Text by Travis Marshall
With invasive species, deforestation, overfishing and coral bleaching at the forefront of the environmental news coming out of the world's greatest dive destinations, it's no wonder the newest "it" word on the tip of the tourist industry's tongue is "green." The concept goes by many names--sustainable travel, ecotourism, green vacations--and you can barely book a room these days without seeing this pervasive language somewhere in your hotel's description. But what does green mean? Like any new fad, green comes in shades of gray. For the most part, green travel means limiting the amount of greenhouse gases released through transportation and energy use; limiting waste with smart consumption and recycling; supporting operators that incorporate sustainable practices into their day-to-day operations; and taking advantage of vacation time to learn about the environment and give something back to the part of the world you're visiting. So, if you're looking to go green on your next dive trip, here are nine tips to help you on your way:
Offset Your Flight
By far the biggest carbon output of any trip comes from the flight. There are no viable alternatives to jet fuel yet, so if you want to atone for your airline carbon consumption, offsets are the only way. Many airlines offer an additional "offset" fee when you buy your tickets, and organizations like Terra Pass help calculate the emissions for your trip and sell offsets that "fund clean energy and other projects that result in direct, measurable reductions in carbon emissions." Different programs calculate emissions and the cost of offsets differently. As calculated on the Terra Pass web site, a round-trip from Atlanta to Cozumel, via Houston, releases roughly 1,400 pounds of carbon per passenger--more than the emissions from an average American car driven between New York and Miami--and offsetting those emissions costs $9.90. terrapass.com
Stay Close to Home
The best way to beat flight emissions is to stay off the plane altogether and travel locally. Lots of great backyard dive destinations--albeit without the boat drinks and beach chairs--make awesome long-weekend getaways. Hit your local dive shop for close-to-home trip information and arrange a carpool with your new dive buddies to cut down on emissions and gas expenses. For regional dive travel info visit scubadiving.com/travel/north_america.
Resorts: Choose Wisely
A lot of hotels have jumped on the eco-bandwagon, advertising themselves as green or eco-friendly. Not all green resorts are created equal, however, and separating the green from the greenwashed can be hard because there are dozens of self-proclaimed certification organizations that bestow green status. Some actually check properties, others do not. Environmentally Friendly Hotels is one organization that rates and compiles hotels based on their environmentally conscious practices, and according to its web site, here are some of the questions to ask when looking for an eco-friendly resort:
Where does it get its energy from, and how does it reduce carbon emissions? Look for alternative energy sources like solar, wind or tidal energy. Also look for energy conservation efforts like energy-efficient lighting and appliances.
How does it conserve water? Policies requiring maids to only wash your sheets and towels if you ask are an OK start, but low-flow fixtures in the bathrooms and "gray water" recycling systems, which direct used kitchen, bath and laundry water (must also use environmentally safe soaps and detergents) to other uses like watering lawns and gardens, are even better.
What does it do to reduce waste? Look for recycling programs, refillable water pitchers in the rooms rather than plastic water bottles, bulk dispensers in place of wasteful mini-toiletry bottles and effecient sewage treatment systems. For more, visit environmentallyfriendlyhotels.com.
Go Off the Grid
For a totally different experience, think outside the vacation box. The Maho Bay Camp on St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands, has been green for more than 30 years. Its 126 tent-cottages and studios are connected by wooden walkways all nestled in the heart of the Virgin Islands National Park like an island tree fort. The camp uses catchments to collect rainwater for the laundry and bathrooms, composting systems for food and human waste, alternative energy sources and much more, making Maho about as green as it gets. And there's an onsite dive shop for easy access to the underwater sections of the Virgin Islands National Park. maho.org
It's a growing green dive travel trend in which you'll spend your vacation participating in socially conscious activities like fish and reef monitoring, animal tagging or any number of research-based projects. For example, Undersea Explorer is a Great Barrier Reef live-aboard that conducts shark, minke whale and nautilus research onboard and offers divers a chance to lend a hand. undersea.com.au. And the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) offers specialized trips for everything from fish surveys to invasive lionfish research in the Bahamas. reef.org/trips
Also, keep your ears open for diver events like the Ocean Conservancy's International Coastal Cleanup. In 2007, 378,000 volunteers from 76 countries and 45 U.S. states, removed an average of 16 pounds of trash per person. This year's cleanup is slated for Sept. 20. oceanconservancy.org
Dive With Eco-Operators
Some dive destinations bill themselves as eco-conscious by creating marine sanctuaries and charging fees that go toward maintenance. Bonaire is a great example. For about 30 years, the island's reefs have been under park protection, and this recently led to Bonaire's designation by The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as "one of the most pristine reefs in the Caribbean." Also, do some research on dive operators before you go. A dive trip is a great opportunity to learn about the marine environment, and some dive shops have divemasters doubling as naturalists, providing detailed marine life briefings before taking you down and showing you nature in action. In Bonaire, the dive shop at the Sand Dollar resort prides itself on teaching tourists how to interact with the environment in a sustainable manner.
Instead of renting a car or taking taxis, get a hotel close to the town or central area of your dive destination and walk, bike or use public transportation to get around. Not only will you reduce the amount of emissions you use on your vacations, but you'll also save money and get a better feel of the place by walking around, asking directions and talking with the people who live there.
Divers should be conscious about the seafood they eat on vacation. Just because the island you're diving on has a marine park, that doesn't mean local fishermen won't poach in the preserve if it'll bring them a few tourist dollars. So, discourage overfishing on area reefs by steering clear of sensitive reef species like grouper and lobster. And, if possible, eat at restaurants that use locally grown ingredients. Not only will these meals taste fresher but they'll also carry a much lighter carbon footprint as it takes a lot of fuel and effort to import products to an out-of-the-way island.
Follow Sustainable Dive Practices
Never put trash or harmful products into the water, and never take any part of the natural environment out of the water.
Don't touch or harass the marine life.
Practice good buoyancy control and watch your fin kicks to avoid inadvertently damaging the reef.
Don't feed the fish or other animals.
If you see plastic or other harmful trash on your dive, pick it up and dispose of it properly.