Last updated: 5th October 2020
Reading time: 7 mins
For the avid scuba divers among us, there’s a “must-do” dive trip on our bucket lists each and every year. After all, there’s no such thing as too much time spent underwater, right?
But in many parts of the world, the impact of over-tourism and unsustainable practices – particularly around popular scuba diving hot spots, has put coral reefs and marine life at serious risk.
If you’re anything like us, you love the ocean with a passion and want to see it protected for future generations. With that in mind, we’ve put together a handy guide detailing the importance of responsible diving practices, to help make your next scuba diving trip as sustainable as possible.
A vast proportion of the world’s coral reefs have become top destinations for snorkelling and scuba diving, enticing hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. Today, the annual global economic value of coral reefs is estimated to be around US$ 29.8- 375 billion, but the increase in visitors has come at a high price for the reefs, with recent studies revealing over 50% of the world’s coral reefs have already been damaged or lost, and over 90% are now at risk.
The graph below shows the increase in the number of people visiting the Great Barrier Reef, Australia between 1985-2000.
While there are other factors that have led to their decline, for example, the climate crisis, tourism is certainly a very large contributor. Sadly, a recent study revealed there is more dead coral and coral rubble at sites experiencing the greatest increase in diving, no doubt a result of careless practices i.e. divers stepping on the corals, kicking up sediment and knocking the corals with their equipment, combined with the impact of boat anchors dropped without thought, breaking off parts of the reef before they hit the ocean floor.
The eco-conscious divers reading this can all agree – this is not good practice, and by no means standard behaviour among all divers, but it highlights the importance of diving responsibly.
Scuba diving doesn’t necessarily have to come at a huge environmental cost. On your next trip, try and follow the tips below to keep your ecological, and carbon footprints as small as possible.
Here are our top 10 tips to for sustainable diving…
Most dive travel starts with an environmental conundrum; how do I get to the reefs or dive sites I want to see and keep my carbon footprint low?
In truth, you can’t really avoid all travel unless you’re lucky enough to have your very own house reef!
What we can do though is avoid taking those uber-cheap flight paths with the long layovers and the circuitous routes. Instead, consider paying a little extra and taking the most direct flight path you can find. As an added bonus, you’ll probably save some money on lengthy airport stopovers.
Remember to pack your own reusable water bottle and coffee cup when you travel, too.
If you travel for diving several times a year, consider making some of those trips local ones. You might be surprised at just how good the diving can be in your home country.
Diving is a business and dive centres and liveaboard dive operators do operate for money. But this doesn’t have to be done at the cost of the local ecosystem.
Some dive operators take a more proactive approach to environmental issues than others do. Before you choose your centre or liveaboard, check their environmental credentials. Do they use any single-use plastic items? Do they actively participate in local efforts to maintain the reef?
We vote with our wallets and if all divers chose environmentally aware dive operators, we might see a sea change in the way that others run their businesses.
If you happen to see any rubbish while you’re diving, do make an effort to pick it up. Most BCDs have large pockets which you can use to stash trash in. If you’re diving with a pocket-free wing and harness, perhaps one of the other divers in your group has a BCD with pockets.
It should be noted here though, don’t sacrifice your dive profile to pick up all the trash you see. For example, if you’ve ascended to your safety stop depth, don’t nip back down to 10m to grab a piece of rubbish. Remember that saw-tooth diving (going up and down) is not a good idea given the nitrogen levels in our bodies after diving.
Many dive centres offer free clean-up dives. These are dives that are run with the specific purpose of picking up as much rubbish as possible. This is your chance as a dive traveller to help out local efforts to keep the reefs pristine.
Most often you’ll be paired with a buddy and be given a large mesh sack to stash any rubbish you find in.
Alternatively, you can join Project Aware in their debris data collection program, Dive Against Debris, a unique program encouraging divers from around the world to participate in the removal of marine debris from the ocean, and report data on the types, quantities and locations of materials collected. So far, over 1 million pieces of trash have been collected, and you could help them reach their target of 2 million by the end of 2020!
This is an old diving adage which encourages us to leave everything in the environment as we find it – with the exception of trash, of course!
Just because a shell doesn’t have the original mollusc or a hermit crab living in it doesn’t mean that it belongs in pride of place on your mantelpiece or table.
All of the things we spot underwater should be left just there. They too serve a role in the delicate ecosystems that they’re part of.
It’s no secret, the better our dive skills are, the less likely we are to commit acts of accidental environmental terrorism underwater.
Maintain neutral buoyancy always and stay around a metre above the reef. Remember that underwater things appear larger and closer because of refraction; you don’t need to be inches away from the reef to spot cool creatures.
If you see a sand patch, this doesn’t mean that you have free rein to kneel down on it, or otherwise make contact with the bottom. Sand, which is easily kicked up by our fins, can smother and stunt nearby corals, so it’s best to avoid all contact with the seafloor at all times, even if it is sandy.
If you’re relatively new to scuba diving, you may still be figuring out the finer intricacies of your buoyancy. If so, consider investing in additional training which focuses on buoyancy control.
All diving certification agencies offer buoyancy courses.If you have specific questions or would like help and advice, most dive guides and instructors are more than willing to offer you guidance.For those of us with a little more experience under our weight belts, we can set an example for newer divers by being environmentally friendly buddies and role models.
Top sites like the Great Barrier Reef and Koh Lanta, are of course popular for a reason, and we’re all eager to tick the “must-see” places off our lists – but there are many more fantastic dive locations out there offering an experience just as awesome in their own right, if not better!
So when it comes to planning your next trip, why not do a little digging to find a site with fewer visitors? Not only will you be helping to reduce the strain of over-tourism in areas where marine life is struggling, you’ll also enjoy a quieter diving experience.
Sunscreen may help to protect us from harmful UV rays, but recent reports have found oxybenzone – a common ingredient in most suncreams, to be extremely damaging to the reefs causing bleaching, deformities, DNA damage and death among various coral species.
Such is the severity of the problem, the Hawaiin government have their announced plans to ban the sale or distribution of any sunscreens containing oxybenzone or octinoxate without a prescription from a licensed healthcare provider, this will come into effect from January 21.
You can protect yourself from the sun without damaging the reefs by investing in some “reef-safe” sunscreen, or simply wear a shirt or wetsuit to cover your exposed skin.
This guide was written by SLO active
Baldwin, G, How Does Tourism Impact Ocean Health? Coastal Development. (2018)
Downs, C., Kramarsky-Winter, E., Segal, R., Fauth, J., Knutson, S., Bronstein, O., Ciner, F., Jeger, R., Lichtenfeld, Y., Woodley, C., Pennington, P., Cadenas, K., Kushmaro, A. and Loya, Y. Toxicopathological Effects of the Sunscreen UV Filter, Oxybenzone (Benzophenone-3), on Coral Planulae and Cultured Primary Cells and Its Environmental Contamination in Hawaii and the U.S. Virgin Islands.(2014)
Ocean.si.edu. Endangered Ocean | Smithsonian Ocean.
Scuba Diver Life. Making Sustainable Tourism the Standard in the Dive Industry. (2017)
Secore.org., Coral reefs are dying
Zainal Abidin, S. and Mohamed, B., A Review of SCUBA Diving Impacts and Implication for Coral Reefs Conservation and Tourism Management. (2014)