Photo: Shutterstock
23 Jun 2022 Story Oceans & seas

Four tips for planning a sustainable diving holiday

Photo: Shutterstock

Diving is a great underwater experience to explore the beauty and nature that lie beneath the ocean. This pastime, however, can have a profound impact on coral reefs and marine life.

It is estimated that 88 per cent of divers make harmful contact with the reef at least once during a dive from trampling and kicking coral with fins, and destructive boat anchorage, especially if you dive with a company that is not environmentally responsible.

Such damage makes corals less likely to survive other stressors: overfishing, plastic debris, run-off from land containing pollutants, coral disease outbreaks and bleaching.

Ecotourism, when done correctly, can create positive environmental and social impact, shows the Reef-World Foundation, the international coordinator of the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) Green Fins Initiative. The Green Fins initiative aims to protect coral reefs through environmentally friendly guidelines that promote a sustainable diving and snorkelling industry.

Leticia Carvalho, Principal Coordinator, Marine and Freshwater Branch at UNEP, said: “Tourism is a major economic force whose development can have a fundamental impact on societies and the environment, both positive and negative. Governments, citizens, and the private sector have a role in making tourism more sustainable. I hope the tips below will be useful as you go for the summer holidays.”

Here are some tips recommended by the Reef-World Foundation about planning a sustainable diving holiday when choosing to visit coastal locations.

1. Travel local or fly responsibly and carbon offset where possible

A plane in the skies
Travel local or fly responsibly and carbon offset where possible. Photo: Unsplash / Philip Myrtorp

When planning a trip, it can be easy to want to head to the most far-flung island possible. However, there are many benefits to travelling locally. Rising sea temperature due to climate change is one of the biggest threats to coral reefs, so we need to focus on how to reduce our carbon footprint. Staying closer to home allows you to reduce your carbon footprint and save money

So try to locate a great destination near you so you can travel by ferry or bus. If you have to fly, try to go direct. It’s tempting to book journeys with multiple layovers when they cost less, but these routes often have higher carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

If you fly often, make a habit of offsetting your emissions. Carbon offsetting means supporting clean energy projects to give back to your production of greenhouse gases. Some airlines allow you to do this when booking flights, but you may find other alternatives, such as buying carbon credits, where you have the flexibility to choose where your money goes.

Try to be aware of how individual airlines are working to do their part for the planet — this can also include whether they are trying to reduce noise pollution, plastic waste and CO2 emissions.

At the end of the day, while offsetting is a crucial thing to do during the transition to cleaner energy, ultimately, we need to reduce our overall carbon footprint by flying less and moving to renewable sources of energy in our homes and our mobility.  

Tourism is a major economic force whose development can fundamentally impact societies and the environment, both positive and negative.

Leticia Carvalho, Principal Coordinator

2. Dive with sustainable operators

Two people looking at a poster
Book trip with sustainable operators, such as Green Fins Members. Photo: The Reef-World Foundation / Aoibheann

Book with a sustainable operator that is committed to minimising their impact on the environment when planning a dive trip.

Green Fins works with members of the diving industry to reduce the pressures on coral reefs. The initiative offers dive and snorkel operators training using the Green Fins code of conduct. This includes recommendations such as using mooring buoys instead of anchoring, no-touch policies for aquatic life and maintaining good buoyancy to prevent accidentally knocking, kicking or stepping on corals.

The approach has been proven to help corals stay healthy and more resilient.

3. Reduce your single-use plastic usage and leave unnecessary plastic at home

A water bottle
Reduce plastic usage or leave unnecessary plastic at home. Photo: Unsplash / Kate Trifo

While away from home, cutting back on single-use plastic can be challenging. But, with some planning, minimising plastic consumption on holidays is possible. Think of it as a fun challenge.

Packing reusable shopping bags and refillable water bottles make it easier to avoid single-use plastic. While on holiday, refuse single-use plastic straws and other avoidable plastic items. It might take some time, but try to get into the routine of saying “No straw, please” when you order. Also, ask yourself, “Do I need that plastic bag?” before unconsciously accepting one. Don’t be afraid to advocate for the change you want to see. Tell the restaurants you frequent to look into more environmentally friendly options.

That’s important because every year,  the ocean is threatened by climate change, plastic pollution, and the overexploitation of marine resources. The impacts of plastic production and pollution on the triple planetary crisis of climate change, nature loss, and pollution are catastrophic. Plastic production soared from 2 million tonnes in 1950 to 348 million tonnes in 2017, becoming a global industry valued at US$522.6 billion, and it is expected to double in capacity by 2040.

Exposure to plastics can harm human health, potentially affecting fertility, hormonal, metabolic and neurological activity, and the open burning of plastics contributes to air pollution.

Check with the operator you’re booking on their efforts to reduce waste or single-use plastic? What trash collecting system do they have in place? Do they separate and recycle their trash?

4. Pack reef-safe sunscreen and sun-protective clothing

A diver swimming
Covering up with UPF clothing is the most effective method to protect your skin and the coral reefs. Photo: The Reef-World Foundation / Aoibheann

Sunscreen is an essential item that most people pack during a beach and dive holiday. Studies have shown that even tiny concentrations of chemicals such as Oxybenzone, Octinoxate and nanoparticles like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide from sunscreens can cause corals to be more susceptible to bleaching and damage to their DNA.

Some popular holiday destinations such as Hawaii, Palau, Bonaire and Aruba have a toxic sunscreen ban. Always check local laws before travelling, but always opt for reef-safe sunscreens. Covering up with sun protective (UPF) clothing is the most effective method to protect your skin and coral reefs. Also, unlike sunscreen, they don’t have to be reapplied every two hours. This is a great option not to compromise coral reefs while looking after your skin.


The UN Ocean Conference will be held in Lisbon from June 27 through July 1. Co-hosted by the Governments of Kenya and Portugal, the conference comes at a critical time as the world is seeking to address many of the deep-rooted problems of our societies laid bare by the COVID-19 pandemic and which will require major structural transformations and common shared solutions that are anchored in the Sustainable Development Goals. To mobilize action, the conference will seek to propel much needed science-based innovative solutions aimed at starting a new chapter of global ocean action.