Floating along over a colourful, vibrant coral reef is a quintessential holiday experience that many tourists enjoy when they travel to tropical locales. Alarmingly, recent research indicates that recreational snorkelers tend to underestimate just how much they can accidentally damage the coral during these outings—but the study also found that educating snorkelers on better reef etiquette pre-excursion can go a long way towards creating more respectful undersea visitors.
Despite being one of the most beloved underwater habitats, coral reefs are also one of the most highly threatened. From sea level rise to ocean acidification, overfishing to pollution, human activity is making life very difficult for coral reefs across the globe and images of entire reefs bleached bone-white are becoming soberingly common.
Adding to this list is the direct physical harm that reefs may experience from poorly dropped anchors, shallow boats, and well-meaning snorkelers and scuba divers. Recreational visitors to a reef can unintentionally damage the coral by kicking it with their fins, standing on it, or grabbing hold of it. This contact can break off fragments of coral that took several years to grow, or rub off the coral’s protective layer of tissue and allow an algal infection to set in.
The effects of a few careless fin-kicks may seem small compared to the major global threats, but when a popular reef is visited by hundreds of eager tourists every single day, it’s easy to see how many minor incidents can add up to one big problem—and quite literally chip away the reef!
Yet considering snorkeling is such a popular pastime, there has been surprisingly little research on the impact tourists may have on the health of a coral reef. Researchers Dr. Thomas Webler and Karin Jakubowski from the Social and Environmental Research Institute recently decided to take a closer look. Over the course of two years they closely monitored the behaviour of hundreds of tourists snorkeling in the most popular reefs off of Puerto Rico under the guise of a fish-counting survey. Post-excursion, the researchers asked willing participants to self-report on how often they believed they had made damaging contact with the reef.
Webler and Jakubowski observed that over one third of the recreational snorkelers damaged the reef in some way, typically through fin kicks or sitting, standing, or kneeling on the reef. They also found that these snorkelers greatly underestimated their own impact, making harmful contact with the reef seven times more often than they believed they had!
Unsurprisingly, beginner snorkelers were generally the worst culprits. Those with little experience maneuvering in the water had a tendency to forget the extra length provided by their fins and simply didn’t realise how often they kicked the coral. But Webler and Jakubowski also observed that beginners and experienced snorkelers alike were more likely to harm the reef while with their friends.
As the researchers noted, “Snorkelers tend to engage in more potentially damaging behaviors with the reef when in a group, because they pause to take their heads out of the water and discuss what they are seeing. During this time, they usually become vertical in the water and their fins are often contacting the coral, or they are standing on it.”
To address this issue, Webler and Jakubowski created a plan based on the most current research in social science and behaviour change. They compiled a five-minute video that aimed to not just raise awareness of the potential consequences of poor reef etiquette, but also to emphasise that every snorkeler can take personal responsibility for the future and be extra careful not to harm the coral.
Webler and Jakubowski showed the video to many recreational snorkeler groups pre-boarding the excursion vessel and also handed out written pledges for the tourists to sign confirming their commitment to practicing good reef etiquette and keeping a safe distance from the coral.
Would this well-meaning effort make a difference? After all, anyone can sign a piece of paper, and there aren’t really policemen on the reef. When Webler and Jakubowski observed the behaviour of snorkeling groups that had watched the video and signed the pledge compared to the groups that hadn’t, they found that yes, raising awareness had made a significant difference.
Only 11% of the snorkelers in groups that had taken a few minutes to be educated before the trip made harmful contact with the reef—as opposed to 35% of snorkelers in the uneducated groups. When you consider that thousands of snorkelers visit a single reef over the course of the tourist season, such a reduction in harmful behaviors could make a big difference.
Although many marine parks or private tour boat operators do advise their guests to keep a safe distance from the reef, this is the first major study looking at whether those kinds of interventions are effective. As Webler and Jakubowski observed, however, snorkelers on a boat are usually fiddling with their gear during the safety briefings—which cannot be effective if no one is listening!
“Since these vessels are licensed, there is an opportunity to add a condition to the license that every tourist be required to watch a short video about tourism etiquette and sign a pledge before boarding the vessel,” the researchers suggest. “Given our results, such an action could significantly reduce tourism-induced damage to sensitive coral reefs and ecosystems.”
The image of a busy coral reef bursting with life and tropical fish darting to and fro is one of the most classic scenes that springs to mind when most of us envision the ocean environment. Tourists wishing to enjoy the beauty of coral reefs are usually not intending to do harm—after all, they wouldn’t be choosing to spend their holiday time and money in the water if they didn’t have some appreciation for the marine world.
Webler and Jakubowski reported in their study that most of the tourists they approached were eager and grateful to be educated on good reef etiquette. All of this goes to show that just a little bit more self-awareness by snorkelers about respectful and non-destructive behaviours, such as being careful about where you’re kicking your fins or not holding on to the coral while taking pictures, could go a long way towards giving already-stressed corals one less thing to worry about.
Webler, T. and Jakubowski, K. (2016) Mitigating damaging behaviors of snorkelers to coral reefs in Puerto Rico through a pre-trip media-based intervention. Biological Conservation 197: 223-228. DOI 10.1016/j.biocon.2016.03.012
Discover the story behind the research through the scientist’s eyes, subscribe to Biosphere digital magazine for access to in-depth articles that bring the natural world to life.