So, you’ve got a nice tropical vacation lined up and you’re hoping to fit in some snorkeling. Who among us water lovers wouldn’t?
But now you’re reading the news and learning about the latest scientific report on the dire state of the world’s oceans.
Perhaps you’re wondering, is snorkeling contributing to this degradation?
Are all those hundreds of thousands of tourists visiting coral reefs each year just making things worse?
Every day, more folks are becoming mindful about the consequences of their actions on the planet. If you’re anything like me, thinking about this can really make you feel helpless and powerless. After all, only a few top emissions producers are responsible for the vast majority of the damage being done to the earth. Just a handful of the richest individuals on the planet run these companies and institutions.
It’s difficult to see how you can make a difference in the face of that, isn’t it?
I would argue, however, that choosing to be an advocate for the biosphere in both words and deeds is more a matter of principle.
Perhaps the future will be bright, or perhaps it won’t be. What matters is that I do the best I can to leave my little slice of the world better than I found it. Whether that ends up making a difference in the end is immaterial. It matters to me. In any case, trying to minimize my impacts certainly can’t hurt!
When it comes to responsible snorkeling, you can do plenty to rest assured you aren’t contributing to the destruction of aquatic habitats. Most of them aren’t that difficult either!
Ocean ecosystems, coral reefs especially, are already stressed from climate change, pollution, increased acidity, and overfishing. That means they really can’t afford destructive behavior from tourists. These ecosystems not only give us beauty, but they also feed and economically support local communities. In many cases, they also act as buffers against storms and tsunamis.
As someone who has the privilege to explore these wondrous underwater worlds, it’s your responsibility to ensure that you leave no damage or trace of your presence. That’s what responsible snorkeling means!
So here’s a list of the top 10 things you can do to be a responsible, eco-minded snorkeler!
1. Don’t feed, touch, or chase the sea life!
When fish, stingrays, or other animals learn to expect food from tourists, this can have a massive impact on local food webs and animal behaviors. You should also never touch, chase, or otherwise disturb sea animals.
You may think your behavior is harmless, but human-initiated interactions create stress and anxiety for the animals. In some jurisdictions, it is even illegal to approach or interact with certain marine animals, and doing so can net you a hefty fine. Not only is it better for the animals to keep your distance, but it’s also for your own good! The last thing you want on your trip is a nasty bite or sting from an animal you’ve touched or irritated.
Responsible snorkeling means respecting the wildlife around you!
2. Stay relaxed, quiet, and keep your distance!
Besides not directly interacting with marine life, there are a few other things you should do as well. Your goal is to make your presence as non-threatening as possible for the animals whose home you’re a guest in.
For one, do your best to minimize splashes, bubbles, and loud chatting. Most marine animals are sensitive to sound and physical disturbances in the water. For bigger animals like sharks, turtles, and dolphins, keep a distance of at least a few meters from them. The only time a closer distance is acceptable is if they choose to approach you (and even then don’t touch!) Marine reptiles and mammals (e.g. dolphins, turtles) also must surface to breathe. So be sure not to position yourself directly above them!
3. No “souvenirs”!
Responsible snorkeling means you treat the surrounding environment, as well as the animals, with respect. That means the only thing you should be picking up is trash and debris. I know it can be nice to have a physical souvenir from an amazing trip, but please leave that cool seashell where you found it. Remember, there’d be no reef if everyone decided it was okay to take a small piece of it home. Plus, reef ecosystems are complicated, so think of your actions as having a Butterfly Effect… where even the smallest change can have a compounding effect.
4. Choose a responsible snorkeling tour operator
There are a few red flags you should be on the lookout for when considering a tour operator. Your best bet is to go with a group that has a clearly advertised conservation policy and specific rules for how snorkelers should behave (e.g. no touching or feeding wildlife). Tour boats should also not be dropping anchors into the reef, but relying on mooring buoys instead. Basically, your tour operator should care about responsible snorkeling too!
Related Post: A Quick Guide to Eco-Snorkeling Tours
Tip: Stay local when you can to avoid the carbon footprint of air travel.
5. Get some pool practice to develop buoyancy control and proper finning technique
This one’s a bit more difficult than the other items on this list if you’re new to snorkeling. Sadly, even the most well-intentioned snorkeler can end up damaging coral or wildlife if they’re inexperienced.
That’s because you must never touch or stand on coral. After thousands of tourists, a poked and prodded coral reef can easily weaken and die (and don’t forget the other stressors they’re dealing with too!)
Even if you’re a strong pool swimmer, kicking with fins correctly takes practice. I mean this not just in terms of technique, but in being aware of their physical presence in the water. Learning to think of your feet as taking up several times the space they usually do takes some getting used to!
You also need to develop buoyancy control, so you can be deliberate and precise about your body’s position in the water.
Flailing about with your arms and legs because you aren’t used to currents and waves is a surefire way to accidentally kick and grab at coral! Even kicking up sediment can be damaging to coral. Settling sediment will block sunlight that the coral symbionts (zooxanthellae) need for photosynthesis.
