We all heard it from our first Open Water class “Only leave bubbles”. Scuba divers have the incredible privilege to witness the beauty of the 71% of the planet that most people will never see. We are a crowd aware of the fragility of our environment with repeated coral bleaching events and marine life choking on plastic. However, to be a responsible diver, the question of our travels must be asked. What does it mean exactly to travel more responsibly: Are we talking about ecotourism? Sustainable tourism? Slow travel?
Responsible travel stands to raise awareness among travellers on how to minimise the negative impact of our trips while helping the local communities. Scuba diving trips are one niche of the ecotourism offer as we travel to see to natural ecosystems. The responsible travel philosophy is about travellers trying to make better choices, while sustainable tourism is more about operators planning better practices.
The idea behind my sabbatical was to have 12 months to experiment with all the things I could never do with only a few weeks of holidays, more than a fixed itinerary. Scuba diving some of the best dive sites in the world was undoubtedly on my list. I also decided to follow a childhood dream, studying Japanese while living in Tokyo. I wanted to travel slower and reflect on how I could make this year-long trip a more responsible experience. This is partly why I decided not to go on a round-the-world trip. Maybe because I had the opportunity to visit many places across almost all continents, but running from a place to another without a moment to think was the last thing I wanted.
Not long before I left Paris behind, I wrote a blog post as I was starting to feel the first symptoms an eco-anxiety syndrome. While I concluded this article on a positive note, it was time for me to see if I could go one step higher and implement changes while on the go. When you find yourself in a place where you need to learn everything, where environmental practices are different, it doesn’t necessarily go like a breeze. Travelling to Japan and the South Pacific has tested my good intentions. I listed below, by main topics and by decreasing order of success, the things I tried to do a bit better, the ones that worked and the ones that didn’t. Trying to be a more responsible diver is not always easy. Whenever we can, the important thing is to acknowledge where we can improve and do better at the next opportunity.
Adopting the responsible diver best practices
success rate: 90%
Without too much surprise, I think I’m doing better in this area because I just had more opportunities to practice and more time to think about it. But don’t take me wrong, it’s still not a 100% success.
I recommend you to have a look at the great resources shared by Green Fins. The responsible diving program was initiated in 2004 by the United Nations Environment (UNEP) in collaboration with the UK charity The Reef-World Foundation. They make fantastic educational content for scuba divers and dive centres to have a more respectful way to practice scuba diving. They also advocate against single-use plastic, fish feeding activities or marine life souvenirs.
Here is a list of things to focus on to be a responsible diver :
- Focus on mastering perfect buoyancy and reducing weights before playing with an underwater action camera. Corals take years to grow and play a critical part in the health of our oceans and our planet. Protect the reefs by keeping your distance and not risking the chance of a devastating kick with your fins.
- Secure octopus, gauge and any other accessory with clips on your BCD to avoid them to drag on sand or coral reefs. Have a look at my BCD review where I explain in details my set-up.
- Marvel at turtles from a distance, their shell is covered with a fragile mucus that protects them from invasive species and that we can destroy by touching them. Generally speaking, the rule of no touching, no harassing, must be followed for all marine species.
- Boycott any feeding or baiting dive. Although I am super sensitive to this topic, I go trapped once with fraudulent claims about marine conservation.
- Collect all the trash on board (yes, even that banana peel) and bring it back to the dive centre. If it’s essential to prevent any plastic or cigarette butt to enter the water, organic trash can also negatively impact marine ecosystems. Go one step further and collect any plastic waste you see while scuba diving. Even if you can take only one, it’s better than nothing.
Problems seen with animal attractions and wilderness tourism affect scuba diving too. I got trapped in a horrible shark feeding dive with false protection claims. When I saw what was going on underwater, I got upset and cancelled the second dive. I took pictures to illustrate a future blog post about shark feeding dives. Seriously, we need to talk about it.
It’s not directly linked to scuba diving but remember to only take pretty pictures of seashells or pieces of coral found on the beach but leave them on the spot. I was tempted to bring back a nautilus shell from New Caledonia. It made me a bit sad at the beginning, but I understand that if thousands to millions of visitors do the same thing, the final impact can be devastating. I learnt later nautilus are CITES protected species! Be careful, some destinations have started to fine tourists at the airport when they found out they have seashells or even just sand in their luggage.
