Think about this scenario: You and 15 other divers on a liveaboard motor overnight to an isolated, uninhabited chain of islands. The following morning you pour a cup of coffee, step out on deck to salute the dawn and revel in some much-needed solitude. Big surprise! Unfortunately, the early morning light reveals a couple of dozen other divers watching the same sunrise from two other liveaboards that anchored along side of yours during the night. And, as you look out to sea, you notice yet another boat cruising back and forth near the reef break as if laying claim to the morning’s proposed dive site.
Crowded reefs have become a common problem throughout the tropics, especially in areas with a plethora of dive operations. For the past week we’ve been staying at a 5 star dive resort near one of Asia’s most popular marine parks. We’ve been pampered beyond belief, but also forced to share dive sites with several other day boats. We are shocked by the number of divers on any given site, and disheartened to see that the once beautiful reefs that form the backbone of this protected area being dived almost to death. Regrettably, too few operators are willing to pioneer new sites and risk the short-term gain of immediate customer gratification for the possibility of multiple, long-term benefits. Nor are local authorities, accustomed to consistent revenues from business licenses and taxes, likely to stop granting operating permits, even in protected areas.
Although marine conservation is a perennial hot topic, we haven’t heard much about how exploratory diving benefits the environment. When divers enter a reef ecosystem they become, even for a brief time, part of that system. So, the smaller number of people diving in one spot means less pressure on that particular part of the system.
Less obvious, but just as real, is the long-term circular pattern of positive effects resulting from exploratory diving. It goes something like this: An intrepid operator makes the effort to investigate a potential dive site. A pristine reef is discovered, including, perhaps, an exciting new species. Scientists, conservationists, as well as a few more dive operators get involved. Broader regional surveys follow, and eventually a new itinerary is developed. Initially, this new itinerary brings in a trickle of income from diving tourists, just enough to stimulate the local economy, which in turn motivates the resident communities to think about protecting their reefs. Word then spreads throughout the dive world that there are uncharted reefs “out there”, and the trickle of revenue becomes a steady stream, and voila! The search for a new dive site becomes the impetus that sets in motion a mutually beneficial synergy between dive operators, their customers, conservation organizations, and local communities that eventually culminates in reef preservation. Consider Yucatan’s reefs, which haven’t been described as a cutting edge dive destination for 20 years. Yet, the recent discoveries by pioneering local operators of seasonal predatory action around baitballs off Isla Mujeres or the gathering of whale sharks near Holbox have re-attracted divers to the area while raising awareness of the need to protect these animals and their migratory routes.
Of course, that’s how it would work in an ideal world. But, real world exploratory diving is often boring, sometimes disappointing, usually an expensive undertaking, and that’s why most operators refuse to do it. Their guests travel far, spend a lot, expect big bangs for their bucks, and insist on experiencing the famous sites, the ones they have read and fantasized about. Add that to the potential for bad press and unrealized profits from busted exploratory trips, and it’s not hard to understand why few operators are willing to chance it.
Tomorrow we’re departing to a seldom-dived reefscape several hours south. We’re on a mission to chart new sites, and we’re prepared to be salt-encrusted and a bit uncomfortable for a few days on the small chance that we’ll discover a new spot that will attract enough divers to drive out the recently-sighted illegal “factory” fishing boats and stop open pit mining above the stretch of reef we’re targeting.
The longer we dive, the more clear it becomes that successful marine conservation plans depend on collaborative efforts between local communities, governments, international NGOs, tour operators, and their clients. Maybe if more owners, operators and traveling divers understood the relationship between discovering new dive sites and preserving reefs, we all would be willing to abandon the easy route and occasionally make a passage less traveled.