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The Responsible Traveller: responsible scuba diving

Posted by Richard Hammond at 04:26 on Tuesday 29 September 2009

As recreational scuba diving increases in popularity, the once-thriving coral reefs of the tropics are being put under pressure by the sheer number of divers who come to encounter the marine life that lives on them. Richard Hammond explains what responsible travelling divers can do to lessen their impact... 

Reef Relief
Minutes after I had descended below the surface a short distance from my hotel jetty, I finned over to a magnificent coral wall, passing over elkhorn coral and barrel sponges alongside butterflyfish, parrotfish, several large groupers and various other brightly coloured reef fish. There was hardly any current and the visibility in the warm tropical waters of the Cayman Islands was easily 20 metres.

I was told later that the near-perfect conditions on this shore dive were typical of what divers regularly encounter in these central Caribbean islands. Most people who dive there for a week will also see stingrays and spotted eagle rays, while a lucky few will enjoy the thrill of seeing nurse sharks, reef sharks and hammerheads. Brenda Gadd, managing director of the Central Caribbean Marine Institute, says that scientists come from all over the world to study the reef around the Cayman Islands, particularly around Little Cayman, which she says has one of the healthiest reefs in the Caribbean.

Unfortunately, thriving coral reefs such as those around the Caymans are increasingly the exception rather than the norm…

According to WWF, 27 per cent of the world’s coral reefs (the ‘rainforests of the sea’) have already died, and ‘if present rates of destruction are allowed to continue, 60 per cent of the world’s coral reefs will be lost over the next 30 years’. The impact of this on local communities, fisheries and tourism is far-reaching and profound. The World Resources Institute says that properly managed coral reefs can yield an average of 15 tonnes of fish and other seafood per square kilometre each year. Indeed, the coral reef fisheries of Southeast Asia (which WWF says are ‘the global epicentre of marine diversity’) are estimated to yield US$2.4billion annually. According to SeaWeb, more than 450 million people live within 60 kilometres of coral reefs, with the majority directly or indirectly deriving food and income from them, yet most of these reefs have suffered ‘significant degradation’.

While the most potent threats to coral reefs come from overfishing, coastal development, pollution caused by agricultural run-off, and climate change, bad scuba diving practices can also cause irreversible damage to these fragile ecosystems. TheProfessional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI), the world’s largest diver training organisation, certifies more than half a million divers each year, and with an estimated seven million active divers worldwide, there’s increasing concern that many reefs are becoming overwhelmed by the popularity of recreational diving.

Don’t touch, don’t take
So what can divers do to limit their impact on reefs? Suzanne Pleydell, education manager forPADI, says that it’s key for divers to pick a registered dive centre – one that has committed to PADI’s core responsible diving practices, which include a commitment to ensuring their divers don’t touch or chase marine wildlife or take marine life souvenirs. In addition, Pleydell says that buoyancy control – the ability to remain neutrally buoyant, ‘hovering’ in the water – is an absolutely vital skill to avoid sinking and bumping into coral and damaging it. She recommends that divers (especially those who want to take photographs) go on PADI’s Peak Performance Buoyancy course, which forms part of the Master Scuba Diver qualification.

According to Gadd, however, while good diving technique helps, it isn’t enough to safeguard stewardship of the reefs. ‘Often divers with the best intentions touch coral accidentally, whether it’s with a fin or another piece of their dive gear,’ he says. In order to reduce the chances of divers damaging coral, the Cayman Islands marine park authority has set a limit on the number of divers at every site. Mooring lines have been positioned at dive sites (so that dive boats simply tie a line to the buoy rather than drop an anchor and risk damaging the reef), there is only one mooring per dive site and for each vessel, only 20 people are allowed on the reef at any one time. Similar controls over diver numbers exist in Bonaire off the coast of Venezuela, where an annual dive fee of US$25 is also levied, helping to fund the conservation of the Bonaire Marine Park, which extends all the way around the island.

According to Chris Williams, founder of Quest Underseas, which has organised marine research volunteering trips to Mozambique and Honduras, choosing a more responsible dive operator can make all the difference. He says that dive sites can often be overwhelmed by the sheer number of divers visiting them, particularly in popular destinations such as the Red Sea and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. ‘If an organisation doesn’t limit the group size, then it may mean they are keen to get “bums on seats” and aren’t thinking about the ecological consequences.’

The carrying capacity also varies from site to site, depending on the fragility of the marine ecosystem. The classic example, he says, is when there’s a charismatic species that can take precedent over everything else. ‘Divers can be completely unaware when they dive down to take photos of a manta ray feeding station, for example, that they may be lying in a soft coral bed, which draws in the small fish that pick up the parasites that actually create the cleaning station itself. It all comes down to how the operator manages the dive.’

Some 300 of the most responsible PADI dive operators have signed up to the organisation’s Project Aware scheme (for a listing, visit projectaware.org), which means they adhere to specific guidelines for more responsible dive practices, such as being involved in local conservation and community efforts, support marine protected areas and provide briefings on responsible dive practices. Each year, PADI recognises the best of these with an ‘environmental achievement award’. Recent winners include Dive Tutukaka, which runs trips to the Poor Knights Islands off the northeast coast of New Zealand, and Blue o Two, which runs liveaboard dive trips in the Red Sea.

Divers can also put their dive holiday to good use by contributing their underwater observations to the Global Dive Log (earthdive.com), a unique ‘citizen science’ research project. The idea is that by recording what divers see underwater, they can help build up a global snapshot of the world’s marine species and provide valuable data for conservation organisations. It’s especially useful to record key indicator species whose absence can alert scientists to any environmental pressures reefs may be suffering, such as pollution and overfishing. So, next time you dive, as well as following that well-known diving adage ‘plan the dive and dive the plan’, add ‘see it, log it, map it’.

An edited version of this article, by Richard Hammond, was first published in his column ‘The Responsible Traveller’ in the October issue of Geographical, available in WHSmith and many independent newsagents. Subscribe online or order your copy by calling +44 (0)1795 414 881.

See also: Five Responsible Dive Trips

See previous articles:
The responsible traveller: volunteering and the reality gap
The responsible traveller: ethical trekking

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