Despite being a fairly skilled scuba diver, I had by no means seen a “bommie”, one thing Heron Island within the Great Barrier Reef is known for. A few years in the past, the prospect to see one in all these shaggy column-like mounds of coral lastly took me there. My first bommie not solely turned out to be a spectacular sight, a miniature self-contained habitat like a tiny underwater island, however was enhanced by a huge manta ray gently flapping its wing-like fins, performing an underwater ballet proper above it. When a turtle occurred to swim by for good measure, the Great Barrier Reef had gained me over fully.

Talking to the opposite divers on the boat, we’d all been drawn to the Great Barrier Reef to see the world’s largest coral formation and its huge number of ecological habitats and marine species. Not solely have been we spellbound by its otherworldly magnificence, it made us perceive the significance of preserving this valuable setting.

Underwater tourism is opening the ocean as much as travellers, providing them the prospect to see the marine world that covers 70% of our planet. New, high-profile openings – such because the world’s first underwater lodge, the Conrad Maldives Rangali Island, which opened in 2018; the world’s largest underwater restaurant Under in Norway, opened in 2019; and the new new development of underwater artwork galleries, corresponding to 2019’s Ngaro Underwater Sculpture Trail in Australia’s Whitsunday Islands – are all bringing extra folks into contact with marine websites.

But underwater tourism is hardly a brand new idea.

Jacques Cousteau invented general-use scuba gear in 1942, and the Professional Association of Diving Instructors, PADI, has issued 27 million diver certifications globally since 1967. According to Scubanomics, there are round 6 million lively scuba divers on this planet, plus numerous snorkelling lovers, who discover the perimeters of our oceans, diving sunken wrecks, swimming with whales and turtles and even going underwater caving. In addition, coastal resorts have lengthy provided journeys in glass-bottomed boats.

You may additionally be focused on:
• Is this the way forward for underwater exploration?
• Norway’s dramatic underwater restaurant
• Can science and tourism save the reef?

More lately, nevertheless, a shift in pondering has introduced scuba-like journey to people who find themselves not expert divers or swimmers or don’t have the time or means to earn diving certification. Experiences corresponding to Seawalker on Green Island within the Great Barrier Reef enable folks to submerge whereas carrying a big glass helmet. Dressed in a protecting go well with, “divers” are gently lowered to the ocean flooring, the place they fairly actually stroll upright on the sand, linked by tubes that enable them to breathe usually whereas underwater.

Then there are submersible rides, which provide excursions alongside reefs of a number of the world’s most fascinating islands and coastal areas, from Hawaii to Mauritius. These can vary from bigger submarines for teams of vacationers to super-luxurious non-public subs, corresponding to those by Deepflight that function within the Four Seasons Resort within the Maldives. These environmentally pleasant and air-conditioned crafts, with area for 2 folks plus a pilot, have particular person viewing domes that enable for an unique up-and-close expertise.

Although many consider these smooth submersibles could also be the way forward for underwater exploration, since no scuba or swimming expertise is critical – plus the battery-operated and low-noise-level submersibles imply the expertise is as sustainable as doable – they usually carry a excessive price ticket. The Deepflight, for instance, prices $1,500 per couple for an hour’s tour, which places the expertise out of attain of a lot of most people.

“While underwater tourism invokes evocative images of deep-sea fantasies, these experiences are in reality few and far between,” stated Dr Hayley Stainton, UK-based tourism tutorial and creator at Tourism Teacher. “They are also very expensive. I do think that there is a market for underwater tourism. I just believe that it will be limited to the wealthy and the few.”

Patricia Rodiles Martinez, Institutional Development & PR Manager of Les Roches, who held the primary Space and Underwater Tourism Universal Summit in 2019, disagrees. “As demand increases over time, the costs associated will also come down, making it more and more accessible for all. This is what happened with the first airplanes, cruises and hotels.”

Whether or not submersible rides will turn out to be mainstream, all these progressive underwater experiences have an essential secondary profit: they’re educating a brand new viewers on the necessity to take care of the ocean, which is battling threats corresponding to coral bleaching because of world warming, over-fishing and air pollution. The Covid-19 pandemic, and the seen indicators of environmental reduction when the world was in lockdown, is one other well timed reminder of the necessity to journey and dwell extra sustainably.

New underwater initiatives are taking this on board, working hand in hand with conservationists and marine biologists to make the journey expertise not solely enjoyable however instructional, by elevating consciousness of the risk to the oceans and its habitats. While dive centres spotlight the threats to their dive grounds, analysis centres, particularly on the Great Barrier Reef, are showcasing their analysis on subjects corresponding to coral bleaching, the consequences of plastic waste and reef destruction. They’re asking guests to remove not solely an pleasing expertise however important data, too.

