The Virgin Atlantic guide to responsible swimming, snorkelling and diving
“From all my travels, the first time I put on scuba gear and dived on the coral reef is the moment I remember most vividly.” – Sir David Attenborough
The plastic problem
We’re all aware of the problem with single-use plastic. It’s can be particularly problematic in a region like the Caribbean where many day to day essentials have to be imported, often plastic-wrapped. That means it could end up in the sea, where turtles can mistake discarded plastic bags for jellyfish, or the bags could smother coral reefs and break down into microplastics that make their way into the food chain.
Back in 2015, Antigua realised it had a problem and became one of the first countries in the world to ban single-use plastic shopping bags. It was a far-sighted move. Since then, the government has banned Styrofoam cups and plastic utensils. They’ve increased penalties for anyone caught ignoring the ban and launched an education programme on how to reduce waste. It seems to be working. Driving around the island, I was struck by the lack of litter. More impressively, a dawn stroll along the beautiful beach at Half Moon Bay revealed almost no plastics washing onto the shore.
Antigua’s sustainable tourism focus is found in other areas too. A ‘green corridor’ in the south west of the island incorporates rainforest, hills and shoreline. All the tourism businesses along the corridor are environmentally aware and have signed up to principles based on respect for local culture and community. There’s also a movement afoot to introduce no fishing areas around the island. Similar actions in other parts of the world have seen significant and speedy improvements to the environment. Fish stocks recover quickly and the fishing outside the zones improves dramatically as a result.
So although Antigua is best known for its golden beaches and warm welcomes, the emphasis on sustainability is fast gaining pace. As a result, a number of other countries are now following in its footsteps, and that’s a meaningful outcome for such a tiny island nation. If the people of Antigua are putting so much effort into preserving their natural wonders, what should we, as visitors, do to help? With just a few simple steps, we can all play our part in looking after this beautiful island, or for that matter, any other place we visit.
Antigua is everything you’d expect of a Caribbean island, and the warm, safe waters are perfect for all forms of water sports. But if you’re into diving or snorkelling, it’s a real gem. Its geographical position on the edge of the Caribbean means it has pristine coral reefs full of colourful fish and turtles, but also attracts the bigger ‘pelagic’ species such as whales and eagle rays. A number of dive experts live and work on the island, some of whom have been educating divers and preserving the marine environment for many years.
Linda Swann from Mamora Divers at St James’s Club and Villas is one such person. She’s been diving on Antigua for 25 years and can be found most days taking trips from the jetty in Mamora Bay to some of the island’s best dive sites, including Stoney Cove, the Pillars of Hercules and other points along the south coast. I joined Linda for a couple of excellent dives and again, what struck me was an almost total lack of litter in the sea. Much of this is down to the island’s ongoing efforts, but we all have a part to play so here’s a guide to how you how you can swim, snorkel and dive responsibly.
Before you leave home
Take some time to appreciate the wonder of what you’re about to see, especially if it involves coral reefs, and find out what the local environmental groups are saying. Are there any particular species or habitats you need to know about? If you’ll be diving or swimming with a dive shop, research them thoroughly, and try to choose one that values the environment and reflects that value in its practices. If you really want to kick it up a gear, you could check out responsible stores like Patagonia or Fourth Element for outdoor clothing and gear.
Packing: Think about any plastics that you might leave at your destination. Disposing of our discarded plastic can be difficult for small island nations, and if you don’t take it with you in the first place, it can’t end up in the sea. Consider a reusable water bottle (fill it up in the departure lounge to save money too). If you’re self-catering or planning on making packed lunches, think about taking your own containers too. Pack a couple of reusable bags for shopping. Consider taking blocks of shampoo and soap, and if you’re going swimming where there are coral reefs try to use reef-safe sunscreen. This is made without oxybenzone and octinoxate, two chemicals toxic to coral reefs and other marine life.
At the shore
We all know not to throw anything in the sea or discard rubbish on the beach. But why not pick up litter and pop it into the appropriate bin while you’re there. It only takes a second but every piece makes a difference. If you’re entering the water from the shore, have a scout about and find the best place to do so without treading on reefs, rocks or seagrass. Once in the water, start swimming as soon as possible so that you spend less time walking on the seabed and are less likely to disturb it. Even if you have reef-safe sunscreen, and especially if you don’t, swim wearing a t-shirt. That way you’re taking less suncream into the ocean.
In the water
Being able to control the way you move underwater is a big part of being a reef-friendly diver. Linda’s most significant piece of advice is to get your buoyancy control right. If you haven’t been diving for a while or if you’re new to the sport she advocates having an hour lesson on this crucial skill at the beginning of your holiday. That way you’re less likely to bump into the reef (or your fellow diver), and more likely to have relaxing and enjoyable dive, as well as use less air.
Touching coral is extremely harmful. Apart from the fact you might cut or sting yourself, even the smallest human touch can introduce infection from bacteria on your hand and cause long-lasting damage. It’s also of utmost importance that you don’t touch anything else, particularly animals like turtles or whale sharks, and don’t try to follow them. There’s a good chance you’ll scare them, and we promise they’ll be faster than you in the water. The best underwater adventures are the ones where you just enjoy the surroundings and the wonderful feeling of weightlessness and let the sea life come to you. No matter how appealing it might be, don’t be tempted to feed any fish or wildlife. Anything that introduces foreign matter into the ocean or changes the behaviour of the wildlife is going to be detrimental to the environment.
Most damage to reefs is caused by fins, or flippers. It’s not often your legs are two feet longer, so it’s easy to miscalculate and whack the precious reefs. But if you pay close attention in the first part of your dive, you’ll soon get used to swimming with them. Another thing to be aware of is stirring the sediment, as this can disturb small animals and smother coral. Keep all your equipment close to you. If you clip it on, it won’t accidentally dangle onto the reef. And you know that old saying: ‘leave only footprints, take only photos’? Well almost. Underwater photographers have been known to cause damage in the past. Use flash sparingly (it’s been known to disturb some sea creatures), get your buoyancy control right before picking up a camera, and avoid resting on reefs in pursuit of the perfect image. And while you should always pick up litter where possible, leave shells, sand, and any living or dead creatures where they are.
If you’re snorkelling and not confident with your buoyancy, then try wearing a life jacket. That will help you stay above the reefs.
Back on dry land
Being a model coral reef diver doesn’t stop at the jetty – there’s always a chance to inspire others. You can give good reviews to operators who walk the talk, and make considered choices when out dining or shopping, particularly when buying souvenirs or seeking out responsibly sourced fish in seafood restaurants.
Ultimately, protecting our oceans is the responsibility of all of us. It all comes down to educating ourselves, being considerate and giving a bit of thought and time to our choices.
You can book your Caribbean underwater adventure on our website