Snorkelling etiquette: Hands and feet off the coral, please

str2 seafin li 770x470Save the reef: Good snorkelling skills will prevent snorkellers from stomping on fragile corals. Photo: SSI

Decked out in bright orange life-vests, the couple put on their snorkels and masks and wade into the ocean. Then they start swimming, eager to explore the coral reefs and colourful fish darting about in the water.

But the mask of the woman is too loose and water starts entering her eyes. She panics and stands up. Luckily, there is a “boulder” underneath. The man, concerned about her, stands up too. But he almost slips and scrabbles hard at the boulder, cutting his feet in the process.

Unknown to them, the boulder is coral, which took hundreds of years to grow – but which they destroyed in minutes. The likelihood is that even if the couple did know it was coral, they would not have cared as they were focused only on not drowning.

The shallow reefs of Malaysia are visited by thousands of snorkellers a year. They do untold harm to both corals and themselves by having no snorkelling skills. This is compounded by there being little or no oversight of snorkellers by guides and boatmen.

This year, the corals cannot afford more damage because of the threat of high water temperatures due to the warming effect of the super El Niño phenomenon.

This is why snorkeller training and marine awareness are key programmes of the Malaysian Nature Society Selangor branch’s marine special interest group.

“There are many threats to Malaysia’s shallow reefs, including the lack of guidelines for infrastructure development as well as tourism operations and activities,” said group co-ordinator Wong Wee Liem. “Monitoring and enforcement are also weak.”

But it was recognising the impact by snorkellers that led the group to address this among their fellow members. In 2003, four volunteers drew up a programme that combined snorkelling skills training as well as marine ecosystem knowledge and awareness in a fun and interactive way.

The snorkelling skills training includes correct use of equipment, proper finning techniques, as well as comfort and safety in the sea. Snorkellers combine this with knowledge gained from the programme’s ecosystem component, including identifying fish and corals and observing their behaviour and relationships.

“This way, they can actually really enjoy themselves in the sea,” said Wong.

The programme has since been held on different islands each June in conjunction with World Oceans Day. It sometimes include underwater and beach clean-ups. Data collected from the latter is fed to the Maritime Institute of Malaysia for its coastal health monitoring research.

This year’s programme will be held at Pulau Tenggol, Terengganu, from June 3 to 6. The event will have an additional component, a shark appreciation course, where snorkellers can learn more about sharks and what to do should they see one. This is in conjunction with the My Fin My Life campaign organised by various NGOs, aimed at reversing the declining shark population by getting businesses, governments and Malaysians to pledge against consuming shark’s fin soup.

Diving certification agency Scuba Schools International (SSI) has been roped in to conduct the snorkelling and shark appreciation courses.

“Snorkelling is usually the very first activity that people will venture into when enjoying the marine world,” said Nick Khoo, SSI service centre manager. “If we can start them off correctly, they will be able to enjoy it safely and responsibly. The focus on sharks and reefs is simple … sharks are top level predators which keep marine populations healthy. This helps stabilise the overall equation.”

Obviously, the long-term goal of this skills-and-knowledge programme is to have it be conducted by island guides, said Wong. “They are based on the island and they deal with snorkellers every day. This is a way for them to earn more income and be the guardians of their own reefs. We extended this training to a number of guides in Tioman for a couple of years and it was very successful.”

Building on this are non-profits Reef Check Malaysia and EcoKnights. They are running Cintai Tioman (Love Tioman), a five-year programme to reduce the impacts of tourism and develop the islanders’ capacity to manage their marine resources.

“From the surface, the oceans seem to be healthy. But as divers, we realise that is not the situation below the surface,” said Khoo. “We understand, perhaps more than anyone, that time is running out. If we want to save our oceans both for ourselves and future generations, we have to take the initiative now.”

Wong agreed. “As Malaysians, we are so lucky to have these amazing reefs and marine life at our doorstep. We can just put on a mask and snorkel and swim out to them. But let’s do it responsibly, with the right skills, consciousness and appreciation.”


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