Protecting Coral Reefs: Sustainable Scuba Diving Practices

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

Across the globe, coral reefs are dying – some of the first casualties of the climate change catastrophe.

David Obura, chair of the Coral Specialist Group in the International Union for the Conservation of Nature predicts, as reported by the Guardian in Next generation ‘may never see the glory of coral reefs’:

“Children born today may be the last generation to see coral reefs in all their glory. Today’s reefs have a history going back 25 million to 50 million years and have survived tectonic collisions, such as that of Africa into Europe, and India into Asia. Yet in five decades we have undermined the global climate so fundamentally that in the next generation we will lose the globally connected reef system that has survived tens of millions of years.”

Earlier this year, I wrote about the Great Barrier Reef, which has suffered from bleaching, caused by warming ocean waters; damage from invasive species, such as the crown of thorns starfish; and destruction from worsening weather patterns (see  Cumulative Stress Impairs Great Barrier Reef Recovery).

Over to the Guardian again:

“Coral bleaching events are growing so severe and so frequent around the planet that reef systems are fragmenting into isolated pockets,” said Obura. “Some of these will undoubtedly survive this century, but the highest scientific evidence tells us that, unless we do everything to limit warming to 1.5C, we will lose 99% of the world’s coral reefs in coming decades.”

Eleven of the 29 World Heritage reefs have already suffered bleaching. On current trends, UNESCO predicts this will rise to 25 by 2040.

More widely, at highest risk are reefs off of Saudi Arabia, Madagascar, Hawaii and Papua New Guinea, which are likely to suffer bleaching long before the global average 2043. Those with a greater – though still slim – prospect of survival may be off of Egypt, Australia (including the Great Barrier Reef), Cuba, Indonesia and the Philippines.

Plastics also also damaging these reefs (see Plastics Sicken Coral Reefs). Alas, the current response to that problem is to place undue reliance on the recycling fairy, instead of a serious effort to stop producing – and using – unnecessary plastics, particularly of the single-use variety (see Plastic Watch: Five Flaws in the EU’s Single-Use Plastics Plan and Plastic Watch: Recycling Woes).

These problems appear to be overwhelming and I’ve seen little evidence that political leaders are willing to adopt policies that might save at least some portions of these reefs. It saddens me to realize that in the future, no one will be able to climb to the top of the hill in Cooktown, Queensland – as I once did – and see a version of the same vista that Captain James Cook saw, when his ship, HMS Endeavour, foundered on the reef in 1770. Cook beached the vessel for nearly two months to conduct repairs necessary to enable him  to sail her back to Batavia (now known as Jakarta). To me, the reef was an awesome natural phenomenon; to Cook, it loomed as a treacherous obstacle to navigate before ship and sailors could continue their journey.

A Small Step

The subject of this post is a modest initiative launched by the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI), the world’s largest scuba diving training and certification group, and British conservation charity Reef-World Foundation, to support the Green Fins scheme. This initiative is intended to mitigate the impact of recreational diving on already-stressed coral reefs and to make sustainable diving practices the social norm.

Globally, diving and snorkelling is one of the fastest growing tourism sectors, and PADI has certified about 25 million divers. Other certification bodies also exist, most notably, Scuba Schools International.

As the Guardian reports in Diving force: experts join forces to save the world’s coral reefs:

A number of studies have linked the rise of such tourism in developing counties and under-managed coastal regions to coral disease.

Novice divers, of whom there are an one and a half million a year, pose the biggest threat to corals, particularly in tourist hotspots, according to [James Harvey, operations manager at Reef-World International].

“Novice divers dive in an upright manner, with their fins down,” he said. “They kick up sediment and corals use a lot of energy to clean themselves, which makes them vulnerable to climate change and disease.”

New divers tend to have problems managing underwater buoyancy, whereas more experienced divers have developed skills that enable them to avoid bashing into and thus damaging the reefs. The Green Fins guidelines aren’t limited only to the behavior of divers, but also cover anchoring practices — which also can severely damage reefs – and other issues, including the use of single use plastics by dive centers.

Member dive centres are checked annually against a 15-point code of conduct, aimed at reducing the risk to corals. Nine countries and 550 centres, mainly in south-east Asia, have already signed up.

Through the Padi partnership, Reef-World hopes to expand the scheme and is already working with partners in the Dominican Republic and involved in talks with Egypt, according to the UN.

Jerker Tamelander, the head of the UN Environment coral unit, based in Bangkok, said: “Based on research we’ve done we have reduced the environmental footprint of more than 500 dive centres in Asia. This partnership is set to raise the sustainability bar of the diving industry and will help establish environmentally friendly diving as the new norm.”

