Responsible snorkeling – Coral reef etiquette for sustainable beach holidays

Our oceans are in danger and the corals are dying. The biggest threats are related to human activities such as plastic pollution and overfishing, but us, tourists who visit coral reefs regularly also contribute to this degradation. But what can we do, how should we behave not to destroy our waters? With these responsible snorkeling tips we would like to share with you the most important do’s and don’ts you need to follow in order to minimize your impact on the reefs and marine animals.

10 responsible snorkeling tips

Individuals may not have the power to influence the biggest emission producers to stop climate change, but there is a lot we can do to preserve, or at least not to damage further our precious reefs. Study these easy coral reef etiquette tips and contribute to preserving our oceans!

Do not touch the corals

Not touching the corals is not only a basic snorkeling safety tip, but also one of the important pillars of the responsible snorkeling behavior.
The safety aspect is simple, you might hurt yourself if touching corals. Some species, like fire corals have painful stings and toxicity, but any of them can cause rash, burning sensation or skin irritation, so keep a safe distance for your own safety.

From the other side, a simple touch can kill the tiny coral polyps that build up the reefs. Corals are very small animals that slowly grow into huge reef structures and are very fragile. The oil from your skin damages the corals’ natural protection system and the entire colony can get diseases, or in worst cases, dye.

Do not stand on the reef

Standing on a coral is dangerous from various aspects. The sharp coral can cut your foot, or you can easily step on a stonefish or sea urchin that cause painful injuries. Last but not least, you can break the corals.

To avoid such situations, learn how to control your buoyancy, or use a snorkel vest or a snorkeling raft if you are not a good swimmer. If you need to stand, search a sandy area where there is nothing to damage or break!

Be comfortable with your fins and practice the proper finning technique to avoid breaking corals while swimming around them. Your snorkeling fins should be powerful but not too long you will be less likely to harm the coral or other animals.

Never chase sea creatures

I understand that you get excited when finally spot a turtle or stingray and wish to get close to the animal, but keeping a safe distance is crucial for your own and for the creatures’ safety. Some places introduced strict laws and high fines if people insult marine life (this is how Florida protects the manatees) but first of all, the people who snorkel or dive need to understand why keeping a safe distance is important.

Chasing the animals not only frightens them away, but also causes stress and anxiety so they will be afraid of people. Moreover, some species may attack when feeling threatened which can lead to dangerous situations.

Coral reef etiquette infographic

Do not feed the fish and other marine animals

The reef fish and sea creatures are not your pets, so you shouldn’t be feeding them. I often see snorkelers who carry bread or corn, and honestly, I never understood this behavior because this is not responsible snorkeling.

Feeding ocean creatures with food that doesn’t belong to their natural nutrients changes their behavior and can make them sick. If you see other snorkelers feeding the fish, explain to them why it is not good, and don’t participate on tours where any type of feeding is included to attract fish.

Pick garbage if you see

Ocean plastic pollution is something we really need to care about. The fact that there will be more rubbish in our waters than fish by 2050 if we don’t act is more than shocking. There is no place left in the world where you don’t find garbage in the water while snorkeling or diving. Therefore, cleaning our oceans became a basic principle of responsible snorkeling.

Carry a mesh bag  with you so you can collect the floating rubbish and remove everything from the coral reef (fishing line and nets etc…) that shouldn’t be there. Read our How to reduce plastic when traveling article for more useful tips on reducing your everyday garbage.

Wear rash guard instead of sunscreen

Sun protection while snorkeling is very important, but most sunscreen contain chemicals such as oxybenzone that are harmful for the marine environment, can kill the corals and sea animals. Our best advice is to invest in good quality UV protection clothing that protects your skin against the harmful UV-rays.

Long-sleeve shirts, UPF50+ leggings and UV headbands are the best that will cover your skin from head to toe so you can skip, or minimize the use of sun care products. On the uncovered areas, apply mineral sunscreen.

Tip: Learn more about the dangerous chemicals and how they damage the coral reefs in our in-depth reef-safe sunscreen guide!

Stay quiet and move slowly

You might have already noticed that the ocean’s animals hide between the corals, or just simply disappear when a boat engine is running or there is anything loud around. Unnatural noises, shouting, splashes and vibration in the water frighten the creatures away and make them scared.

To be able to observe sea creatures in their natural state, you should stay almost unnoticeable. Move slowly around, stay quiet so your presence won’t be threatening.

Choose good a snorkel set that fits you and learn to use it properly, so you won’t have to struggle in the water with a foggy mask, leaking snorkel or uncomfortable fins causing noise.

Read location-specific books and marine life guides

Responsible snorkeling also means that you educate yourself about the place you visit and the creatures you see.
It is highly recommended to read location-specific snorkeling books or online guides that can serve you with tons of information on the local conditions you need to pay attention to such as currents or tides.

Get some marine life guides too so you will easily identify the species you see and can read interesting things about their behavior such as feeding or mating habits.

Don’t take anything

Imagine how quickly our oceans would be empty if everybody took home just a small piece of coral or shell? These creatures belong to the ocean, so leave them there and don’t disturb the sensitive underwater ecosystem by removing its components.

Don’t buy souvenirs that are made of shell, coral or sea stars. Take only photos home!

Choose eco-friendly tour operators

Sadly, the majority of snorkel tour organizers care only about the profit and not about the environment. Therefore, we ask you to do a little research and choose an operator who offers responsible snorkeling trips, respects the ocean and marine life.

An eco-friendly snorkeling trip may if it costs a little more than an ordinary tour, but if your money supports small businesses that care about the future, it is definitely worth to pay some extra bucks. Sustainability is the key that leads to long-term success!

"Disclosure: This article may contain affiliate links. If you decide to make a purchase, I'll make a small commission at no extra cost to you."

Anett Szaszi

Anett is a certified scuba diver, freediver and an expert in snorkeling with more than 10 years experience. She fell in love with the ocean when she put her head underwater in the Red Sea in 2008. Since then , she is traveling all over the world to discover our waters. Wherever she goes, she takes her mask, fins and underwater camera with her. Visiting mega-cities is not her style but getting lost in tiny coastal villages, capturing the beauty of the sea while snorkeling. She is interested in sustainable traveling and marine conservation. She is hoping to inspire people to protect our oceans by sharing her underwater stories. Find her photos on @anett.szaszi Instagram too!

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