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Student launches campaign to promote sustainable diving practices

Northeastern student Jodi Robertson discovered a passion for scuba diving during her gap year after high school. While traveling in Colombia, she met a dive instructor who piqued her interest in the activity. She was hooked after her first dive, and is now a PADI-certified dive master with more than 100 logged dives.

Though Robertson already held a deep appreciation for nature and the environment, she said diving has opened her eyes to a world unlike anything she’d ever seen. “The ocean is beautiful from above,” said Robertson, CIS’20. “But when you go below and see the incredible life, shapes, and colors, it’s stunning.”

Now, Robertson is also focused on protecting these marine ecosystems. This fall, she received the Millennium Oceans Prize to launch a campaign called Raising Fins, which will involve spreading greater education about sustainable diving practices. Specifically, she’s developing a set of principles that promote environmentally conscious behavior and marine conservation advocacy in order to create a more sustainable marine ecotourism sector, and she plans to work with dive certification agencies worldwide to implement them in their training.

Jodi Robertson sits in the dive area at Northeastern’s Marine Science Center in Natant, Massachusetts. She worked on an undergraduate research project there last year that inspired her Raising Fins campaign. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Robertson’s undergraduate research inspired this campaign. She explored recreational diving a bit deeper as part of a Scholars Independent Research Fellowship. She did this work earlier this year at the university’s Marine Science Center under the guidance of assistant professor Steven Scyphers.

She conducted a literature review on the social-ecological outcomes of recreational scuba diving and was disheartened to learn that scuba diving and tourism can be detrimental to marine environments and ecology. For example, Robertson pointed to research that’s found when divers and snorkelers—often unintentionally—kick coral reefs with their fins or step on them in shallow water, it can cause breakage and other negative outcomes.

In her paper, Robertson underscored the need for stakeholders in the recreational diving industry—dive certification agencies, dive instructors, and ecotourism entities—to unite to create a common set of specific principles of responsible diving behavior.

Photos by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

That charge is the crux of her campaign. The Millennium Oceans Prize celebrates youth activism around advancing marine and freshwater conservation and the sustainable use of oceans, seas, rivers, lakes, and marine resources—which aligns with one of the 17 U.N. Sustainable Development Goals adopted in 2015. It includes a $5,000 grant Robertson will use to implement her campaign. She and her campaign were even recognized at the Millennium Campus Conference 2017, held in November in Morocco.

“It’s kind of my dream,” Robertson said of launching this campaign. “I really believe in it, and my research has backed it up. I feel so lucky to have been given the opportunity to change the world, even in this niche way.”

Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Robertson is modeling her approach after the Leave No Trace movement in the backpacking and camping industry that involves a set of ethics and principles promoting conservation in the outdoors. She’s optimistic about the campaign, noting the deep connection many divers have with the underwater environment, their awareness of climate change, and the potential for activism to emerge.

She has launched a website and is continuing to develop the principles of sustainable and responsible diving. She said the next step will be contacting dive certification agencies to bring them into the campaign.

The key, she said, is not simply developing the principles but also communicating them effectively. “I don’t envision this being a list of do’s and don’ts,” she said. “It’ll be ideas and concepts that make you think critically about what you’re doing, but are also succinct and easy to remember.”