Kate Watson pays to snorkel through trash-infested waters.
On a snorkelling trip to the Cham Islands, part of the Cu Lao Cham Marine Park in Vietnam's Southeast Asia Sea, I expected to see a few colourful fish and some nice coral.
What I didn't expect was the volume of rubbish I would be swimming through.
I understand aquatic pollution is a thing. I have encountered it more and more in recent years, in Thailand and Indonesia in particular. But never before have I had a tour operator charge me money to snorkel through trash-infested waters. Moreover, never before have I witnessed other local operators and tourists shamelessly contributing to the epidemic.
My group was taken to two Cham Island snorkelling spots. The first was crowded with so many other tour boats, divers and snorkellers that it was impossible to snorkel without a flipper or selfie stick in your face. Local tour operators kept blowing deafening whistles as aquatically challenged tourists bobbed around in life jackets, blocking access for those who could swim. Unsurprisingly, there was not a huge number of fish to be seen.
The tourists and operators visiting these spots with little or no education about conservation etiquette are contributing to the problem. Items I retrieved included a cigarette lighter, yards of plastic rope, polystyrene, plastic bags, plastic drink bottles and a beer can.
I paid $63 to snorkel through a rubbish dump.
Staff on our boat appeared grateful and bemused when I periodically emerged from the depths with my bounty. They were one of the more eco-conscious operators, providing us with filtered tap water in cups as opposed to the non-degradable plastic bottles supplied by other operators. However, their determinedly positive commentary didn't once touch on the reality of the crisis.
As I said in a subsequent email to the company, most of us want to help maintain pristine waters for future tourists. If I'd been informed in advance that my $63 would include a rubbish sack to help clean up the sea I'd have gone into the experience knowing what I was in for and ready to help. I'd like to think the majority of us would feel the same. I asked them whether they would consider re-branding themselves as ecotourist operators and tackling the issue head-on. I have yet to receive a response.
I appreciate it wouldn't be easy. It would necessitate educating local operators and tourists on the consequences of littering on marine life and teaching them sustainable practices. It would mean being prepared to be the local rubbish collectors until the message sinks in. It might also mean turning down certain business opportunities for the long-term good of the planet. But these small steps might mean our kids and grandkids have a chance to see live coral and swim with fish that aren't choking on our plastic.
How amazing would that be?