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

An Irish Dolmen and a Magical Dog

Places I find most magical are in countries with either a very ancient history or where people have a different sense of time—where a day is measured by afternoons rather than nanoseconds.

So in 2004, I made a pilgrimage to Ireland, a nation of storytellers, where you can still hear tales about encounters with fairy folk, where upscale housing developments might still be named for an ancient queen or saint, where you fetch the gate key to a 6,000-year old stone passage tomb at the espresso shop down the hill.

My first view of the Kilclooney Dolmen, which sits on a rise in the land.

I’m a bit obsessed with standing stones, you see, and Ireland has so many!

One morning, I clomped in vain through thigh-high grasses searching for a sacred well along Donegal’s cliffs overlooking the Atlantic. (Wells like these were used in pagan and early Christian times for healing.) Frustrated, I decided to skip my next itinerary stop and head to my B&B for an afternoon nap.

Searching for Stones

As I drove past the road sign pointing to Kilclooney, just 15 miles away, I made a U-turn (not so easy on Ireland’s narrow rural roads!), and took the route leading to Kilclooney’s dolmen, which is a huge stone table built over a tomb entrance.

At the village of Kilclooney, I pulled into a church parking lot and walked to the farm gate across the street—following my trusty guidebook, The Traveller’s Guide to Sacred Ireland by Cary Meehan (I can’t recommend this one enough!).

The rough farmhouse road/path lay behind the gate—where two large red cows stood sentry, menacingly chewing their cud (or the remains of the last pilgrim they had thwarted!). I followed the guidebook’s instructions and knocked on the stone farmhouse door.

“Is this the path to the dolmen?” I inquired of the elderly lady with a cane who opened it.

“Yes, yes,” she answered with a welcoming smile. “Go through the gate and up the hill a way,” she said.

“There are cows?” I stammered.

The woman must have read my mind: “Ah,” she said with a wave of her hand, “Don’t worry about the cows; they won’t touch you.”

Guardian at the Gate

So I set out, opened the gate, and sidled toward the bovine guards, eyeing their horns. I had come all this way, and I couldn’t stand the thought of losing both the sacred well and the dolmen in one day.

At that moment, a black lab bounded through the fence, barking and nipping at the cows, who grudgingly yielded the path. I petted the wagging dog, my hero, then she began bouncing up the trail toward the dolmen.

So I had a four-footed guide, who soon presented me with a reddish rock, dropped it at my feet and stared pointedly at it. On Ireland’s farmland, trees and sticks are scarce, so I picked up the rock and hurled it along the path. So began our game of “fetch,” which lasted the entire half-mile walk to the dolmen: The dog got the rock (always the same one), carried it in her mouth back to the spot in the trail where I had advanced, and dropped it slobber-covered at my feet. I picked it up, threw it ahead and walked some more.

Rocks with a View

When we came up a hill, I gasped when I caught sight of giant rocks like three legs supporting a massive horizontal rock that nonetheless was elegantly stacked so that it looked like a bird taking flight. As we drew nearer, my dog friend guided me safely off the path and across the soggy bog until I arrived at the foot of the dolmen.

I could see for miles over the countryside; there wasn’t a soul around except my canine companion. I explored the stone monument, touching the cool rocks, crouching inside the hollow beneath its “legs,” which once (millennia ago) led into a subterranean chamber.

Kilclooney Dolmen is located in County Donegal, just a few miles from the town of Ardara. You can see my canine guide in the shadow of the dolmen.

I wanted to write in my journal, so I sat on a nearby rock where I had a lovely view of the dolmen against the dramatic sky with storm clouds brewing on the horizon. Minutes later, my reverie was destroyed by an army of buzzing midges. I had to keep moving to escape their bites, so I ambled, assessing the dolmen from many angles and picking a few wildflowers.

Finally, I tied my bundle with a stem, placed the flowers at the dolmen’s feet, made a wish and kissed the bird-like capstone. It’s part of the dolmen lore that a kiss on the ancient rocks will make your wishes come true.

Laurel Kallenbach, writer and editor

Read more about my travels in Ireland and to Neolithic sites in the British Isles:

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

Originally posted in March 2011.

Reach Falls: Freshwater Fun in Jamaica

Freshwater cascades of Reach Falls, Jamaica

When we think of Caribbean islands, we usually envision turquoise and deep blue waves—and there are plenty of those in Jamaica. Hidden in its lush mountains, however, is a freshwater idyll that visitors shouldn’t miss.

Reach Falls is a refreshing destination—and a pleasant alternative to hanging out on the beach.

Cascades and Pools

What’s more exotic than a swimming hole in the jungle? That’s the magic of Reach Falls in the Blue Mountains east of the town of Port Antonio. Here, water cascades over the massive boulders in some places and forms quiet pools in others.

What I loved at Reach Falls:

  • Swimming through the blue-green water (the milky color comes from the limestone) into shallow caves and peering out at the rainforest through the rivulets of water.
  • Getting a shoulder and scalp massage by standing beneath the water of a rushing cascade.
  • Riding the flume. This is achieved by swimming vigorously upstream to perch on a rock ledge with swirling whitewater around you. Then launch yourself into the current, and let it carry you downstream.

    Deep, clear pools are perfect for a cool dip on a hot afternoon.

Details: There’s an entrance fee to Reach Falls. Facilities include picnic tables, toilets, changing rooms, and lifeguards for general safety.

