What to look for and recommendations (operators, programs, locales)
How did you come to love snorkeling?
If your first time snorkeling is coming up, what made you decide to try it?
Was it to check out the beauty of coral reefs first-hand while you still have the chance? Or perhaps it was to see a whale shark with your own two eyes?
I bet your reasons for choosing snorkeling have at least something to do with experiencing the majesty of ocean ecosystems and sea life. That was certainly the case for me! I’ve been obsessed with marine biology (especially whales and dolphins) ever since I was a little girl. Consequently, my love for ocean ecosystems drew me towards my scientific career and to water sports like snorkeling and SCUBA.
Because of our love for the ocean, folks like you and me are always looking for opportunities to have amazing trips where we get to see cool marine animals. We all want true underwater adventures here, right? For our vacations, we’re looking for the best dive centers, resorts, and Liveaboards.
But there’s one key thing you have to check that will make or break your choice:
Does your snorkeling tour emphasize respect for ocean animals and coral reef habitats?
After personal safety, respect for wildlife should be your foremost priority on a snorkeling tour. Our love for these ecosystems is the whole reason for heading into the water in the first place! Of course, protecting them is something we care about! Nevertheless, we often assume snorkeling tour companies know what’s best when it comes to conserving ocean ecosystems. Sadly, this isn’t always the case…
Enter the eco-snorkeling tour!
Why sustainability initiatives (eco-tourism) in snorkeling are important
The reality of the situation regarding coral reefs is a dire one indeed. Rising sea temperatures, ocean acidification, pollution, and overfishing threaten the existence of reef ecosystems the world over. That includes all the species that rely on them like reef fishes, sharks, rays, anemones, octopus, and even humans! Many coastal societies depend on reefs not only for food but also to protect them from violent storms and tsunamis.
Given how important and precarious coral reefs are, it’s critical that we minimize our impacts on them as much as possible! Better yet, we should take some time to learn more about coral reefs and their denizens too.
Knowledge is the best tool we have as consumers. We can wield that knowledge to support responsible eco-snorkeling tour operators and to educate others out of harmful behaviors.
Characteristics of responsible eco-snorkeling tour operators
There are a few general things that make eco-snorkeling tour operators stand out:
Eco-snorkeling tours tend to have smaller groups
Not only is this better for you (I hate crowds!) but it reduces the density of human activity on the reefs. Smaller groups are also easier for tour guides to keep track of and interact with. These more intimate tours will increase your chances of having an eye-opening educational experience, and of meeting other like-minded adventurers!
Eco-snorkeling tour boats use mooring buoys instead of dropping anchor
If a careless flail of a snorkeler’s fin is enough to damage coral, just imagine what a heavy anchor could do! Responsible eco-snorkeling operators moor their boats to buoys to protect the fragile coral below.
Eco-snorkeling tours will include some kind of conservation policy and educational component
Such policies should cover proper snorkeling etiquette. By etiquette, I mean how guests should behave so they stay safe and don’t damage the surrounding reef. An eco-snorkeling tour company may even have rules about what kinds of gear or clothing guests should use. For example, some tour operators insist on the use of reef-safe sunscreen. Others may provide flotation vests for inexperienced swimmers. The best eco-snorkeling tours will also educate guests about ocean conservation and marine animals.
What are some red flags? A tour should not be guaranteeing “swim-with” experiences. Animals are not always predictable, and a responsible tour will respect animal welfare and agency. Similarly, a responsible tour will not feature images or videos of people touching and feeding wildlife.
For a good example of a responsible tour operator, check out Big Blue Collective. They run eco-snorkeling tours in Turks and Caicos, including day trips and private charters. Their comprehensive conservation policy states they are committed to small groups and minimizing environmental impacts. Plus, they only accept 100% biodegradable sunscreens. This is because even so-called “reef friendly” sunscreens can still contain harmful ingredients.
Wicked Diving is another business that is fully dedicated to minimizing environmental impacts. They operate SCUBA liveaboards in Thailand and Indonesia. Their philosophy for “low impact” diving includes everything from offering buoyancy tips to their guests to running beach clean-ups on their trips. Not only that, but they go out of their way to support local communities in multiple different ways.
Conservation programs for responsible eco-snorkeling tour operators
Does your tour operator have membership in a conservation program of some kind? If so, that’s also a good indication they care about minimizing the environmental impacts of their tours.
Example 1: Project AWARE and PADI Green Star
Dive shops that offer PADI courses can opt into this program. As members, they must commit to teaching and practicing marine conservation on their tours. The PADI Green Star is awarded to dive centers that are dedicated to environmental sustainability across all their business operations. That includes water conservation, energy use, environmentally friendly transportation practices, use of sustainable materials, and conservation leadership.
