One of the most popular places to spend a vacation is by the ocean. People are drawn to the water in search of both relaxation and adventure. Snorkeling, scuba diving, and surfing are all popular water-based sports. But today we’ll discuss two big marine ecotourism activities that are a bit more adventurous and slightly less common.
Ecotourism, while a huge source of revenue for once-small locations like the Cayman Islands, has become increasingly popular in marine locations and attracts over a million visitors annually1. In Grand Cayman, for example, eager tourists board small boats and take a 30+ minute cruise out to the local sandbar known as “Stingray City”2 . Once there, tourists hop out into waist-high water and squeal in delight, fear, or a combination of both as stingrays swim past their ankles. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I’ve been fortunate enough to visit this amazing spot. Unfortunately, my visit was quite memorable, but not for good reasons. Upon reaching the sandbar, our captain accidentally spewed fuel into the stingray-occupied water. Our guide then manhandled the animals, which quickly swam away in hopes of cleaner water and less human interaction, and our bucket of squid (snacks for the rays) floated away aimlessly for several minutes before it was found and returned to the vessel. Within two minutes of arriving, I remember my younger sister choking on contaminated water and bawling. On top of everything else, our captain had anchored the boat in water too deep for us to stand in. This is irresponsible ecotourism.
While this story has become a hilarious anecdote in my family of traveling gone wrong, it also highlights some of the biggest issues behind marine ecotourism. First of all, pollution: our captain leaked fuel into the water in a marine biodiversity hotspot. While our boat was a small contribution to the problem, repeat exposure of pristine waters to fuel and human trash will quickly destroy the coast surrounding the Cayman Islands. In fact, the reason our captain anchored us in deep water at all was because all the other boats (over 10 at any given time) had taken the ideal spots on the sandbar. With hundreds of tourists swarming the area and nearly a dozen boats floating over the rays, there is bound to be some level of additional pollution being dumped into the water every day.
While my experience in Grand Cayman highlighted many of the potential problems of marine ecotourism, I have also experienced the joys of responsible ecotourism in other locations. In Belize, I was able to snorkel with nurse sharks and rays. Like in Stingray City, we baited the water with chum and floated observed the critters from above while they snacked. I was able to stroke sharks and rays, but were only allowed to do so as long as it did not interfere with their mealtime. We were in a small group of 15 people and our guides made sure to police how close we were to the animals, so as to not injure any of the creatures we were there to enjoy. This is responsible ecotourism. I was among tourists who could appreciate the beauty of natural creatures while minimally interfering in their behavior. We were in a small group, and left no noticeable trace other than the chum we spread.
Let’s shift focus to another popular tourist activity: cage diving. Cage diving has become incredibly popular in places such as South Africa, Southern Australia, and Hawaii3. It allows tourists to safely view apex predators in the wild, while also generating a source of revenue for the local community. Cage diving has been proposed as a method for preventing shark poaching because of the steady source of tourist income that provides an incentive to protect sharks in the area4. For example, in 2005, an estimated 20,000 cage diving tourists generated $1.6 million in revenue for local South African communities4. This money, if funneled back into shark conservation, has the potential to protect these species from human predation. On the other hand, concerns have been voiced about the potential for attacks on humans to increase if sharks are provisioned regularly in tourist areas. This has resulted in greater regulation of the industry: in the United States, there is a ban on shark feeding in state and federal waters. In Australia and South Africa, tour operators must go through a stringent licensing process and adhere to local restrictions on cage diving locations and shark provisioning4. This is responsible ecotourism.
Cage diving undoubtedly changes normal shark behavior, encouraging sharks to linger longer and spend more time near boats. In South Africa, great white sharks have become much faster at responding to chum baits in the water and have been conditioned to see boats as sources of food3. However, there’s an important distinction: while sharks have become conditioned to chum and boats, it’s unlikely that they are conditioned to humans. Though many argue that cage diving increases the number of shark attacks in the area, there is little evidence to support this claim3.
While researchers continue to debate its impacts on wildlife, they do agree on one thing: the most responsible way to conduct marine ecotourism is by conducting continual research on the impacts of tourist and wildlife interactions. Ongoing studies in South Africa suggest a dynamic management strategy, where the industry is constantly reassessed, is the best way to ensure tourists will be able to enjoy the majesty of wild animals while minimizing the risks to both people and wildlife3. And if you chose to partake in marine ecotourism, from cage diving to snorkeling, the best thing to do is look for reputable tour companies so that you know you’re dealing with organizations that adhere to local regulations and act as much as possible in the best interests of all parties involved, human and animal alike. You don’t have to be a scientist to do your own research.
[By: Allison Lau]
1Iiwinc. “The Economy of the Cayman Islands.” The Economy of the Cayman Islands, caribya.com/cayman.islands/economy/.
2Shackley, M. (1998). ‘Stingray City’-managing the impact of underwater tourism in the Cayman Islands. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 6(4), 328-338.
3Johnson, R., & Kock, A. (2006). South Africa’s White Shark cage-diving industry-is their cause for concern. Finding a balance: White shark conservation and recreational safety in the inshore waters of Cape Town, South Africa, 3.
4Meyer, C. G., Dale, J. J., Papastamatiou, Y. P., Whitney, N. M., & Holland, K. N. (2009). Seasonal cycles and long-term trends in abundance and species composition of sharks associated with cage diving ecotourism activities in Hawaii. Environmental Conservation, 36(2), 104-111.
Featured image: Copyright Michelle Jones
Videos: Alexandra McInturf (Animal Behavior Graduate Group, UC Davis)