On 22nd April, 1970, millions of people rallied together to try to do something about environmental destruction. That was the very first Earth Day, and now every April 22nd, more than 190 countries around the world celebrate the day by focussing on tackling important environmental issues.
Although Earth Day is only one day per year, we should really be focusing on these issues all year round. As divers and snorkelers, we are the ones who witness first-hand the devastating effects of coral bleaching, destructive fishing practises, plastic pollution and irresponsible divers.
Most divers and snorkelers tend to be already be quite environmentally conscious, however there are always more ways that we can improve our impact on the oceans. Here is a list of simple things you can do to help preserve the marine environment for future generations.
Choose Environmentally Friendly Dive Operations
Dive shops have the power to make real changes to the way people behave around fragile coral reef ecosystems; from correctly training new divers, to ensuring that their guests act in a responsible and eco-friendly manner whilst underwater, and some will even go as far as organising regular underwater clean ups and coral restoration projects.
These are the companies you should be diving with. Unfortunately there are a number of dive schools out there whose only priority is to make money. Luckily for us, it is quite easy to spot these companies from a far. Those dive shops that are offering the absolute cheapest prices to attract customers tend to be the ones who give back the least to the aquatic world that they rely on. They have very little profit margin to put any money into environmental projects, and normally these are the companies who will ignore major environmental problems such as old boat engines that leave a rainbow trail of oil slick in their wake and are billowing acrid black smoke.
If you are at a dive location already, it is easy to find environmentally friendly dive companies by simply going in and asking them what environmental projects they take part in, and how frequently they participate. If you are sat at home and surfing the web for your next dive holiday, it is also quite easy to find the most eco-friendly dive companies. Any companies that participate in such environmental efforts are usually very happy to advertise it over social media or blog posts, and they are often members or supporters of environmental organisations such as Trash Hero or Green Fins.
Join Environmental Initiatives
Once you have selected your eco-friendly dive school, why not see if they have any projects underway that you can join in. Remember, a dive school might only have a few staff members, so they rely heavily on volunteers to increase their effectiveness.
One of the most common projects is beach clean ups. Many companies run at least one a week, and they often reward participants with a free barbeque and a cold beer at the end the day. Another common one is an underwater clean up, where dive shops have at least one trip a week that is focussed on underwater clean ups. They often run these as a two dive trip, where one is the clean-up dive –which is usually free, and the second is a fun dive that is offered at lower rates or even for free. You don’t even have to join in these clean ups to help out. If you see a piece of litter on the beach (or anywhere else) or underwater, pick it up and dispose of it properly. If everybody who used the beaches picked up just one piece of litter, plastic pollution would not be as big of a problem as it is today.
If you would like to plan the dive adventure of a lifetime, give something back to the ocean, and boost your CV, why not participate in a marine conservation NGO. These non-profit organisations can be found throughout much of the world, and focus on a number of important subjects such as coral reef restoration, mangrove restoration, and obtaining important data on fish stocks. They are often based in developing countries and focus on real long term solutions such as alternative livelihoods and education.
Take Nothing but Pictures, Leave Nothing but Bubbles
Obviously we all know that while we are diving, we should never touch or harass any marine organism, but many environmentally conscious divers forget these rules once the dive is over.
I have been on multiple dive boats where divers have found an amusing way to spend their surface intervals – by throwing cookies and fruit into the water to attract fish. Neither of these common dive boat commodities are part of any fish’s diet, and could potentially harm them. Another reason why you should never do this is because it changes the behaviour of the fish. You may have heard of dive sites where napoleon wrasse welcome dive boats and follow divers throughout most of the dive. This behaviour is not natural, and there is nothing stopping a fishing boat pulling up to the dive site later that day and pulling the hungry and overly friendly wrasse out the water.
Many dive locations – especially in the developing world – have a number of souvenir vendors that sell ocean related memorabilia such as t-shirts, sarongs, and jewellery made with shells. While it might seem harmless to buy a shell or pick one up from the beach, you are actually removing an important part of the reef. These shells will naturally be recycled; either by a hermit crab looking for a new home, or they will break down and replenish sand. Once removed, it can do neither of these things. Even worse is when you find larger shells for sale. These intact and impressive shells almost never wash up on the beach, they are normally taken from the reef, and its original owner is forcibly removed and probably killed. The world’s largest marine snail, the ‘Triton Snail’, has a shall that can grow to over 50cm, and it can be worth a lot of money. The natural owners of these impressive shells are very important to the health of the reef as they are one of the only natural predators of the coral eating crown of thorn starfish. Removing any such shell from the reef can be extremely environmentally damaging. It is actually illegal throughout most of the world to travel with sea shells, and there are multiple stories of people turning up to the airport with their new souvenirs and leaving with a large fine.
