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March 2010    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 36, No. 3   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Our Deteriorating Coral Reefs

one reason why divers are hanging up their fins

from the March, 2010 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Why are there fewer divers in the water?

For years, the Diving Equipment and Marketing Association (DEMA) and other dive industry groups have lamented that the sport is not growing in the U.S. Many reasons get bandied about but one is never touched: the degradation of the reefs close to home, especially in the Atlantic and Caribbean. So in December, we sent out our monthly e-mail, asking subscribers if they’ve seen a decline in reef quality and fish life, and whether that has changed their travel plans.

Most seasoned subscribers agree the sad deterioration of the reefs has thwarted dive plans, and trips to so-so reefs don’t excite them anymore. When Ron Harvey (Peabody, MA) first dived the Bahamas in 1986, he was amazed at the quality and quantity of fish life and reefs. “However, the older pros kept saying to me, ‘You should have seen this place 20 years ago.’ I just returned from a trip to Freeport. On the boat were several newer divers commenting on the reef and fish life. I had to cover my mouth to keep from saying ‘You should have seen this place 20 years ago.’ If something is not done, I might be hanging up my fins because it will not be worth paying to visit a dead reef with no fish.”

“Caribbean diving has become boring,” says Larry Polster (Martinsville, IN). “Cozumel, Belize, Roatan, the Caymans and the Virgin Islands, they’re all about the same. The only reason I still travel to the Caribbean once a year is cost and less travel time.”

“The decline in reef life has discouraged my family from diving as much as we’d like,” says Rick Tavan (Saratoga, CA). “We went to Pirates Point on Little Cayman almost every year for six years. Even in that short time, the decline has been significant. Some of this is hurricane damage in the shallows but even well down on the wall, the corals are darker, dimmer and dying, and the number of fish seems to decline each visit. We also used to go ‘somewhere new’ every year but have no pending plans. Some of this is real life intruding on dive life but the latter is just not as exciting as it used to be.”

“I’ve been shooting video of the Cayman reefs every year since 1994,” says Joseph Springer (Southampton, NJ). “I once described the reef as lush. My daughter posed over huge barrel sponges. We had to push the queen triggers out of the way. Nurse sharks dozed in the reef. That and much more are missing. For the first time in a long time, I’m not visiting Grand Cayman. Let the Caymans have their cruise ships and jet skis.”

“I think there is little hope for the oceans. I wonder
if recreational diving will still exist in 50
years. Our voice is feeble. We are too few.”

We divers and snorkelers are the only people to see a reef firsthand. If you’ve been at it for a decade or more, what you’re witnessing is human-spawned destruction -- pollution caused by agriculture and construction runoff, partially treated or untreated sewage, overfishing and warming seas.

Consider this sad but not untypical story from Kent Roorda (Denver, CO). “In the early 90’s, one of my favorite places to dive was the island of Guanaja in Honduras. Fish life was bountiful, reefs were beautiful and part of the price of my stay included $20, which went toward preservation of the area’s reefs. Sadly, on my last stay there, I noticed a significant decline in marine life and a significant increase of junk in the water, like sewage and toilet paper. The locals, whose only outside income came from the diving industry, were putting all their trash into the water that was sustaining them. I also learned Red Lobster Restaurants had been (and is still) significantly fishing out the waters.”

Ron Ellermaier (Glenvil, NE) has degrees in biology and oceanography, and has dived the Caribbean for two decades. He notices that while reefs are still hanging on, they’re fighting a losing battle with pollutants. “The reefs below the mooring field at Peter Island in the British Virgin Islands are at least 60 percent alive, yet I saw no other living reefs in a week of diving the islands. BVI charter boats have no holding tanks so they pump all waste overboard. Last year, when ordering unspecified fish in Caribbean restaurants, I’ve been served Louisiana farm-raised catfish. Does that tell you something about the health of the Caribbean Sea?”

Destruction is happening even in conservation-focused places like Bonaire. Greg Oppenhuizen (Holland, MI) was surprised last February to see numerous fish with parasitic-looking spots on their bodies and brownspotted morays lying dead on the beach. “I was told Bonaire is experiencing some wastewater treatment problems. I have another trip there this year, and it will influence future decisions. My attitude is ‘go now, this is as good as it gets,’ even though each year appears to be a little bit less.”

And anyone who has been to the Bahamas or many other islands are aghast at the algae covering endless acres of dead coral.

Divers are Going Farther Afield

Instead of making two annual Caribbean trips to boring reefs, many readers would rather travel a greater distance to more pristine ones, even if it means just one dive trip a year. Though she’ll dive again after she finds another job, Jamie Pollack (New York, NY) says, “I would save my money to go to farther places like the Maldives or Fiji.”

“Once you see what diving’s like in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and the Philippines, it’s hard to go back to the Caribbean, even at its best,” says Lee Thé (Palo Alto, CA). “That does mean at least 21 hours of travel to get there, which is a pain in the butt.”

But even these remote, pristine areas are seeing increased problems – they’re catching up to the Caribbean’s level of increased dive boat traffic and a decline in fish and coral health.

Bill Sustr (Prospect Heights, IL) went last fall to Malapasucua Island in the Philippines to see thresher sharks. “Even at Monad Shoal, your chances of seeing a thresher are about 50-50 at best and only if you’re on one of the first boats. It looks like Palancar, with 12 boats hooked onto the moorings and bubbles everywhere. The coral has been kicked to smithereens. Anything that swims and is big enough to eat is long gone. A couple of muck dives on a dive trip are ok, but we gotta see something that swims. It’s getting harder to find a place to go besides Wolf and Darwin or Cocos Island.”

