After a busy few months of non-stop travelling around the South Pacific I am now back in Florida for attending to the DEMA show! I had the opportunity to return to the soft coral capital of the world, Fiji, and while there spent a month diving with and learning from my role model shark diving company Beqa Adventure Divers. I also spent three weeks in the Kingdom of Tonga enjoying a different kind of ecotourism, swimming with humpback whales!
Both experiences taught me some valuable lessons about how to choose a marine tour operator. Although diving with sharks and swimming with whales are different adventures, entirely the same principles apply equally to both industries. From my experience most tourists choose an operator based on what they have to offer. If for example a person wants to swim with seals, they normally find a company that advertises the activity and then arrange their trip based on things such as location and cost. Unfortunately just a fraction of marine tourists take the time to research how the tour operator is offering the experience. It can be in a responsible way (trying to minimise their impact on the environment and involving the local communities), in a reckless way or somewhere in between.
While how a company operates is often more important than what it offers I believe the way to really find the best companies in the business is to focus on why they do what they do. It is a shame but the majority of tour operators’ first concern is profit. Don’t misunderstand me, that is how business works and is not a bad or evil thing, but after being with many different operators I realise more and more that the experience is way better when you share it with someone who is deeply passionate about the animals and their well being.
When you do something for money you produce a product to satisfy the majority of your clients. Unfortunately in nature-based tourism, wildlife ends up paying the price of operator’s acquisitiveness. The most representative example of this is animals getting harassed by tourists. People touching, riding and annoying creatures just for their own satisfaction while the operator turns a blind eye or just doesn’t care. Their only concern is to increase their clientele and keep their paying guests happy. The priority is that their customers have a great time, spread the word and bring in more tourist dollars.
This type of tourism is not good for marine life in the long-term. Luckily not all companies are just in it for the money. If you really look into WHY a company exists and the people running it then it is possible to join expeditions and dive trips that put the animals welfare before any profits. By joining an operator passionate about responsible ecotourism the encounters will be so much more special and more importantly: sustainable.
In Tonga for example I went out with three tour operators and had completely different experiences with each one. While some were focused on filling their boats, others obviously cared more about the whales. Guess with which one I had the best experience?
Of all the people I met in Tonga, Scott Portelli was the most passionate. You could see the excitement in his eyes when talking about whales and his love and respect for them. He has spent over 10 years now running trips in Vavau but he is clearly not doing it for the money. His charters are one of the cheapest available yet he is the only boat to limit guests to four per trip (others range between 8-12!). This gives the people onboard and the whales more space and the experience is so much better for that reason. Scott also supports researchers, travels the globe to see other whales and is constantly educating people around him about these gentle giants.
In Fiji I had a very similar experience. Unlike last year, this time I visited all of the operators offering the same product: shark diving in Beqa Lagoon. I certainly had lots of fun in all of them and saw many sharks. I also found many differences in how and why they do what they do.
In honesty there is only one operator in which the owner and employees are genuinely passionate and interested about the animals. Beqa Adventure Divers started a shark diving company because they held a deep affection for the sharks and wanted to protect them and their habitat, not just to make money. Here are some examples of important things they do:
- They spend lots of time, effort and money on scientific research, to learn more about the animals and their habitat. Their database is extensive, complete and a dream for any biologist who wants to work with sharks,
- One of their priorities is to engage the locals in shark conservation. They do it in different ways such as compensating the fishermen belonging to the local communities by giving them an incentive (FJD $10/diver/day) in exchange for not fishing on the reef where they conduct the shark dive,
- They educate the public about the marine life and conservation in general through extensive briefings and captivating blog posts,
- Their safety procedures are very clear, strict and well planned to reduce the risks of accidents and guarantee the sustainability of the activity,
- All their staff are trained to be “Park Rangers”, this means that they have full authority by the Government to enforce the Fisheries Laws!
This is the reason why I choose to dive with them. I prefer to do business with people who share my passion for sharks. I highly recommend that next time you are planning a trip to interact with animals in the wild that you first look into WHY they do it instead of just WHAT they are offering and HOW they are doing it!
Before choosing a tour operator, talk to the owner and the employees and check out their website, blog and even social media. Try to discover if their priority is self promotion and profit or the animals and the sustainability of their activity.