animal, avoid following them closely when they are swimming away as this can cause some animals to perceive you as a threat.

Divers should also learn about the marine life they will encounter before dives. This will not only help improve safety for the diver and wildlife but also make it more likely that divers will be able to notice marine life as many animals often hide.

There are courses from diving agencies that divers can take to better learn about marine life; however, simply reading books or using the internet can provide a wealth of information. It is also useful to learn about behavior that signals that an animal is uncomfortable as this can prevent causing an animal to act in self-defense.

two scuba divers on the seabed

Final Thoughts

There are many stories about divers having unhappy encounters with marine life. Sharks are perhaps the most frequent culprit, but there are many other animals divers may be wary of.

The reality is that we are simply not an item on the menu for any sea creature, even sharks. 

Almost all incidents where divers receive injuries from wildlife are due to the actions of the divers. In other situations, it tends to be a case of mistaken identity which is incredibly rare.

Divers should become knowledgeable about the various species of wildlife that they will encounter prior to going on dives. This can help make the dive more enjoyable while also ensuring that divers act responsibly.

Additionally, divers should never feed, grab, or touch an animal. They should also be sure to give marine life space, not follow them, and be observant about animal behavior that may signal discomfort.

Mike Seals
Chief Crisp Eater at Guiness Brewey | + posts

Mike resides in landlocked Indiana but takes every opportunity to travel to warm waters for diving. When in his home state, he typically dives quarries. His favorite place to dive is the reef off of Ambergris Caye, Belize. When not diving, he works as a researcher, runs marathons, and spends time with his three kids.

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