When snorkelers and scuba divers plunge into the warm waters of the Gulf of California, they have a job to do. As participants in Vermilion Sea Institute’s Stars to Sea program, they’re spending their vacation taking photos of whale sharks in the Bahía de los Ángeles Biosphere Reserve and uploading the data for use by researchers around the world.
These travelers could have spent their precious vacation time diving in any number of destinations around the world to admire reefs and observe life underwater. Yet, Vermilion’s educational approach, which empowers travelers to become citizen scientists, elevates this marine-focused experience beyond the average vacation.
Staff at Vermilion, who are trained as environmental educators, are not the only ones to use soft water activities as an entry point to engage travelers in marine education. From waste-removal kayak excursions in Amsterdam to coral rehabilitation diving in Bali, several organizations are involving travelers in local marine initiatives. By combining water-focused experiences with hands-on environmental activities, these companies involve travelers in local conservation projects, initiate critical conversations about the climate crisis, and seed a sense of self-efficacy that visitors carry home with them.
By combining water-focused experiences with hands-on environmental activities, these companies involve travelers in local conservation projects, initiate critical conversations about the climate crisis, and seed a sense of self-efficacy that visitors carry home with them.
“The group leaders at Vermilion Sea Institute are trained as environmental educators and make it a point to make the environmental and scientific aspects of the program fun and informal,” says Rosemary Hitchens, who initially visited the Vermilion Sea Field Station as a graduate student and returned as a traveler in the Stars to Seas program. “Everyone is a student at Vermillion, even the group leaders, so exploring, asking questions, and sharing ideas is encouraged and embedded in the culture at the field institution.”
Vermilion’s Stars to Seas program is popular, and travelers often return specifically to collect data about whale sharks. In other destinations, water-related activities unlock the opportunity for education. “The awareness of the climate crisis issue in Indonesia is still very low,” says Faiz Karim, marketing manager of Carbon EcoTrip, which is based in the country. In April, Carbon EcoTrip ran a one-day carbon-neutral coral rehabilitation diving trip through its not-for-profit parent organization, Carbon Ethics. On the trip, divers collected live coral fragments that were broken due to natural elements and planted them in an underwater arch-shaped structure, which will allow the coral to regrow and flourish. But before any hands-on activities on this trip or any of its reef rehabilitation trips, Carbon EcoTrip staff specifically talked about the climate crisis, its impact on coral reefs, and the importance of protecting them on a warming planet.
Though Karim says he believes most people who sign up for these trips are concerned with saving coral, the educational component is still potent. “They were surprised at the amount of climate knowledge they got and how unaware they were,” he says of the April diving trip. “This is because we attract them with ‘coral reef planting.’”
Travelers with Vermilion and Carbon EcoTrip don wetsuits, but getting wet isn’t a requirement for participating in marine conservation. Nor is it a requirement that people travel a great distance to make a difference. In Australia, Sydney by Kayak runs tours specifically focused on collecting waste from the Sydney Harbor. According to an article published by the World Economic Forum in February, domestic travelers have come out in droves, collecting hundreds of kilograms of garbage from the water.
Similarly, GreenKayak, based throughout Scandinavia and Germany, offers people free access to kayaks if they’ll pick up trash in the waterways. In Copenhagen, the organization runs guided tours through its canals, offering travelers a different perspective of Denmark’s capital. While plucking garbage from the water, travelers learn about the non-profit’s work as well as the local guide’s insights on the city.
In Amsterdam, Plastic Whale attracts both locals and travelers with its plastic fishing trips. The social enterprise has turned its excursions into a multi-faceted opportunity: When participants pull plastic from the canals, they are actively engaged in keeping the city clean while enjoying a boat trip through Amsterdam. Plastic Whale’s staff approaches the climate conversation by talking about the value of plastics with the idea that, if people see something as valuable, they are less likely to dispose of it. The organization backs this narrative up through a partnership with Vepa to create high-end furniture out of the plastic collected on its fishing trips.
Learn more about Plastic Whale's initiatives in this Rooted case study.
Naysayers to these kinds of experiences might argue that travelers don’t want to spend their precious vacation time learning about challenging climate issues, and Karim acknowledges the need to balance the educational components with traveler desires. “Be relatable and crack a lot of jokes,” he says. “Travelers want to have fun and feel relaxed, so we have to foster that environment.”
Nonetheless, as more people become aware of the cascading impacts of biodiversity loss, conservation issues, and the climate crisis, the tourism industry is in an ideal position to activate conversations about these issues. Travelers are already interested in these marine-focused activities, they are primed to learn more about the destinations they’ve chosen to visit, and these experiences give them a chance to connect with other travelers and local community members in a unique capacity. “Everyone goes through the learning process together, regardless of skill level or age,” Hitchens says about her Stars to Sea experience. “One of my ‘water buddies’ out on the pangas one day was a young girl, probably 11 years old, and we made a great team!”
For an industry already offering soft water activities around the globe, there is an opportunity to take that extra step toward awareness, engagement, and activation.
Some travelers might only be interested in paddling down the canal or observing colorful fish when they dive. For those travelers, these experiences are still fulfilling. But for an industry already offering soft water activities around the globe, there is an opportunity to take that extra step toward awareness, engagement, and activation.
“We believe that the climate issue is about mindset. The more people are aware of the issue, the more conversations happen, the better our chances to influence the policymakers and the industry regarding the issue,” Karim says. “Tourism is a powerful tool for an informal voluntary education because people tend to be relaxed and absorb information better. Also, people will mostly want to share their traveling experience to their friends and families, and that is one of the domino effects that we can get by utilizing tourism as a knowledge transfer tool.”