You are walking down the street and you cannot help but notice the very attractive member of the opposite sex walking toward you. Enjoying beauty for beauty sake, you try not to stare, then you lock eyes. What a rush!
A husband and wife find themselves lost in a dark alley. A dirty beggar asks for change and the nervous and cautious wife says, “Just walk and don’t make eye contact.”
Ever stare down a vicious dog? Usually not a good idea. All of these are examples of the instinct-charged realm of eye contact. It is very powerful in the animal world and the animal in us often feels it. Eye contact is just as powerful in the underwater environment. A bit of knowledge and the practicing of some unusual techniques, and you can use it to your advantage for animal stalking, observation, approach, and photography.
Most fish (and some squid and octopus) observe closely the eyes of an approaching animal very closely, especially those that it might consider a predator. Since as divers we are generally larger than most animals commonly encountered in the sea, we are usually considered a predator. Our clumsiness and noise usually tells the animals right away we are not much of a threat, but cautious they are, just the same.
What they will really observe is your eyes. Because we wear dive masks over our eyes, an odd effect is created. The large lenses make our eyes appear larger and more threatening than they really are. And with single lens masks, we can have a cyclops appearance to the tiny creatures. Also, the lens port of a camera can have the look of a large, one-eyed creature coming right at it. Frightening! Fish duck for cover, octopuses crouch back into holes.
There are some things you can do to lessen this negative effect. You may have noticed that your buddy’s mask lenses, viewed underwater from the side, can take on a mirror-like appearance. This is due to the refraction of light in passing from water, to the glass and into air. If you approach the fish looking sideways out of your mask, rather than seeing your eyes, they may just see a reflection of water, kelp, or even themselves. Even if they perceive your eyes, they won’t feel you are looking at them. Try it! It really works.
Spearfishers will choose their masks carefully to approach their quarry. A brightly colored frame is obviously not a good choice. Try a clear frame or better yet a dark frame with a dark skirt. You will be able to see better in the muted light of the kelp forest, and the reduced light coming into the mask will hide your eyes better.
Another technique is to use cover. Kelp makes this easy. Tuck in behind the nearest stalk and you can sometimes get very close. Another good place to hide is in a school of bait fish. Spearfishers will use this technique. The game fish becomes oblivious to you for two reasons. First, you (and your gun and your eyes) are hidden in the blur of moving fish and, second, they are often more focused on feeding from the school of bait fish.
Smart spearfishers will rarely head right at a game fish. Rather, they will parallel its course underwater and avoid looking straight at it. Only when they are close enough for the shot will they turn to look, aim, and pull the trigger in one swift motion.
If you are a photographer, you can use the same technique for illusive photo subjects. Harbor seals are notoriously shy, yet curious creatures. They pay the most attention to you when you are NOT looking at them. Keep them in the corner of your eye, camera at the ready, and when they get close, turn and take the photo.
Don’t let the glare of your stare scare off the fish on your next dive. Try a few of these techniques and see how you can get closer to your fishy friends.