In many popular coastal destinations, near-shore marine ecosystems are beginning to show signs of damage as a result of the snorkeling and diving industry. The consistent presence of small and large groups of people in shallow coral and rocky reefs and other habitats can lead to significant degradation of an ecosystem over time. Irresponsible or inexperienced snorkelers and divers regularly crush and break corals and other reef-dwelling organisms with fins, equipment and body parts.
This damage usually comes as a result of people who are unable to maintain control in the water, stand or walk in a shallow area, fight a current, or get a closer look at, photograph, handle, touch and feed wildlife. In places with strong currents, surge and wave action, getting close to the reefs is downright dangerous.
While a great deal of contact with coral and rocky reefs is inadvertent, many snorkelers and divers knowingly engage in practices that are detrimental to reefs. All these impacts can lead to a decline in living corals and other reef-dwelling organisms, increases in sedimentation, and disturbance to wildlife. Moreover, impacts from snorkelers and divers compound damage to reefs and other habitats that are already suffering from other forms of environmental stress.
*Snuba is a relatively new water sport for non-certified divers that combines snorkeling and scuba. Participants breathe air from a standard regulator underneath the surface, but do not wear the buoyancy control device and air tank associated with traditional scuba. Instead, a tank is kept on a small raft at the surface, and air lines are fed underwater to participants.
Why Should I Care?
Disrupted Sea Bottom Habitats: Contact from fins, equipment or body parts crushes and kills bottom dwelling organisms and their habitats. In heavily used areas, the cumulative effects of many snorkelers and divers can lead to increased levels of degradation in the ecosystem and a decrease in the quality of the visitor experience.
Increase in Sedimentation: Stirred-up sediment can disrupt sea-bottom communities, smothering and choking coral colonies and causing broader impacts in the ecosystem.
Disturbance of Marine Wildlife: Excessive disturbance can cause animals to leave primary feeding and reproductive areas, which can lead to an overall decline in habitat health. When animals become habituated to being fed by divers or snorkelers, they may lose some of their ability to find food on their own, which can affect population size and change natural behaviors.
Removal of Coral Mucus: Repeated contact between divers and snorkelers and coral removes the coral’s mucus covering and causes physical damage to coral tissue. This can increase the susceptibility of corals to pathogens, diseases and other competitive organisms.
What Can I Do?
Establish a No-Contact Policy: Promote a voluntary no-contact policy while snorkeling and diving. These policies can be supported by encouraging the use of flotation vests for inexperienced snorkelers and discouraging the use of gloves by divers.
Conduct or Attend Environmental Awareness Briefings For Tourists And Other Marine Enthusiasts: Educate yourself, tourists, photographers, videographers and others about the sensitive nature of near-shore marine and reef ecosystems and the potential impacts that can result from irresponsible snorkeling and diving.
Conduct or Attend Buoyancy Refreshers: Offer buoyancy refreshers and other basic dive-skills training for inexperienced, out-of-practice or infrequent divers, addressing the importance of issues such as proper weighting and streamlining of gear.
Use Reef Hooks: In places with strong currents, a reef hook that can be placed in a crevasse or other indentation will help divers avoid being carried away by the ocean, allowing them to stay put without touching the sea-bottom organisms.
Do Not Use Tank Bangers: These elastic bands, designed to be put around the bottom of a scuba tank and used to get other divers’ attention, often fall off and end up around the necks of sea lions.
Discourage Feeding and Harassment of Sharks, Reef Fish And Other Marine Wildlife: The level of wildlife disturbance caused by snorkelers and divers can be significantly reduced with a voluntary policy of “take only photographs, leave only memories” that discourages fish feeding and harassment of wildlife.
Support Mooring Buoy Projects: The establishment of permanent mooring buoys at popular snorkel, dive and visitor’s sites significantly reduces anchor damage to near-shore marine environments, particularly coral reefs. Use drift dives to avoid anchoring when no mooring buoy is available.
Support The Establishment Of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs): Designation of MPAs often results in an increase of protective measures in an area, including the reduction or elimination of anchoring, fishing, harassment of wildlife, and harvesting of corals and other species. These protections often enhance the economic and ecological value of an area and create market advantages for businesses that operate there.
Address Diver Carrying Capacity: Work with marine recreation providers and the local government on issues of diver carrying capacity, in order to avoid overcrowding at popular sites, thus diminishing the threat to these sites while at the same time enhancing the visitor experience.