How To Involve Locals in Scuba Dive Operations for Sustainability

Eco-tourism, eco-friendly dive centres and eco-resorts, community-based tourism... Written especially for Gaia Discovery and adapted from a chapter in his book Scuba Professional, Simon Pridmore reveals that running a successful dive centre or resort, especially in a remote location, involves far more than just taking people diving. Among other things, you have to integrate local residents in your dive operation at ALL levels and focus your conservation efforts on people, not just fish and reefs.

 Scuba Professional: Sunny island in a remote place, perfect for diving but for how long?

Scuba Professional: Sunny island in a remote place, perfect for diving but for how long?

Bali, 1 June 2016. Over the years, many people have come into the scuba diving industry driven by a dream.

I Have a Dream

This dream is to find a small, sunny corner of the world where the reefs are healthy and where they can set up a little dive resort. 

The resort will be built by village craftsmen and designed to leave as small an ecological footprint as possible. Materials will be sourced locally without destruction of either reef or forest. The use of plastics and chemicals will be minimal and sewage and trash will be disposed of responsibly. 

People from neighbouring villages will be trained to work in the resort, providing them with employment, twenty-first-century skills and wealth. They will consequently abandon unsustainable practices such as cyanide and dynamite fishing and will have a vested interest in keeping trawlers and long-line fishing boats out of surrounding waters. The ocean will thrive and healthy reefs and plentiful fish stocks will keep happy divers coming, so the resort owners and local people will thrive too.

Compromises

Inevitably, those who pursue this dream are confronted by difficult decisions that force them to weigh their good intentions against business interests. 

Some of these decisions involve environmental considerations. For example, do you have to provide guests with packaged food and drinks such as pot noodles, cookies, beers and sodas, despite the trash issues these create? Or can you still attract customers if you only offer locally sourced food and fruit juices? Given limited fresh water supplies, do you need to provide a shower and toilet in each room or will guests object at having to share bathroom facilities?

 Scuba Professional: Idyllic operations, having a dive station under the trees, can soon turn into something unpleasant if local communities don't see eye to eye with you.

Scuba Professional: Idyllic operations, having a dive station under the trees, can soon turn into something unpleasant if local communities don't see eye to eye with you.

The most crucial decisions involve people. For instance, it takes time to train rural villagers with limited language and hospitality industry skills to become capable managers and dive leaders, so you have to decide if you will wait until the villagers are ready or if you will import your key staff from elsewhere instead. 

The easiest and fastest solution is to import. You want to start recovering the costs of setting up the resort as quickly as possible and you rationalise the decision by telling yourself that, over time, you will train local people to replace the imported staff. However, it is unusual to find a dive operation where the senior personnel are actually local. This means that, with the exception of a few low-level workers, the community as a whole does not end up sharing the interests of the dive operation. 

No dive centre is an island and failing to involve the wider community closely and completely can have adverse ramifications for you, your business and the marine environment. That part of the dream that involved local people doing things like conspiring with you to ensure thriving reefs is lost.

 Scuba Professional: Involving the wider community is challenging but a good idea to be incorporated into your set up as early as possible.

Scuba Professional: Involving the wider community is challenging but a good idea to be incorporated into your set up as early as possible.

Here are a few stories that clearly illustrate the problem. All come from Indonesia because this is the region I know best, but the issues are international and similar tales are told worldwide wherever people dive and there are still fish in the sea.

Gone Tomorrow

A few years ago, a luxury coastal resort in Indonesia decided to tether a small platform to the seabed 20 kilometres off shore to act as a fish aggregation device (FAD) for a deep-sea sport fishing operation that they were running. The FAD was wildly successful and the guests would catch prize sport fish such as sailfish and wahoo out there. 

The FAD also attracted a lot of sharks and became an exciting place for both free divers and scuba divers to visit. The resort was very proud of the success of the FAD, which had enhanced the guest experience, created a sustainable fish stock enabling the resort to become self-sufficient in sea food, provided employment for more local boat drivers and guides and embellished their eco tourism credentials. So brochures and press releases were produced and social media made sure the news travelled as widely as possible. 

One day a fishing boat was seen on the horizon as the hotel dive boat was heading back to base. The next day the sharks had gone. In just one night, the long liner had managed to scoop up every single one. The number of big fish around the FAD also plummeted over the coming months.

 The price and value of keeping sharks alive are two issues that could be explored deeper when setting up community-related marine conservation programmes. Pic: Shawn Heinrichs.

The price and value of keeping sharks alive are two issues that could be explored deeper when setting up community-related marine conservation programmes. Pic: Shawn Heinrichs.

A similar episode recently took place in the north of Bali when a local dive centre found an enormous school of barracuda circling at the end of a point that juts out invitingly into the Lombok Straits. That evening, the dive centre owner posted pictures on his Facebook page and held court in a local bar, soliciting divers to join him the following morning to go back to the same site. 

