Caribbean Tour Operators

The Importance of Coral Reefs for Caribbean Tour Operators

Post by
Brittney Vander Linden

July 30, 2021

The Importance of Coral Reefs for Caribbean Tour Operators

Imagine taking your guests out snorkeling or diving at what has always been your favorite coral reef. They open their eyes underwater and see… dead, broken coral, a handful of fish, and loads of algae.


This is the reality more and more tour operators are facing around the globe. 

With threats such as global warming, poor management of fisheries, and pollution such as chemicals leaching into our oceans, coral reefs are facing greater challenges and disappearing at more alarming rates than ever before. 

Many tour operators depend on these ecosystems not only for snorkeling and fishing but also for the role coral reefs play in the preservation of environments such as white sand beaches and coastal developments. 

With Junglebee being a tour booking system developed for and serving tour and charter operators across the Caribbean as well as other marine-dependant regions, we wanted to take a closer look at how operators can begin supporting coral reefs through simple and effective practices. 

What are coral reefs?

“Coral reefs are structures that are built by many tiny animals called coral polyps. Each coral functions as an organism but is, in fact, a colony of polyps,” explains Marine Biologist Joana Costa, who has worked on a range of projects from studies on Pilot Whales in Cape Breton to hurricane adaptation projects in Antigua, W.I.  “Hard coral species secrete calcium carbonate (limestone) in layers beneath them, and over time this eventually creates the large structures we call reefs. Reefs are very important because they provide a home for many other species that live and breed in tropical waters. In fact, coral reefs are often referred to as the rainforests of the sea because they hold immense biodiversity.”

However, it’s hard to talk about coral reefs without also talking about all the vastly intricate processes and food webs that make up coral reef ecosystems. 

“Corals themselves are keystone species, for, without them, the entire ecosystem would cease to exist. We also need grazers to feed on algae that would otherwise grow and smother the corals (such as parrotfish), and we need apex predators like sharks to hold the food web in balance by preying on the carnivorous fish that eat the grazers.”

In other words: the more diversity of species present in our reefs, the healthier the reefs will be. The healthier the reefs, the more diversity will continue to develop, and the more wonder your guests will get to experience!

How do Coral Reefs directly affect my tourism business? 

“Coral reefs are biodiversity hotspots that support the local food sector, as well as the recreation and tourism sector,” states Costa. “It is an ecosystem in high demand in the tour industry. People spend lifetimes dreaming of snorkeling and experiencing healthy coral reefs around the world, particularly in the Caribbean.”

Not only are coral reefs themselves an integral ecosystem, but they also provide protection from storms and hurricanes, which can lead to flooding, erosion, and significant property damage. According to NOAA, healthy coral reefs absorb 97 percent of a wave’s energy, which buffers shorelines from currents, waves, and storms. “With the expected increase in the frequency and intensity of hurricanes that we now face due to climate change, healthy coral reefs and mangrove ecosystems are more important than ever to protect coastal communities and businesses,” says Costa. 

Also of importance to tour operators: coral reefs provide a barrier and create a safe zone for gorgeous bays and white sand beaches to persist. Without coral reefs, a lot more sand would be taken away from beaches by strong wave action due to storm systems. This erosion would effectively change the landscape of the beach. 

What can I do to support coral reefs through my tourism business?

  1. Increase awareness: Educate your staff and guests

The biggest way to help change our habits as consumers, which in turn impact coral reefs? Education! Allowing your guests the experience of learning the importance of the environment in which they are immersed will leave a lasting impact that can hopefully ripple out into their own lives and societies once they are back home. It is “collective change” that Marine Biologist Joana Costa states will be the biggest way to turn the tides on the destiny of coral reefs.

Documentaries such as “Chasing Coral” and “David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet” are excellent starting resources to gain a better understanding of the importance of coral reefs, as well as the challenges they are facing. 

  1. Snorkeling & Diving Guidance

Are you instructing your guests on the do’s and dont’s of snorkeling or diving on coral reefs before they jump overboard? If not, this is a great opportunity to provide some brief but important education. Coaching guests not to stand on coral reefs and to be mindful of their limbs and fins can prevent unnecessary breakage. “Coral structures may seem hard but they are actually quite fragile. It’s best not to touch them because pieces can break off or the individual polyps may be crushed and killed,” explains Costa. 

  1. Encourage or mandate reef-safe sunscreen 

Up to 10% of the world's coral reefs may be threatened by certain chemicals found in most sunscreens. The most common sunscreen ingredients that were shown to kill or bleach coral at extremely low concentrations (as low as one drop in 6.5 Olympic sized swimming pools) are:

  • Oxybenzone (Benzophenone-3, BP-3) disrupts coral reproduction, causes coral bleaching, and damages coral DNA. Oxybenzone is found in over 3500 sunscreen products worldwide. 
  • Butylparaben, a preservative ingredient shown to cause coral bleaching. 
  • Octinoxate (Ethylhexyl methoxycinnamate) has been shown to cause coral bleaching. 
  • 4-methylbenzylidene camphor (4MBC), a Sunscreen ingredient allowed in Europe and Canada, not in the USA or Japan that has been shown to cause coral bleaching.

