Is Diving Bad for the Environment?

A reader recently emailed me a link to an article about scuba diving and the environment called "Why Scuba Diving Could Soon Become Extinct".   If you can ignore the implied assumption that divers only dive on tropical coral reefs, the article brings up some important basic points about scuba diving and its impact on on coral. The author claims that with proper diver education, scuba diving can have less of a negative effect on reefs.

While I agree that education is vital, I would like to take this idea one step further. I think that the dive industry is in the unique position to protect and improve the health of coral reefs.

How can diving harm coral? In the past, divers had little knowledge of how their behavior impacted the underwater environment. Oil, gas, and other pollutants leaked from dive boats over reefs. Anchors were tossed carelessly onto reefs and broke off huge chunks of coral. Divers made contact with coral, injuring (if not killing) delicate coral polyps and introducing bacterial infections that could kill entire coral heads. Anyone who has seen Jacques Cousteau's underwater films knows the extent of the damage divers once inflicted on coral reefs.

Does this make Jacques Cousteau evil? Of course not, he loved the underwater world! The vast majority of divers who injure coral reefs are unaware that their behaviors are destructive.

Some may think that touching a reef once is not a big problem; others may not even understand that coral is a living creature, and therefore can be killed. With the combined threats of warming seas, pollution, and diminishing aquatic life, many reefs are already on the brink of destruction and a careless touch may be all that is necessary to finish them off.

I agree with the author of the article that education is key to reducing divers' impact on coral reefs.

As dive operators, instructors, guides, and divers, we have a duty to help protect fragile coral reefs. We must choose environmentally responsible dive operators. We must encourage ecologically friendly diver behavior. As an instructor and guide, I can help divers with buoyancy problems, choose dive sites appropriate for the skill level of my divers, and admonish (or refuse to guide) divers who continue to engage in destructive behavior. Diving is a social sport, however, and I think that mentoring and peer pressure may be an even better way improve diver behavior. If an entire boatload of divers shame a diver who has been crawling across the coral, you can bet that he will be pretty embarrassed and at least consider changing his behavior. You might not think that it is your business to police other divers, but if you love reefs, consider it. If you don't say something, who will?

I (perhaps naively) still believe that people dive because they love the underwater world, and that with proper education divers will choose to respect and protect reefs. In fact, I think that diving has the potential to increase public knowledge and awareness of the plight of the underwater environment.

Those who have never dived might not be worried about the destruction of coral reefs, but I would be hard pressed to find a diver who would not vote and take action to protect the underwater world. Once a person understands what is below the ocean's surface, he is much more likely to try to protect it.

In fact, divers can work to increase public awareness by using their dives to gather data about the destruction of the coral reefs. It is all fine and dandy to say, "The reefs are dying!!" but if we want to pass legislation to protect them, we need to be able to prove it. The creation of laws requires cold hard facts: how much have fish populations declined, how common is diseased coral, and what percentage of coral has bleached?

Recreational divers can help collect this data during their dives by participating in fish counting and coral monitoring programs.

Nothing complicated is needed - just a slate to collect data and a little education. Many times the education and information are free. Environmental organizations need this data to publish findings about the decline of coral ecosystems, but they have limited funds and cannot travel or put enough divers in the water to monitor all the reefs around the world. However, recreational divers go everywhere. The next time you go on a fun dive, consider bringing along a fish count or reef monitoring slate and doing a little research of your own. If we all work together, divers can not only cease to damage, but help to preserve the underwater world!

Here are two ways to help:

• REEF - fish counts, fish- monitoring vacations and more. This website helps you to learn how to monitor fish populations and has easy forms for uploading data.

• PADI CoralWatch - PADI's CoralWatch provides coral monitoring slates and methods for uploading the data. There is even an educational presentation that can be viewed online!

Speak Up! How do you think divers can help to protect coral reefs? Feel free to provide links to articles and organizations!

Image copyright istockphoto.com, GoodOlga