Any diver will tell you there are few things more breathtaking than a colourful, vibrant and active coral reef, or that there is anything more exciting than waiting for the bubbles to clear after you’ve taken the leap, to then be exposed to huge expanses of clear blue water and huge congregations of busy fish.
These fantastic sights however, don’t have a guaranteed future in our waters and so it is up to us to ensure their longevity. Scuba divers around the world, together, spend hours underwater, constantly enjoying the underwater environments that we’ve been blessed with, and so it only makes sense that we help to conserve them. There are so many things that both divers and non-divers can do to protect these fragile marine environments, efforts that don’t involve great difficulty. And although many of the steps you can take may seem small, every little bit counts, and will contribute to a greater future.
1. Dive carefully. This is the first and most important step you can take when making an effort to conserve these wonderful marine environments. The protection of corals is of paramount importance, as the corals are the building blocks of these underwater ecosystems, and an accidental flick of a fin could easily break off a piece of coral that has taken decades to grow, and will take decades to grow back. Careless diving is one of the major ways in which reefs are damaged – reckless kicking close to corals, swinging your arms around, grabbing on to pieces of corals for stability or even poking a camera in too close in the hopes of a good picture. All of these acts can cause long lasting damage to reefs, so they best be avoided.
2. Be aware of your body and equipment. This can have a much more profound effect than you’d think. A loose gauge, a hanging camera, or a spare regulator, if not tied onto your BCD correctly could run along the ground, or worse – the reef: breaking corals, getting stuck in crevices or maybe even disturbing something sleeping in the sand. So before descending and maybe even every now and again whilst on the dive, ensure that you don’t have any loose equipment dragging along the reef like an anchor.
3. Make sure your dive skills are sharp and that you are up to date with your education. Refining your skills could involve something as simple as reading over your dive manual again, revising the do’s and don’t’s, or you might prefer to take a refresher course or a PADI Scuba review. Alternatively, you could simply have a few minutes of bottom time in a pool with an instructor to get your head back in the game.
4. Consider your interactions with marine life. In order to avoid stressing animals or interrupting feeding or mating behaviour, avoid touching, handling or feeding any aquatic life. What may seem like a small and insignificant poke to us, it may stress and stun an unsuspecting animal, or even worse, cause a normally non-aggressive animal to become aggressive. Common victims of being handled by divers are turtles. Often thought to be unaffected by being touched, divers unfortunately harass these animals due to the perception that they’re like pets, however they are best left alone, as some species even bite! As well, when it comes to some larger species of animals like whale sharks, diver’s first instincts are often to run their hand along the body of the animal, however in doing so, on many animals, this can result in removing a layer of slime that protects them from diseases and infections, which they will then become susceptible to after the slime has been removed.
5. Following on from that, an important rule is to respect and understand the aquatic life. Disrupting habitats and scaring of marine life away will not only ruin the experience for other divers, but it could also ruin the ecosystem in that area. A good way to best understand these environments and how to go about spending time in them is to enrol in the PADI Underwater Naturalist course, to consolidate your understanding.
6. Be an eco-tourist. This is something you can do before even getting in the water. When selecting your dive destination, or even your holiday destination, ensure the facilities have sustainable and legal practices when it comes to the environment, or even better, use dive facilities that are Project AWARE operators, which is an initiative to conserve marine environments. Ecotourism also involves physical practices: don’t collect natural souvenirs like corals or shells when on your dives, take pictures instead!
7. Respect maritime history. Many dive sites are part of maritime history or are of cultural importance, like underwater statues or ship wrecks. In order to properly respect these and conserve them for future divers and for the marine life that have taken up residence within, follow proper dive practices when exploring these heritage sites and follow local laws and practices.
8. Report environmental disturbances. There aren’t many individuals who take to the seas as often and observe coral reefs in as much detail as Scuba divers do, so we are in a unique position to help monitor these environments. If you notice strange substances or objects in the water, damaged parts of the reef or sick marine life, report it to the proper authorities in order to find solutions to these problems.
9. Be a role model. This goes for other divers and non divers, if you yourself show others the proper way to act around these environments, the good behaviour will be passed on and these reefs will be protected, so ensure you’re setting a good example for other individuals around you.
10. Get involved in local community initiatives. In almost every part of the world there is some sort of local initiative that aims to protect the environment, and I can proudly say that in Dubai their certainly is. On the beaches and reefs of Dubai there have been group clean ups which have aimed to remove debris from the environment to allow it to prosper in its natural form – so whether you’re a diver or simply a beach-enthusiast, there is something for you to get involved in!
11. Be a buoyancy expert. Buoyancy is one of the single most important skills you need to know to be a good diver. Be able to control the height at which you glide over the reef will make a huge difference to the damage you do to a reef. If you’re unable to control this height and you’re constantly dropping down too low or having to kick to return to your desired depth, you’ll not only put the coral reef at risk, but you’ll risk using up your air to quickly and having a short and tiring dive!
12. Take only photos, leave only bubbles. This is a simple step, but many often ignore it, and quite a number of divers have been known to be perpetrators when it comes to this rule. Everything underwater is part of the ecosystem, and therefore plays a vital role in sustaining these environments. Food chains and food webs are fragile, and so divers should avoid doing anything that could risk disrupting them, which includes removing natural features from coral reefs, and leaving and debris or rubbish behind. This is a step that can also be taken by non-divers, and by those who are simply spending time by the sea or on a boat – take any rubbish back with you. Although it may seem small and insignificant to leave a packet or wrapper behind, or in the sea, these materials can eventually group together and cause the unfortunate death of many different species of marine life. Animals as big as sperm whales have been found dead on beaches, and after autopsies, it was discovered that these animals contained as much as 17 kilograms of plastic in their stomachs. These waste materials can have an extremely damaging effect, so in order to protect the sea and everything in it, ensure you dispose of rubbish properly.
13. Remove any debris. Even if rubbish is improperly disposed of on land, it can quite often find its way into the sea. During my time diving, I’ve come across all sorts of different types of debris, including everything from shopping trolleys to wine glasses, so if you do spot any, and it is safe to do so, remove it.
14. Make responsible seafood choices. This one can be done by absolutely anyone (that likes seafood). Overfishing of certain species of fish over the past decades has lead to huge declines in certain fish populations, and consumers play one of the most important role in this – it’s you who decides which fish are caught and sold, so make sure you try to eat sustainably. Here in the UAE you can find a list of the most sustainable seafood choices with a quick search on the Internet.
15. Shrink your carbon footprint. Nowadays, everything links back to global warming – rising temperatures and ocean acidification is leading to declines in our favourite species of marine life, and in the hopes of saving them, simple things like using energy efficient lights and turning the tap off while you brush your teeth can go a long way. These things aren’t difficult, and anyone can do them.
These are just a few things that you can do to help protect the marine environments that make diving possible. As I said before, these environments are incredibly fragile, and will not be around forever, but with proper practices and sustainable measures, they can last a lot longer. Many of these steps are simple, and do not require a lot of effort to carry out, and I’m confident many divers across the globe already do so, but with climate change afoot, every little bit of help counts. Scuba diving is something that people in the past have enjoyed, and it’s something that the people of our time can enjoy, but to ensure its something that future generations will be able to enjoy, dive sustainably.
Words + Photos by: Jake Lyle