Protecting our coral reefs is a widely held advocacy among scuba divers. Still, whether intentionally or unintentionally, divers can easily destroy a coral reef or an entire dive site.
This can happen either by the diver collecting coral, accidental contact due to loss of situational awareness or incidental contact due to loss of buoyancy control.
Create Situational Awareness
Situational awareness is just a fancy term to say "be aware of what is around you." Divers will often unintentionally damage coral because they are closer to it than they realize. Objects do appear larger (or equivalently nearer) underwater when wearing a mask or goggles so our hand-eye coordination reaching for objects or judging how far our bodies are from something may be off.
We may also reach out for something to steady ourselves and find it is not as stable as we thought to cause something to break off. New divers may find it hard to believe that, unless there is a current, a fingertip is all they need to use to stabilize themselves on a wreck or reef.
The most likely way a diver will damage coral is with their fins, face it they are longer than your feet, and you might not allow enough difference to use them. While diving on a reef, smaller kicks should be used it you are close to the reef.
Sadly, underwater photographers are the ones who most often damage reefs due to lost of situational awareness. They get so wrapped up on the photograph and getting that perfect shot they forget where they are. They might end up laying in the coral to get the angle.
Practice Buoyancy Control
For new divers and unfortunately many “experienced” divers too. The loss of buoyancy control is the reason they make contact with a reef. Or maybe more accurate the reason they crash into a reef.
Most divers will start their descent by removing all the air from their BCD. If properly weighted this will give them about 4 pounds of negative buoyancy, and they will start to drop like a rock accelerating as they go because the increasing pressure, compresses the air left in the BCD and wetsuit which adds even more negative buoyancy.
When the diver is getting close to the reef and finally adds air to the BCD, the descent does not immediately stop. The diver must not only add air to become neutrally buoyant. They must go beyond and “reverse engines”. Like a boat uses its engines in reverse to stop forward momentum, a diver must use their positive buoyancy and body position to slow the descent. By the time the diver added enough air to do that, especially in low visibility, they probably have crashed into the reef, and the damage has been done.
The best descent is a slower controlled one.
It is a good practice to descend a few meters and stop your descent. Check your straps and your buddy, equalize your ears and begin again. As you descent, add a little air to your BCD so that you do not speed up your descent.
When you reach your desired dive depth, if you have maintained a slightly negative buoyancy throughout the descent, you should be able to add one last little blast of air to your BCD then start swimming regularly. As you inhale, you should rise slightly in the water while exhaling makes you sink.
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Make sure you are properly weighted
Being properly weighted is the key to good buoyancy control and air consumption. If you are overweight by 6 pounds and empty your BCD to start your dive, you need to add those 6 pounds plus the 4 pounds of negative buoyancy you have at the start of the dive to compensate for the change in your tank weight at the end of the dive. Practice your control and know what is the proper amount of weights to carry.
Educate The Collector
Believe it or not but some people will want to take some coral home with them as a souvenir or to place in their home saltwater aquarium. They fail to realize that taking the coral will reduce the health of the reef. If enough divers take a “small” piece, soon the dive site would be gone.
The corals provide food and protection for different species of marine life and without the coral, most of the fish and marine life will be gone as well. Mostly this is an educational issue. Once they are aware of the impact, it will likely lessen. Also, peer pressure may shame someone to accept that taking coral is wrong.
Sometimes, the peer pressure and education are up against cultural issues making it harder to convince a diver not to remove coral from a dive site. In some cultures, corals as decoration are highly valued, and in others, it is seen as having medical properties.
To them, "harvesting" a piece of coral is as acceptable as picking a wild blueberry while hiking in a forest. This is a harder mindset to change, but it still must be done.
So next time you see somebody taking a piece of coral or anything else for that matter, do not hesitate to confront them or if you do not feel comfortable to do so reach out to your dive guide.
Article written by Rutger Thole who is an avid scuba diver and loves to travel, dive and write about scuba diving. Based in Amsterdam he runs bookyourdive.com and at least twice a year he plans a dive trip of the beaten track.