Environmental Studies Faculty and Staff Publications

Mitigating Potentially Damaging Behaviors of Snorkelers to Coral Reefs in Puerto Rico through a Pre-trip Media-based Intervention

Thomas Webler, Western Washington University
Karin Jakubowski, University of New Haven

This posting is a pre-print of a forthcoming article. The publisher allows pre-prints to be posted on any website.


There is widespread consensus that recreational snorkelers are damaging coral reefs, but the magnitude of the issue is unknown. Loss of reefs jeopardizes tourism, which is a significant economic driver. Recreational snorkeling is a popular activity and yet there has been little research about the behavior of snorkelers at reefs. The authors carried out observations at several reef locations in Puerto Rico to determine the baseline level of snorkeler behavior that threatens coral reefs. From August of 2010 until June 2012, they observed 328 different recreational snorkelers in-water at various reef locations and recorded number and types of potentially damaging behaviors. Snorkelers exhibited 0.26 potentially damaging behaviors per minute. Most were fin kicks (39%) and the next most frequent behavior was sitting, standing or kneeling on the reef (22%). The authors asked a subset of the people who were observed to make self-reports of their behavior, evaluated the accuracy of self-reports, and found that people underreported their potentially harmful behaviors. The authors experimented with a video message and signed pledge to promote proper snorkeling etiquette. From March 2012 until June 2012, snorkelers watched the video and signed the pledge before they boarded a tour operator led excursion. The pledge expressed commitment to specific pro-reef behaviors. Post-treatment in- water observations of 79 different snorkelers found a five-fold reduction in the rate of potentially damaging behaviors. Furthermore, the percentage of snorkelers who never harmed the reef shot up from 65% to 89%. The research suggests the pre-trip messaging together with a written pledge can change behaviors, thus improving the ability of ecotourism operators to help sustain reefs as well as the economic livelihoods of their employees.