He was successful, in one respect, as he managed to get quite a large group together for the dive trip. However, other people had been listening to him too the previous night. As the divers, crammed into minibuses, were on their way to the beach to board the boats, they passed a fleet of pick up trucks coming in the other direction, laden to the brim with dead barracuda.

Creatures Great and Small

It is not only large animals that are affected. Along Bali’s north shore, far away from the tourist hotspots, there are a few sheltered bays where tiny, rare creatures hide. One of these is called Puri Jati. The villagers here are very poor. They do not share in the tourism wealth of the island’s south. 

Encouraged and assisted by a philanthropic Bali dive centre, a local family has set up a small shaded facility on the beach with fresh water showers, toilets, concrete rinse tanks for gear and cameras and a snack shop. Dive instructors and guides that bring divers here pay a fee for using the facility. The whole set-up is a great example of eco-tourism at its best: local people and professional divers working together for mutual gain and in the interests of both tourists and the marine environment. 

Sadly, from time to time, other people along this stretch of coast who do not share in the fees paid by the scuba divers sneak in at night and drag weighted nets along the seabed. Perhaps, they have heard reports of divers coming out of the water with smiles on their faces, and assume the bay is full of fish. It is not. 

All they dredge up are small octopuses and tiny creatures like frogfish, pipefish and rare and exotic types of scorpion fish: hidden treasure for divers but no use at all for feeding hungry families. The day after the nets have passed, the sand that was previously literally crawling with life is a desert. 

Unintended Consequences

In all three of these cases, far from protecting marine life, scuba diving activity has the exact opposite effect and results in its destruction. The primary causes are lack of information, education and communication. The dive operations do not have the local coastal communities on board or on side. They have failed to recruit community leaders to their cause; leaders who could explain how dive tourism can benefit everyone in the area. Of course, this is a role that local members of staff at a senior level could perform: if they had some. 

The dive operations have not garnered sufficient local support or sufficiently involved the community financially, intellectually or emotionally in what they are doing. Therefore, self-interested members of the community have no qualms about sabotaging their efforts. They may not even recognise that what they are doing is sabotage. They may simply be acting opportunistically. 

An oft-quoted statistic is that a shark is worth $100 (for meat and fins) dead but $1,000,000 (in tourism dollars) alive. For a fisherman, however, this is not a convincing argument for not killing a shark. The immediate $100 will feed his family for months but he may not receive one cent of the value of the shark if he allows it to live.

Education & Communication

As a dive professional or a marine eco-entrepreneur, campaigning on behalf of fish and reefs in blogs and on websites directed at divers may bring you customers but you are preaching to the converted and there are other group of people living closer to the problem who can do much more with the message you are delivering. By involving coastal communities and local authorities you can change behaviours that are harmful to the future of scuba diving tourism.

 Scuba Professional: How can children be part of marine conservation education and advocacy?

Scuba Professional: How can children be part of marine conservation education and advocacy?

Resort and dive centre owners must spread the word into the wider world beyond the dive community by involving more local people in their dive operation; training managers, taking on more local guides, converting local dive masters into dive instructors, even taking local people underwater on try-dives. They need to get local authorities interested; make efforts to know the leaders and opinion formers and talk to them. All this activity will build support links to coastal communities and engender mutual trust. Their interests and the resorts’ interests can coincide. They just have to be shown how. 

More Than a Beach Clean Up

To end with a shining example of what can be achieved: in northeast Bali recently, a beach clean-up programme was introduced under the Trash Hero banner. The usual suspects showed up: dive instructors and their students, local divers, hotel staff and other environmentally concerned residents. 

But the folks running the programme wanted to broaden their reach and encouraged local schoolchildren to participate, initially with the promise of ice creams afterwards. In casual conversation during the clean-up sessions, the children learned to differentiate bad trash (plastics, cans, bottles etc.) from good trash, such as leaves, logs and weed. They also came to understand why there was a difference and what made some trash “good” and other trash “bad.” 

After a while the children became the most enthusiastic cleaner-uppers of all and there was no longer any need to bribe them with ice cream to persuade them to show up. Now, under pressure from students, a local school has started its own trash clean up along neighbouring streets. Small steps: sometimes that’s all it takes.

Simon Pridmore is the author of the international bestsellers, "Scuba Confidential – An Insider’s Guide to Becoming a Better Diver" and "Scuba Professional - Insights into Sport Diver Training & Operations." He is also the co-author of Diving & Snorkeling guides to Bali and Raja Ampat & Northeast Indonesia, and has just published a new book for not-yet-divers and absolute beginners called "Scuba Fundamental- Start Diving the Right Way".

Wounded whale shark picture courtesy of Shawn Heinrichs. All else by Simon Pridmore.

Related articles on Gaia Discovery:

Review of Scuba Confidential

Review of Scuba Professional

Articles with an eco-tourism message by Simon Pridmore:

The Whale Sharks of Cendrawasih Bay

Disabled Scuba Diving in Bali

River Walking in West Papua