10 Tips for Ocean-Friendly Snorkeling

There’s almost nothing I love to do more than strap on a snorkel, mask, and fins and jump into an amazing, underwater world. Snorkeling is a magic window onto one of the planet’s most spectacular—and endangered—ecosystems. Coral reef scenery is mind-boggling: the life forms are otherworldly, the colors surreal.

The colorful world of coral. Photo courtesy: Coral Reef Alliance

But there’s a tragic side. Over the years, I’ve seen more and more bleached, broken coral and reefs devoid of fish. Pollution, climate change, unsustainable fishing practices, and careless snorkelers are taking a toll on fragile tropical reefs, which are disappearing at an alarming rate.

Clown anemonefish. Photo courtesy Coral Reef Alliance

According to the World Wildlife Federation, we’ve already lost 27 percent of the world’s coral reefs. If present rates of destruction are allowed to continue, 60 percent of coral reefs will be destroyed over the next 30 years.

As an underwater enthusiast, I strive to be a good ocean steward; as a writer, I hope to raise the alarm for coral reefs. My husband and I follow ocean-friendly snorkeling practices, and I’m sharing a few tips (from Reef Relief, the Coral Reef Alliance, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) that might help us preserve fragile saltwater habitats.

1. Don’t wear sunscreen in the ocean: An estimated 4,000 to 6,000 metric tons of sunscreen washes off swimmers’ bodies and endangers coral health. A sunscreen chemical called benzophenone-2 (BP-2) is highly toxic to coral, especially juvenile coral. (By the way, coral is a living organism, not rock or shell.) To protect your skin from UV rays and sunburn, wear a wetsuit or long-sleeved shirt into the water.

2. Never touch coral. Even slight contact can harm the sensitive coral polyps. Besides, some corals can sting or cut you. Also, avoid using gloves. They may protect your hands, but some people interpret that as an invitation to handle marine life.

3. Don’t tread on coral. Select points of entry and exit from the water that don’t cross corals. While you’re snorkeling, maintain a comfortable distance from the reef (two feet or more, depending on how good a swimmer you are and how rough the water is) to ensure that you can avoid contact even in turbulent water or if you’re surprised. Know where your fins are at all times so you don’t kick coral.

Sailfin Blenny fish. Photo courtesy: REEF

4. Learn to move about gracefully in the water. You should be comfortable enough in open water that you don’t depend on big kicks or flailing arm movements. Snorkelers should wear float-coats to allow gear adjustments without standing on the coral. Practice a dolphin-like swim so that you can negotiate tight spaces without disrupting your environment.

5. Take nothing, living or dead, out of the water. The exception: you may pick up “new” garbage. If the garbage is “old” (ie: covered with sand or algae), it might now be used as a home or hiding place for crabs, small fish, or eels.

6. Don’t feed the fish. Doing so destroys their natural feeding habits, and you might be injured.

7. Avoid harassing the wildlife. Chasing, touching or picking up fish, invertebrates, and marine mammals and reptiles could hurt or kill them; at the least it makes them wary of humans and could ruin future snorkeling experiences. In Hawaiian waters, it’s illegal to touch turtles.

8. Pack out your trash. It’s illegal to dump trash at sea. Plastic bags and other debris can injure or kill marine animals.

9. Don’t buy shell or coral products from gift shops. In many places in the United States, it’s illegal to harvest coral, and purchasing it at local shops only depletes reefs elsewhere.

10. Choose an eco-friendly hotel or resort. Graywater and fertilizer/pesticide runoff pollute water around many hotels. Check with nonprofits or ecotourism sites about the hotel’s environmental policies before you book.

For instance, the Napili Kai (where I stayed) is one of a number of hotels on Maui that participates in the Coral Reef Alliance’s Hawaii Hotel Reef Stewardship Project. Participating hotels use:

  • Reef etiquette signage
  • In-room educational materials
  • Educational tools for staff to share with guests
  • Staff training in reef ecology and outreach strategies
  • Supporting hotels’ watersports companies in the implementation of the Voluntary Standards for Marine Tourism

Wave of Support

Photo courtesy: Reef Relief

Want to make a difference or just learn more about reefs and the ocean? Get in touch with one or several of the following groups and find out what you can do.

