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March 2011    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 26, No. 3   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Is Diving More Eco-Friendly?

some green dive operators have succeeded, others not so much

from the March, 2011 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Three years ago, we interviewed dive operators for the story called "Calculate Your Carbon Fin-Print" (October 2007 issue). At that time, it was a rising trend for divers to determine their "carbon footprint," and a growing number of dive operators were helping them out by taking steps to reduce their carbon emissions and paying to offset their carbon footprints. Divers who paid a "carbon tax" had their money funneled to carbon offset programs that helped fund projects geared toward reducing greenhouse gases, usually by planting trees or investing in renewable energy companies.

How have those efforts gone? Let's just say the recession has been the biggest factor in putting green policies on the back burner. The good news is that while a reduction in air travel has reduced the amount of carbon emissions being produced in the skies, it also has put a big dent in dive travel, leading some dive operators to scale back on their green efforts. How about the ones we interviewed back in 2007 - are they still eco-friendly? We contacted them last month to find out.

The Liveaboard Fleet

Explorer Ventures, with five vessels, claimed to be the first "carbon neutral" liveaboard fleet back in 2007. CEO Clay McCardell said his staff analyzed how much carbon dioxide they emitted through boat diesel burned, utility bills, even employee commutes. Then they calculated what it would cost to offset those emissions, and paid that amount to NativeEnergy, a carbon-offset marketer that funds renewable energy projects. But due to the recession, Explorer Ventures dropped the carbon-offset policies two years ago because of economic realities (it forgot to take the details off its website, as the carbon-offsetting program is still listed on its website). "But we're still trying to educate people on environmental policies, like consider taking expired batteries home to the States versus dumping them overseas on islands where they don't recycle them," says McCardell. "And we do still stock eco-friendly products on board." Even though dive operators want to be green, large vessels have a harder time, says McCardell. "There's no affordable alternative to burning fuel, and divers expect air-conditioning, compressed air and the power to charge their electronics, so we're limited based on what we can do."

We had also interviewed execs at the Aggressor Fleet (they wanted to install the most fuel-efficient engines recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency) and Peter Hughes (its Papua New Guinea liveaboard was starting to run on palm oil). Since that time, the two liveaboard fleets were bought by Wayne Brown, but neither he nor Aggressor Fleet president Wayne Hasson agreed to give us an update on their green practices.

The Dive Shop

Like other green dive shops, Ocean First Divers in Boulder, CO, added a carbon calculator to its Web site so customers could see the dollar figure on carbon credits from their dive travels. Ocean First took it further by asking divers to buy credits for their emissions to fund renewable energy programs. At that time, owner Graham Casden was debating whether credits from the shop's sponsored dive trips should be paid by customers, Ocean First, or in a 50/50 split. Now, the dive shop is not buying emission credits. "We purchased credits for our customers through 2009 and into 2010, even going as far as to offset all emissions from our dive shop operations, essentially making the business carbon neutral -- but 2008 and 2009 were horrific years for the dive industry, so we had to determine where we felt our environmental investments would be best spent."

In the meantime, Casden has focused on making his dive shop more eco-friendly. After getting a $150,000 loan from the City of Boulder, he recently installed a solar PV system, solar thermal system for the water supply, highefficiency boulders, a heat exchanger to circulate warm air coming off the pool back into the system to reheat the pool, eco-friendly pool lighting, and a revamp of all the duct work for improved heating and cooling,

After his cash flow improves, Casden plans to restart the carbon-offset program, and when he does, he says he'll most likely raise the price on the dive trips by the amount Ocean First is charged for the carbon credits. "We feel strongly that our customers will gladly pay an extra $25 or so if they feel confident that the money is going to a worthy cause. It's analogous to divers paying a park fee in order to be able to dive in a marine protected area." Ocean First only does dive trips with eco-friendly operators. "We refuse to work with companies that don't address their environmental impact."

It sounds green and clean, but will it keep Ocean First Divers in business? "I have been battling with this since you wrote about us a few years ago," says Casden. "Initially, becoming an environmentally responsible operator will take an upfront investment, anywhere from a few hundred dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars, as in our case. But the common misconception is that it is more expensive to be an environmentally conscious operator. The truth is that, in the long run, it is not only more efficient but also less expensive to be green. And although it is hard to quantify, we are definitely gaining customers through our green initiatives. We've had customers find us on the Internet based solely on our environmental practices, and we also have customers driving an hour away from Denver, past numerous other dive shops, just to do business with us."

The Green Middleman

One of the organizations helping the dive industry go green is Sustainable Travel International (STI), a carbonoffsetting middleman that is working with dive operators and shops to install carbon calculators on their Web sites and create diver-education programs. In 2007, STI president Brian Mullis told Undercurrent that he was seeing the dive industry starting to embrace action, but he had only talked with a fraction of the dive businesses at the time.

Now, STI has just introduced a sustainable tourism certification standard for dive tour operators. Called the Shore Excursion Standard, it's an international sustainable tourism certification program designed for tour operators serving cruise lines and dive operators. A company signs up for STI to walk them through how they're doing on factors like pollution prevention, carbon emissions, recycling and pollution control, and how they can improve and be eco-certified. Based on an environmental standard STI created for the cruise line industry, the Shore Excursion Standard is a lesser strict rating. STI hopes to convert half of the cruise industry's 6,000 shore operators into eco-responsible businesses by 2015, and has been working with PADI and SSI to encourage their dive shops to embrace and adhere to the standard.

"In the past three years, we learned we needed to create a sustainable tourism standard specifically for marine shore operators, and for dive operators that have retail shops as well as those that offer tours," Mullins says. "By creating a standard in collaboration with this sector, we have garnered a great deal of buy-in and support from cruise lines and the dive industry."

However, dive shops battling a tough recession may not be as enthusiastic as Mullins makes them out to be. The fee for the application and a one-star (out of five) eco-friendly rating is $300, and for dive operators that want more stars, the fee for a two-day on-site assessment and logo licensing is $1,600, plus travel rates and expenses of $500 per day, and an additional $800 per extra day needed to rate the site.

The Future?

Obviously, the recession is holding up the green movement in the dive industry, but the people we interviewed twice for this two-part story say it's only a matter of time before the industry has to take its head out of the ground. "Our reefs are being degraded from unsustainable fishing, warming seas, and pollution, so if the diving industry can't draw attention to the challenges we face and take steps to address them, then we're in trouble," says Mullins.

Casden, who is working with STI to get the Shore Excursions Standard adopted, says the dive industry needs fresh blood and a new outlook. "I spoke of environmental initiatives and a paradigm shift at the DEMA conference in 2009, and I still contend to this day that the collective mindset of the dive industry is an inhibitor to our progress. Change will have to stem from the top, and until PADI and SSI lead by example, we will continue down the same self-destructive path that we have been traveling for years. Changes like the Shore Excursion Standard, and an overall facelift in the mindset of the individual diver, will be the differences that save the industry."

- - Vanessa Richardson

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