This blue world is changing. In the last century the global sea level has risen almost 20 centimetres, we have lost half of our wildlife in the past four decades, and this year, our oceans are facing one of the worst coral bleaching events in history. Our marine ecosystem is delicately balancing on an uncertain edge, and there is no group better placed for attempting to rescue it than the dive industry. Heading this industry are the myriad dive centres that stand on the beaches of far-flung islands, and dive-tourism hotspots – these are the ones who can help kick-start change.
In this first of a three-part series to be released over the next six months, we introduce Ginette Bariteau, a dive centre owner in Panama, who we will be following through the ups and downs of her groundbreaking journey to improve the way her business deals with the environment. Situated in Bocas del Toro, Panama, Ginette’s dive centre is located in one of the most biodiverse regions in the world. Seeing the diving industry as the frontline for protecting the marine environment, and how the industry directly relies on the health of the marine environment, she is looking to inspire change within her local community as to how they think and act towards the environment.
After stumbling upon the guidance provided by the Green Fins initiative – aimed at building environmental best practice into dive and snorkel operations – Ginette decided to plunge in feet first using the e-Handbook for Dive and Snorkel Centres to do a review on the way she does business, setting her beliefs in a project that will hopefully help improve her customers’ diving experiences, alongside boosting the resident ecosystem.
Two years ago, instead of embarking on a regular life of retirement, Ginette and her husband Michel decided to take on the long-hours, low-pay work that is running a dive centre. To reflect their passion for the marine environment, they changed the dive centre’s name from Scuba 6 to Scuba 6 Eco Diving.
Initially getting caught up with the normal administrative duties associated with running a dive centre, she decided to set her priorities on getting out there and conducting regular surveys to monitor the local marine life – even by supporting three Marine Biologists from Smithsonian Tropical Research Center, Panama City to to come to the area and give a talk about and guide a dive to observe coral (unfortunately, out of the six dive centres of Bocas del Toro only one attended the presentations and none participated in the night dives).
Now, by printing and laminating Green Fins materials, such as the Green Fins Code of Conduct, and including the Code in her pre-dive briefings, Ginette is taking the time to explain to her customers about marine-related issues and the threats associated with climate change. Along with her glowing Trip Advisor reviews and their environmental credentials, the dive centre sees high numbers of repeat customers, and local businesses are recommending them based on the strong reputation they are building through word of mouth. What started as a means to educate people about the marine environment has metamorphosed into a valuable marketing tool.
Currently, Ginette doesn’t believe that divers will pay more for an environmentally sound product, and she doesn’t think they seek it out when making their bookings. But she strongly believes that by providing sustainable packages, and giving that extra value through the environmental talks she gives, people go away feeling like they have received a high value experience at no extra cost.
Ginette first heard about Green Fins through the Coral List, a forum for Internet discussions and announcements relating to coral reef ecosystem research, conservation, and education. She immediately found the educational materials, available for free download from the website, interesting and clear. Digging deeper, she became interested in the assessment process used through the Green Fins approach to measure businesses’ compliance to best practice. You don’t just get to talk the talk, you have to walk the walk – and you get assessed on it.
She was also drawn to the bigger picture behind Green Fins – the fact that it’s a United Nations Environment Programme initiative (presumably giving it some muscle), that it’s being run by a small UK charity called The Reef-World Foundation and that it’s been adopted as a national programme by eight governments, some of whom are hosts to the most popular diving destinations on Earth, such as Thailand and Malaysia. Almost 500 dive centres have already joined the programme and are working systematically to improve their environmental practices and reduce their impact on their local dive sites. And what’s more – it’s free!
Ginette instantly wanted to become part of this international network, to tap into that group of united voices and to contribute to it. She also hoped that with Green Fins, she could inspire some change within her local community. This is not an elitist programme – you don’t have to be super environmental to be involved; you just have to show an interest and commit to improving your practices. The website provides clear and easy-to-follow guidance, which is accessible to everyone. Perhaps she could instigate a movement to follow more environmentally friendly diving practices across all of Bocas del Toro – or even Panama-wide?
Starting her Green Fins journey, she downloaded the Green Fins Dive and Snorkel Centre Handbook, which provided her with a step-by-step guide to implementing the Code of Conduct within her dive centre. It also provided links to posters, guidelines and other resources to help her with common challenges she will meet along the way. She found the handbook clear, very comprehensive and full of useful information, but not overwhelmingly so. The posters are bright and cheerful, relaying simple messages but also providing the reader with an explanation for every do and don’t.
The “no fish feeding” poster, for example, explains in clear and simple steps why feeding fish is so bad for the health of the fish and the surrounding environment. She started to test the posters on her customers and found that they had a real impact on changing people’s attitudes towards the environmental policies she wanted to adopt. From just a bit of background information people became much more accepting of the rules by which she wanted to run her dive centre. Their behaviour started to change. She was hooked.
So here we are at the beginning of this journey. The people at Reef-World are behind Ginette, providing her with support, encouragement and advice over e-mail and over the phone. The team plans to map her and her dive team’s journey over the next six months and tell their story – the good, the bad, and the ugly.
In January next year, Reef-World will be sending one of their team to visit the Scuba 6 Eco Diving centre and conduct an official Green Fins assessment of their diving practices, which will activate their Green Fins membership. While the government of Panama have not adopted Green Fins, and there are no local Assessors to sustain these assessments, it’s inspiring to document just how much one local dive centre can do when they set their mind to it – and when they have the support of the international Green Fins network behind them. It could be enough to inspire a global change.