Ideally, you will have some time to practice finning technique and buoyancy control in a pool at home or at your hotel before your expedition. Unfortunately, casual snorkelers usually don’t learn or are even aware of these skills. That’s why SCUBA diving websites and blogs are the best places to start understanding them. Pay special attention to mastering your frog kick and your breath control. Learn to stay prone and floating as much as possible. If you must come up to tread, be sure to tuck in your knees to keep your fins off the seafloor or coral.
Responsible snorkeling isn’t just about your intentions, it takes practice!
6. Use good quality snorkeling gear that fits you correctly
This one is related to the above point. To snorkel with good buoyancy control you need to be using equipment that you’re familiar with and that fits you properly. This is a big reason why it’s a better idea to buy your own gear rather than to rent it.
Related Post: Ideal Snorkeling Fins for Beginners
If you’re totally new to snorkeling, and you’re not a strong swimmer, then I highly advise you use a flotation vest. Not only is this a safer option for you, but the increased stability provided by the vest will also keep you from flailing your limbs. This means you’ll be less likely to harm the coral or other animals. If you’re bringing any children on your trip, then they should definitely be wearing one.
Responsible snorkeling isn’t just about protecting ocean environments, it’s about your own safety too!
7. Leave the fancy photo equipment at home unless you’re an advanced snorkeler
Photographers can be terrible news for coral reefs because they have extra equipment and like to get close to wildlife! When you’re hung up on getting that perfect shot, your chances of agitating the sea animals or damaging coral are greater. If you absolutely must bring your underwater camera, avoid using the flash. The quick bursts of light can be quite disorienting not only to the wildlife but to your fellow snorkelers as well!
Responsible snorkeling sometimes means taking only memories, not photos!
8. Rely on clothing for sun protection
I know that bikini you just bought is super cute, but save showing it off for the hotel pool or sun-tanning on the beach!
For snorkeling, it’s better to wear clothing like rash guards, board shorts, leggings, or even a full skinsuit on top of your swimsuit. Why? Because you’ll be getting a lot of sun, and UPF-rated clothing offers the best UV protection. Plus, you’ll look much savvier than everyone just wearing a swimsuit!
Most sunscreens also seem to be bad news for coral reefs. Though the precise details aren’t yet fully resolved, there is evidence to suggest that regular sunscreens are damaging to coral zooxanthellae.
There’s a little thing conservation biologists often employ when advising on policy and management called the Precautionary Principle. Basically, even if we don’t have enough data for a high degree of certainty in our hypotheses, it’s best to err on the side of caution when it comes to conservation matters.
The Precautionary Principle applies equally well to responsible snorkeling! That means unless we get new evidence that reliably exonerates regular sunscreens, we should refrain from using them in the water. In particular, the following ingredients appear to be the culprits: oxybenzone, octinoxate, 4-MBC, and butylparaben.
Keep in mind that many sunscreens that are labeled “reef-friendly” may still contain some of these ingredients! To be safe, opt for a sunscreen that is mineral-based and biodegradable. Additionally, be sure to apply your sunscreen at least half an hour in advance so it is both effective and won’t wash off!
9. Educate others about responsible snorkeling
If you see something, say something!
Call out bad behavior from other snorkelers (gently). Consider it an opportunity for a teachable moment. Most folks don’t want to be damaging the ecosystems and animals they love and are simply ignorant as to how their behaviors are harmful. This is especially true for kids. If you’re teaching your kids to snorkel, I recommend you tell them about the items on this list so that they can practice responsible snorkeling etiquette too.
Similarly, if your tour guide is calling out bad behavior in another guest, support them if the guest in question starts arguing.
10. Snorkel with the right attitude
Snorkeling tours aren’t parties, and coral reefs aren’t aquariums. If you come in with specific expectations about the animals you’ll get to see, and the experiences you’ll have with them, then you might be disappointed.
Instead, embrace your inner hippy and be relaxed and mindful in the present. Approach the ocean with humility. You are immensely privileged to have the opportunity to visit its habitats. There is plenty of beauty and awe to experience if you come expecting to have a great time no matter what.
If “hippy” isn’t your thing, how about nurturing your inner scientist?
- Pick up an ID book or browse a species database for your region before your trip.
- See how many species you can recognize on your expedition. Then, look up the ones you didn’t recognize afterward.
- Take a page from the birder community and make a species checklist!
- Go even deeper by learning about the behaviors of some animals common to your region (e.g. did you know that many reef fish can change color for camouflage and to show aggression?), and then see if you can recognize these behaviors in the wild.
Snorkeling with the mind of naturalist will ensure you observe and notice far more than you otherwise would!
Ultimately, following these 10 tips to be a more responsible, eco-friendly snorkeler is not only better for the environment, but also for you! Your experiences will be far more enriching if you think of yourself as a steward rather than a tourist.
I know being environmentally conscious can feel like an overwhelming chore a lot of the time. But when it comes to snorkeling I believe 100% that there’s nothing to lose and everything to gain!
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