Responsible scuba diving

Scuba diving could be considered a victim of its own success: 25 years ago there were tons of dive spots that barely anyone knew about and a lot fewer divers. But of course when we discover something incredible we want to tell the world about it – cue PADI picking up the baton for more accessible dive training, and a stampede of curious people wanting to get underwater and see what all the fuss is about. This doesn’t have to be a problem though. Responsible scuba diving isn’t hard to achieve and as a rule of thumb, if a diving holiday is cheap as chips there will be a catch. That catch will consist of poor instruction, lack of commitment to the fragility of the marine environment and how best a diver should explore it and, ultimately, a bad scuba diving experience for you. 25 percent of all coral reefs worldwide are now damaged beyond repair and some irresponsible diving holiday companies driven by cash and not by caution are adding to increasing problems with overcrowding at popular dive sites. But for every one of those there are a growing number of far more responsible scuba diving holiday companies who will teach you to dive safely and with a good knowledge of our magnificent underwater world, so you can respect it as much as you enjoy it.

Wildlife & environment

Know your coral code

Having survived tens of thousands of years of natural change, humankind has managed to wreak havoc on coral reefs – the beautiful and life-sustaining underwater organisms that over 25 percent of all marine life on the planet calls home.

Shockingly, one quarter of coral reefs worldwide are already considered damaged beyond repair and two-thirds of those that remain salvageable are under threat. Major threats include destructive fishing practices; careless tourism (overdevelopment, thoughtless diving, snorkeling and boating, people touching reefs or collecting coral); pollution from urban and industrial waste; sewage; agrochemicals and oil, which poison the reefs and up the level of nitrogen in the seawater, which effectively suffocates reefs, and climate change – corals simply cannot survive if the temperature of the sea is too high and reacts by ‘bleaching’, a literal and visually dramatic stress response that eventually leads to death.

Oceanic acidification, disease, sedimentation due to deforestation, coral mining, and coastal development are other major concerns that affect the health of coral reefs. There is room for optimism, however, with around 40 percent of the world’s reefs still regarded as being relatively healthy and not facing immediate danger. Importantly, there is still time to take action and join the effort to preserve some of the richest natural habitats our planet has to offer.
What you can do
The future health of our seas depends hugely on what we pump into it – even though your eco-intentions might be good, there’s no guarantee that the intentions of the accommodation you’re staying at are too, so ask to see their waste policy just to make sure you’re on the same page. Ocean warming caused by climate change, which in turn adds to the existing problem with rising sea levels is another concern where our glorious oceans are concerned and is a factor that’s hugely affected by CO2 emissions caused by flying. Try and reduce the use of internal flights wherever possible and be mindful of your energy use at home and abroad too.

You can read more about the effect of ocean warming on our seas.

Don’t add to the crowds

Scuba diving has never been more popular and, as with most things, demand directly affects supply, so it’s not uncommon to find a huge amount of dive schools in even the smallest of destinations. This is all very well as long as traffic to and from the sites is managed responsibly. Overcrowding at dive sites leads to nudging just that little bit too close and jostling to get a better view, which add up to buoyancy issues for beginners that can cause degradation and contact damage to the coral and marine life that live there.

A smaller dive school, or a dive school that places emphasis on taking smaller groups out to dive sites, may cost marginally more, but is always preferable. Any responsible diving operator will recognise when a dive site is overcrowded and will either juggle your timetable of dives to make sure you can go elsewhere and come back when the traffic has subsided, or just hold back for an hour. So you’ll definitely get to see the glory of what lies beneath, but in a much more tranquil way.

What you can do
Be mindful of the marine environment around you. If you do find yourself at an overcrowded spot, hold back until you get your turn to explore and, most importantly, be flexible with your instructor because a good one will know what’s best for both you and for the underwater environment.
Annie Antonatou, from our supplier, Mystic Blue, shares her opinion on overcrowding at dive spots: “Overpopulation is a problem and you can see it everywhere; the more people that dive in an area, the more the area deteriorates. It’s worse when operators take beginners to cave areas and areas where space is limited because beginners are not yet buoyant enough to ensure they don’t fall on the sponges and marine life, which leads to damage. Responsible operators concentrate on taking smaller groups out diving, or groups within which divers have all of the relevant experience to cope with their surroundings – fortunately there are far more diving holiday operators out there nowadays who are aware of this than who aren’t.”

A word on marine conservation

A marine conservation trip is a working holiday joining a team of trained researchers and scientists working on a long-term project to protect and preserve marine ecosystems around the world. A lot of the work that goes into conservation requires large amounts of manpower. Volunteers are needed to muck in and can do a combination of research-based activities, such as data collection and data entry, which can be done on land and from the deck of a boat, and reef protection and restoration activities, which require more time to be spent in the water.

Not all marine conservation holidays involve diving. Shark monitoring in South Africa, for example, involves observing the sharks from above the water, and turtle conservation is different again with conservation work being based on land and with far less science involved than if you were assisting on an intensive coral protection project. A lot of marine conservation work does require diving skills, but you don’t have to be a diver before you go as the training is factored in and can be completed in a week.

Without question, what you absolutely need before booking a marine conservation trip is passion for marine life, enthusiasm and a willingness to learn. Learning how to dive involves reading and studying, and you’ll also be learning about conservation and attending lectures frequently, so a genuine interest is imperative.

Read more about marine conservation and how you can combine it with your scuba diving holiday in our marine conservation guide.

Responsible tourism tips

Find a responsible tour operator for your trip. Responsible Travel has spent a lot of time screening all the tour providers listed on our site, and has transparent responsible travel policies. We also publish unedited, warts-and-all reviews of our guests' experiences - which frequently include conservation issues that relate to diving. Remember: just as we are encountering the marine life in its natural environment, so it is encountering us. We are in its territory, and some highly intelligent marine life will be studying us at the same time. Diving is a two way process, with a lot of fascinating interaction going on - this is what often brings people to tears when they come eye to eye with a dolphin or whale. It is intense. A good quality and responsible scuba diving trip will have an expert team of instructors leading the way and the focus of the trip should be on education rather than sensation. A responsible company will have details of instructors on their website, their experience and qualifications. It will also have a marine conservation policy of some sort, with all of the advice being adhered to. A committed diving instructor will give a detailed brief before your dive begins, as well as during, and will prepare you for the next day’s dive the day before. They should create a vivid understanding of the truly wild nature of the creatures you are hoping to see, and have a good knowledge of species and their respective behavioural patterns. It is important to have realistic expectations when it comes to seeing any marine life in its natural environment. It is not always possible to have a great encounter and they are not there to perform, but doing what comes naturally to them and it is vital that we respect that. Never feed any fish or marine life – a diving holiday is about protecting their underwater world, not polluting it. Leave no trace: be extra mindful of removing all of your rubbish, empty bottles or food containers and equipment from the beaches at night. Even if you’re going to spend most of your time diving, it’s really important to respect the traditions and culture of the local people in the country that you’re visiting – make an effort to integrate with the locals and respect their way of life at all times.
Written by Polly Humphris
Photo credits: [Page banner: Rich Carey] [Top box: Sebastian Pena Lambarri] [Dead coral: pprilfish] [Overcrowded dive spot: Derek Keats]