Choose Environmentally Friendly Sunscreen
Skin protection is extremely important, especially when you are in tropical climates and spending a long time in the sun and on the water’s surface as snorkelers do.
The downside of sunscreen is that it can actually be very harmful to coral reef. The common sun blocking ingredient is called ‘oxybenzone’ and it is proven that it can kill coral and accelerate the effects of coral bleaching. Luckily for us sun loving divers and snorkelers, there many companies that make more environmentally friendly sunscreens that are just as effective.
Reduce your Waste
Single use plastic are one of the biggest threats facing our planet in modern times, with around 26 million tonnes of plastic entering the ocean every year.
Reducing our plastic usage is something we can all get better at, and it is something that many governments around the world are making a top priority. It is common over Europe to have to pay for single use shopping bags at supermarkets, and the UK currently discussing banning outright all plastic straws, cotton buds and drink stirrers.
One of the best things you can do for the environment is to try to reduce the amount of single use plastic that you use. It is surprisingly easy to do once you establish a few good habits. Make sure you always take a bag around with you so if you need to get any shopping done, you won’t need one from the shop. Most bars will unnecessarily hand out plastic straws with almost any drink, so be sure to refuse one, and buy a good quality water bottle that you can refill rather than buying endless amounts of bottled water.
Unfortunately, plastic is almost unavoidable, however most of it is easy to recycle, and recycling facilities are improving throughout much of the world. If you do need to use single use plastic for whatever reason, try to make sure it ends up in a recycling bin rather than landfill.
Have Good Dive Practises
Dive tourism can have an enormous impact on coral reefs, both positive and negative.
On one hand, an increase in dive tourism leads to job creation, and those working in the diving industry will do as much as they can to protect the reefs that they depend on. This is especially true in places like Indonesia, where many people who once relied on fishing now work in the diving hospitality industry, putting less pressure on the reefs, and in many areas, fishing has become prohibited or restricted in popular dive areas for safety reasons.
On the other hand, countless divers descending on the reef can result in broken reefs and stirred up silt which can suffocate the corals. One of the best things that you can do as a diver is to simply dive in an environmentally friendly way. That means not touching anything, and mastering your buoyancy control to avoid accidents – and you should not even consider taking a camera diving until you have complete control over your body in the water. Many dive companies have a policy that will exclude any divers who are acting irresponsibly, however dive guides often don’t say anything for fear of complaints or losing their guests. If you see any diver acting in an irresponsible manner, you should either confront them about it, or report it to the dive centre manager so they can deal with the issue.
There is nothing quite like having a dinner of fresh fish gilled over a BBQ while you are relaxing on a beach.
While many divers choose to entirely omit seafood from their diet, there are others who love seafood and don’t want to give it up. Over fishing is one of the biggest threats to reefs world-wide and an enormous strain is being put on once healthy fish stocks to supply our never ending demand. If giving up seafood is something you could never image doing, at least avoid eating reef fish, and try to stick only to the sustainable options.
If you are a seafood lover and happen to be in the Caribbean, a good dinner option is lionfish. Although these beautiful fish are from the reef, they are not native to the Caribbean and are destroying much of the local wildlife. Most Caribbean dive operations will actively hunt them, and many restaurants will offer them on their menus. Don’t worry about the venom, the spines will all be removed, and once the meat is cooked it is a flaky white fish that resembles snapper.
It might seem like taking these steps to help protect our oceans might seem pointless as you are only one person, but as a collective we can make a real difference. Remember that the ocean is not our plaything for us to use as we please, it is an essential part of the planet, and millions of people around the world rely on it for their survival.
Do you have any tips on being more environmentally friendly? If so, stick them in the comments section below and we will make sure to share them!
‘Become an Environmentally Aware Diver this Earth Day’ was written by Mike