One quick test to find out if your snorkeling tour operator deserves your business!
The world seems to get more complicated every year, doesn’t it? When it comes to the choices we make as consumers, it’s stressful to always be wondering if we are making the healthiest, most ethical choices.
How was my seafood caught? Were the workers who made my new jeans paid and treated fairly? Do I need to worry about pesticides on these fresh berries?
The same kinds of questions also apply to our vacations and recreational activities. Right when you thought you had earned some R&R, that little voice in your head starts nagging you… Does the resort you’re considering treat its staff well? Should you feel guilty about the carbon footprint of your flight?
Thankfully, making the right choice doesn’t always need to be complicated!
Does your tour operator care about ethical snorkeling? There’s one easy method to find out…
I’m talking about the businesses that only care for one thing: getting your money. Not about conserving the beautiful aquatic ecosystems they’re taking you to.
So how can you sort the good from the bad without doing a ton of research on every operator you look up?
Take a look at their promotional pictures…
Are there pictures of people touching or feeding wildlife?
If yes, avoid like the plague!
If no, then you’ll need to do some further research. But chances are this simple rule will allow you to cross out a lot of potential tours from your list in no time. Ethical snorkeling means respecting the sea life and habitats around you!
Now you might be thinking, “Really? That’s all it takes for me to judge the priorities of a tour operator?”
Well… Yes! Actually!
Touching and feeding marine life is harmful to the animals and their ecosystems
I know it can be tempting to reach out and pet that turtle swimming next to you, or to pick up that cool-looking seashell you spied.
But there’s an old adage among experienced snorkelers and divers that goes like this:
“Take only memories, leave only bubbles.”
That’s because the beautiful reef habitats you have the privilege to enjoy are precarious and fragile, as are the plants and animals that call them home. Treating them with the respect and care they deserve is part of ethical snorkeling.
At this point, you might be wondering to yourself, “But surely, one small brush of the fingers over a sea star, or nicking one tiny piece of coral as a souvenir can’t make such a difference, can it?”
Well, there’s your problem…
You’re only thinking about your own actions, not the actions of everyone else.
There’s no potluck if everyone decides not to pitch in, and there’s no reef if everyone decides just one little piece of coral is worth taking, or one animal is worth disturbing.
Remember, reefs that are accessible to snorkelers and divers get tons of traffic each year. That’s tons of folks feeding stingrays, petting turtles, and breaking coral with clumsy fins. It’s up to each one of us to decide for ourselves that we don’t want to contribute to the destruction of these precious environments.
Plus, ocean ecosystems (reefs especially) are already stressed from climate change, pollution, increased acidity, and overfishing, so they really can’t afford destructive behavior from tourists. Ethical snorkeling means considering your actions in context with everyone else’s!
When it comes to wildlife, there are three clear (and easy!) rules for you to follow: Don’t 1) feed 2) touch 3) chase
And all of those basically amount to:
Don’t disrupt any animal’s natural behavior.
Read on if you want to know why following these rules is important for ethical snorkeling!
Three rules for ethical snorkeling with wildlife
1. Don’t feed wildlife.
Food webs are complicated aspects of nature. Adding a whole new source of energy to them (remember it’s not just you doing the feeding, it’s thousands of people every year) is a recipe for disaster. Entire trophic systems can be upended when you change an animal population’s diet and feeding habits. Conditioning animals to expect feeding can also disrupt critical behaviors that they need to survive and make them more vulnerable to ship strikes, intra-species aggression, and disease transmission.
Just don’t do it, and definitely don’t participate in tours that feature feeding wildlife!
2. Don’t touch wildlife.
You may think you’re being gentle or that the animal isn’t bothered, but you are likely causing the animal stress. Even if a curious animal approaches you, don’t reach out to touch it. At worst you’ll end up with a nasty bite or sting! Ethical snorkeling often means keeping your hands to yourself!
3. Don’t chase wildlife.
See previous. For marine reptiles (like turtles) and marine mammals (like dolphins), it’s also best not to position yourself above them. Remember, they breathe air just like you and need to surface periodically to do so. Swim next to them instead. As a general rule for ethical snorkeling, keep a distance of one to two meters from larger animals. Behave passively if approached.
Quick test: Do snorkel tour operators use promotional materials that show people touching or feeding animals?
So now you know those three easy rules for snorkeling with wildlife: don’t touch, don’t feed, don’t chase. You also know why those rules are so important, even if you didn’t before! Deliberately interacting with wildlife on snorkel tours is ill-advised for multiple reasons. Any tour that advertises this behavior is being irresponsible for the sake of pleasing ignorant customers. Don’t give them your business!
