Worldwide, marine wildlife such as dolphins, whales, and sharks are affected by human economic development and population growth. The global decline in fish stocks resulting from habitat destruction, overfishing, and trade has become a major concern among scientists. A landmark success for marine wildlife conservation was achieved at this year’s Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in Bangkok, Thailand. The member states decided to increase protection measures for the oceanic whitetip shark, porbeagle shark, three species of hammerhead sharks, and manta rays. To generate the funds necessary for the effective implementation of conservation policies – and to raise awareness – diving tourism has emerged as a promising means.
The popularity of diving tourism shows the value people ascribe to marine ecosystems and wildlife. The amount of money tourists spend to experience the underwater world is an indicator of the financial value of marine wildlife, such as sharks, whales, or dolphins. Consequently, coastal communities have an inventive to invest in marine nature conservation. However, diving activities themselves can also constitute a threat to marine wildlife and coastal ecosystems if not properly managed. Direct and indirect impacts of divers include physical contact with delicate structures like coral reefs, noise from boats, or discomfort to marine wildlife.
With the goal to enhance diving management, extensive research on human dimensions of diving tourism has been conducted in the past years. In a recently published article in Ocean & Coastal Management, a group of researchers from North-West University, South Africa analyzed the motivations of divers, their wildlife preferences, their diving experience and behavior. They compared their findings from a study in Sodwana Bay, South Africa with results from other research projects in different areas. Through the distribution of 410 questionnaires on the beaches of Sodwana Bay the researchers collected demographic data and asked for people’s wildlife preferences, their level of experience in diving, and their perceived impacts on the marine environment.
All interviewed divers preferred undisturbed and diverse areas, and particularly those people that had already experienced diving in degraded seascapes supported the implementation of restrictions for dives. Some divers lacked basic knowledge on marine ecology and diving impacts. Mostly, only direct physical contact with reef organisms such as corals was seen as damaging, while impacts such as associated with special gear, boats, and the divers’ general presence were not considered severe.
Based on their results, the researchers offer recommendations to harmonize tourism with nature conservation such as increasing divers’ education on marine wildlife and human impacts. This could take place in the form of revising diving curricula to prioritize conservation education and awareness. This is particularly relevant for diving instructors in their position as knowledge multipliers. The researchers also recommend that education persist beyond certification through the application of pre-dive briefings and adherence to best practices. Embracing codes of conduct and green initiatives such as the Green Fins initiative in Southeast Asia and the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) in the U.S. facilitates environmentally sound diving tourism. Implementing a system of fines for misconduct may complement effective dive management by adding teeth.
Encouraging diving tourism as a means to achieve broad-scale conservation of marine ecosystems warrants the implementation of strategies including increased environmental education, tourism restrictions, and fines over the global diving arena. Maximizing public awareness and valuation of wildlife while keeping human impacts at a sustainable level is a challenge that remains to be overcome. Designing and implementing these diving management activities across the globe can be a powerful tool to finance conservation of marine species, support local economies, and provide rich wildlife encounters for divers.