Enjoying plastic-free meals on the go
success rate: 70%
Last year before I went on my sabbatical, I published a vlog about how to go on plastic-free holidays as a responsible diver. Then I focused on 3 core items to make it easy to start (tote bag, refillable water bottle, and no straw). In the last 12 months, I took my no single-use plastic routine to another level. Remember the best waste is the one we don’t produce so 1st reduce, 2nd reuse, then if no other choice recycle. Here are the items that are always in my backpack now.
- Stainless water bottle: I think in 12 months, I bought 2 or 3 plastic bottles only. However, after using for years my refillable stainless water bottle, I decided to invest in an insulated tumbler which I can use for hot coffee or chilled water!
- Clothe tote bag: I remember accepting 2 plastic bags to make trash bags at my cherry blossom picnic in Japan. Now I always have 2 tote-bags with me at all time. You can easily find grocery shopping tote bags as freebies, or you can get one as a souvenir from your holiday.
- Bamboo cutlery kit: no problem to refuse any plastic fork or spoon as you are usually asked if you need them. I recycled mine from a meal tray, but you can find super convenient bamboo sets online.
- Bamboo straw: the trickiest of all! I removed 30% of my success rate, mostly because of this. I cannot count how many times I forgot ice coffee or any drink with ice cubes comes with a straw (duh!). I changed my strategy from no straw at all to have my bamboo straw on the table, and I am making tremendous progress. If you buy a bamboo ustencils set, it will usually have one included.
- Small food container: For some reason, it is the latest thing I started to do. I will need more training to make this one a habit every time I’m taking away food. You can upcycle any container you have in your kitchen or get a stainless “bento” food container.
- Clothe napkin: it was mostly to wrap my cutlery kit, but I discovered it was also convenient to pack a sandwich or a muffin. I upcycled one I had at home.
My 7 months in Japan were an absolute nightmare in term of plastic waste. Their use of single-use plastic for reasons of hygiene and convenience is beyond imaginable. Sure, their recycling scheme is one of the most elaborate in the world. However, they rely on a significant quantity of their waste being burned (since they stopped most of their nuclear power plants, energy has to come from somewhere). Still, Japan is #2 biggest exporter of plastic waste in the world behind the US. Concerned the bad publicity they may face when the world comes for the 2020 Olympics, Japan is now thinking about the plastic bag issue. I guess better late than never. In the meantime, the EU has voted to ban most single-use plastic for 2021.
I did my best by refusing plastic bags at “konbini” (convenience stores) by politely saying “fukuro nashi de kudasai” and buying in priority “onigiri” (rice balls) which had the minimum packaging compared to plastic “bento” boxes. A sit-in lunch can cost as little as 500 ¥ (about £3 / 4 €), so whenever I had 30 minutes to spare, I would go to the restaurant if I couldn’t prepare my own and an onigiri wasn’t enough. In vending machines, I would only buy aluminium bottles (a better recyclable option). I also did my best at understanding the sorting bins between burnable waste and non-burnable (which means recyclable, duh!).
A couple of months later, I visited Vanuatu, a country struggling economically but which decided to ban single-use plastic bags, straws and styrofoam food containers since July 2018. I could notice on the food markets of Port-Vila and Luganville than most fruits and vegetables were placed in homemade palm baskets, although small items were still placed in plastic nets. With sit-in lunch at farmers market costing less than 3 €, it was surprisingly easy to go zero waste in Vanuatu.
Using non-toxic and zero waste body personal care products
success rate: 50%
Trying to go zero-waste on cosmetics was a brand new goal last year. I had been using solid shampoo for years because it is way more convenient for travels. Only 2 months before leaving France, I started to experiment making homemade products such as face foam cleanser, moisturiser, toothpaste, deodorant, hair conditioner. As expected, I spent quite a lot of money at the beginning because I didn’t know which ingredients were the best for me. What I discovered is the least ingredients in a cosmetic recipe the better. Now, I hardly do any premix and use pure products now I have learnt what works best.
