By Bob Halstead
When dive tourism started to blossom in PNG in the late 1980’s it was decided to form an association for dive operators with the aim of setting standards, ensuring that the marine resource was conserved, and promoting PNG as a world class diving destination in a united manner.
The first name suggested was the “Dive Operators Association of PNG”, however I noticed, just in time, that this would create the acronym DOA PNG, and since DOA was already widely used for “Dead On Arrival” this would be unfortunate, to say the least. So the association became the “Papua New Guinea Divers Association”.
One of the first tasks was to draw up an Environmental Code of Ethics that all Dive Operators would follow. I had a hand in this along with Max Benjamin of Walindi Plantation and Dick Knight of Loloata Island, who both operate renowned Dive Resorts. Here it is:-
PNG Divers Association Environmental Code of Ethics.
At a time when coral reefs worldwide are under threat, the PNGDA recognises the exceptional quality and condition of Papua New Guinea’s natural marine resources and their importance for both village life and the Nation, and pledges that the Association will do everything in its power to ensure these resources, including the sea bed, reefs, wrecks and the marine life that lives on them, and in the waters surrounding them, will be conserved.
Members of the Papua New Guinea Divers Association will:
- Promote the fact that the economic and social benefits of dive tourism are greater than those achieved by unsustainable commercial harvesting of the coral reef resources.
- Ensure that divers in their care are made aware of the importance of careful dive practices to avoid damage to, and harassment of, marine life.
- Ensure that divers in their care are advised to assist each other to follow careful dive practices. The use of the “V” signal is recommended so that divers can indicate to each other that they are damaging or harassing marine life.
- Allow any dive sites showing signes of damage, from whatever cause, to be allowed time to recover before divers revisit the site, rotation of dive sites is encouraged.
- Promote the use of moorings, and/or designated anchoring sites on sand and rubble patches adjacent to the diving area, for regularly dived sites.
- Recognise the traditional rights of villagers and not engage in any fishing or collecting activities on dive sites except for approved scientific purposes and with approval from the local villagers.
- Recognise and respect member’s experience in their local areas, and liase with these operators regarding use of sites, with regard to conservation.
- Recognise the importance of consulting with village people, and promote education in the conservation of the local marine resources, the activities of tourist divers, and the benefits that they may gain through tourists visiting the area.
- Encourage Government bodies to recognise areas of special importance to the dive tourism industry with a view to their conservation.
- Consult with and provide support for the appropriate Government agencies and industry members to ensure ecologically sound industry growth. In particular the Association wishes to ensure that new locations are used for growth to avoid overcrowding and degradation of dive sites, as has occurred in other parts of the world.
- Assist in the establishment of a database of marine life in Papua New Guinea and notify the PNGDA if significant changes in marine life are observed in their areas, particularly those that are damaging the ecosystem.
This code of ethics has been useful in negotiating with the Government fisheries organization to the extent that certain commercial fisheries, for example the live edible reef fish fishery, have management plans that forbid fishing at or near established dive sites.
It has also enabled protocols to be established with villagers so that divers are welcome to dive local reefs for a reasonable fee and can expect villagers to care for the reefs.
When I first started diving remote places in PNG villagers always thought we were hunting and taking “their” fish. They thought this unfair, as they did not have the means that we did –scuba gear – to catch fish. Normally hospitable and welcoming, some villagers wanted to ban us from their area, and fair enough. I had to spend many hours explaining that we dived just to see the reefs and the fish, and perhaps take photographs, but did not remove anything from their reefs.
The whole concept of tourism was alien. Villagers never went sightseeing. Their journeys always had purposes such as trading, finding wives, or, in the old days, raiding and pillaging!
I always believed that it was important that the villagers saw some benefit from our tourist activities. I encouraged them to trade fruit and vegetables, carvings and other artefacts, and we paid a reef fee to the community to put value on the resource. I have made many friends – indeed when I revisited an island dive site recently the villagers told me I was the “most wanted man in this area.”
The “V” signal idea came form Mike Ball who used it in Australia. I’ve never been very keen on the concept as it encourages those that have insufferable “I’m so virtuous” complexes, to bully other divers. As H.L. Mencken so rightly says “The urge to save humanity is almost always a false front for an urge to rule it.” In this case their notion of saving the reef hides a false front for desire to police it.
There are so many myths about coral reefs. For a start they are not monuments. They are dynamic and alive and, as do all living creatures, go through cycles of growth and abundance through decline and death – and rebirth and rejuvenation. These cycles are much shorter than commonly imagined.
The reef has been “devastated” (the most popular word in the dictionary at the moment) by a boat’s anchor, and “will take thousands of years to recover”. The “thousands of years” bit is a cliché, and is nonsense. I read this in an editorial in the Cairns Post when a virtuous reader sent in a picture of some Staghorn coral that he witnessed damaged by a boat anchor.
Of course the damage is regrettable, but Staghorn coral grows rapidly and the damage no more significant than that caused by pruning a tree. I have seen reefs infested by Crown of Thorns Sea Stars made completely barren – but with significant regrowth after two years, abundant growth after 5 years and mature growth after ten years. My estimate for coral reef life span for Acropora corals is about 25 years. After that time some of the corals get so large they break from their own weight.
Other coral species my have longer life spans – but if you have seen the sort of damage that a school of Bump Headed parrotfish can do to a massive coral it is obvious that the corals have great powers of rapid repair. A brain coral that a diver has vandalised with graffiti was perfect when I found it again one year later. If you dive the same places over many years, as I have done, you see how it all works. I’ve been diving Milne Bay PNG for 38 years now and I’ve witnessed bleaching, Crown of Thorn outbreaks, Drupella infestations, coral diseases and storm, dynamite and ship damage, with great variations in seasonal and annual temperatures. The various reefs ALL recovered.
What actually takes thousands of years to form are the underlying reef structures. These are of course dead corals. The live corals are the shallow “skin” of the reef creating more structure as they grow – and die.
For a while Corals were given sacred status and the catch phrase of the self-anointed reef police was “Touch me and I die”. What nonsense. The very same people, no doubt, who just love to hug trees and Koalas, have abused me for touching marine life. I have to tell you that many marine creatures LIKE being caressed – how do I know? Because they come back for more! None like being harassed I guess, and me too, so the anointed should remember that – if they wish to avoid their air being turned off at depth.
Halstead’s Uncertainty Principle states that when we enter the sea we change what we go to see. It is inevitable. The art of good diving minimises these changes. Try to be in harmony with the ocean. No need to be obsessive or fanatical, save that for the irresponsible commercial fisheries such as the long-liners, live edible reef fish industry and Giant clam poachers. Try not to damage or molest the life coral reefs contain, but recognise that our humble presence as ETHICAL divers, is benign.
For contact with the PNGDA inc. please email the Executive Officer, Vilia Lawrence at