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Reef Etiquette: Minding your manners at the beach
Fun Facts for Kids
Responsible Diving & Snorkeling
How to Protect Coral Reefs
Marine Debris
Reef Etiquette: Minding your manners at the beach

Creole Fish


Photo by George Schmahl

By Shelley Du Puy, Flower Garden Banks

When we travel, whether it's a trip to Grandma's or a family vacation in a foreign country, we have been taught to 'mind our manners.' We show respect for grandma by following her house rules. We show regard for a foreign culture by respecting their customs. A trip to the ocean to visit our sea friends also calls for our best behavior.

So how do we show our respect for this delicate form of sea life on a snorkeling trip? You might stand on your head to impress Grandma, but you know she would not be amused if you stood on her head! You might point out a funny hat or unique haircut, but you wouldn't want to poke at either with a stick.

Poking, prodding, or standing on a coral head, forces the coral's delicate skin against the very sharp edges of its skeleton, causing the skin to cut and tear. While you may not be able to see the damage to the coral, their skin cuts and tears just like yours. Remember what your elbow looked like the last time you fell off your bike?

Touching or patting the coral removes the slimy substance that protects it from bacteria and diseases. Slime is the coral's antibiotic cream as well as its band-aid!

If just touching a coral can cause that much harm, imagine the damage a boat propeller or anchor can do! Avoid motoring over a shallow reef. If mooring buoys are available, use them. If you must drop anchor, avoid dropping it on a coral head. It takes hundreds, even thousands, of years for coral reefs to grow.

At the beach, only bullies kick sand in another person's face! Kicking up sand and silt near a coral reef is just as impolite. The animals living in reef building corals need sunlight to make food. Sand and silt blocks the sunlight and keeps it from reaching the reef. That means less food for the corals. Stuff in the water can also clog the gills that ocean critters use to get oxygen from the water. So be careful with those big flippers!

And while you are being careful with those flippers, remember that many types of corals and plants are easily broken or uprooted. Shallow reefs are especially easy to damage while snorkeling. Careless snorkelers can easily break elkhorn and staghorn coral - the large corals that branch out like leafless trees.

When you visit Grandma, do you throw your candy wrappers, soda cans and plastic bags on her kitchen floor or her yard? (If you do, I bet you hear about it from Grandma!) When we snorkel in the ocean, we are snorkeling in the homes of all the animals that live there. Some types of trash are easily mistaken for food by ocean critters. For example, sea turtles often mistake plastic sandwich bags for their favorite food, jellyfish! So remember to stash your trash and dispose of it properly when you return to land.

Would you visit someone's home and take things without asking permission? Of course not! Likewise, you should not take things from reefs or other areas where you snorkel. Seemingly empty shells often have shy creatures tucked inside them. You might think taking only one or two pieces of coral or rock couldn't possibly make a difference. But, multiply those little things by the one million snorkelers and divers that visit, for example, the Florida Keys every year and it adds up quick!

Now that you know how to mind your manners in the ocean, get out there and enjoy your snorkeling adventure! And, remember, take only memories; leave only bubbles!

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