What can scuba divers and snorkelers do to avoid harming coral reefs?

What can scuba divers and snorkelers do to avoid harming coral reefs?

—Harry Chase, New Orleans, LA

According to the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, coral reefs are becoming increasingly threatened around the world due to coastal development, over-fishing and pollution. Some 25 percent of the world’s original coral reefs have already been lost, and the process is accelerating, in part due to global warming, which increases ocean temperatures and makes the corals more susceptible to disease and die-off.

Meanwhile, the growing popularity of scuba diving and snorkeling has put additional pressure on these already fragile coral systems.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), direct physical damage to coral reefs by divers and snorkelers is well documented. The damage inflicted consists mostly of breaking fragile, branched corals or causing lesions to massive corals. Research indicates that reefs degrade quickly and “die,” essentially, once a certain level of use by divers is exceeded. As such, UNEP recommends that governments limit to 6,000 per year the number of diver and snorkeler visits to any one area.

Many divers fail to think about the harm their pleasure trips to coral reefs can do. Damage is often caused by simple carelessness. Hillary Viders, author of Marine Conservation for the 21st Century, says that divers should learn about the fragility of the reefs they plan to visit, and always practice “minimal impact” when around coral. “Even a seemingly insignificant brush against coral can remove its protective coating, making it vulnerable to algae infestation, and
fatal disease,” she reports.

Divers should also take care that their kicking doesn’t ruin reef structures, and it is important not to touch coral with your hands. Some diving instructors even recommend against using gloves, because they tend to make people clumsier and less aware of their surroundings. Photographers should take care not to lean on corals when taking pictures.

Certification programs teach proper diving technique, although divers often forget that safety basics like carrying the proper weight to control buoyancy and keeping equipment close to the body to prevent it from getting caught can also prevent reef damage. The Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) has partnered with Project AWARE, a non-profit organization dedicated to coral reef protection, to offer a specialty course focusing on coral reef conservation for environmentally conscious divers. The two-hour course counts as one of five specialty certifications required for PADI’s Master Scuba Diver certification.

Scientists estimate that global warming may well kill off the world’s remaining coral reefs within the next 50 years. These dire predictions have ignited a spark among marine activists and scientists to try to save the world’s remaining reefs. But without help from the divers and snorkelers who recreate in the waters surrounding coral systems, this tough job will only be harder.

CONTACTS: UNEP coral reefs; Project AWARE; Reef Relief.