Here’s a quick list of some other ethical snorkeling red flags to watch out for as well:
- Are there images of boats close to large animals like dolphins, sharks, and rays? Does it look almost like they’re being herded or rounded up?
- If there’s a page for customer photos, such as on TripAdvisor, are there many that feature guests touching or getting too close to wildlife? This suggests the tour guides do not teach guests that these behaviors are harmful.
- Do the tour’s promotional images feature drinking, partying, and food as much (or more than!) the reef environments?
- Does the tour guarantee a “swim-with” experience for a specific animal? This isn’t something a tour can ever guarantee because animals can be unpredictable. What this means is that the operator will go to great lengths to ensure their customers are satisfied… Even if that entails chasing after a school of dolphins or bringing the boat too close to them.
- Is there no conservation policy or educational information of any kind in sight?
Tip: Just because a trip is labeled an “eco-tour” doesn’t necessarily mean the operator has environmentally-sound policies and practices!
Ethical snorkeling tours: What to look for instead?
Alright, so now you know about this quick tip for what to avoid, what should you look for in an ethical snorkeling tour?
Keep an eye out for any explicit indication that the tour company or resort you’re considering prioritizes ocean conservation. Usually, this will be in the form of a special policy page, advertised membership in a conservation program, or a snorkeling etiquette guide.
Here’s a quick list of “green flags” to watch out for:
- Is there a page with explicit policies for minimizing environmental impacts? I’m talking about specific things like offering local sustainably caught seafood, using mooring buoys, and reducing plastic use. Beware of vague commitments to eco-tourism without specific, actionable points to support them!
- Does the tour participate in or financially support local communities and/or conservation initiatives such as scientific research and reef clean-ups?
- Does the tour website feature educational information on the local ecosystems such as species guides or checklists?
- Are there rules about how guests should behave or about what gear they can use? For example, many eco-conscious snorkeling and diving tours insist their guests use reef-safe sunscreen.
- Does the tour make a point of offering training for inexperienced snorkelers? Poor buoyancy control and finning technique will exacerbate your chance of accidentally damaging coral.
Related Post: A Quick Guide to Eco-Snorkeling Tours
What else can you do to minimize impacts on sea life during your snorkeling tour?
Okay, so you’ve decided on an environmentally-conscious, ethical snorkeling tour! What else can you do to be a good ocean steward on your trip?
Apart from not touching, feeding, or chasing wildlife, here are 5 other things you can be proactive about:
1. Practice good buoyancy control
Take some time to practice snorkeling in the hotel pool before your tour. Work on being aware of your body’s position at all times. Pay special attention to what your fins are doing! Even the most well-meaning snorkeler can damage coral with clumsy fins if they aren’t experienced!
2. Don’t stand on coral
This should go without saying, but what if you get tired? Many inexperienced snorkelers will stand on coral when they become too exhausted to keep swimming. If you think this might be you, then consider wearing a flotation vest. Similarly, try to stay prone and float as much as you can. Your chances of accidentally damaging something are higher if you’re treading.
3. Rely on clothing rather than sunscreen
To protect yourself from the sun, wear a rash guard and leggings. Not only is clothing more effective at protecting you from UV rays than sunscreen, but it’s also better for the environment!
All the sunscreen running off thousands of snorkeler bodies can damage coral reefs. Even sunscreens labeled as “reef-friendly” may not actually be so. If you’re using sunscreen, use a brand that is biodegradable and doesn’t contain the harmful ingredients in question. Also, make sure you put it on at least 30 minutes before entering the water.
4. Pick up garbage or debris if you see it
Oops, I lied! There is something you can (and should) pick up from coral reefs! If you see a plastic bottle or a beer can floating by, grab it to toss in the trash just like you would at the park or the beach! Some tours will even have a reef cleanup as part of the package.
5. Call out bad behavior in other guests
You don’t have to be mean! Rather, consider the situation as a teachable moment. Most people are simply ignorant about how their behavior is harmful, and are willing to change once you explain the consequences to them! Likewise, support a tour guide who may need to gently discipline a guest about their behavior.
We all have a responsibility to be ethical snorkelers
Because eco-minded adventurers like you are doing your research and asking questions about conservation, more tour operators are making ocean conservation (and education) a priority!
I guarantee that your trip will also be far more enjoyable if you go with a business that cares about preserving our oceans.
- Your group will be smaller
- You’ll learn some cool marine science
- Other eco-minded guests will be joining you (rather than folks just looking for a party)
If a snorkeling tour features guests handling wildlife in their promo materials, don’t give them your business!
Related Post: 10 Tips for Responsible Snorkeling
Related Post: Why You Shouldn’t Touch Coral, Fish, or Other Sea Life While Snorkeling
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