Text by Nupur Kale and Karan Deshpande
Captivated by all the colourful fish, we didn’t realise how close we had gotten to the coral. As the instructor swam ahead, our fellow divers gave an almighty kick to keep up, unaware that a piece of coral was broken off in the process...
Entering the underwater realm using SCUBA is an enthralling experience! But first dive experiences can be strange. With every metre down, many things occur. Breathing through the mouth causes discomfort, followed by jittery reactions to a weightless descent coupled with the distressing task of equalising pressure; all under the reassuring gaze of our instructor who guided us through this turmoil. However, before we knew it, we had reached the bottom and were flaying our arms and feet, hoping to align ourselves, stirring up a cloud of sediment. “Gahh! What a mess!”, we thought as we steered ourselves out of the cloud and finned ahead. As the dive progressed, captivated by all the colourful fish, we didn’t realise how close we had gotten to the coral. As the instructor swam ahead, our fellow divers gave an almighty kick to keep up, unaware that a piece of coral was broken off in the process. We continued to fin after them, towards the more memorable part of our dive.
A diver’s fins stir up sediments and damage corals. Photo: Karan Deshpande.
Enter the words ‘coral reef’ into a search engine, and one is sure to stumble upon daunting headlines: “Coral reefs are dying”, “Great Barrier Reef is bleaching…” and “How can you help protect/conserve our coral reefs?” Bleaching is a phenomenon induced by changes in sea surface temperatures, frequent El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) events and other climate change anomalies. Over 450 million people rely on reefs for their livelihoods, protein diet and even coastal protection against storm surges. Bleaching is not the only threat ‘plaguing’ reefs across the world. Anthropogenic activities such as increased marine pollution, overfishing, harmful fishing techniques, and coastal construction are other impending threats. Destructive diving techniques, too, are a problem.
Acropora coral. Photo: Vardhan Patankar.
In recent times, SCUBA diving has become popular and accessible. More tourist divers with fewer professionals to assist/train them can potentially damage the reef ecosystem. Mesmerised by the underwater world, many divers are unaware of their secondary regulator or fins accidentally scraping the bottom and damaging corals or disturbing the sand. For new divers especially, panic may cause them to hold on to corals or algae/sponge encrusted rocks for support. For others, diving is all about getting that perfect shot for social media coupled with general disregard towards a habitat teeming with life.
Bleached coral. Photo: Vardhan Patankar.
Corals are a valuable asset to the diving industry and need to be protected. From the Red Sea to the Great Barrier Reef and all the way to the Caribbean Islands, studies showed that repeated diver contacts damaged corals. Improper finning, contact by hand or knee or suspended equipment such as cameras and secondary regulators were observed as common offences. Most divers were unaware of any contact with the substrate. High use sites recorded a three-fold increase in coral disease (white and black band disease) and a significant difference in recorded instances of sponge overgrowth, physical damage, tissue necrosis and abnormal pigmentation. These sites also recorded an increase in the amount of dead coral and coral rubble as compared to low use and non-diving sites. These plus effects of other stressors can impair reef resilience to natural disturbances.
Mesmerising reefs and marine life. Photo: Vardhan Patankar.
The Lakshadweep islands and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands were amongst the first few locations where diving operations began. Besides tourism, people also dive for research and rescue operations. The last decade has seen a 10-fold increase in dive operators in the country. Development and economic returns undermine conservation priorities. Does this mean we stop dive activities to save our reefs? No, but we can make a conscious effort of not diving down our reefs. To counter the impact of unregulated dive tourism, initiatives like the Green Fins (a United Nations Environment Programme and the Reef-World Foundation collaboration) have paved the way for responsible and sustainable dive tourism. Dive instructors or dive group leaders can instill habits in their students to ensure positive impacts on reefs. Pre-dive briefing and the use of visual aids can communicate best practices and raise awareness. Diver awareness and safety will go a long way in ensuring reef health!
Illustration: Aditi Patil.
Karan Deshpande is interested in coral reef ecology and illegal trade of marine species, and loves writing about his experiences. Nupur Kale is interested in sea turtle biology and conservation and all things marine.