Have you ever been on a vacation and been shocked at the amount of debris floating in the water and littering the beach? Or wondered if the local people are benefiting from your tourism dollars?
As divers, we are often more aware of issues impacting the ocean and coastal communities because we see them when we travel. (Remember your Project AWARE class?) Everyone prefers to visit dive sites that are healthy and supported by a thriving local community. Understanding what makes a dive site and its local residents healthy and stable is important when planning your next eco-minded dive trip.
Sometimes, however, it’s difficult to know if a resort, dive operator or destination is actually “green” and really following sustainable practices, or if they’re simply “green-washing” in a bid to get more business.
On top of that, how can you mitigate your own impact as a dive tourist?
Fortunately there are a number of ways you can have the trip of your eco-dreams with a little research and planning. Here are some of the things we look for when we’re planning a trip.
Where to go
We prefer to support destinations with Marine Protected Areas (MPA) in place. MPAs are zones in which local, regional or national governments create rules around the activities (fishing, diving, etc.) that can take place with the goal of protecting the biodiversity and health of the marine ecosystem. It’s equally important that the dive operator, resort or hotel that you choose to patronize should be aware of these guidelines and respect and abide by them.
The good news is that many dive destinations are developing marine parks if they don’t already have them in place. This is often done collaboratively by coastal communities, governments and other interested groups like dive operations! To see an interactive map of all MPAs around the world, check out the Marine Protection Atlas from the Marine Conservation Institute. It’s also important to know that not all MPAs allow diving! So be sure to check the regulations for any MPAs you visit.
If you want more guidance, talk to your local dive shop or a dive travel specialist like Deep Blue Adventures for information on MPAs, marine parks and other protected areas that allow diving
Where to stay and who to dive with
No matter where you’re headed, looking for the perfect eco-conscious hotel and dive operator can be overwhelming. While there are third-party listings that help identify businesses doing their part to be sustainable, these are often regional and may not be updated regularly. Rather than rely on guides, there are a few specific things you can use to identify eco-friendly places to stay as well as questions to ask when making reservations!
When looking for a hotel or resort, check out what practices they highlight on their website:
- How do they conserve water and manage waste?
- Do they have a no-single-use-plastics policy?
- Is the property locally owned and managed?
- Is their food produced locally and sustainably?
A commitment by the hotel or resort to supporting the local community, conserving resources and reducing strain on a region's infrastructure are good signs that an operator is fully committed to protecting the environment!
Same goes for dive operators:
- Do they highlight awards or affiliations like Green Fins (Pacific and Red Sea), Blue Star (Florida Keys), PADI’s Green Star Award, Project AWARE’s 100% AWARE or are they a REEF Conservation Partner?
- Do they support the local MPA? Do they have information regarding MPA regulations and rules available to divers?
- Do they use mooring buoys, engage with the local community and hold cleanups?
- Do they support conservation activities on their website or through social media?
Active environmental consciousness means this information is regularly shared and always available to divers planning trips. And it’s always a good idea to check out reviews! TripAdvisor, Facebook, PADI Travel and Google are a few good resources that we have used.
What to pack
Take what you plan to use AND bring it back with you! Many destinations do not have recycling programs, or the waste management infrastructure, to manage an influx of waste left behind by tourists. This is particularly true for many of the small island destinations us divers love to visit!
For example, batteries can easily leak toxic chemicals into the ground if improperly disposed. We are big fans of reusable batteries for our dive lights and cameras!
Rather than depending on throw-away hotel toiletries in plastic bottles, bring your own shampoo, conditioner, soap and even lotion in bar form. You can get toothpaste in powder or tablets to minimize your plastic waste. And remember to make them reef-safe! You can learn more about the importance of reef safe toiletries beyond just sunscreen here.
Same goes for eating on the go and shopping. Pack your own water bottle, reusable utensils and straws for restaurants in case they only offer plastic. A packable shopping bag will come in handy for countless situations from shopping for groceries to buying souvenirs.
And if you happen to have a little extra space in your bag, consider bringing items to donate to local communities. Please be sure to actually research things that may be needed however in order to avoid simply introducing more potential waste into a destination. Ask the hotel or dive shop for suggestions. And you can always fill that space back in with souvenirs or gifts for your trip home.
Once you’re there
When dining, if you’ve already found a hotel or resort that prides itself on serving sustainably-harvested local food, awesome! If you are eating out and not quite sure, start by asking staff before you even sit down. Check out the menu. Eat plant-based when possible. If you opt for fish, ask where and when it was caught. And be sure you know which species are OK in that area and which are threatened.
It is always best to opt for local specialties as those often require the least amount of long haul travel or commercialized production. Check out these great recommendations and guides from NOAA and WWF. Most importantly, be smart! There is nothing sillier than someone going on a Caribbean dive trip and ordering something like salmon!
As for diving, we only ever want to leave the ocean better than we found it! A good dive operator will provide a thorough orientation to the local diving. This should include reminders about practicing proper buoyancy and weighting, any specific local ecological concerns to look out for (like stony coral tissue loss disease) and specific guidelines for what is allowed and not allowed if you are diving in a MPA. Specific ecological happenings in some dive sites, like stony coral tissue loss disease, can require divers to take particular care of their gear following a dive so it is good to do your research even before getting to a location!
Most importantly, ensure that the dive shop and dive guides not only share and follow these rules on every dive but also enforce them for all patrons!
Talk to the dive guide about what species you hope to see underwater but also about what practices you'd prefer not to see. Often dive guides may feel pressure to present perfect photo opportunities for their guests and therefore may handle the animals. If you make it clear you do NOT want to see anyone touching animals and corals, you take the pressure off them and set a great example for other divers. And remember, just because an animal doesn’t react poorly to your presence does not mean it is not stressed and ultimately harmed!
These are only a few suggestions to get you started. We would love to hear what you do to be a better eco-conscious diver! Please feel free to contact us with questions or recommendations. We can even help you set up your next dream trip!