Snorkelling and diving is one of the best ways to appreciate the diversity and fragility of our oceans and while everyone wants a once in a lifetime experience, great photos and amazing encounters, we don’t always think about how to protect the coral reefs and ecosystems we’ve come to see firsthand.
Here are my tips on what you can do to help protect our reefs, marine wildlife and oceans.
10 Simple Ways To Be An Eco-Friendly Diver
1. The Trip Starts At Home
Being a responsible tourist starts before your holiday does. Before you book, find out about the environmental policies of the resorts or operators in the area you’re visiting and chose someone with good sustainability policies.
Here are some of our favorite sustainable travel companies.
Also, think carefully about what you pack. By the time you reach your destination (particularly if it’s in a remote location) it can be too late to pick up some of the useful items that will help you minimise your impact.
For example, reduce plastic use by bringing a reusable bag, water bottle, cutlery and straw with you and pack reef-safe soaps, shampoos and sunscreens, as these might be more difficult to find once you arrive.
Get some inspiration here: Pack green: Eco-friendly travel essentials for a sustainable suitcase
2. Behave Responsibly In The Water
Follow environmental best practice when diving or snorkelling. Don’t touch or chase marine life because this can lead to stressed and scared animals that will swim away, ruining your encounter.
Similarly, don’t step on coral. It might look like a rock but the coral animal is incredibly fragile and can be easily broken. Because it’s so slow growing, just a small breakage can take many months to recover from. Remember, there might also be critters living in the sand too so try not to stir the sediment. As well as ruining the visibility, careless divers and swimmers who stir up the sand can cause damage and can spread disease on reefs.
Many people who are awe-stuck by seeing a pristine coral reef want to come home with some photos to share with family and friends. If that’s you, be extra aware of your position and buoyancy in the water. It’s very easy to become so focused on your shot that you don’t realise you just knocked or kicked some coral.
3. Avoid Toxic Sunscreens
Sunscreen is widely used when swimming, diving and snorkelling. Yet, studies have shown some chemical compounds in sunscreen – including Oxybenzone and Octinoxate – may harm coral reefs, even in small doses. When wearing sunscreen while in the water, it can wash off and enter the water which could harm coral reefs.
These chemicals have been shown to cause bleaching, harm coral DNA and interfere with coral reproduction in lab-based studies. It’s important to prevent these chemicals entering the ocean so minimise this risk by avoiding sunscreens containing chemicals proven to harm coral reefs, using alternatives which are reef-safe and covering up when in strong sunshine.
4. Watch What You Take Home
It probably goes without saying not to take marine life from the ocean (whether dead or alive) but the same also goes for exotic shells. Yes, it’s just one pretty shell but think about the cumulative impact: if hundreds, or even thousands, or tourists are thinking the same thing each day, it will have a significant impact.
Everything in the ocean (even an empty shell) plays a role in the ecosystem. Even dead species break down and are recycled into the sea so removing them deprives other animals of nutrients they need for growth. Depending where you are, taking marine life, shells or coral might even be illegal.
The sale of souvenirs made of shell, coral or other marine life can also have a seriously negative impact on the ocean by removing vital elements from the ecosystem. Please don’t drive this industry by buying souvenirs or jewellery made of coral, shell or similar items.
5. Don’t Support Destructive Industries
People will travel thousands of miles to see sharks in the wild, supporting entire tourism industries. Sharks are worth more alive than dead so do not support the brutal shark finning industry. If a restaurant serves shark fin soup, choose to have your meal elsewhere.
Marine ecosystems are all connected and feeding fish can disrupt the natural balance of things
6. Don’t Feed The Fish
In many destinations, fish feeding is a common way to attract marine life for tourists to see. It might seem harmless enough but is dangerous to fish health and the wider ecosystem. Marine ecosystems are all connected and feeding fish can disrupt the natural balance of things. When tourists throw bread, rice or other food scraps into the water, reef fish will rush to them, leaving their territory and nests unguarded and vulnerable to predators.
With this new food source, fish that normally eat algae may stop doing so, leaving the algae to grow unchecked and smother coral.
It can also lead to predator populations – such as the crown-of-thorns sea star – increasing out of control and damaging the reef because their eggs are normally accidentally eaten while fish are grazing on algae. It’s also harmful to the fish themselves.
Most marine animals have a specific diet and range of digestive bacteria. Being fed the wrong food can lead to the wrong type of bacteria becoming dominant in their stomachs, meaning they can no longer digest their natural food and may starve to death.
This is also the case when throwing food scraps overboard if you’ve been having lunch on a boat so be sure to bring any leftovers back to shore for proper disposal.
7. Don’t Litter The Ocean
Sadly, tourism is one of the most significant sources of marine litter. Remember your behaviour above the water also has an impact on the life below. Litter entering the ocean kills marine life, poisons seafood and can cause injury.
The good news is that you can take direct action: refuse single-use plastics, reduce your overall plastic intake, recycle and dispose of litter properly. If you’re a smoker, disposing of your cigarette butts in the ash trays provided so there’s no risk of them being blown into the sea.
You can also collect any litter you see on the beach (or while swimming, snorkelling or diving) and take it back to shore for proper disposal. Why not take part in an organised beach clean-up event too?
8. Report Environmental Violations
If you see any destructive practices or violations of environmental laws, tell your dive guide, dive operator or government officials. By informing key authorities, you are being part of the solution as your actions can lead to appropriate action.
9. Donate To Your Cause
There are many marine conservation charities around the world working hard to protect the oceans and funding is often a challenge. Reef-World – the international coordinator of Green Fins – is always grateful for any donations to support its work to work to protect coral reefs around the world.
10. Get Involved with Citizen Conservation Projects
As well as taking part in clean-up events, look out for conservation projects you can participate in – for example, helping with reef monitoring or contributing to citizen science by taking ID photos of the animals you see underwater and sharing these with scientific communities (e.g. through Manta Matcher, Whale Shark.org and Flukebook).
The Reef-World Foundation is a UK charity, which focuses on improving environmentally friendly snorkelling and scuba diving practices globally. It leads the global implementation of the UN Environment Programme’s Green Fins initiative; a programme which provides the only internationally recognised standards for diving and snorkelling and helps operators become more sustainable.