Sustainable Scuba Diving Practices in Asia

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Scuba diving is an important coastal tourism-recreation activity in providing a direct and participatively educational experience for local communities, underwater conservation, and marine education. It is also a major tourism attraction, especially in Asia with its marine biodiversity centers and vast diving sites. The Coral Triangle supports the world’s most diverse marine life, holding 374 genera of reef-building corals and 37 percent of the world’s coral reef fish and other marine life. With its divine marine attributes, it makes the perfect scuba diving destination, providing tourists with an opportunity to explore one of the most elusive marine treasures on earth. The scuba diving industry therefore plays a significant role in the economic sustainability of many coastal communities in the Asia-Pacific region, specifically in the Coral Triangle.

The growth of the scuba diving industry in Asia, particularly in the Coral Triangle, raised concerns regarding the impact of the industry on the marine ecosystems and how it should be effectively managed. To provide diver management strategies, it is crucial to understand the factors that may lead to unsustainable scuba diving, and the effectiveness of different governance systems. This paper discusses the driving forces leading to unsustainable scuba diving in the Coral Triangle and how effectiveness of scuba diving management can be affected. It also aims to explore and analyze tourism industry associations’ beliefs regarding sustainable and unsustainable scuba diving, and discuss their potential roles in influencing and facilitating sustainable scuba diving practices.

Importance of Sustainable Practices in Scuba Diving

Scuba diving, more than most other marine-based activities, provides access to coastal and oceanic environments that most people would never be able to witness themselves. This absence of equal experience of this source is a form of exclusion. As forms of experiential learning and environmental education, the practice of diving can help to generate concern, understanding, and care for marine ecosystems. It can be a tool for reaching out to the community, helping people to know, enjoy, value, and love the sea, and bring about change by promoting voluntary actions. The main ecological impact of diving is caused by direct contacts between divers and benthic organisms and physical damage, such as kicking, careless handling, and collecting. The interaction of visitors with the ecosystems depends on the fragility of the sites, the type of required equipment, the number of visitors, the code of conduct, the level of congestion, the diving skill, the experience level of the divers, and the enforcement of regulations. When an ecological site sustainability status is exceeded for a particularly vulnerable area, a phase of general disturbance is reasonable to predict in order to define new carrying capacity strategies. In addition to the ecological impacts caused by diving, sandy areas tend to be compromised due to the presence of diving infrastructure. In the presence of long lines, sand can be suppressed by erosion or smothering due to disturbance created by a continuous presence of active divers.

The marine environment is a high-value tourism resource, with coastal and marine tourism accounting for a large proportion of total global tourist arrivals. Being able to experience marine systems in tangible, first-person encounters both enriches people’s perceptions and increases their appreciation and concern for the marine environment. Enjoyment of coastal resources, including coral reefs, encourages the development of a sense of place and the personal connections that people make with places can increase concern for the well-being of areas. Similarly, through marine tourism, it is possible to generate substantial benefits for coastal communities, as well as for national and local economies. Marine ecotourism is vital for community empowerment, conservation, and environmental education and offers an opportunity for disadvantaged people to engage in the use of natural resources. The use of natural resources by tourism can provide a type of formal protection for these resources. Several studies have shown increased containment value—non-use value—of people who practice diving and snorkeling activities in tropical coastal areas, especially in coral reefs, and the belief that it should be protected for future generations.

Environmental Impact of Scuba Diving

This paper has three objectives: (i) to indicate that low-impact scuba diving practices in some areas are essential; (ii) to discuss social carrying capacity and its relationship to marine tourism; and (iii) to propose a selection system, diving order, and subsidiary management decision rules for those marine environments where low-impact diving practices are necessary, in order to ensure sustained environmental quality.

It is the opinion of the author that the scuba diving industry, in order to be competitive, should equally consider scuba diving practices that are handled with conspicuous concern for the environment. This includes addressing the impacts caused by scuba diving activities and implementing suitable management regimes to mitigate the adverse effects associated with its occurrence. There should be a holistic emphasis on the maintenance of ecological balance and a de-emphasis on the efforts to attract too many divers to specific diving areas.

Scuba diving is an ideal tourist industry for aquatic natural resources. Coral reefs, seagrass beds, mangroves, and estuarine areas are the major ecosystems that sustain the richness of marine life and provide various services to mankind. While scuba divers go to these places for recreation, protection, regeneration, and conservation, they also have the opportunity to encounter marine life. However, if not managed properly or if it gets out of control, the industry may create dramatic changes in the structure and function of aquatic natural resources.

Coral Reef Degradation

Between 50 and 75% of the world’s reefs are threatened or degraded to some degree. This is in part due to coral bleaching, a state where the coral releases its zooxanthellate symbionts either due to heat stress or depletion of essential nutrients, reverting to its calcium carbonate skeleton color, and the later death of the corals following bleaching. In addition, coral disease has emerged as a cause for greater concern; other threats stem from tourism and the recreational use of coral reefs. Together with a general deterioration in the health and resilience of corals and their associates, this has led to precipitous declines in key ecological, evolutionary, and economic functions. With a community of up to 5 secondary consumers per square meter alone, reefs compete with rainforests for the biologically richest habitat on Earth.