Citizen science initiatives, from mapping seaweed species on the Washington State coast to monitoring sharks and turtles on the Great Barrier Reef enable travellers and volunteers to assist monitor the marine setting and potential tourism impacts, and supply important knowledge for analysis. They even have the facet good thing about spreading the duty of defending our underwater world to all the neighborhood.

There are methods to develop underwater tourism in a sustainable method

And, primarily based on the success of different underwater sculpture parks, such because the Cancun Underwater Museum of Art in Mexico, which opened in 2010 as a part of the Cancun Climate Summit, there’s a transfer to mix underwater tourism with artwork tourism to draw a brand new form of traveller, who usually are not solely scuba divers or marine life lovers however who will take away a brand new curiosity within the oceans with them.

The Great Barrier Reef’s Ngaro Underwater Sculpture Trail, which opened in 2019, showcases six artwork installations, corresponding to a big turtle, an area large wrasse and a flight of manta rays, that may be explored by way of scuba-diving excursions or by boat, as they’re not too deeply submerged for water-shy guests to see. The path was initially arrange after the devastation of a lot of the reef after Cyclone Debbie in 2017, and isn’t solely a part of an ongoing reef restoration undertaking, but additionally goals to start out conversations about marine conservation by its topics, such because the manta ray migration.

A little bit additional alongside the Queensland coast, off Townsville, one other artwork undertaking is because of be inaugurated in 2020. MOUA, Australia’s first Museum of Underwater Art, is unfold throughout 4 websites, solely one in all which might be accessible solely by scuba divers, and showcases installations by British sculptor Jason deCaires Taylor. The points of interest inform the story of the plight of the reef and the oceans by the collection of the artwork items and accompanying signage. One instance is the Coral Greenhouse, positioned on the John Brewer Reef. The largest of the MOUA installations, this underwater constructing is stuffed with 20 so-called “reef guardians”, statues depicting scientists nurturing coral and researching in a laboratory setting, prompting a dialogue about reef restoration and coral propagation.

The points of interest would not have to be up to date or new, both. In Kas, Turkey, quite a few underwater archaeological websites are drawing vacationers to the world’s sunken cities, amphorae fields and Lycian rock tombs; whereas off the coast of Haifa, Israel, a Neolithic village attracts divers with its oldest-known coastal defence wall.

With so many historic, pure and inventive points of interest below the seas, it’s as much as native governments and tour operators to make sure the websites are safely managed in an environmentally pleasant and helpful method. The hazard is {that a} web site turns into too engaging and crowds will destroy the pure habitat. Tour boats, walkways and excursions must be monitored and compelled to stick to strict pointers. Even conscious scuba divers can inadvertently hurt the very websites they’ve come to take pleasure in. Studies into sustainable tourism progress by teams corresponding to by Unesco have proven the answer lies with educating and empowering native governments and communities to supervise infrastructure developments, monitoring techniques and creating strict native legislations.

Some initiatives are already in place, monitored internationally and designed to coach and convey native companies on board. To defend the reefs by the training of scuba divers and snorkellers, for instance, the Green Fins initiative has collated numerous internationally authorized pointers selling a sustainable dive and snorkelling business, which have been adopted by 11 nations and almost 600 particular person marine tourism corporations in widespread underwater tourism locations corresponding to Bali and Egypt since its inception in 2004.

“There are ways to develop underwater tourism in a sustainable manner that allows for positive impacts,” Dr Stainton stated. “For example, an aircraft that was submerged off the coast of Turkey has encouraged marine life to the area through the creation of an artificial reef.”

As underwater tourism turns into extra progressive and grows in reputation, we have now an opportunity to make sure that new points of interest usually are not solely developed sustainably but additionally to coach travellers and lift consciousness of the plight of the reefs and marine world.

If completed nicely, underwater tourism simply would possibly assist save our oceans.

Future of Travel is a collection from BBC Travel that investigates what the world would possibly appear to be to travellers within the coming years and meets the folks dwelling on the frontlines of change.

Join greater than three million BBC Travel followers by liking us on Facebook, or comply with us on Twitter and Instagram.

If you favored this story, join the weekly options e-newsletter known as “The Essential List”. A handpicked collection of tales from BBC Future, Culture, Worklife and Travel, delivered to your inbox each Friday.