10 Ways to Protect Marine Wildlife when Diving
Being a tourist in the underwater world is arguably one of the most spectacular experiences you can have while traveling. But what should you be cognizant of when exploring reefs so you don’t accidentally harm the wildlife? And how can you know if a dive operator cares about protecting marine life? Here are a few tips to get you diving more responsibly:
Look, Don’t Touch!
Don’t hold, touch, or ride any of the wildlife you see. Ever wonder why fish are so slippery? Fish and other marine animals are covered in a slimy mucous coating that protects them from infections and can help deter predators. Touching them destroys this coating. Beware of dive operators who pick up animals to impress customers with a close-up look. Responsible operators will remind tourists not to touch marine life, discourage the use of gloves, and avoid entry and exit points over shallow coral. Prior to booking, research the dive operator online. If you see photos of divers riding sea turtles or holding seastars that’s a good sign you should take your business elsewhere.
Minimize Disturbances to the Animals
Getting too close to or chasing marine creatures can cause them stress and alter their natural behaviors. When one animal starts behaving abnormally it can throw off the balance of the entire ecosystem. Guides should touch upon this during their briefing. Keep in mind that the less divers in an area, the less of a disturbance there is to the wildlife. When researching dive operators, ask how many divers they typically take out in a group – the smaller, the better.
Feeding the Fish
It may be tempting to bring along treats to lure in swarms of fish (many guides are guilty of using this trick too), but feeding them can actually cause a lot of harm. When fish get their food from people, they stop performing their natural purposes such as cleaning algae off the coral reefs. They may also become aggressive or get sick. Ask a dive operator about their feeding policy before booking your trip.
Stay in Control
Neutral buoyancy and proper body position, or trim, are the most important skills that divers should master to avoid bumping into the reef. It can take years to repair damage caused when a diver breaks off a small piece of coral. Before heading to the reef, dive operators should ensure that their customers are well-versed in the techniques. This includes conducting in-water buoyancy trainings for new or out-of-practice divers. Guides should match diver skill levels to the dive sites to prevent inexperienced divers from ending up in difficult to maneuver areas such as caves or wrecks.
Know your Equipment
Before you find yourself surrounded by fragile corals, make sure you know how large you are with your fins and tank on. Simply stirring up sediment can harm the coral by blocking out the sunlight it needs to survive. Be careful to make sure that your gauge and regulator are tucked in properly so that they don’t end up dragging across the reef. Underwater photographers must exercise extra caution because buoyancy is different when holding a large camera. Beginner diver orientation should include in-water training to help new divers get comfortable swimming with the equipment.
Don’t Anchor on Sensitive Areas
Dive operators should never beach the boat or drop an anchor near fragile or sensitive areas such as coral reefs, turtle nesting beaches, bird nesting areas, and seagrass beds. Anchors can cause massive destruction, especially if the wind or current causes the chain to drag back and forth through an entire section of the reef. Responsible alternatives include tying up to mooring buoys whenever available or drift diving.
Animals are Not Souvenirs
Marine creatures – whether alive or dead – should not be collected from the ocean or purchased as souvenirs. Removing certain organisms deprives other animals of their food source or may cause an invasive species to thrive. Even dead organisms serve an important purpose for animals that rely on the decomposition process or shelter. Buying these items only reinforces the demand and encourages continued harvesting. Steer clear of dive shops that sell or display anything made from marine wildlife.
Use Reef Safe Sunscreen
Many chemicals in common sunscreens can cause coral bleaching or are toxic to marine life. It’s good practice to use an eco-friendly option anytime you’re heading in the water. Be aware that just because a product brands itself as “reef safe” doesn’t mean it actually is. Do your research and look at the labels for harmful ingredients. Some marine protected areas and dive operators now require divers to wear reef safe sunscreen; however, the decision to stay informed and act responsibly is ultimately up to you.
Look for Eco-friendly Business Practices
Seek out dive shops that incorporate sustainability into their day-to-day business practices. Do they take any measures to conserve energy or water? How do they dispose of waste? Are they participating in any reef cleanups, conservation projects, or local environmental education programs? Learn about and look for eco-certifications, such as Blue Certified or Green Fins. However, just because an operator isn’t certified doesn’t mean they aren’t an environmentally friendly option. Look at their website to see if they talk about sustainability and if you can’t find any information online, just ask!
Knowing what you’re seeing while diving will make your experience more interesting and help you understand your impact. Research the local marine environment beforehand – there are loads of books and online resources. Or, just ask your guide. A good dive operator will incorporate information about the local environment and conservation into their briefing. Many also have reef identification cards and will teach you hand signals to point out specific species under water. If they’re concerned with protecting marine wildlife, they should be able to tell you about any sensitive environments or threatened species to watch out for. The more you know, the easier it will be for you to make responsible decisions while diving!
If you wish to learn more about marine wildlife, go to Ocean First Education (where you can find online courses on marine sciences) or visit Sustainable Travel International for more information about how tourism conservation NGOs are supporting best practices in the field.