Effective Sustainable Diving Initiatives Require Local Community Participation

The involvement of local communities is necessary to promote sustainable diving initiatives to preserve the health of coral reefs. My late Norwegian friend, Renee Sørensen, showed how this could be done on the Maldivian island of Maafushi, which she made her home until she died earlier this year, of dengue fever, as I wrote in Dengue on My Mind: Spending on ‘Diseases of Poverty’ Not Enough to Create Effective Vaccines. Renee founded:

an eco-diving operation, which in addition to promoting more ecologically responsible diving, launched efforts to clean up and preserve beach and reef systems, and especially, to involve local children and teach them to understand and appreciate the environment in which they live.


Rather than despairing at the threats to the island she had made her home– waste, plastic, and reef destruction caused by global warming and a tsunami– Renee focused instead on solutions, enlisting locals and visitors alike to fix these problems.

The Alternative?

I am well aware that the Green Fins scheme is a meager response to a series of dire, complicated problems. But with Renee’s example in mind, I think it important not to despair completely, and start somewhere.

Both Thailand and Egypt have imposed temporary restrictions on scuba diving in some locales in order to allow ecosystems to recover. An unfortunate alternative, if diving were to be banned or seriously restricted permanently in some of the worst-affected places, is that locals might turn to other ways of earning money from reefs – such as dynamite fishing, which produces immediate income but destroys the reefs and their surrounding ecosystems, immediately. And once gone, they’re gone forever.

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  1. Rosario

    Novice divers jumped out at me. I couldn’t find any numbers in the links so forgive me if I missed something, but I am curious how many of these “novice divers” are even certified? Many of these resort areas with dive facilities allow supervised diving without certification. A bad practice by dive organization standards, but it is practiced nonetheless.

    When I got certified in NAUI it was a fairly lengthy process, online classes, pool dives, then finally two open water dives. Not enough practice to get good at buoyancy control, but we were aware of it being important and most of us at least in theory understood how it can be done. I doubt this is the case with the amateur divers trying it out for the first time at a resort in Thailand.

    Also, I have to say it even though it strays from the post bit. Decreased air travel would have done wonders for the world’s corals reef, but that seems to be off the table in nearly every discussion WRT CO2 despite it being by far one of the worst contributors in terms of economic/social use-value versus environmental impact. There are very few situations where air travel is absolutely necessary. Traveling to a distant coral reef to scuba dive is definitely on the list of things that could be done without.

    1. knowbuddhau

      I, too, was looking for some mention of how it is that so many. from so far, are on the reefs at all. How ’bout not going there? Kinda late to say you dinna ken.

      I often mop past people complaining about terrible skiing conditions, too.

  2. In the Land of Farmers

    While I was living in Hawaii I was watching people scuba diving in a more remote and impoverished part of the Big Island that is populated by native Hawaiians. A group of Hawaiians were sitting near me and they started yelling “Kapu! Kapu!” at the scuba divers. That was not just a simple disagreement. Kapu has some simple meanings like “do not trespass” but it’s deeper meaning speaks of sacredness (mana) and the consequences (execution) of putting ones own desires ahead of that sacredness.

    Kapu serves to protect mana, the supernatural, the truth we see but do not have the capacity to totally explain or understand. Some people living close to the earth, mostly the shamans in these cultures, can see these patterns and initiate these rules.

    So to all this scuba diving, I just say Kapu!

    1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      Also then energy consumed for the trip to get over there.

      And the engery to build the shelter (hotel room) needed for the tourist.

  3. Phacops

    In a week I’ll be diving the reefs of Bonaire. The reefs there are pretty healthy and the island has completed a sewage treatment system to mitigate past practices that led to overgrowth of algae.

    I don’t like boat diving nor being swum around by divemasters with little concern of reef damage, both of which led me to swear off Cozumel. Shore diving in Bonaire is a fabulous treat. But, over the years I’ve seen an increase in cruise ship traffic and day-divers from those boats. Never have I encountered such a lack of, or disinterest in, good diving skills and think that such mass tourism impacts reefs negatively. One especially sees them out of control, flapping their arms around instead of finning properly.

    But generally STINAPA (the Bonairian reef protection organization) does a good job in making divers aware of good practices. When diving, I
    Do not wear sunscreen
    Practice good boyancy control and keep my weights to a minimum
    Am aware of my body and fins and secure my console close to my BCD on a retracter
    Bring no gloves, no knives, no tools (unless hunting invasive Lionfish. Yum!)
    Do not hold onto anything when doing photography. Do not shove my camera into soft coral.
    Take home all batteries and some plastics.