Coral Reef Alliance (CORAL): Keeps coral reefs alive through conservation, education and building partnerships with responsible snorkelers and divers.

National Marine Sanctuary Foundation: Serves as a trustee for the nation’s system of marine-protected areas to enhance their biodiversity.

Ocean Conservancy: Protects ocean ecosystems and informs and inspires people to speak and act for the oceans.

Oceana: Campaigns to protect and restore the world’s oceans.

Project AWARE: Conserves underwater environments through education, advocacy and action.

Reef Check: A global volunteer effort by divers and marine scientists to raise public awareness about coral reefs.

Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF): Mobilizes volunteer recreational divers to conduct scientific ocean surveys.

Reef Relief: Dedicated to preserving and protecting coral reef ecosystems.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Originally published March 13, 2014

Photo courtesy Coral Reef Alliance

Sunset over Old San Juan

Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis cemetery in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico ©Laurel Kallenbach

Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis cemetery in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico ©Laurel Kallenbach

March 2018 update: In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in September 2017, Puerto Rico is still struggling to rebuild. If you’re craving sunshine and tropical color, this Caribbean island could be your perfect vacation—and your tourism dollars would help our fellow Americans in the Caribbean!

This view of the Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis cemetery in historic Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, is iconic. (An old edition of the Lonely Planet guidebook has this photo on its cover.) The desk attendant at my hotel shared a scenic tip: Walk to the 16th-century Castillo San Felipe del Morro fortress in late afternoon to watch the sunset. I took his advice and was not disappointed!

I wandered along the old streets on the cliff above the ocean for a while. Nice to be out of the traffic. Just as I reached the old fortress walls, the sun was at its most golden. Looking east over the walls, I could see this chapel and historic cemetery bathed in the warm light, with the Atlantic sparkling and blue. Breathtaking!

Supposedly, the Spanish colonists built the cemetery in the mid-1800s overlooking the Atlantic Ocean to symbolize the spirit’s journey to cross over to the afterlife. I can’t imagine a prettier place to spend eternity!

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Read more about my travels in Puerto Rico:

 

Strolling Old San Juan’s Colorful Streets

March 2018: I’m re-posting my piece about glorious Old San Juan, which I visited in 2014. Yes, Puerto Rico is still struggling to rebuild after the devastation of Hurricane Maria in September 2017, but in San Juan, beaches have been cleaned up, and most hotels and restaurants are open. So if you’re craving sunshine and tropical color, Puerto Rico beckons, and your tourism dollars help our citizens in the Caribbean!

Some of the most pleasurable parts of visiting a new place are free—as I learned while rambling among the vibrantly painted apartments and churches in Puerto Rico’s historic downtown area of Old San Juan. My entertainment during my two-day solo stay there was soaking up the atmosphere in Old San Juan, founded by Spanish colonists in 1521.

The streets of Old San Juan are a riot of Caribbean color. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The streets of Old San Juan are a riot of Caribbean color. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The architecture is a spicy mix of old-world Spanish and Caribbean tropical hues. When I got tired of walking, I stopped into some authentic local eateries to sample the flavors of the island too.

Yellow window, Old San Juan ©Laurel Kallenbach

Old San Juan ©Laurel Kallenbach

Old San Juan is probably Puerto Rico’s most-visited spot, and rightfully so, with its colonial, cobblestone streets lined by a rainbow of apartments with balconies and bougainvillea. Add in palm trees, fragrant food cooking at wonderful restaurants, and sweeping views of the Atlantic, and you’ll fall in love.

I did.

On my two days in Old San Juan, I wandered among the quieter boulevards and simply drank in the colors. Except for the cars parked all along the streets, it’s easy to imagine how the town looked in the 16th and 17th centuries, back when it was a Spanish colony.

Old San Juan has shops, of course. I dropped into a few local artisan shops during the quiet hours, early morning and late afternoon when the cruise ships weren’t in port.

The inner courtyard of private home. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The inner courtyard of private home. ©Laurel Kallenbach

There are also satisfying restaurants, including modest spots where locals grab breakfast or lunch. At Café Manolin, an Old San Juan institution that serves creole-style food, I had fried eggs and beans with tortillas while I watched the old-style orange juice machine mash up oranges and spit out fresh juice. It tasted heavenly.

