“Travel makes one modest; you see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.”- Gustave Flaubert, a French novelist. There are several ways to travel, and on of these many ways is through ecotourism. What is ecotourism? Doug Perrine, a well-known marine wildlife photographer, says, “Ecotourism is any form of travel experience that is based on appreciating or interacting with the natural environment.” He gives examples by saying, “It could be a cruise ship tour through natural fjords, or hiking in the mountains, diving on a coral reef, birdwatching, an African safari, an air boat ride through the Florida Everglades, kayaking along a natural coast, etc.” From what Perrine says, ecotourism can be a variety of things and experiences. In this article, we will look at benefits and downsides to ecotourism, how ecotourism affects our shark populations, we will take a closer look at cage diving, and explore how ecotourism can be improved.
In an interview with Perrine, I asked him what some benefits to ecotourism are. “[Ecotourism] has given many people an appreciation of some of the natural wonders of this planet - enriching their lives, and also prompting them to civic action to protect those features of the environment that they have enjoyed. It is also a major economic driver in some areas.” he explained. Experiences with ecotourism can also help people learn about the environment. It would be a new place, a new experience, and with new animals and people. According to www.worldtrips.com, “Regular travel and tourism usually returns only about 20% of revenue back to local communities while ecotourism can return as much as 95%.” Thus, ecotourism not only benefits the environment, but it also benefits local communities.
Along with benefits, there are also downsides to ecotourism. “Ecotourism has also led to over-use of some natural areas, causing degradation, and to over-exposure of some wildlife to humans, leading to negative effects and sometimes reduced survival.” Perrine said. Ecotourism can also lead to viewing the land as a profitable place for tourists rather than a natural habitat. However, reducing the amount of people in the area at one time can help with respecting and preserving the natural environment, along with educating individuals about the fragility of their new surroundings.
How does ecotourism affect our shark populations? “As far as I know, there have been few good studies on this topic. I’ve read of some studies that concluded that shark tourism did not cause major changes in the sharks’ behavior or reduce their survival. Certainly in some places, including the Bahamas and Hawaii, shark diving tourism has led to bans on shark fishing, and has thus benefitted the sharks.” Perrine explained. Another source supports this claim, and expands on the financial benefits of shark tourism. “The shark tourism industry continues to grow every year and generates millions of dollars in revenue around the world. In conservation terms the benefits are clear, nations will begin to protect sharks because it is in their financial interest to do so. Living sharks generate much more income than dead ones!”- http://www.sharkbusiness.org.
One form of ecotourism is cage diving, which is underwater snorkeling, scuba, or hookah diving from inside a cage. In the interview with Perrine, I asked him how cage diving has affected him personally, our sharks, and our world. “Cage-diving has been part of my career, and allowed me to get photos that I licensed to support myself, but it has actually been a fairly minor part of my own career. Most of my shark photography has not involved cages. In some parts of the world, e.g. South Africa, southern Australia, Rhode Island, Guadalupe Island, Mexico, cage diving is an important part of local economies. There is no evidence of significant harm to the sharks, while it has inspired shark protection activism and also enabled important scientific research.” he said. In my own experience, I have been cage diving at Guadalupe Island three times, and cage diving at the Wonders of Wildlife National Museum and Aquarium twice with their sand tiger and brown sharks. This form of ecotourism allows people to view sharks in their world, all while feeling safe inside the cage. In one of the earlier articles, “First-Hand Experience: Charline Meadows”, my sister got to experience being in the presence of sharks because of the cage. This was not in their natural habitat, but it was a very similar experience to Guadalupe cage diving. The cage gave her a sense of being safe, but the surrounding water also gave her the sense of being in the shark’s world.
There is always room for improvement with any system. So, how can ecotourism be improved? “It should always include a large education component, be paired with research, and inform visitors on how they can best act to protect the natural resources that they enjoy on the tours. Currently, some tours include significant education & research components, but others include little to none of these.” Perrine said. Improvements can also counteract the downsides of ecotourism. As explained in that section, limiting the amount of people at once in an area can help reduce its degradation, as opposed to having a large amount of people in a natural area at once. Abiding by all of the rules the ecotourism company may have will also help protect the environment, its animals, and the tourists.
“Keep close to Nature’s heart...and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your sprit clean.” -John Muir, a Scottish-American naturalist, author, and mountaineer. Spending time in nature can be very rewarding. Ecotourism is a great way to spend time in the natural world, explore new places, encounter new animals, and meet new people. If you go out and experience adventures like this, even if it is in your own backyard, you are becoming aware of the world around you and the need to protect it. Ecotourism in the form of diving at Guadalupe Island has shaped what I want to do with my life, and has helped me realize that sharks aren’t mindless killers, but creatures that I want to protect. Ecotourism not only gives people unique experiences, but it also changes minds about the planet and its inhabitants.