In many spots around the world, we still too often observe snorkelers standing on the reef to rest or talk. In addition to being dangerous (risk of stepping on a stonefish or sea urchin), this behavior is also really destructive for the reef. Many corals are thus killed or broken and will take years to rebuild (if they can). On busy spots, for example, you can often see massive porous corals completely bare on top, damaged by the footsteps of bathers. Seagrass beds, which are also fragile and essential to ecosystems, are also easily damaged by steps. If you absolutely must set foot on the bottom, try to find a sandy area, and make sure that no creatures (like a stingray) are hiding under the sand.
Snorkeling often allows magic encounters with underwater creatures, provided you know how to stay in your place. Some are tempted to try to dig out an octopus that has hidden under a rock, to chase a stingray, or to ride a sea turtle. By disturbing an animal, we take the risk that it will no longer return to the spot, that it is less attentive to predators, that it develops significant stress, or that it cannot follow its rhythm of life (in interrupting a coupling, for example). Touching a turtle or a large fish can also remove the mucus naturally present on its skin, making it more sensitive to parasites and diseases.
Corals are very fragile living organisms whose growth is extremely slow, from a few millimeters to a few centimeters per year. Without them, the reefs would not exist. By breaking a single finger of coral, years or even decades of growth are wiped out in a few seconds. And even when the coral does not break, the simple act of brushing it can damage hundreds of polyps and compromise the health of the entire colony. In addition to damaging the reef, contact with the coral can be dangerous for snorkelers. Some corals, such as fire coral, can indeed severely burn our skin. Likewise, there is a risk of bites from small scorpionfish, cone, or stonefish (which can be fatal to humans), which can hide on the reef. Never touch the corals, and always be careful not to hit them with your fin.
It can be tempting to get pretty pictures to attract fish with some bread. However, by feeding the fish, we modify their natural behavior: change in eating habits, modification of reproduction rhythms, aggressiveness towards bathers… We endanger the fish, and ourselves. While certain supervised practices are tolerated in certain regions, they are nonetheless harmful to the environment. Ray and shark feeding, in addition to modifying the natural behavior of these species, can lead to accidents. Shark bites or ray stings during feeding or handling activities are thus reported every year around the world.
It can be tempting to bring home a shell, a bit of sand, or a piece of coral. Yet if all snorkelers took some of the reef home, there wouldn’t be much left! Corals and shells, even dead, have a role in the balance of coastal ecosystems. An empty seashell, for example, might one day be inhabited by a hermit crab. Apart from ecological considerations, harvesting natural elements on the coast is generally prohibited by local laws. Violators can have their shells confiscated at the airport, and be charged with heavy fines, especially for corals or giant clams. So, a rather simple rule: only bring photos back home!
During your snorkeling trips, don’t hesitate to pick up any litter you see in the water. Plastic, in particular, causes major upheavals in marine ecosystems. An estimated 8 million tons of plastic are dumped into the world’s oceans each year. These plastics end up fragmenting to dimensions close to those of plankton. They are then ingested by many species, and contaminate the entire food chain, until the humans, with unknown long-term consequences. Plastic bags are also a major danger for sea turtles. When floating in the water, they look like jellyfish, one of sea turtle’s favorite foods. Many turtles die of suffocation every year from plastic bags they have tried to ingest. Every little bit counts 🙂
Most sunscreens contain substances that are extremely harmful to the marine ecosystem, especially corals. It is estimated that coral reefs absorb 4,000 tons of sunscreen each year around the world, with dire consequences for the health of reefs. To limit the use of sunscreen, it is recommended to wear an anti-UV rashguard, if possible with long-sleeves. It will cover your back and arms, greatly reducing the area to be protected with sunscreen. For parts of the body that are always exposed (such as the neck, forehead, or calves), choose ecological sunscreens, more respectful of the marine environment.
Knowing the local environment, such as currents, tides and marine life, is essential to adopt the best behavior in the water. This avoids ending up in delicate situations, which can have consequences on coral or marine species. For example, snorkelers sometimes find themselves “stuck” on shallow flats at ebb tide, and walk on the coral to go back to the beach. If the current is too strong, we also tend, in panic, to cling to rocks or corals. In this kind of situation, we put ourselves in danger (risk of bites or burns) while degrading the environment. By learning more about the species that you may see underwater, you will also be able to better anticipate their reactions, and thus avoid disturbing them.
When planning your snorkeling, learn about local laws and regulations, especially those relating to protected areas. These can indeed limit certain activities or behaviors. For example, many marine reserves have established integral protection zones, where all activity (including snorkeling) is prohibited. Identify these areas before you get in the water. In some destinations, it may also be mandatory to have a floating vest (to avoid contact with corals). In others, interactions with wildlife may be limited. In the Galápagos Islands, for example, the “2-meter rule” (which prohibits approaching within 2m/6ft of any wild animal, both under and out of water) has to be respected throughout the National Park.
Before booking a snorkeling tour, you can find out about the operators’ practices. For example, you can favor excursionists approved by organizations invested in the protection of the environment (such as national parks or marine reserves), or adhering to conventions for responsible activities (ecological anchoring, rules for approaching turtles or marine mammals). Avoid tours that offer activities like shark feeding or chasing dolphins by boat. It may also be useful to read the various opinions on the internet, where one can detect practices harmful to the marine environment, such as anchoring on corals or on seagrass beds.
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