“I have shifted much of my diving to Raja Ampat, PNG, Maldives, but I think the giant fishing fleets are busy sweeping up every living thing even in these remote places,” Chuck Wilson (Lincoln, NE) says. “ I’m still enjoying the diving but I fear my grandkids might never have the opportunity to enjoy the magic of diving on pristine coral reefs with clouds of fish and fascinating critters.”

Newer divers among our readers aren’t voicing the same concerns because they haven’t seen how badly the reefs have declined. This is their starting point. But new certifications have been declining for several years.

“If I had just started diving recently, I would not be impressed with the diving experience,” says Ron Ellermaier. “What I would see would in no way look like the pictures in dive magazines that are still showing archival photos of reefs as they once looked.”

Getting into diving requires enthusiastic divers talking it up, and that doesn’t seem to be happening anywhere near as much. Our readers who try to get young people interested aren’t reporting much luck. Of course it’s an expensive sport but if they realize they have to travel to Asia or the Galapagos for pristine diving, it’s no reason they decide to spend their money elsewhere.

“Some divers I know got angry about ads for Belize’s Ambergris Key or Grand Cayman showing lovely reefs,” says Mary Wicksten (Bryan, TX). “The places they went were silty or hurricane-damaged, with the nice reefs being far away and available only on costly charters. Some people have unrealistic ideas of what they will see underwater based on fabulous National Geographic-type videos.”

What Is the Industry Doing About This?

The industry is seeing this decline and addressing it – but not in the best way for diving’s long-term future. DEMA has a new “Be a Diver” campaign, trying to attract affluent people ages 38 to 53 who haven’t dived recently or ever, with logos and color photos of dive wrecks and reefs. But when it comes to speaking out about overfishing, shark-finning, creating marine parks, etc., the industry has never had much to say. Sure, PADI has its “Oceans Aware” project, but that’s about it for an environmental push from the industry. Without offering leadership showing divers how they can help tackle these problems, it really isn’t speaking out for their best interests.

Instead, to keep divers and snorkelers coming, dive organizations are up to all sorts of tricks. One is to artificially sink sanitized ships so people can go wreck diving. Of course, these aren’t real “wrecks” that went down because of torpedoes or a storm, but ships sunk so divers can have something to do. Then they’re creating underwater art museums. In Cancun, there’s the Underwater Sculpture Museum. Grenada has the Underwater Sculpture Park. And as we reported last month, Grand Cayman officials approved the construction of a floating bar at Stingray City so snorkelers can imbibe while they are harassing sting rays.

Unfortunately, some resorts still push day trips showing ocean conservation at its worst. On his last trip to trashed-up Guanaja, Kent Roorda got the opportunity to dive where groupers spawn. “We did find them spawning but for every grouper in the water, there was also a fisherman on the surface attempting to catch it. They were slaughtering the groupers who were trying to proliferate and multiply their species. While the resort represented the event as ‘fantastic,’ everyone else on the boat found it disgusting and in conflict with the locals’ representations that they were trying to save their waters.”

I remember when Fred Good, who owned St. George’s Reef on Belize, took me to a grouper spawn two decades ago. He never spoke about it publicly so fishermen wouldn’t discover the site.

We Need to Strengthen Our Voice

There are a few small groups taking a stand. The Coral Reef Alliance, whose membership is almost entirely divers, got some dive shops in Hawaii to stop selling fish food that can disrupt marine life’s feeding patterns. But in Hawaii, guys taking reef fish, especially the herbivorous algae eaters, for the aquarium trade are doing much more destruction.

Another small victory is in Florida, thanks to the ban on spearfishing the Goliath grouper. “Last summer, I took a dive trip to Palm Beach and was shocked at the number of Goliath groupers,” says Deb Castellana (Point Richmond, CA). “In all my years of diving there, I had only seen one, and now they were present on many dives. However, I was astounded at how much less life was on the reef.”

Plenty of divers want to help. “I’m trying to be as involved as I can in anything to do with saving the oceans,” says Castellana. “From carrying around the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s ‘Seafood Watch’ sustainable seafood guide when I shop to signing petitions against shark-finning, I do what I can.”

The dive industry is small but it can have a strong voice. It should take an example from nonprofits like Jean Michel Cousteau’s Ocean Futures (, Oceana (, the Ocean Conservancy ( and the Cousteau Society ( that get funding from individuals, corporations, even the United Nations, to push ocean protection. Then there’s Greenpeace (, with its tough-as-nails stance, and Sea Shepherd (, the toughest of all.

Why can’t the dive industry, which gets more people into the waters daily than anyone else, take on a leadership role as significant as these non-for-profit organizations? They need to stand up for marine parks that prohibit taking anything – food fish, aquarium fish, etc. They need to speak out against coastal development projects on island nations, they need to engage where there is no voice for the ocean.

Because as our dive destinations decline, we’ll be seeing fewer people taking up the sport and more seasoned divers with the same outlook as reader Ralph Bishop (Ithaca, NY). “Sadly, I think there is little hope for the oceans. I wonder if in another 50 years, recreational scuba diving will still exist. Our voice is feeble. We are too few. However, I would still encourage those who care to join the Cousteau Society, Oceana and any other organization that strikes a blow, however small, for our cause.”

Divers want living and active reefs. The dive industry – DEMA, training agencies, dive shops, resorts and liveaboards, equipment manufacturers – which survives because of these divers, must take a stand and demand protection for reefs and marine life before scuba diving anywhere becomes pointless.

- - Ben Davison

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