“We now know that there are chemicals in most sunscreens that are detrimental to the health of corals. It’s always best to choose a sunscreen that is formulated with this in mind. Some places like Hawai’i and eco-parks in Mexico such as Xel-ha have already begun to regulate this to protect the health of their marine environment, but until this is more widespread, it’s a great idea for operators to inform their guests or even have some reef-safe sunscreen available for them to use,” suggests Costa. 

For more in-depth information about sunscreens and coral reefs, check out the following scientific papers:

Toxicopathological Effects of the Sunscreen UV Filter, Oxybenzone (Benzophenone-3), on Coral Planulae and Cultured Primary Cells and Its Environmental Contamination in Hawaii and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology. Downs C.A. et al. February 2016

Sunscreens Cause Coral Bleaching by Promoting Viral Infections. Environmental Health Perspectives. Danovaro R, et al. April 2008

  1. Leave no trace! 

Managing reef pollution starts with us. As you can imagine, any trash as well as oil or gas from vessels that are not properly maintained negatively impact the health of coral reefs and the species that live there. Follow the “pack in, pack out” rule where you take all trash with you once you leave any environment. Also, ensure your vessels are undergoing proper maintenance, and at the sign of any leaks, be sure to remove the vessel from the ocean as soon as possible for inspection and correction. 

  1. Consider keystone species when fishing

It is thrilling to take guests out to try their luck at a fresh catch. And although as an operator you don’t want to risk disappointment, it’s worth considering releasing any keystone species caught. As a tour operator, it is encouraged to gain an understanding of which local species are in need of extra protection or conservation so that your local reefs can thrive again. “For example, in many parts of the Caribbean, species such as parrotfish (which play an integral role in the health of the coral reefs) are in decline. In this case, it is recommended that you shift from parrotfish to a different target species whose population numbers are in greater health and can handle the fishing pressure,” explains Costa. Educate yourself on your local ecosystem, the health of your target species, and adjust accordingly.

  1. If you’re baiting wildlife, reconsider HOW you’re doing it

It’s no secret in the marine tourism industry that companies use bait, such as bread, chips and crackers, to encourage schools of fish, stingrays, or other species to come near the guests. It’s understandable; as an operator, you’re trying to create the most exciting, immersive experience you can. However, baiting wildlife can have some very damaging effects, ranging from health problems caused by artificial food sources to altering natural behaviour patterns and population levels. The best option for the sake of marine life would be to stop baiting entirely. That being said, there are two compromises you can make as a baiting tour operator to allow the wildlife to persist as naturally as possible: 

  1. Try to bait in different areas. If you are baiting wildlife and have flexibility in your itinerary, it is encouraged to switch locations as much as possible to avoid creating dependency. “When you feed the same animals, at the same spot, at the same time every day, those animals develop a dependency on that food source. This not only puts them in jeopardy of not being able to survive on their own in the wild, but may also put them in harms way if they begin to associate boat presence with a food source. I’ve seen sea turtles who were baited every day and had broken carapaces due to accidents with the boats visiting the area,” explains Costa. 
  2. Switch up your bait. The typical choices of bread or crackers are inexpensive and easily accessible, however are very processed and hard to digest for marine species. Historically, locals around the Caribbean have used things like dried coconut flakes and mango pits instead; creating the same baiting effect with a more natural food source. From 2015-2018, 60 percent of U.S. travelers reported taking a “sustainable” trip and say they have a responsibility to make sure their trips do not cause harm to a destination. Educating your guests about the more eco-friendly and sustainable changes you’re making as a company, including how you’re baiting, can leave a positive lasting impression as well as help preserve the environments you visit during your tours or private day charters. 
  1. Support or Partner with Local Conservation Efforts 

Whether you donate your time, vessel, or services, there are a lot of opportunities to help local conservation groups. This can be a plus to share with your guests and is a great return on “investment” since it directly benefits the environment from which your company is profiting. Additionally, people are becoming increasingly drawn to environmentally conscious tourism and may find this to be an attractive feature when selecting your business. 

Each of these actions can make an impact on your local coral reef health, which in turn benefits your tourism experience for your guests. It is “collective change” that will reverse the deterioration of coral reefs - meaning, each and every action you take as a tour operator can help shift the tides in favor of preserving coral reefs. 

Ready to start attracting more guests to your experience? Make sure you have all the necessary booking processes in place. Junglebee makes online bookings a breeze! Direct prospective guests right to your booking page in your online listings with integrated payment processing to ensure a smooth and easy booking journey.

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