Minutes after I had descended below the surface a short distance from my hotel jetty, I finned over to a magnificent coral wall, passing over elkhorn coral and barrel sponges alongside butter-flyfish, parrotfish, several large groupers and various other brightly coloured reef fish. There was hardly any current and the visibility in the warm tropical waters of the Cayman Islands was easily 20 metres.
I was told later that the near-perfect conditions on this shore dive were typical of what divers regularly encounter in these central Caribbean islands. Most people who dive there for a week will also see stingrays and spotted eagle rays, while a lucky few will enjoy the thrill of seeing nurse sharks, reef sharks and hammerheads. Brenda Gadd, managing director of the Central Caribbean Marine Institute, says that scientists come from all over the world to study the reef around the Cayman Islands, particularly around Little Cayman, which she says has one of the healthiest reefs in the Caribbean.
Unfortunately, thriving coral reefs such as those around the Caymans are increasingly the exception rather than the norm. According to WWF, 27 per cent of the world's coral reefs (the 'rainforests of the sea') have already died, and 'if present rates of destruction are allowed to continue, 60 per cent of the world's coral reefs will be lost over the next 30 years'. The impact of this on local communities, fisheries and tourism is far-reaching and profound. The World Resources Institute says that properly managed coral reefs can yield an average of 15 tonnes of fish and other seafood per square kilometre each year. Indeed, the coral reef fisheries of Southeast Asia (which WWF says are 'the global epicentre of marine diversity') are estimated to yield US$2.4billion annually. According to SeaWeb, more than 450 million people live within 60 kilometres of coral reefs, with the majority directly or indirectly deriving food and income from them, yet most of these reefs have suffered 'significant degradation'.
While the most potent threats to coral reefs come from over-fishing, coastal development, pollution caused by agricultural run-off, and climate change, bad scuba diving practices can also cause irreversible damage to these fragile ecosystems. The Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI), the world's largest diver training organisation, certifies more than half a million divers each year, and with an estimated seven million active divers worldwide, there's increasing concern that many reefs are becoming overwhelmed by the popularity of recreational diving.
DON'T TO UCH, DON'T TAKE
So what can divers do to limit their impact on reefs? Suzanne Pleydell, education manager for PADI, says that it's key for divers to pick a registered dive centre--one that has committed to PADI's core responsible diving practices, which include a commitment to ensuring their divers don't touch or chase marine wildlife or take marine life souvenirs.
In addition, Pleydell says that buoyancy control--the ability to remain neutrally buoyant, 'hovering' in the water--is an absolutely vital skill to avoid sinking and bumping into coral and damaging it. She recommends that divers (especially those who want to take photographs) go on PADI's Peak Performance Buoyancy course, which forms part of the Master Scuba Diver qualification.
According to Gadd, however, while good diving technique helps, it isn't enough to safeguard stewardship of the reefs. 'Often divers with the best intentions touch coral accidentally, whether it's with a fin or another piece of their dive gear,' he says. In order to reduce the chances of divers damaging coral, the Cayman Islands marine park authority has set a limit on the number of divers at every site. Mooring lines have been positioned at dive sites (so that dive boats simply tie a line to the buoy rather than drop an anchor and risk damaging the reef), there is only one mooring per dive site and for each vessel, only 20 people are allowed on the reef at any one time. …