By Samantha Craven
Signs of environmental damage are everywhere underwater: scars from dynamite fishing, ghost nets, and anchor damage are common in some areas, not to mention the distinct lack of sharks or the broader effects of a warming planet. Becoming environmentally conscious divers is a fantastic opportunity to raise awareness about these issues, not only among divers, but also among your non-diving friends. First, we must acknowledge that diving itself carries risks for the environment. The impacts of the diving industry are not nearly as grave as some of the issues listed above, but with over one million newly certified divers each year, the industry is growing fast. Fortunately, most divers are already predisposed to care about the underwater environment, and through initiatives like Green Fins and many more, there is lots of guidance out there to help us practice sustainable tourism. Here are a few of the best tips for environmentally conscious divers.
Environmentally conscious divers practice good buoyancy
We’re reminded to practice good buoyancy time and time again, but few of us actively work on improving our skills. Good positioning in the water means reducing the risk of accidental damage to the reef, and removes your instinct to hold on to something. While one errant fin kick, or one diver grabbing couple of pieces of coral may seem innocuous, once you tally the number of divers in each group and the number of groups that visit the site in a day, a week, a month, or a year, it starts to add up. One study in St. Lucia (Barker & Roberts 2004) found that a single diver contacts the reef, on average, 24 times per hour. Most of these contacts are accidental, and the diver is often unaware, but if just 30 divers are on that site in an hour, over 700 contacts could be made. Proper buoyancy and an awareness of your body’s location in the water column are one key to becoming environmentally conscious divers.
Choose responsible operators
All dive shops are not equal. For some, cheap and cheerful diving is the bottom line; others go that extra mile to ensure their operations have a minimal impact on the reef. If divers want this to be the norm, we’ve got to show demand for sustainable, eco-conscious businesses by choosing operators that raise awareness for ocean conservation through both their actions and words. A few good resources for finding environmentally conscious dive shops are the Project AWARE 100% AWARE partners page, the Green Fins member listing, and the Blue Star operators listing, featuring Florida Keys dive shops that have committed to coral reef conservation through responsible tourism. The Longitude 181 Ambassador centers also promote international guidelines for the responsible diver.
Don’t feed the fish
A seemingly innocuous, maybe even “helpful’ practice,” especially in Southeast Asia is fish feeding, usually with pieces of bread. While it may seem harmless on the surface, this can have serious ecological implications. Provisioning (feeding) makes for an easy meal for fish, but unfortunately they become reliant on the practice. Apart from the lack of nutritional value in bread, this act leads them to forgo their natural food source, throwing the finely balanced food web out of whack. Damselfish commonly take advantage of fish feeding, but their main diet is meant to be the algae that competes with coral for space and light. Without pressure from the grazers, a reef can shift from a coral- to an algae-dominated state.
Go au naturel
Gloves are a source of contention among divers, and many dive shops in the tropics now have a no-gloves policy. The issue here lies with the false sense of security that the extra layer of neoprene gives a diver. If your hands feel protected, you are far more likely to touch the reef without thinking. If you’re worried about hydroids on a mooring line where you descend, take one glove to hold on to the line and keep in in your pocket until you ascend.
Watch your waste
Cigarette butts, candy wrappers, drink sachets, plastic bottles, masking tape on tanks — these are all easily blown off a dive boat. The more conscious dive shops will have ashtrays and trashcans with lids to prevent that happening. If there isn’t one, bring these items back to land and find a trashcan. The No. 1 item collected worldwide during the International Coastal Clean Up for many consecutive years has been cigarette butts. In 2014 alone, over two million cigarette butts were collected.
Tip your eco-friendly guide
If you usually tip your dive guide (and you should), use this opportunity to encourage positive traits like environmentally focused dive briefings and correction of damaging behaviors underwater. Most dives guides are quite aware of the need to protect reefs, not only for the sake of the reef, but also for their own future — after all, a reef in bad health isn’t going to attract divers. However, the age-old belief that “the customer is always right” can mean that guides are reluctant to correct bad diver behavior or focus too heavily on environmental concerns. Compliment them if they do and they are more likely to prevent others from damaging their reefs.
Refuse reef fish
It’s becoming clear that the best way to help protect the ocean on an individual level is to leave seafood off your plate entirely. With overfishing listed as one of the biggest threats to reefs globally, absolutely avoid unsustainable options like grouper, parrotfish or snapper. Think about the last time you saw an adult grouper that wasn’t in a well-monitored, effective Marine Protected Area. Supply will always try to meet demand, and as a consumer, you have the power to determine what is supplied to you. If you must eat seafood, please choose a sustainable option, and, if the restaurant can’t ensure that its fish is sustainable, don’t eat it.
Be a sustainable shopper
Buying souvenirs? Avoid shells and other ocean products. The mollusks that make those shells have vital roles in marine ecosystems, like grazing algae to prevent overgrowth on reefs. And when broken down, these shells replenish sand and maintain the chemical balance in the ocean that we’re altering through ocean acidification. The international trade in seashells is huge, and each time you decide not to be part of that, you make a difference. Again, demand drives supply.
Be careful with that sunscreen
Although slathering on that sunscreen is no doubt important when it comes to protecting your skin from the suns rays, you may inadvertently be doing the reef some damage. The common sunscreen ingredient oxybenzone has been shown to kill coral, as well as cause coral bleaching, and although one diver putting on sunscreen may not be a big deal, it becomes one when we extrapolate the numbers, as with touching the reef. There are a number of less-damaging sunscreens on the market that don’t contain oxybenzone; by choosing one, you can protect both your skin and the reef.
Never think that as just one person, your actions are inconsequential: the small decisions you make on each dive can make a real difference. We are in a prime position to see what’s going on in the world’s oceans, and by becoming environmentally conscious divers we can work on every dive to make sure that healthier reefs are in all our futures.
Green Fins is an initiative of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and The Reef-World Foundationinternationally recognized environmental standards for the diving and snorkeling tourism industry. You can find Green Fins members in Malaysia, the Maldives, Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam.