You can paint a picture of people flying all over the world to get to dive sites where they throw anchors over the side from diesel fuel spewing boats into coral reefs, break off pieces of coral as souvenirs, spear fish from unsustainable species and push poles into holes in the coral to grab lobsters by the neck. In Greece, divers are looting archaeological sites. In South Africa, divers are destroying the abalone stocks. In Thailand, diving on many coral reefs has been banned. Really, you have to wonder why this is on TreeHugger.
However, there is no reason it has to be this way. Diving exposes you to a whole other world of color, coral and wildlife. Divers themselves can be at the forefront of underwater conservation, documenting the state of coral reefs, picking up debris. There a number of things that divers can do to reduce their impact or even make it positive. Here are some tips gleaned from green diving resources:
Green Fins is a UNEP sponsored organization that " that encourages dive centres and snorkel operators, local communities and governments to work together to reduce their environmental impacts."
Project AWARE Foundation is a growing movement of scuba divers protecting the ocean planet – one dive at a time.
You don't have to fly to Truk Lagoon to dive, there are dive locations almost anywhere there is water. Admittedly it is not as much fun to dive in Georgian Bay in water that's just above freezing, but it is an interesting experience. I took my mom to Fort Lauderdale in March and was able to join a dive boat that was minutes away from the hotel I was staying in; I could have cycled there. Scubadiving.com also recommends that if you are traveling to dive, offset your flight and choose your resort wisely for its eco-friendliness.
Don't heave the anchor
It can do a lot of damage to coral, and raise a lot of sediment. On the American Dream II that I dove from, they park over the wreck that we are diving to, and send down a diver to clip an anchor line to the boat. That gives all the divers a line to follow down.
Here is the wreck we dived on, sunk specifically for the purpose of creating a reef for divers.
Don't step on the coral or stir the sediment
Just look at stuff instead of touching anything. Coral is extremely fragile and just the wash from your flippers can cause damage; On Greenfins, they explain:
As you swim, your fins create a wash that can cause sediment and small debris to upset small habitats and cover corals. This will reduce the photosynthetic efficiency of the coral and can cause it to die. It can also lead to small animals being washed away or increase their chance of predation from other animals.
This isn't easy; the tendency is to want to get close. As Project Aware notes, you have to be a buoyancy expert.
Underwater plants and animals are more fragile than they appear. The swipe of a fin, bump of your camera or even a touch can destroy decades of coral growth, damage a plant or harm an animal. Streamline your scuba and photo gear, keep your dive skills sharp, perfect your underwater photo techniques and continue your dive training to fine-tune your skills. Always be aware of your body, dive gear and photo equipment to avoid contact with the natural environment.
Fortunately the equipment is always getting better and getting the buoyancy right is easier than it used to be. When I started diving I had a belt with lead weights on it and a buoyancy compensating vest that that wasn't even connected to the tank; I had to take the regulator out of my mouth and blow it up manually. Now everything is built into the harness. The divemaster had a look at me and estimated the amount of weight I needed; it was all in little cartridges that slipped into the harness. A few squirts of air and you can float above the bottom and drift with the current.
Ditch the gloves.
This recommendation from Green fins surprised me; divers always wear gloves because stuff is sharp down there. That's exactly the point:
By simply wearing the gloves you are given a false sense of protection that can cause you to hold onto anything underwater. This can cause corals to break, or allow you to get too close to marine life by holding onto rocks and can be dangerous for you as they will not provide any security against dangerous marine life.
Become a debris activist
You are not supposed to touch stuff, but picking up the garbage doesn't count. Although looking at some of the stuff they are picking up in the Marine Debris Identification Guide, I would definitely wear gloves.
Don't touch the fish
On my Fort Lauderdale dive, there was one experienced diver with a special hook and bag setup for catching lobster, which he apparently did regularly. They live in niches and holes in the coral, so this was clearly doing no good for the reef or the lobster. It's legal (he even had a special measuring stick because they have to be a minimum size) but is this really necessary? According to Green Fins,
It is very important that all divers respect the marine environment and only observe the sensitive and fragile species that live within it. It is extremely important that all divers remain from intrusive and damaging interactions such as handling marine life or manipulating it. Using your hand, dive or muck sticks, knives or anything else to move or to come into contact with corals and other marine fauna can cause damage, kill it or in some cases be illegal.
Make Responsible Seafood Choices
A good spear fisherman clear out a lot of fish; Years ago I dove off Naples, Florida and the dive master fired 42 spears and only missed once. He still caught 42 fish; one spear went through two of them. So check your food guide or the fish app on your phone and just eat sustainably managed fish.
The responsible diver goes public. As Project Aware suggests:
Scuba divers are some of the strongest ocean advocates on the planet. Now, more than ever, divers like you are taking a stand. Speak out for conservation, share your underwater images, report environmental damage to authorities and campaign for change.
Take Only Photos - Leave Only Bubbles
Fortunately the change in underwater photography in the last decade has been phenomenal. Where it used to be that the only photographers you saw underwater had expensive Nikonos cameras with giant cans for flashes, now just about everyone spends their dive looking through their iPhone in a hundred dollar waterproof case. This is a wonderful trend; it gives divers something to do and encourages them to not stir up sediment.
Be a positive force
Done right, diving can support local economies and create good jobs. Divers can be monitoring conditions and watching for polluters. it's all how you do it.