You can hike up the river to Reach Falls and explore the lush jungled area.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Originally published: June 18, 2010

Read more about my travels in Jamaica:


Canadian Ski Holiday at Banff’s Eco-Friendly Juniper Hotel

The Canadian Rockies as viewed from Banff's Juniper Hotel. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The Canadian Rockies as viewed from Banff’s Juniper Hotel. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Once in a great while, you find a hotel that seems tailor-made for you—with just the right character, setting, and attitude. I found my kindred-spirit lodging at the Juniper Hotel on the hillside overlooking the lovable resort town of Banff, in the Canadian Rockies.

Casual and relaxed, located in an outdoorsy setting, and environmentally conscious, the Juniper Hotel welcomed my husband and me with open arms. For three nights we were at home in a room with a balcony vista of majestic mountains, frozen lakes, and snow-flocked forests.

Natural Décor in the Canadian Rockies

In the 1950s, the Juniper was the well-known Timberline Motel, located in spectacular Banff National Park. In 2005 it was renovated to preserve its retro style, while using contemporary nontoxic finishes and salvaging original materials.

Lobby at the Juniper Hotel ©Laurel Kallenbach

Lobby at the Juniper Hotel ©Laurel Kallenbach

For instance, the lobby floor is fashioned from broken patio stones, and old slate shingles from the former staff accommodations are reincarnated as room numbers. Most of the wood finishes are done in reclaimed timber.

The Juniper’s owner is an avid collector of First Nations art, and much of it is displayed in the hotel, which is perfect for a property that’s surrounded by nature. Hiking trails begin right outside the back door.

Although the hotel is less than 10 minutes from the heart of downtown Banff, it’s adjacent to a wildlife corridor, a swath of protected land where local wildlife—grizzlies, mountain lion, wolves, caribou, elk—have unrestricted areas to roam and hunt.

View from the nearby Vermilion Lakes ©Laurel Kallenbach

View from the nearby Vermilion Lakes ©Laurel Kallenbach

Native landscaping around the hotel enhances the forest atmosphere, and a vegetative roof—covered with native grasses—is an eco-friendly way to keep the building’s temperatures down during summer.

Sleeping Green

The Juniper Hotel and Bistro is a member of EcoStay, a North American initiative that helps hotels measure their carbon footprint, identify and fund reduction strategies, and balance their greenhouse gas emissions through carbon offsetting. The hotel collects two dollars per night from hotel guests, and these funds purchase carbon offsets, so that basically made our stay carbon neutral.

The program also supports environmental measures, including low-flow showerheads, energy-efficient compact-fluorescent lighting, and recycling.

Panoramic Dining in a First Nations-Themed Restaurant

One of the first things I loved about the Juniper Bistro was its wall-to-wall glass overlooking the Bow Valley. All those windows offer eye-popping views of the glorious Bow Valley and iconic Mt. Rundle, which towers above the town of Banff. Beneath a handmade, birch-bark canoe mounted in the dining area, we ate several meals, and the food was satisfying and delightful—just like the scenery.

A birch-bark canoe presides over the Juniper Bistro ©Laurel Kallenbach

A birch-bark canoe presides over the Juniper Bistro ©Laurel Kallenbach

The menu highlights locally and Canadian-sourced food with international influences. The in-house bakery provides tasty biscuits and breads. (Yes, there are gluten-free options.)

One morning, I opted for a healthy egg-white frittata with roasted asparagus, aged cheddar and pickled shallots served with gluten-free toast and cherry-tomato and arugula salad. Ken dug into homemade granola and fresh fruit to fortify himself for skiing.

Gourmet dining at the Juniper Bistro. Photo courtesy Juniper Hotel.

Gourmet dining at the Juniper Bistro. Photo courtesy Juniper Hotel.

Another morning, we selected the more decadent Roasted Tomato Benny: oven-roasted cherry tomatoes, pumpkin-seed pesto, and poached eggs on a sundried tomato biscuit with hollandaise and brown-butter hash (what we would call “home fries”). This is the way breakfast on vacation should be!

Après ski hot chocolate at the Juniper Bistro. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Dinner was also spectacular; of particular note was the Mushroom Gnocchi (roasted peppers, wild mushrooms, pistachios, goat cheese, romesco sauce, and arugula with brown-butter gnocchi). The wine menu featured many fine Canadian vintages from nearby British Columbia.

In winter, one of the best hours to visit Juniper Bistro is après ski, when the setting sun plays on the surrounding peaks. We arrived just days after the Mt. Norquay ski area opened. Because our stay was mid-week, we had the bar mostly to ourselves—no crowds. We enjoyed a hot chocolate with peppermint schnapps and toasted the sunset and moonrise indoors next to the roaring fire in the bar. The staff offered to build us a fire outside on the patio, around the pit fires, but we preferred to cozy up beside the Christmas tree rather than brave the sub-zero arctic blasts.

Out and About in Banff

Mt. Rundle, photographed from Vermilion Lakes Road ©Laurel Kallenbach

Mt. Rundle, photographed from Vermilion Lakes Road ©Laurel Kallenbach

While the Juniper was our home base for three nights, we did leave its pleasant premises for some adventures. Ken drove up to Mt. Norquay ski area for telemarking the Canadian Rockies.

We also visited Banff Upper Hot Springs  under the full moon. The dash from the dressing room to the outdoor pool was shivery, but once submerged in the geothermally heated, 100-degree mineral water, we relaxed and enjoyed being toasty while surrounded by icicles and steam.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

For visitor information, see Banff/Lake Louise or Travel Alberta.

Original post: December 4, 2015

Read more about Banff and Lake Louise in Alberta, Canada:

View from Mt. Norquay ski area ©Ken Aikin

View from Mt. Norquay ski area ©Ken Aikin