After many adjustments, month after month, here is what I always have in my vanity case, now:
- Organic soap: I tried many different brands, including Lush soap bars, but I didn’t like the strong smell and the quantity of colourant. However, their tin boxes are great. In New Caledonia, I loved the coconut vanilla soaps. Since I got back to France, I’m all about organic Marseille soaps with natural lavender or orange blossom fragrance (be careful to exclude those made with palm oil). I finally discovered that with a konjac sponge, I could also get rid of my face foam cleanser.
- Solid shampoo: In this case, I haven’t found a better choice than the Lush solid shampoo and the convenient tin box you can buy with it. My favourite is the Jumping Juniper lavender solid shampoo.
- Coconut oil: used to moisturise, condition hair before shampoo, a base for deodorant or toothpaste, Prefer coconut oil packaged in a glass jar.
- Jojoba oil: excellent face moisturiser in small quantity, perfect as a make-up remover if you use more. Prefer jojoba oil packaged in a glass bottle.
- Aloe vera gel: excellent moisturiser, especially if you got sunburnt, to use at night, preferably. Prefer aloe vera gel packaged in a glass bottle or learn how to make your own, in tropical destinations it is easy to find it.
- Tea tree essential oil: the absolute natural antiseptic product, one of the rare essential oil that can be used pure, but watch out the quantity though. A spot? A mosquito bite? Tea tree essential oil will help in less than a day. I use it in my deodorant and face foam mix.
- Bamboo toothbrush: This is one was frustrating. These are mostly online available online, and the rare shops I found selling them were at the shocking price of 8€ each. I found these bamboo toothbrushes online at a more reasonable cost by buying a set of 4 (and it came with a lovely bamboo case).
However, there are still issues I face :
- Reef-safe sunscreen: This is one of the trickiest points for an aspiring responsible diver. I don’t know if you noticed on my pictures, but I have very pale skin. So protecting me from the sun is not something I take lightly, and the homemade zinc version of a friend didn’t work for me (ouch!). I also have a hard time to find an organic reef-safe sunscreen that doesn’t come in a plastic packing (some even dare to say their packaging is biodegradable but when you search how it can degrade it is just a bad joke!). I now mostly rely on my hat and my Aqua Lung UV protected rashguard. New Caledonia had several organic options in pharmacies, but it was impossible to find any in Japan.
- Home-made deodorant and toothpaste: as I’m not travelling with baking soda and corn starch, if I’m gone for several months in a row and I’m not staying at someone’s who has these ingredients in his kitchen, then I run out at some point and have to buy the standard products. Maybe the solution is to find a way to make a travel kit. By the way, let me know in the comments if you are interested in getting my homemade recipes.
Embracing slow travel to reduce carbon footprint
success rate: 40 %
In the wake of the “flygskam” movement in Sweden, it is hard not to talk about the impact of the means of transportation we take as we travel. As scuba divers, it hits us hard: we often go to tropical destinations to admire the coral reefs of the warm seas. When I wrote my article about ocean conservation last year, I didn’t look straight into the elephant in the room: air travel. Noticing that aviation (passengers and freights) was representing less than 3% of global CO2 emissions, I thought it wasn’t the most important thing to fight.
However, what I understand now is that, even at a marginal level, it is the fastest-growing source of CO2 emissions. Some organisations predict it could be 6% to 12% by 2050. Also, if the tourism industry growth mainly comes from China and India, the latest figures from the EU show that in the period between 1990 and 2017 air travel emissions increased by 15%. Just between 2016 and 2017, the increase was 3%, with 75% of the emissions coming from France, Germany, Italy and Spain. However, let’s not forget, road transportation represents today in the EU 25% of the CO2 emissions, generally shared equally between passengers and freight. During the 1990-2017 period, road transportation emissions increased by 19%.
At the individual level, flying can absorb all your efforts of the year with only one long-haul flight. Try a footprint calculator. Although unfortunately, none of the options online give consistent results because there are too many variables, the idea is more educational rather than providing precise figures. By playing around with the tool, you can easily see the different weights of all the things we do. I used the calculator mentioned above to compare my year 2017 and my year 2018. In 2017, I was working full time, went on 12 business trips and 4 diving holidays. In 2018, I left for my sabbatical, but I also went on 2 European trips with friends before my departure. Well, well, I cannot say I’m proud of it, but I’m at 4,4 planets for 2017 (or 16,5 tons equivalent CO2) and for 2018, I went down to 2,5 planets (or 8,9 tons equivalent CO2). By not travelling for short business trips and having only one long holiday, in a specific region, with an optimised flying route, I decreased my footprint by 46%.
