When I qualified as a PADI Open Water scuba diver, I wasn’t sure when I might next have the opportunity to dive and didn’t think it would become a regular hobby. Seven years and 80 dives later, I’ve travelled the globe experiencing some of the world’s most fascinating marine environments. One of the special things about the dive community is how passionate divers are about protecting the ocean’s fragile eco-system and, the more I’ve dived, the more I’ve learned about what’s being done by the scuba community to preserve our beautiful oceans.
Of the many dive sites I’ve been lucky enough to visit, here are three best dive spots doing particularly interesting things for conservation…
The gorgeous Caribbean island of Grenada is home to the world’s first ever underwater sculpture park at Molinere Reef. The sculpture gallery was built by British artist Jason de Caires Taylor to regenerate coral reefs after the destruction of Hurricane Ivan and is now a popular dive site.
Dive school Aquanauts Grenada runs regular dive and snorkelling tours to the sculpture park. Guests who explore the underwater gallery will not only be able to view the striking artworks but will also be able to see how, over time, they have become part of their environment – giving the coral a solid base to attach itself to and providing a new habitat for sea creatures. As well as giving sealife the opportunity to regenerate in this area, the reef also allows other sections of reef the opportunity to recuperate. The project has been such a success that de Caires Taylor has now also created another sculpture park in Mexico.
Ocean Frontiers dive school in Grand Cayman runs regular lionfish culls on which divers can come along, helping to spot lionfish for them to spear. Although this doesn’t sound like an eco-initiative, the ‘hunts’ are key to the conservation of the reef because these beautiful fish are now threatening several Caribbean reefs and destroying their ecosystems.
The Indo-Pacific red lionfish is not native to the Caribbean but has spread outside its usual territory (although exactly how they first came to be in the Caribbean is unclear). Resilient and highly venomous, lionfish have the ability to survive almost any conditions, including both salt and fresh water, and are now the top predator in the area – eating everything in sight.
With the population spreading like wildfire, divers taking part in these culls help licensed spear-fishers spot and remove the pests from marine parks. Some companies chop up the kill and feed other fish with the remains; however, fish often then begin following dive groups waiting for a feed which changes the behaviour of sealife in the area and could even encourage attacks on divers. To prevent this, and to offer something a little different for lunch, Ocean Frontiers bring their catch back to shore to cook up a treat. Saving the reef by indulge in freshly-caught, Cajan-spiced lionfish tacos? Sounds good to me…
I have particularly fond memories of Pulau Sipadan, Borneo, not only because these were my first dives as a PADI Advanced open water diver but also because they stand out as one of the most spectacular dives in my memory. Never before or since have I found myself seeing so many turtles on one dive that I lost count.
Yet, this marine haven has faced its difficulties. As a result of its renowned pristine beauty – Jacques Cousteau famously described it as ‘an untouched piece of art’ – this beautiful dive site became incredibly popular. As a result of the huge number of tourists visiting, Sipadan was put at risk of being ruined from increasing damage to the reef and silt stirred up from boat traffic which, in turn, was suffocating the coral.
Realising tourists wouldn’t visit if the reef was ruined, in 1997 the government put a restriction on the number of tourists allowed to visit. This was largely ignored until 2004 when the government realised they needed to enforce it more strongly and all resort operators were ordered off the island. The following year, the island became a protected area with entry restricted to just 120 people per day. Since then the health of the coral reef has been restored drastically and the aim is to have it listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
There are many gorgeous dive sites still on my list but one in particular stands out for me and is top of my bucket list…
1,000 km off the coast of Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific Ocean are home to a huge array of incredible species including scalloped hammerhead sharks, Galapagos sharks, Galapagos sea lions, green turtles, whale sharks and marine iguanas to name just a few. Many of these are not found anywhere else on the planet!
There are rumours that Ecuador might stop tourism to the Galapagos to help protect the island’s incredibly diverse array of wildlife. But while uncontrolled tourism could damage these unique islands, I hope allowing a limited number of well informed visitors passionate about the environment would help maintain this fragile ecosystem, bring valuable revenue to the islands and help spread the word about the importance of protecting it. I, personally, would love to experience the wonder of these precious volcanic islands during my lifetime.