Don't feed the critters

by B. N. Sullivan

There are some dive sites where you know immediately that the fishes and other critters are used to being fed by divers and snorkelers.  How can you tell?  You can hold out your hand, like Jerry is doing in the photo above, and see if the fishes come forward.  Sometimes you don't even need to extend your hand.  At some sites, the fishes begin to converge on divers as soon as they descend from a boat.

So, is feeding the critters a bad thing or an okay thing to do?  Generally speaking, we advise against it.

For one thing, it can be disruptive to the critters in a number of ways.  Feeding an animal something that it would not naturally eat can disrupt its digestion and nutritional status.  Even if you choose to feed something the animal might normally eat, you alter its natural feeding behavior by supplying the food item.

For another thing, feeding critters encourages them to congregate in places where they might not normally stay -- like at the base of a boat mooring.  While the critters may learn that if they hang out in a particular place, they will be fed, their predators also learn this.  You may be setting up the unsuspecting recipient of your offerings for becoming a meal himself!

And then there's the diver safety issue.  If you've ever been mobbed by a swarm of fishes expecting a handout, you know what I mean. We have been followed around on many occasions by fishes that had become accustomed to being fed -- including eels and stingrays.  As annoying as being mobbed by Snappers or Butterflyfishes may be, it can be worse -- even dangerous -- if the hungry critters are large and/or toothsome and aggressively pursue divers expecting a treat.

Long-time readers of The Right Blue may recall a story we told awhile back about a particularly aggressive Napoleon Wrasse in the Red Sea.  The huge fish was accustomed to being fed boiled eggs.  The wrasse  apparently mistook the white second stage of our friend's regulator for an egg, and chomped it hard enough to detach it from the hose.

We know a dive guide who used to feed a certain large Moray eel, and then pet it.  One day he reached out to pet the eel and it snapped at him, clamping down on his finger.  At the hospital emergency room the doc said the only reason the dive guide did not lose that finger was because he was wearing a heavy class ring, which probably deflected the eel bite just enough to save the digit (although it was pretty badly mangled).

Remember, folks.  The creatures you see in the ocean are wild animals, not pets.  Don't give them indigestion and don't mess with the natural food chain.  Don't feed them.

About the photo:  I took this photo of Jerry (and a handful of Yellowtail Snappers) at the wreck of the Oro Verde, located off Grand Cayman's Seven Mile Beach.


  1. Your posts have taught me that many underwater creatures have tiny territories. I used to think that fish more or less drifted about with the currents. Now I can see that accustoming a fish to handfeeding is as easy -- and unwise -- as accustoming raccoons or bears to it.

  2. Hi Lavenderbay -

    Yes, that is exactly the point. As tempting as it is to do so, it's not a good idea to feed the bears -- or the eels -- and for much the same reasons.

    Re home ranges of fishes, generally speaking the smaller the physical size, the smaller the range, and vice versa. For example, reef fishes usually have a smallish, well-defined range. Tagging and telemetry studies have shown that larger pelagic species (think sharks, tunas, etc.) sometimes roam widely -- but not randomly.


  3. I've missed visiting your blog. I was telling a co-worker about it and we sat here browsing your posts and video clips. I see you're still taking fantastic shots and having wonderful experiences! Keep it up! :-)


We welcome your comments and invite your questions. Dialogue is a good thing!

Bobbie & Jerry