World Ocean Day: How to see coral reefs without contributing to their decline

As anyone that watched Blue Planet II can tell you, coral reefs just might mark the pinnacle of natural beauty. Kaleidoscopic colours, a mesmerising crowd of shapes, and some of the world’s weirdest, most wonderful wildlife – a simple snorkel over the Great Barrier Reef is one of the life’s greatest thrills.

They’re also behemoths of biodiversity: reefs cover less than 0.1% of the ocean, yet more than a quarter of marine species depend on them.

It’s widely-known that the world’s reefs are under severe threat, and in the news cycle we often hear that they’re being damaged ‘by the impact of tourism’. But what does that phrase mean in practice, and what ramifications does that have for the ordinary tourist?

On World Ocean Day, here’s a quick rundown of the do’s and don’t’s of reef tourism, from swimming etiquette to curtailing the climate catastrophe…

Should you visit reefs at all?

(iStock/PA)
(iStock/PA)

Thankfully, it’s positively encouraged (if done responsibly). The damage to reefs is being done from so many different directions that awareness is perhaps the greatest individual defence, both environmentally and economically.

“One of my former students worked in the Philippines,” says Dr. Ken Collins, a marine scientist at the University of Southampton, “where the dominant method of fishing was with explosives. It’s extreme short-termism – the economic value of tourism beats fishing anywhere in the world hands down, and when you lose the reef you’ll lose the fish too.”

Simply by giving value to a reef, you can incentivise people who live locally to protect the corals, and use them for sustainable livelihood. Collins works mostly in the Galapagos, where tourism is ruthlessly regulated, and profoundly profitable. “In the Galapagos the choice is this,” he says, “cut the fins off a Hammerhead and you get $100, but a diver will spend $5,000 to see it alive year in year out.”

Guided tourism, as in the Galapagos, informs locals and tourists alike about the environment they’re seeing, and any of these people could become the ambassadors that tomorrow’s remaining reefs so desperately need.

(iStock/PA)
(iStock/PA)

Unfortunately the broader prospects are bleak, and at the heart of reef tourism lies a more sobering reality. “We need to visit them while we’ve got them,” says Collins. “It’s a sad but serious point. It’s something to tell your grandkids about – ‘I remember the olden days, when we had coral reefs.'”

The coral code of conduct

For tourists, the rule is simple – do not make contact with the reef in any way. Don’t stroke it, bump it, walk on it, hold onto it, and definitely don’t take some home for the mantelpiece. “PADI dive training is pretty good at teaching their divers to hover mid-water, so on the whole tourist diving is pretty good,” says Collins, “but if you’re snorkelling make sure your fins don’t bash the coral.”

Obviously don’t litter, while boats should be kept at a safe distance and refuelling done on land. Swimming in more mobile seas you can easily lose track of your positioning, so keep your proprioception on point and remember that flippers are the underwater equivalent of clown shoes.

Actively helping is rather more difficult. Spreading awareness remains the name of the game, but in-ocean impact is limited. “Divers can get involved with survey programmes,” suggests Collins, “various countries have their own programmes, many of which help people get involved with conservation activities.”

Operators are not created equal

Regular reef operators have far more power to damage than your single visit, and not all companies are equally conscientious. “I remember years ago being taken to see corals in Puerto Rico,” says Collins, “and was horrified that the dive boat simply threw an anchor over the side straight onto the corals.”

(iStock/PA)
(iStock/PA)

All you can really do is keep an eye out and do your research. The WWF cites: “Careless boating, diving, snorkelling, and fishing, touching reefs, stirring up sediment, collecting coral, and dropping anchors,” as reef-negative behaviours. Read reviews of your operators if at all possible, and if you see any of the above, write one.

The bigger picture

Unfortunately, on one level these efforts are swimming against the current. Tourists and operators can tiptoe around reefs like a postman round a rottweiler, but only more systemic change can save coral from the climate.

“When all’s said and done, the biggest threat to corals is the climate emergency,” says Collins. “We’re saying you should go and see coral reefs, but then you get on a plane and you’re hastening their decline.”

Much of the world’s reef damage comes from ‘coral bleaching’. As the oceans heat up, corals expel the algae living in their tissues, causing the coral to turn completely white and often die. If you cut your carbon footprint, reefs are one of the thousands of things you’re helping.

(iStock/PA)
(iStock/PA)

Collins has an idea, which should lead to a clean conscience, even if it doesn’t single-handedly reverse our ocean’s fortunes. “There was a piece in the news recently about people paying carbon offset for their flights,” he says, “and a contribution is only about ten pounds. People only take it up on about 1% of flights, but to be fair it’s not advertised.”

“That’s my message – go and see coral reefs while you can, but support a conservation organisation, and pay the carbon offset tax.”

- Press Association

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