Corals are fascinating animals. Yes, I was not mistaken… although they do not look like it at all, they are animals!
In the vast majority of cases, they are colonial animals, which, although they look like a single structure, are actually formed by hundreds or thousands of individuals.
In their natural environment, the sea, corals give rise to one of the most diverse ecosystems on our planet: coral reefs. Some of them are thousands of years old, such as the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, which is estimated to have been formed some 20,000 years ago.
These ecosystems, besides giving us amazing underwater images, are important for the health of our seas and oceans. And therefore, as responsible travelers and divers that we are and want to be, we have to do everything we can to preserve them.
Diving Among Coral Reefs
With their shapes and colors, these underwater systems are truly amazing. That is why more and more people choose to dive in coral reefs during their trips.
Reefs are home to a great diversity of both marine fauna and flora. Thanks to scuba diving, awareness of their importance has increased in recent times. But at the same time, scuba diving impact on coral reefs is one of the factors contributing to their disappearance.
A healthy tropical coral reef can grow at best about 3 cm wide and 25 cm vertically – and those are maximum values! In some cases growth is limited to 1 centimeter per year.
Can you imagine how long it can take to recover after major damage?
If you want to dive by a coral reef on your next vacation, it is essential that you meet certain requirements. This way, the ecosystem will not be in any danger, and neither will you.
How Can Divers Help Protect Coral Reefs – The Guidelines
Given their delicacy, when we get into the water to explore a coral reef, it is important to follow these guidelines that allow us to enjoy them without causing them any harm.
1. Never Step on Coral Reefs
With such a slow growth rate, stepping on and breaking a coral reef is devastating, because in a second we can wipe out years of development, in addition to irreversibly damaging and even completely wiping out much of the marine life on which we have set our feet.
Therefore, when diving or snorkeling, it is very important to take into account the fragility and peculiarities of this marine ecosystem, remember not to step on it and never stand on coral reefs.
If while snorkeling you think you will feel unstable or that you will get tired and need to stop swimming at times, get a life jacket to keep you afloat. This way you won’t necessarily have to support yourself, you won’t be overwhelmed if you get exhausted from swimming and you won’t step on coral reefs either.
2. Don’t Touch the Reef
While it is a great ‘temptation’ to get close and handle it, keep in mind that reefs are living organisms that take many years to create. If you lean on one, in addition to potentially injuring yourself, you may break a vital part of the ecosystem, which will take a long time to regenerate. The slightest touch from a person can kill the reef.
Above all, pay attention to your fins if you wear them. Corals can also break with a simple flap of our fins.
When using fins, if the distance between the coral reef and the surface is very short and you are going to swim over the corals, be very careful when “finning”, as you can hit the corals below you. In these cases, you should also take special care when making turns, because if the depth is shallow you could hit the reef when you turn.
You must not only be careful when you go over a coral reef, but also when you explore its sides. Moving your fins when you are swimming parallel to a wall with overhanging corals and when making changes from the side to the surface, since when “catching the curve” or going over the profile we tend to bring the fins closer to the edge of the reef.
3. Do Guided Dives
Having a qualified guide, not only in diving but also in marine nature, will prevent you from rubbing or touching the reef. There are specialized and environmentally friendly dive centers that will explain how to swim without disturbing anything around you.
I recommend that the dives are guided and with few people: a maximum of six people plus the instructor is enough. Crowded dives are dangerous for the reef.
4. Controlling Your Buoyancy
It is very important that you have complete control of all equipment – i.e. fins, consoles, gauges, tubes – to avoid inadvertently hitting the reef. You should also control your buoyancy and not use lead unless necessary.
If you are not experienced enough in diving to maintain neutral buoyancy easily, it is best to avoid causing any damage by not getting too close.
Otherwise, if you get too close to the reef surface and fail to control your buoyancy, you can end up doing a lot of damage to the reef by hitting it with your fins or by putting your full weight on the reef if you get stunned while handling your BCD.
Swim over the reefs and keep a safe distance. If you kick up sand with your fins you can damage or ‘drown’ them.
Another very important issue is the weather conditions, as if the sea is rough it can be dangerous as it reduces visibility and makes buoyancy difficult.
5. Do Not Use Any Chemicals
And last but not least, try not to wear sunscreen, insect repellent or similar chemicals.
Corals are sensitive animals, and these products could have harmful effects on them, especially if they are freshly applied and have not been absorbed by your skin, as they will spread through the water as soon as you get into it.
Logically, it is not intended that you suffer sunburns to protect the environment, so you can use a garment with UV protection or try to use a biodegradable sunscreen safe for coral reefs. Apply it well in advance to give your skin time to absorb it before you get in the water to enjoy the corals.
6. Respect Local Laws
Coral reef diving is a wonderful and unforgettable experience. You don’t need to take any extra souvenirs with you! Some divers make the mistake of tearing off a small piece of the structure to take home. It is very harmful to the ecosystem.
And by all means, don’t purposely damage coral reefs to make your mark. And I say this specifically because I have seen names “carved” on reefs (like people leave their name written on a tree, but in an aquatic version…).
Please, take with you lots of good memories and experiences, but don’t leave a trace of your time there.
It is also not advisable to feed the fish because it destroys their natural habitats and, in addition, some may bite if they consider the situation dangerous or do not know how to act.
Best Coral Reef Scuba Diving
If you have decided to dive by coral reefs, and you are willing to abide by the rules, the next step is to decide where to go to enjoy this wonderful activity. The best places are:
1. The Coral Triangle
It is located in Southeast Asia, specifically north of Australia, the Philippines and Indonesia. This group is made up of 30,000 islands, impressive fauna and flora. In the Lembeh Strait, in the Bitung area, is located the best diving site in the world. You will be able to see mandarin fish and blue-ringed octopuses, among other animals.
2. Great Barrier Reef
It is the most famous reef and is located in Australia. It was ‘discovered’ by Jacques Cousteau and extends for 2 600 kilometers off the coast of Queensland. The Great Barrier Reef was declared a World Heritage Site for being the largest living animal in the world, ideal to see the great green turtle and thousands of fish.
3. Cayman Islands
In Bloody Bay we can dive among coral reefs that look like something out of a painting. The crystal clear waters of the Caribbean Sea allow us to learn a lot about the underwater world. In the Caymans there are dozens of dive sites close to the shores.
You have to know how to manage a series of guidelines to dive in a coral reef without damaging it.
It is necessary to remember that the coral is a living organism, therefore it is necessary to avoid touching it and leaning on it, because a small coral formation can take years to grow and regenerate if by some carelessness it breaks.
To avoid damaging the coral with your fins, preferably swim over or next to the coral. A tip to keep in mind is to stay at a distance of 2 times the length of your arms, so you will avoid touching the coral with your hands, fins or any other component of your equipment.
You should avoid diving if there is a strong swell, since in these cases you will have less visibility. You should also avoid leaning on the seabed or having your fins lift the sand from the bottom. The raised sand can fall on a coral and drown it.
In addition to choosing the right spot, guided dives and respecting local laws are necessary; do not touch or tear off a piece of these animal structures.
By following the necessary requirements you can experience this underwater wonder while still enjoying it.
My unbounded love for the oceans and everything it has to offer motivated me to pursue my passion and become a professional scuba diving instructor.
I keep reading, exploring, and learning more about scuba diving and the underwater world all the time, so I’m excited to share my knowledge with fellow scuba enthusiasts and hopefully contribute a little to your development as a diver. I want people to fall in love with the oceans with as much passion as I have. Read more about me here.