Coral reefs are among the most productive and ecologically complex biological ecosystems on Earth, and are often referred to as the “rainforests of the sea.” Patchy distributions parallel to coastlines and extensive areas, often covering very large oceanic regions, make coral reefs difficult to manage from an ecosystem viewpoint. Coral reef biodiversity supports a broad range of services and offers amazing recreational value potential to tourism, as well as the biochemistry and genetic resources of reef-associated organisms reflect the reef’s long evolutionary history. Fisheries in reef areas that contribute much-needed protein, especially in developing countries, can be augmented with individual, usually opportunistic, sport anglers who visit reef areas for high-value sport-fishing, such as billfishing. Tourists now place high values on interactive experiences with reef biodiversity in and around coral reefs, leading to the development of tourism activities based around scuba diving.

Regulations and Guidelines in Asian Countries

In conclusion, each country has enacted some form of regulations and/or guidelines for scuba diving activities. These regulations and guidelines emphasize four key components: the safety of scuba divers and the reef ecosystem, conservation of the marine environment, and the importance of using local dive operators. At present, most countries which are known for their coral reefs can impose marine park entrance fees and departure fees for divers to enter and leave the country. However, the implementation of responsible environmental behavior in local dive operators, training for diving guides, as well as financial support for the improved management of the MPA needs to be emphasized. To make MPA successful and if the regulations and guidelines are to be enforced effectively, the setting up of MPA networks is necessary with mechanisms for links to sustainable management of marine and coastal resources.

The development of sustainable scuba diving in the Coral Triangle also depends on the implementation and enforcement of existing regulations and guidelines related to national and foreign scuba divers and sustainable scuba diving. Therefore, the aim of this chapter is to identify and give an overview of various regulations and guidelines by different Asian countries. These regulations and guidelines are essential for the legal protection of coral reefs and scuba divers. Legal protection ensures that damages to the marine ecosystem are minimal and create a conducive environment for the safety and non-interference of divers during their dives. Due to the increase in visitor frequency over coastal diving areas, most of the regulations and guidelines that have been implemented stipulate rules and policies for scuba diving activities. These national regulations and guidelines were obtained via various sources such as scuba diving reports, scientific research articles and websites, and from the local scuba diving authorities.


As a result of the establishment of marine parks and a National Plan to manage coral reefs, some of Thailand’s existing coral reefs are slowly but steadily being restored. Although a Ministry of Environmental and Natural Resources, a Department of Marine Resources, a Department of Fisheries, a Department of National Parks, as well as a national environmental policy and National Environmental Act exist, there is a lack of enforcement of existing policies. Scuba diving on coral reefs and the adjacent ecosystems of the tropical seas, like systems globally, is a potential source of stress and damage to the environment. In the last decade, scuba diving has captured the public imagination and drawn millions of tourists to the coral reefs near hotspots of environmental, economic, and demographic vulnerability, further increasing stress on the environment.

Recognized for its crystalline waters, sandy beaches, coral reefs, and biologically rich marine life, Thailand is one of the premier destinations in the world for diving. During the last decade, mass tourism and expansion of diving operations have, however, increasingly impacted the marine environment. Sedimentation and eutrophication from coastal runoff and discharge of sewage and other wastes, as well as unsustainable development of coastal areas, are some of the major causes of habitat destruction. At present, the most visited areas are the Gulf of Thailand with its close proximity to Bangkok and the large number of tourists visiting the island of Phuket and the Andaman Sea.


Despite Sipadan Island having one of the highest marine diversities in the world, it is only open to a limited amount of divers who stay on the island specifically to manage the numbers within the park. 120 permits are issued a day for a maximum dive of 3 days depending upon the time available. Unlike other sites, divers must register and declare their intended visas to visit Sipadan. This is to try and spread the concentration of dive boats that try to visit the island. These 40 divers can be broken up into four areas of 12 divers to try to reduce the impact on the marine life. This is not commonly practiced in other dive sites. A study showed the cleaning stations and the manta behavior has been impacted by human diving pressure. The number of cleaning stations has declined which may contribute to the growth and the changes in the number and spatial usage of the individual Manta alfredi group data. There has been a large increase in dive tourism and a functional carrying capacity concept applied to sustainable manta tourism is something that should be considered by the operators and the public officials involved.

The Philippines is a hub for sustainable scuba diving. Manta Bowl is a particular site that is focused on sustainable diving. Manta Bowl sits in the Babuyan Islands and serves as the cleaning station for the majestic manta rays. The sanctuary allows for limited divers and permits a maximum number of two groups per day of 10 divers. The guides are trained in manta ray behavior so that they know how to gently approach the manta rays. There is a maximum of 10-12 allowed meters underwater before hitting the sandy bottom and everyone must follow their guides’ example. Not all of the Philippines takes sustainable scuba diving seriously and some have suggested higher fines or increased patrols to keep the numbers safer.