How to Responsibly Interact With Marine Life

Wearing reef-safe sunscreen, not collecting shells, and observing sea life from a distance are a few ways you can be respectful in marine habitats.

When it comes to

When it comes to sea life, it’s important to look, but not touch.


From October through December, Lara Kalisch spends much of her day on a long, narrow beach looking for a disturbance in the sand indicating a sea turtle has recently buried a nest.

Kalisch is a biologist at Six Senses Zil Pasyon, a luxury resort in the Seychelles, and part of her job involves relocating sea turtle nests to other beaches on the island. Though generations of turtles have successfully laid their eggs on this shore, erosion and rising sea levels have made it a dangerous spot.

It’s a long and tedious job. She needs to arrange the eggs in exactly the same way that the mother turtle did, while being careful not to rotate or flip the egg upside down. But if done correctly, it’ll give the hatchling a greater chance of survival.

Often, she’ll enlist the help of guests, giving them training on how to safeguard the sea turtles, especially during the nesting season. She says it makes them better ambassadors for the turtles and marine life in general.

“We have the unique opportunity to do community outreach and work with guests from all over the world to educate on the importance of protecting marine life,” Kalisch said. “The way we interact with people here is about how you can be more sustainable, how your actions actually help the turtles. When you show people turtles and their eggs, they come to love them and then they want to protect them.”

Kalisch added that while not all travelers have access to her and her team, there are myriad ways everyday people can do more to protect ocean life and tread carefully in these sensitive environments whenever they travel. Here are a few that she and other wildlife specialists and scientists hope travelers keep in mind.

Don’t take coral or shells home

While it may be tempting to bring back some jewelry made with shells or tchotchkes crafted with bits of coral as a souvenir to remember your vacation, it’s important not to purchase them, Kalisch said.

The commercial demand for shells can contribute to the depletion of marine ecosystems, which negatively impacts local biodiversity. Additionally, many places, like the Galápagos and Costa Rica, have strict regulations and international agreements in place to protect their coastlines and sea life. Buying those items isn’t just undermining conservation efforts, it’s illegal.

You might be shocked that biologists recommend leaving all shells behind. Remember they are used in many ways by other animals—such as homes for hermit crabs and hiding places for tiny fish. So even if a shell is empty when you come across it, don’t take it—it serves an important purpose in the ecosystem.

Similarly, Liane Fulford, a biologist with WiseOceans, a marine conservation organization, stresses that it’s important not to touch or stand on coral. Coral reefs are one the most diverse ecosystems on the planet and occur in less than 1 percent of the ocean (largely in the tropics, around the equator), yet they support a quarter of all marine life, she said. Coral reefs are also an organism that’s easily damaged. But it’s not just taking coral home that’s damaging, it’s also what we wear in the water.

Use reef-safe sunscreen

“Everything starts with coral—without coral, there would be no marine life,” says Dr. Susanne Etti, Intrepid Travel’s global environmental impact manager. “Coral reefs are suffering worldwide, stressed by warming ocean temperatures, overfishing, land-based pollution, and chemicals from sunscreen that reach the ocean via swimmers and beachgoers every day, as well as through the wastewater system after people shower off at home.”

Etti added that the more than 14,000 tons of sunscreen that end up in coral reefs every year are linked to coral bleaching. The chemicals also hinder the growth and reproduction of corals and impact the overall health of marine organisms.

In general, choose a natural sunscreen (organic, nontoxic, biodegradable, etc.) brand that uses physical sun blocks such as titanium or zinc oxide instead of chemical ones that use ingredients like oxybenzone and octinoxate.

Coral supports a quarter of all marine life—but it is also very fragile.

Coral supports a quarter of all marine life—but it is also very fragile.


Look (from a distance), but don’t touch

When it comes to nature, it’s important to observe it as it occurs naturally, not by how it responds to your presence.

Maintain a respectful distance from all creatures you encounter—close proximity can cause stress or provoke defensive behaviors. You also should not call out to animals, whistle, or try to get their attention, as noise can disturb them and stress them out. Avoid touching or chasing animals, and never remove them from their natural habitat.

Similarly, it’s important to never feed wildlife. Beyond exposing animals to food that is unhealthy for them, it can also make them associate humans with food, which could increase the risk of dangerous encounters.

Go on activities and volunteer with sustainable organizations

If you are planning to embark on a snorkeling or scuba diving excursion, choose a provider that is committed to responsible practices. Look for tour operators who adhere to guidelines established by organizations like the Olive Ridley Project, World Cetacean Alliance, or the Whale and Dolphin Conservation—organizations that emphasize the importance of ethical and sustainable wildlife encounters.

You could also consider volunteering with ocean conservation groups while you travel. Organizations like the Ocean Conservancy often organize cleanups.

“The International Coastal Cleanup is the world’s biggest beach and waterway cleanup effort: Since 1986, nearly 18 million volunteers worldwide have collected over 400 million pounds of trash, and all you need to join is a smartphone,” said Allison Schutes, senior director, Conservation Cleanups at the Ocean Conservancy. “While you’re on the road, take some time to clean up a local beach, waterway, or even park, and use Ocean Conservancy’s Clean Swell app to record data on each item you collect. This data are used by scientists, advocates, and governments alike to help develop solutions to the ocean plastic crisis.“

Similarly, groups like WiseOceans do coral restoration projects at various hotels, like Four Seasons (including those in Mauritius, Bora Bora, and the Seychelles), that guests can participate in. The projects involve collecting coral fragments, wrapping them in a piece of rope, and hanging them from a metal table in the water, where the coral gets nutrients without being further damaged by rolling around the sea floor or washing ashore to perish. Once the fragments grow bigger, teams can replant the coral in the seabed, where it will continue to grow.

However, if you’re unable to volunteer, consider instead supporting organizations dedicated to the protection of marine life with a donation. Kalisch organizes symbolic turtle sponsorships, where people can “adopt” a turtle for $50 and whenever she sees that turtle, she’ll take a photo and send the image to the turtle’s sponsors, and WiseOceans offers a similar program, where guests can be the benefactor of a piece of coral and will be updated on its development through regular emails. Monetary contributions help fund research, conservation projects, and educational programs that raise awareness about the importance of responsible interactions with marine life.

Bailey Berg is a freelance travel writer and editor, who covers breaking news, trends, tips, transportation, sustainability, the outdoors, and more. She was formerly the associate travel news editor at Afar. Her work can also be found in the New York Times, the Washington Post, National Geographic, Condé Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, the Points Guy, Atlas Obscura, Vice, Thrillist, Men’s Journal, Architectural Digest, Forbes, Lonely Planet, and beyond.
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