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

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:


Tropical Dining with a Jamaican Twist: Sustainable Mille Fleurs Restaurant

No good hotel is complete without an innovative restaurant, and Hotel Mocking Bird Hill’s Mille Fleurs is just such a place. I savored every mouth-watering bite during my stay there—and each was both sustainable and satisfying.

The romantic Mille Fleurs restaurant in Jamaica focuses on organic, island-grown foods. Photo courtesy Hotel Mocking Bird Hill

Unlike many Caribbean resorts that import the majority of their food, Hotel Mocking Bird Hill cooks with locally grown and harvested ingredients whenever possible, thereby supporting local farmers and putting fresh, tasty, and usually organically-grown foods on guests’ plates. Chef Melvin Laidlaw and the hotel’s owners also seek out foods that originate from within 50 miles, occasionally widening that to 90 miles when necessary.

The Mille Fleurs adventure begins before your first dinner at the hotel when Chef Melvin sits down to tell you what’s on the menu (it changes daily, depending on what’s in season). He also explains the origins of all the foods and describes Jamaican specialties such as callaloo (a green, leafy vegetable—like spinach—that’s simmered with coconut milk, chopped onions and garlic).

Chef Melvin also asks about your dietary restrictions or preferences. If you’re gluten intolerant, you’re in luck. Cassava, a starchy root that grows in the tropics, is a Jamaican staple—and cassava flour is gluten free. It’s the primary ingredient in Jamaican coconut-milk-fried flatbread called “bammy”—which is heaven!

Dreamy Dining

Candlelit by night, Mille Fleurs restaurant creates romantic atmosphere on its terrace overlooking the Caribbean Sea and rainforest—with the Blue Mountains on the horizon. I loved sitting with a rum drink as the sun set, feeling the cool night breeze and watching the fireflies glow.

To give you a sample of the outrageously good food, my first night’s meal include an orange salad with green olives and local feta* accompanied by fresh-baked herb rolls and scones. For the main course, I chose spiny Caribbean lobster, served with herb butter. (Note: I visited Hotel Mocking Bird Hill in late March, the last days before the close of lobster-catching season. April 1 through June 30 is the lobster’s breeding/egg-laying time, and if you eat lobster between those dates, chances are they’re poached—and I don’t mean in the cooking-method sense!)

To top off the meal, I reveled in a sampler platter of Mango Cheesecake and Papaya and Jamaican Apple & Coconut Custard.

Vegetarian Paradise

I also have to mention that Chef Melvin pampers vegetarians and vegans with Jamaican flavor. On any given day, the menu might include Stir-Fried Callaloo with Garlic, Breadfruit and Peanuts; Spicy Okra and Tomato with Yogurt; Herb Pancakes Filled with Ratatouille and Feta; or Homemade Pasta with Spicy Pumpkin Sauce.

Mille Fleurs participates in Meatless Mondays, a global initiative that promotes reducing your carbon footprint. (The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization estimates the meat industry generates one-fifth of the man-made greenhouse-gas emissions that are accelerating climate change worldwide.)

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

* I’m compelled to sing the praises of the artisan cheeses served at Mille Fleurs. They’re crafted at Jamaica’s Tamarind Hill Farm by Joanna Slimforte and they’re spectacular. I’ve never tasted such vibrant feta outside the Mediterranean, and the goat cheeses vie with Europe’s.

Originally posted on on May 21, 2010

Read more about my travels in Jamaica:

Chef Melvin Laidlaw hosts cooking classes at Hotel Mocking Bird Hill. During this one, we learned some classic Jamaican recipes: jerk chicken, fried plantain, grilled breadfruit, and red beans and rice cooked in coconut milk.

Room with a Jamaican View: Hotel Mocking Bird Hill

Yes, this was the paradise I reveled in every time I gazed out my windows at Hotel Mocking Bird Hill, an eco-friendly getaway in Jamaica.

Tucked into the forests and organic gardens above the town of Port Antonio is Hotel Mocking Bird Hill, an eco-boutique hotel that’s the epitome of Jamaica’s natural side.

Though not on the beach, the socially- and environmentally-conscious hotel overlooks the aquamarine water not far away. Though not in the mountains, you can watch the sun set behind the Blue Mountains from the hotel’s restaurant and rooftop observatory.

In short, Hotel Mocking Bird Hill is connected to the land, the sea, the sky and the community in a way that few places do.

The Luxury of Nature

“What is luxury? The definition has changed. It’s not just opulence; it’s having space and quiet.” –innkeeper Shireen Aga

Hotel Mocking Bird Hill does indeed provide the most beautiful of places to relax and forget the cares of the world. Curl up on a deck chair, a pool chair or a day bed hidden in the verdant gardens for some R&R.

Indoors or out, I feel nature’s pulse from the moment I wake until I fall asleep—which is perhaps when I enjoy the earthiness the most.

After a satisfying, sustainable meal in the candlelit Mille Fleurs Restaurant (see a future post for details about the wonderful cuisine), a hush settles over the hotel and the tree frogs sing their moonlight sonata. Fireflies (bigger than any I’ve seen before!) sparkle like fairies in the forest.

Night in the tropics: always relaxing when there’s mosquito netting and a soft bed.

While getting ready for bed each night, I kept all but one light off so as not to attract insects (there are no screens in the louvered windows so that nothing mars the view or separates you from the gardens and jungle surrounding the hotel.)

Then I would climb beneath the mosquito netting, which is rarely necessary if you turn on the ceiling fan above the bed; mosquitoes avoid the breeze.

Mosquito netting is one of my personal favorite luxuries: a diaphanous tent over my bed that assures that my sleep will be undisturbed by winged insects or the geckos who hunt for them.

To me, it’s a treat to sleep in a room open to nature, and mosquito netting over a comfy bed feels like a magic castle. On my first night at Mocking Bird Hill, I awoke to fireflies in my room. One settled on the canopy above me and winked me back to sleep.

The pool is a blue lagoon during the sun-drenched hours and lantern-lit at night.

There are many other luxuries at this 10-room inn:

  • sipping a Red Stripe and jerk-spiced nuts at sundown
  • meeting charming guests from England, Germany and the United States
  • taking trips to the beach
  • excursions for a raft ride or to Reach Falls
  • strolling through the gardens and watching the humming-birds
  • lounging in the hammock in my room (and drinking in yet again that view!)
  • and last, but certainly not least, enjoying a cool dip in the chlorine-free pool.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Originally posted on May 5, 2010

Read more about my travels in Jamaica:

The colorful lobby of Hotel Mocking Bird Hill is filled with tropical flowers and the sculptures of innkeeper/artist Barbara Walker.