What about emission compensation you may say? While the idea is interesting, it has extended to the form of saying that any donation to a charity is a form of compensation. I’m not saying to not donate to charities, but I hate fraudulent claims playing on people’s guilt. Some people say what’s needed is absorption program that plants trees or coral reefs (which would even make more sense for us divers). But I’m still in a sceptical phase with NGOs. I stumbled too many times upon cases where good intentions were turned into profits (or operational costs if you prefer) with a result close to null.
So I won’t tell you to stop flying, because I think it would be quite cheeky coming from me. If done correctly, I still believe in the fantastic educational and transformative power of travels. However, maybe we should ask ourselves every time if alternatives exist or if we can alternate tropical dive holidays with more local diving destinations. It was the original idea I had with my blog. I wanted to show you don’t need to go far away all the time to have exciting diving micro-adventures. As I came back from Japan this spring, I decided to calm down and only travel by train this summer before heading on a new adventure with an optimised route to avoid unnecessary flights. What I’m thinking now is to stop flying when I spend time in Europe. Our railway is good, the bus can be an alternative if too expensive, and there are plenty of extraordinary diving destinations in Europe.
If you tell me there is just a lack of competitive price alternatives, no worry, I hear you. The price difference between planes and trains in the UK was for instance, shockingly high to the point I never took the train for long-distance in the UK during the 2 years I lived in Scotland. In the case of islands, I can also deeply regret the constant disappearing of ferry liaisons like in Hawaii (the only remaining ferry is Maui-Lanai) or Okinawa (Miyako and Ishigaki islands can only be reached by plane, it used to be different). I use Rome2Rio website to find alternative routes.
If you don’t have enough time on your hands, the spirit of slow travel applies even for only 2 days. Pick a nearby destination you can go without flying and enjoy the ride. If an exotic destination is your dream, then wait and plan accordingly to stay as long as possible, so there is a real benefit to your trip. Even by keeping travelling, there is a way to be a more responsible diver.
To go further in your readings,
Other points to consider to be a more responsible diver
To conclude this long blog post, here is a non-exhaustive list of other things to consider if you want to make your travels more responsible:
- Minding freshwater consumption: talking so much about climate change and plastic pollution sometimes occults the fact that we have a freshwater crisis in many places.
- Eating as little meat and fish as possible: we cannot deny the significant impact of cattle breeding on climate change (about 10%) and how overfishing is depleting the oceans. Even countries like France or Japan have become veggie friendly in recent years.
- Tackling over-tourism: here are a few ideas, avoid Airbnb apartments in areas in tension that have been designed to be rented out 100% of the time and prefer someone’s home, especially in big cities; respect trails when you go in nature, go during shoulder season for popular places or try off-the-beaten-path destinations that can also include local destinations near home.
- Being aware that most animal attractions are not cruelty-free, double-check before joining any activity involving animals; it includes zoos and aquariums
- If you want to go volunteering, double-check what is going on as the vast majority of voluntourism experiences you will find online are paid experiences. Unfortunately, while this can be a legitimate reason to finance a charity, many are turning good intentions into a profitable market.
To go further in your readings,
- Suitcase Six – Ethical travel mistakes
- Justing+Lauren – Wildlife attractions to avoid (and what to do instead)
- Uncornered Market – Volunteering and voluntourism
- Soul Travel Blog – Why in the age of over-tourism it’s more important than ever to travel
While trying to be a responsible diver as much as I can, I also recognise as consumers we cannot be held accountable for all poor practices. Sometimes we are not offered any decent alternative. There is no point in fighting the battle, like I often hear or read online, of who is greener than who, we also need political action. It’s ok to make mistakes; it’s ok not to be the infallible eco-friendly role model; the only thing that matters is how much we care.
“We don’t need a handful of people doing things perfectly; we need millions of people doing things imperfectly”.
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