    Bonaire has an amazing diversity of species and the finest shore diving in the Caribbean and I want to see it handed to new divers who appreciate that. And, with areas closed to fishing some pretty big fish tend to migrate out to other parts of the reef.

    1. Carl

      Dunno who you’ve dived with in Cozumel, but I always found the divemasters very aware of the dangers of novices kicking or touching the coral. Gloves are not allowed for this reason. I do like how Mexico has made Palancar a park, so no fishing or taking of wildlife, but the popularity and number of divers has increased so much that I think eventually it will be necessary to limit the number of dive boats.

    2. Octopii

      When the cruise ships show up somewhere it all goes to hell. The over-cruised Caribbean is proof. I sure miss the old Key West.

      1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

        Not just cruise ships, but too many liveaboards – or even day divers – can have a similar effect on fragile sites. The Thistlegorm (Red Sea) is one example – where all too many divers have helped themselves to souvenirs – and another is Komodo (Indonesia), where a friend who dived there this summer wrote me that the reefs are being hammered by divers, as the site is now an item on a bucket list of experiences and thus attracts many inexperienced divers who lack the skills to dive a site known for its fierce currents.

  4. Roy G

    I didn’t see mention of another important measure to protect the reefs, mandating ‘Reef Safe’ sunscreen for all divers and snorkelers. This is in place and heavily emphasized in Cozumel and iirc Hawaii, and should be enforced on reefs worldwide.

  5. JTMcPhee

    Glad to see at least some mention of the best thing that can be done for reefs and other wild areas: just leave them alone. No Jetting off in a belch of combusted jet fuel to that oh so very special experience in that perfect bit of remaining reef, no renting that perfect beach resort accommodation, no feeling so “ecological” because one does not take just a wee bit of coral or get one’s thrill by wafting a hand over the polyps to see them retreat into their shells or bodies. The death of the biosphere is coming about as a result of trillions of little indulgences and “choices” by people “who can afford” this or that indulgence or preference, and because they can rationalize with the best of us, tell themselves that they are “responsible” and “minimally impacting” that biosphere, since the externalities are priced out and papered over and excused by our all too human justification mechanisms.

    Of course, in all honestly, since there’s near on to 8 billion of us, most of us living pretty low on the food chain, there are trillions of “choices of necessity” that add up to major biosphere damage, since prolonging our and our children’s lives takes precedence over all the Big Picture climate change issues.

    Yah, all those “responsible enjoyers” of SCUBA on the reefs, looking down their purified nose pieces at the “rubes who are spoiling the reefs and the diving experience,” while they find the best deals (or are rich enough not to care about immediate, let alone long term, cost of their indulgences and pleasures. Of such is the death of the planet made.

    1. Phacops

      Having decided not to have children, and compared to the people spewing out babies, I only do a miniscule fraction of the current and future damage that those greedy parents accomplish. With population growth the logic of a cancer cell, a scuba vacation pales in comparison to the vast damage human babies inflict upon the world. Promote negative population growth instead of grousing about travel.

      Also, so much depends on your point of view. Looking at the 4.54 billion years of earth’s history, Homo sapiens is merely an agent of geologic change. Perhaps there will be a Great Dying like at the end of the Paleozoic that will wipe humans off the face of the earth and then the earth will heal. I remain confident that human intelligence (where the low-cunning of greed is intelligence nonetheless) is not a positive evolutionary adaptation in a changing earth.

      1. JTMcPhee

        Like I said, what a wonderful ability we have to rationalize and excuse our behaviors to ourselves. Even to weaponize them rhetorically, as in it’s far worse to bear children than jet off to dive sites and other indulgences. Thank you, and all the others who think like you, for doing your “minuscule” part to move the Great Dying along. With any luck, it won’t catch you personally before you’ve got your full enjoyment out of your time here.

  6. JTMcPhee

    Why not just do the planet a favor, have a “staycation” at home, and just leave the reefs and other wild places alone?

  7. The Rev Kev

    With the number of reefs being reduced I just had a nightmare image. People may have seen the images of a long que of climbers lining up to climb Mount Everest leading to a very long, unbroken line going up the mountainside. Can you image the same but for divers waiting for their turn on the few remaining coral reefs? I know that this might sound ridiculous but perhaps to explore these reefs it may be necessary to lay down underwater tubes that people can walk through to explore these reefs in the same way some places paths have been built to minimize the impact of explorers to natural forests.

  8. vidimi

    i am optimistic that cities such as new york, sydney, miami, will make for fine new coral reefs when the ocean rises.

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