Example 2: Green Fins
Green Fins is an international project that was initiated by the United Nations in 2004. The program’s goal is to improve awareness and management practices for the benefit of coral reef conservation. Dive centers in participating countries must abide by a code of conduct, and go through training and periodic assessments to qualify. As of April 2019, dive instructors can individually become certified, even if the shop they work for is not. For now, member countries are mostly in the Indo-Pacific region.
Example 3: Blue Star
The Blue Star Program is run by the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, a subsidiary of NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). The goal of the program is to promote sustainable diving, snorkeling, and fishing. Similar to Project AWARE, member charters in this program are obligated to emphasize reef conservation on their tours.
And these are only a few different examples. Though many such programs emphasize SCUBA, participating dive shops and charters often run snorkeling tours as well! Generally, programs like these are a good place to start searching for or vetting potential tour operators.
For those of you interested in marine science, there’s also the option to participate in a citizen science or volunteer expedition.
These trips involve education and training in wildlife identification and reef monitoring techniques. This means you can actually help contribute to ocean conservation research! My partner got her PADI certification on an expedition like this. I was also lucky to have summer research jobs doing this kind of work in college. These expeditions are so much more intense than a casual tourist trip. You’ll be in the water a lot more, and learning a lot over a condensed period of time. That’s the best kind of combination as far as I’m concerned!
Local governments with strong environmental regulations and sustainability policies
Besides tour operator policies and conservation programs, there are also some locales that can be better choices when it comes to eco-minded snorkeling. Certain countries have put forth exceptional effort to improve the sustainability of their tourism industries, making them great candidates for adventure travel.
Here are a few examples:
Palau was awarded the lofty title of World’s Top Sustainable Destination for 2019. Reef-toxic sunscreen will be banned here as of 2020 and all visitors must pledge to protect the nation’s natural and cultural heritage during their stay. How amazing is that? Plus, have you seen some of the photos from this place? When I have the necessary savings, this is a country I’ll be sure to cross off my bucket list!
There are plenty of snorkeling opportunities here, including tours of pristine reefs, marine lakes, and shipwrecks! Short day tours will often operate from resorts, but if you’re planning a longer getaway, consider a snorkeling Liveaboard charter. The best way to see everything Palau has to offer is via a boat that can take you all over the archipelago!
Though Costa Rica has long been known for inland eco-tourism opportunities, for water sports it’s typically been a favorite destination for surfers (I learned to surf there!)
However, there are fantastic options for both beginner and veteran snorkelers on both the country’s coasts. For the Pacific side, check out Caño Island. For the Caribbean side, consider Cahuita National Park.
If you’re a SCUBA diver, Cocos Island (a Unesco World Heritage Site) offers opportunities for diving with hammerhead sharks, manta rays, and sea turtles. This protected marine sanctuary is located 560 km from Costa Rica’s Pacific coast and is home to over 1400 marine species! You might even see a non-avian dinosaur or two! Not really, of course, but this misty, remote island was the inspiration for Michael Crichton’s fictional Isla Nublar, the setting for his famous novel, Jurassic Park.
For the especially adventurous there’s always Ecuador’s Galápagos Islands. The Galápagos National Park has exceptionally high standards for eco-tourism. The best way to experience this unbelievable part of the world is on an eco-conscious Liveaboard charter.
Occasionally I mention my background in marine biology on this blog. But what you may not know is that my specialty is actually evolutionary biology. I can proudly say I’ve had a chance to witness the extraordinary plants and animals endemic to this strange paradise… the same paradise that so captivated and inspired Charles Darwin.
One unique highlight from my trip (a summer field-course I did for my major) was the opportunity to snorkel with penguins. Yes, you read that right… Penguins!! Galápagos penguins to be precise. If you want to swim with penguins in warm water, this is one of the only places in the world where you can do so!
Here’s another place on my bucket list: Ras Mohammed National Park. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has given this marine reserve special recognition. The park has some of the best cared for aquatic habitats in the world! With over 200 species of coral calling Ras Mohammed home, this might be one of the last truly healthy reefs you can visit.
These days, more folks than ever are opting for snorkeling tours with environmentally sound practices.
The best thing we can do as consumers is to support these businesses so that they can continue to flourish. I hope you’re now in a better position to choose a tour (or even a destination) for your next snorkeling adventure!
Have you had a noteworthy experience with a snorkeling tour that you believe exemplifies what eco-tourism should be? Please share your story in the comments. Perhaps we can gather a little list of more great businesses and locales to support!
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