For high-end dining, there are many possibilities in the old town. One evening I enjoyed an early dinner at the snazzy Hotel El Convento tapas bar, where I sat on the patio overlooking the courtyard. Contentedly, I sipped a Bacardi Mojito and savored slices of Manchego cheese drizzled with truffle honey served with fresh-baked bread.

Mostly though, I wandered Old San Juan until my feet were sore or I got too hot in the Caribbean sun. That’s when I knew it was time to return to my “home” during my stay: the Casablanca Hotel. There I could nurse a margarita or cold Puerto Rican cerveza—the Old Harbor Taina brews are lovely—and watch one of my favorite movies of all time projected on the wall of the bar. Or, I walked up the stairs for a siesta in my room, which was small but comfy with a Moroccan flair.

I never got tired of taking photos of the brilliant architecture. ©Laurel Kallenbach

I never got tired of taking photos of the brilliant architecture. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The concierge at the Casablanca steered me to the best restaurants, and he humored me by letting me practice my Spanish. (For the record, most puertorriqueños speak fluent English.) This U.S. territory uses the American dollar. And I did a double-take one day when I bumped into the mailman wearing the traditional U.S. mail uniform—with shorts of course!

In addition, the Castillo San Cristóbal fortress and the Castillo San Felipe del Morro  are part of the U.S. National Park Service, where interpreters in those Smoky Bear hats give you guided tours of the old fort walls overlooking the azure ocean.

Mostly I loved Old San Juan’s small details, like iron knockers, glimpses into courtyards of apartment buildings, and colorful shutters. Nearly every apartment number was painted on glazed tiles.

Pink lantern, Old San Juan ©Laurel Kallenbach

Pink lantern, Old San Juan ©Laurel Kallenbach

One morning, after breakfast, I was crossing a plaza and saw a skinny, feral cat dash out of nowhere and grab a pigeon from a flock pecking at the cobblestones. I was shocked; domesticated cats back home are rarely that fast, but clearly this cat was hunting for his breakfast!

A few hours later, I noticed a grumpy Persian perched inside the window of a posh apartment. He gazed out at the street with a pout that reminded me of a grounded teenager.

No, pampered puss, you have an easy life in your house, I thought. The streets of Old San Juan are lovely for us tourists, but they would be hard for a cat like you.

Brass knocker on a door ©Laurel Kallenbach

Brass knocker on a door ©Laurel Kallenbach

On and on I strolled the quiet streets of colonial San Juan, enjoying the arched entryways, elegant shuttered windows, and ornate iron grillwork—an art form brought to the New World by the Spanish.

Viva Viejo San Juan—viva Old San Juan!

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Read more about my travels in Puerto Rico:

On Downings Beach, Ireland

There’s a working-class beach town called Downings in northern County Donegal, Ireland. Located right on the Atlantic, the views are lovely, and Sheephaven Bay shelters this surprisingly long, sandy beach.

Oceanside Car Park

The Irish treat Downings’ Beach a lot like a local park. And here’s the funny part: They drive their cars right onto the beach and park them surprisingly close to the water. (I suppose it’s because that’s where the sand is hard-packed after the receding tide.) Still, it’s astonishing to see people use the sand as a “car park,” as they call it here. Many families set up beach chairs and picnic right beside their car!

©Laurel Kallenbach

Sunday on the Beach

I took this photo late on a Sunday afternoon in August, after most of the action died down for the day. (That’s why there are only a few parked autos—earlier at least 50 of them were lined in neat rows.)

The horse wagon is for the wee kiddies to ride, whereas the boys in the foreground were more interesting in net fishing. Or were they butterfly hunting?

Downings has a several hotels and pubs (which favor country-western music over fiddles and Irish tin whistles most nights of the week.) The tiny town was once a getaway for folks from nearby Northern Ireland fleeing “The Troubles.” There’s still a large caravan (trailer) park in Downings.

Laurel Kallenbach, writer and editor

Originally posted in March 2009

Read more about my travels in Ireland:

P.S. For more tips on places to visit in Ireland, visit Discover Ireland.