Underwater volunteer vacations
Underwater volunteers can capture and study the lionfish, a Pacific Ocean-native that has been multiplying throughout the Atlantic. (Ian Cartwright/Getty)
Scuba divers have a vested interested in protecting the coral reefs and ocean habitats they explore. After all, seeing cool fish and colourful coral is the main reason divers descend below the surface.
The Australia-based Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network estimated in its latest report that 19% of the world’s original coral reef has already been lost, another 15% will be “seriously threatened” in the next two decades and 20% will be threatened with loss in the next 20 to 40 years. The good news is that 46% of reefs across the globe are considered “stable or recovering rapidly”, and that’s up from a 30% estimate in 2004. The concern has led to plenty of efforts to save the reefs.
Here are a few ways you can give back to the sea while still witnessing all it has to offer.
The Key Largo-based Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) teaches divers to be “citizen scientists” with week-long field surveys that combine plenty of diving with a little classroom work. Divers become expert fish spotters, helping compile a database of species for the foundation, which is then used for scientific papers and research. Trips, which normally start at about $1,000 for a week plus flights, are offered in the Caribbean as well as in Canadian cold waters and the South Pacific. Don’t want to commit to a whole trip? Divers and snorkelers can become members of REEF (for free) and enter their own fish survey observations online.
REEF also offers lionfish hunts, an opportunity to capture and study the invasive lionfish, a species that has been multiplying madly throughout the Atlantic, specifically in the Caribbean and up the eastern coast of the United States. Scientists believe a few were released in Florida when a home aquarium broke during 1992’s Hurricane Andrew. With no natural predators in these waters, the red-and-white striped Pacific Ocean-native has been gobbling up reef fish and putting other populations at risk. Besides week-long REEF trips to the Bahamas among other destinations, dive shops from North Carolina to the Cayman Islands to Honduras offer lionfish dives or “derbies”, in which the problematic predator is rounded up and then cooked for dinner.
DiVo, an Australian nonprofit group, organises and promotes volunteer research and conservation opportunities both in Australia and around the world. A project in Bali has divers and snorkelers spending a week transplanting and monitoring coral that has been decimated by cyanide fishing, with volunteers living and working with local fisherman. Closer to home, volunteer scuba enthusiasts in Sydney work alongside university scientists to replant crayweed, a sea plant that serves as habitat for abalone, lobsters and other fish. And the group offers reef survey opportunities at Australia’s biggest dive attraction, the Great Barrier Reef.
The Florida Keys’ Coral Restoration Foundation (CRF) is the result of founder Ken Nedimyer’s passion for bringing coral -- and the Keys’ ecosystem -- back to its former glory. Nedimyer developed a method of growing elkhorn and staghorn coral in underwater nurseries and transplanting it to the wild. His efforts have been so successful that this year CNN featured his heroic efforts. Dive clubs can organise up one- to three-day volunteer programs with CRF, which includes classroom instruction on the reefs’ decline and restoration methods. Then, divers enter the water, working in the nursery or transplanting the growing coral. Individual divers can check the website for opportunities to join existing trips.
Hawaii’s Kaanapali Makai Watch uses volunteers to monitor herbivore fish in Maui’s protected Kahekili Herbivore Fisheries Management Area. Divers are trained by the project’s staff before being put to work gathering data. A volunteer might watch an algae-eating fish – a parrotfish, for instance -- to see how many bites it takes in a minute. The watch project is run by Hawaii’s Division of Aquatic Resources, the non-profit Coral Reef Alliance (CORAL) and Project SEA-Link, which promotes marine science and education. CORAL also encourages Hawaii divers to be “citizen scientists” and enter their reef monitoring observations online. Liz Foote, CORAL’s Hawaii field manager, said that volunteers contribute excellent data, but the program also “inspires stewardship,” so that volunteers get involved in other conservation efforts on the islands.
Divers who want to clean up our waterways can sign up with the global Project Aware Foundation, which promotes rubbish monitoring and clean-up events around the world as part of its “Dive Against Debris” project. Divers can launch their own event or join an established one in locations as diverse as Thailand, Australia and Poland. Travelling to an exotic locale soon? Check the Project Aware site to see if you can volunteer dive time with a local event.
Lori Robertson writes the Ethical traveller column for BBC Travel. You can send ethical dilemmas to email@example.com.