Environmentally Sustainable Scuba Diving

Photo by Guillaume Groult on Unsplash

I was scuba diving a few weeks ago in Bonaire with a group of friends and relatives. Our group of about 16 makes an annual pilgrimage to this most magnificent island for amazing scuba diving. In this time we complete an average of 18 dives over the course of the week over beautiful reefs that have been largely preserved due to a decision made in 1979 when the entire shoreline was declared a national marine park (also know as the the Bonaire National Marine Park). This means that the coral reefs around the island have been largely spared from damage caused from some fishing practices, dredging, etc. It’s not uncommon on these dives to see healthy reefs full of fish darting among the coral, eels hunting throughout the reefs, reef squid and sea turtles swimming up to you to check you out. It is a diver’s paradise, however things have been changing on the island and the results were more obvious to see this year.

I remember my first year on Bonaire being absolutely stunned and left in awe of all the life there was to see in the waters. You saw fish of every color, so many kinds of coral, sea turtles, etc. that would leave you in awe of the diving. This year though, I noticed that more coral was dead, pieces of coral had collapsed, more trash on the reef then years before. What was causing this? I asked to a dive master who provides tours from a boat on the island when he joined our group for drinks and dinner one night. I remember he drank a sip of scotch that we had shared with him from our group’s alcohol stash, and rather frankly he said, “Some divers don’t know how to fucking dive.”

We sat there somewhat surprised by the bluntness of his answer, and especially the manner in which he was talking about his own customer. So we asked what he meant. Through the course of another glass of 12 Year Macallan he told us stories of divers that just pissed him off. He told us stories of how tourists would sit on the reefs, would lay on the reefs to take pictures, tear off rock from coral formations to try to keep as souvenirs, even one crazy story of where a woman grabbed a eel to “heal” it. We were all stunned by the ridiculousness of these stories, but another dive master that joined us that night vouched for him as well. Apparently these diving behaviors were a lot more common then we had thought. He laughed and told us that you’d think that they would actually listen to the rules he laid out in his dive briefings before the dives, but a shocking number of people don’t. He did flash a smile and raised his glass to us and did congratulate us on actually following the rules of his dives.

What were those rules? There were of course all the normal diving safety rules regarding air pressure, depth, currents, entry and exit, safety stops, etc. But there were specific behavioral rules that every diver should follow as well outside of safety rules.

  1. Don’t touch the reef!- This should be obvious but apparently many people aren’t as careful as they should be about staying away from the reef. Coral are delicate creatures and rubbing up against them, grabbing chunks of the coral rocks, etc. can kill the reef. Our dive master told us stories of photographers who would sit on the corals to stabilize their cameras while taking photos. People who would pose around the coral, etc. This causes long term damage to the reef and can stunt the growth of the coral preventing the reef from recovery or continued growth.
  2. Don’t touch the marine life!- People would think that this is a common sense rule, but there are so many videos of people online petting sea life in order to “befriend” them. Our dive master was very clear, DON’T. One this can cause the marine life to become overly friendly with humans which can sometimes cause more danger to both the animal and to the human in the end. For example, there is a famous Youtube video of a woman who interacts with a Moray Eel. Moray Eels are predators and have been known to sometimes attack people, especially in cases where people are wearing shiny objects like jewelry while diving. This is just one example of where this interaction shouldn’t be encouraged. Secondly, when a diver messes with a fish, they are messing up the fish’s protective mucus layer which is vital to the fish’s health. This mucus layer helps to protect the fish from infection and bacteria. If that mucus later is removed, this interaction leads to the fish being more exposed to sickness. So please don’t interact with the wildlife.
  3. Don’t feed the marine life.- Again this should be a common sense rule, but again this happens way more often then it should. This type of interaction with wildlife can encourage a predator to become aggressive with humans and cause injury to both diver and predator. I know it can sometimes lead to that Kodak moment with the animal and make and individual famous on Facebook or other social media for a day, but please don’t.

I can’t believe that I should feel obligated to write such an article, but I am. The stories that the dive master passed on to us were absolutely ridiculous and those people honestly need to learn how to properly dive again. Now this is not a blanket statement in this article. These rules are meant for recreational divers, I understand there are cases in which researchers will interact with wildlife, and so long as they are doing so in a purposeful manner that creates beneficial research that is perfectly fine. If you are a recreational diver and reading this article then please for the love of the oceans and seas that we all share, do follow these rules. Don’t be one of these people that drunk dive masters share as the dumbest people they come across!

Graduate Student in International Security, Political Junky, History Buff, Star Wars Fan.

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