A Touchy Subject; Gloves

By Joel Simon

During a recent guided snorkeling program in the Caribbean, several local operators informed my group that gloves were no longer welcome attire for snorkelers or divers.

Clearly, the intention is admirable; to better conserve the health and integrity of the reef; and the assumption is understandable; prohibit gloves and, consequently, snorkelers and divers will no longer touch and thereby damage fragile coral. Legislation is one approach but wouldn't a little education be a more appropriate solution?

I join many of my industry colleagues in the belief that divers and snorkelers don't deliberately harm the reef. The damage that gets done is either innocent or accidental. Logically, the best remedy is to remove the innocence and prevent the accidents. This calls for education and training.

Many resorts have orientation briefings, where 'no gloves' policies are presented. At the same time, it would be easy and perhaps more effective to explain that corals are delicate creatures, vital to the well-being of the overall reef ecosystem. Even an innocent hand on a living coral colony can do it harm.

In my tropical marine biology classes, we explore both the strengths and vulnerabilities of the reef. Corals are subjected to many natural disruptive forces, including storms, Crown of Thorns Starfish, parrotfish, silt, changes in water temperature and disease. All contribute to the destruction and, in fact, the evolution of coral. The success of any species is contingent upon its ability to adapt to environmental changes. The archaeological record suggests corals have done well; enduring ice ages, volcanic eras and countless miles of continental drift for more than 400 million years.

In contrast, during only the last 35 years or so, divers and snorkelers have added a new set of environmental pressures to the realm of shallow tropical seas. As a byproduct of permanent moorings at popular underwater sites, specific areas are exposed to hundreds or even thousands of aquatic visitors each year. While we can't muzzle the parrotfish, harness the weather or anchor the continents, we can control our hands; regardless of whether or not they sport gloves.

Perhaps even more important than our hands are our feet. Divers and snorkelers are usually well aware of their hands but, all too often, it's the errant fin-clad foot that accidentally, and sometimes significantly, impacts corals. If a 'no gloves' policy makes sense for hands, then a 'no fins' policy makes equal sense for feet. All too often, I have seen a diver or snorkeler who, out of a sincere desire not to touch or damage coral with naked fingers, is compelled to use fins in ways detrimental to the reef. Either these fins actually hit and break corals or swift kicking stirs up sediment that harmfully settles on living polyps. Quite often, these situations could have been avoided by a gentle, controlled push with one or two fingers, gloved or not.

These predicaments illustrate a simple need for better training. Rather than restricting the use of gloves (or fins), our efforts at conservation may be more productively served by encouraging snorkelers and divers to improve their ability to control their position and movements in the water.

Safe snorkeling (and diving) is universally approved and gloves can be a valuable safety measure should an accident occur. I wear a helmet when riding a bicycle but this protection doesn't tempt me to crash head-first into trees, cars or buildings. Similarly, there's no reason to believe that using gloves will tempt conscientious snorkelers and divers to wantonly maul delicate corals.

With a little 'hands-on' training and education, we can all more effectively keep hands (and feet) off the reef.

This is a 'touchy' subject and we invite your comments. Letters can be sent to Joel Simon, c/o SKIN DIVER, 6420 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90048.