“Don’t touch that!”
“That animal cannot breathe when you remove it from the water”
“Why are you doing that?”
These are all things I often wish to politely yell at people when I see them needlessly harming or stressing marine creatures during their daily beach walk or during a snorkeling trip in Diani! The most targeted animal by far being the poor African Red Knob Sea Star (Proteaster linckii) pictured below. This vibrant starfish is a favourite to be plucked from its ocean home and carried around or posed with for photographs up and down the entire Kenyan coastline! What one, I presume, does not realise, is that when rapidly removed from the ocean by a human hand, a starfish begins to suffocate!
Starfish breathe via diffusion. This means that oxygen is taken from the water as it passes over their tube feet and papulae (bumps on their body). Of course, this is how they also expel carbon dioxide, without which would poison the animal. Ultimately, to respire, a starfish must be in contact with seawater. Many people respond to this with, what about those starfish seen out of water during a low tide? Well, a starfish will soak up additional water into its tissue to survive a low tide, not just for respiration, but also to regulate its body temperature as the sun beats down on it. When removed rapidly from the water by a human hand, the starfish has no chance to prepare!
Ultimately a starfish is not guaranteed to immediately die every time it is removed from the water, as we see so many of them still along on our shorelines, but it is guaranteed to induce high levels of stress and health implications which we do not necessarily see in the immediate future of that animal.
One must also be aware that if we touch marine life, we remove a protective layer of mucus from the animal leaving it open to the contraction of disease. Any chemicals from sunscreen, insect repellent or beauty products we may have on our hands, in addition to many foreign land-based bacteria, will also pass to the body of the animal, possibly causing an infection, or worse.
And please remember, starfish are not the only victims here! I have witnessed sea cucumbers lifted and squeezed until their internal organs are expelled from their anus, after which they must spend the following six weeks re-growing them! I have been shown a video of a beautiful sea hare in the shallows being poked with a pen, creating holes in the animal’s flesh, until it squirts purple ink and attempts to escape! And it is not just the ocean dwelling creatures, but those on the beach too. Filling in crab holes in an attempt to save turtle hatchlings as they run to the ocean would be the only time I endorse such behaviour! Otherwise you are needlessly ruining the home of an animal that has done you no harm, but which scavenges the very beach you walk on keeping it clear of detritus and debris. Even worse I have seen people throw beach dwelling crabs, including hermit crabs, into the ocean – where, by the way, they will drown!
Ultimately the title of this article is my main message: “Look with your eyes, not with your hands!”. And if you can, please politely spread this message to others!
We at the Marine Education Centre have already developed a number of awareness materials with the Diving the Crab team at The Sands at Nomad hotel, but we are in the process of developing more, which we hope to spread to all the operators in Diani, and ultimately to any operator anywhere who wishes to encourage responsible marine life interactions.
If you wish to support our work or learn more, please do not hesitate to contact Jenni at firstname.lastname@example.org, and if you have the means, please consider donating to our amazing team of women scientists to support their work during this pandemic: https://www.globalgiving.org/projects/supporting-women-in-science-during-covid-19/
You can also follow the Marine Education Centres work and awareness campaigns on their social media page: www.facebook.com/MarineEducationCentre
Jenni Choma is a marine biologist based at the Marine Education Centre since its opening. Her main aim is to use marine education and research to bring about conservation of the marine environment.