Go Green in Margaritaville: Eco-Friendly Beach Vacation Tips

Make long-lasting memories but a minimal environmental impact during your spring break getaway.

Credit: iStock

Spring break—a chance to escape the winter doldrums for a balmy, palmy paradise, with sand toys and swimmies for some and mojito-fueled foam parties for others. (No judgment.) But the crush of sun and sand seekers in vacation hot spots like Mexico and Florida can magnify the environmental pressures on fragile coastal ecosystems.

“During spring break, you have everyone and their best friend—these massive crowds of people—going to some of the same places at the same time,” says Wayne Sentman, director of conservation travel programs at the Oceanic Society. “Having so many people in the water and along the shoreline can have a big impact.” Fortunately, you don’t have to give up that rum punch to reduce your coastal footprint. Just keep these rules in mind.

Book eco-sensitive accommodations.

To judge how green a property is, start online. “Do some research,” Sentman says. “Has the resort constructed a seawall or dredged up seagrass and mangroves to make a big beach?” Check out a hotel’s website to see if sustainability—in the form of energy efficiency, water conservation, recycling, and waste reduction—is a priority. LEED and Green Seal certifications signify that a property adheres to exacting environmental standards. TripAdvisor also makes it easy to find an eco-friendly place to stay with its GreenLeaders program, a collaboration with Energy Star, the U.S. Green Building Council, and the United Nations Environment Programme.

Seek out tour guides who wear two hats.

By definition, ecotourism supports the local environment plus a sustainable economy. “If you’re kayaking in the mangroves and learning about the creatures that live there, someone else isn’t harvesting the wood,” Sentman says. “The money you pay to take a guided tour supports the non-consumptive use of wildlife. It allows nature to exist.” Many guides and outfitters also do year-round conservation work—things like maintaining turtle nesting sites and lobbying against damaging development projects. You can find them by consulting a “friends” group, if you’re visiting a park or refuge, or look online for tour companies that have earned green certifications.

Take the “leave no trace” vacation challenge.

According to the Ocean Conservancy, the most commonly found beach trash includes cigarette butts; forks, knives, and spoons; food wrappers and containers; beverage bottles and cans; and straws, bottle caps, and single-use bags—disposables that contribute to the 5.3 million to 14 million tons of plastic making its way into the oceans each year. Reduce your own travel waste by planning ahead. Pack lightweight totes to use instead of plastic bags, reusable utensils, a thermos, and a water bottle. Buy snacks in bulk to cut down on packaging. Extend the life span of sand toys, coolers, and other on-the-fly purchases by donating them when your trip is done.

Never feed, attract, or chase wildlife.

“As fun as it is to see dolphins jumping off the bow of a boat, just remember each time there’s a human–wildlife interaction, it can alter an animal’s normal behavior,” Sentman says. Use a trained, professional guide when visiting sea turtle nesting beaches (disturbances can prevent females from laying eggs and disorient hatchlings). When you do spot wildlife, keep quiet; startled animals, like sea lions, can accidentally trample their young. Pack binoculars for a better look and a zoom lens for that close-up. When you see wildlife from a boat or kayak, slow down and maintain a safe distance (about 150 feet for animals like dolphins and seals and twice that for whales).

Don’t trespass.

Pay attention to wayfinding and regulatory signs posted by hotels, parks, and preserves. They’re there to protect you and the ecosystems and wildlife around you. Human-free zones can prevent the erosion of dunes (which protect coastlines from storm surge and keep fragile vegetation safe), safeguard nesting shorebirds on the beach and nursery grounds for fish and crustaceans in the shallows, and keep resting manatees from getting buzzed by Jet Skis and water-skiers. Same goes for dog-free zones and leash requirements if you’ve brought Fido along. In addition to easily damaging sensitive beach dune vegetation, an unattended dog can dig up a sea turtle nest or destroy a colony of beach-nesting birds in a matter of seconds.

Respect the reef.

Coral reefs are second only to rainforests in terms of biodiversity, and while they cover less than 1 percent of our oceans, they’re home to 25 percent of the world’s fish. “If you’re a beginner snorkeler, make sure you’re in a place where you can be a beginner,” Sentman says. Coral is incredibly delicate, and even the slightest brush of a fin can damage decades of growth. When you’re exploring nooks and crannies, remember not to touch. Picking up a rock or shell could expose the organisms or fish eggs beneath it to predators. Snagging a souvenir may even be illegal.

You can also protect reefs with the sun protection you choose. It’s estimated that as much as 14,000 tons of sunscreen wind up on these fragile ecosystems each year. Oxybenzone—a common chemical in sunscreens—is highly toxic to coral, causing endocrine disruption, DNA damage, and death; it can also exacerbate coral bleaching. Not surprisingly, the chemical is found at its highest concentrations in reefs popular with tourists. Opt instead for sunscreens made with titanium oxide or zinc oxide, and when possible, cover up with a light, long-sleeve shirt or rash guard, hat, and sunglasses as an alternative.

Fish responsibly.

“There are a lot of recreational fishermen who are also great conservationists,” Sentman says. “But the key is doing your research.” Get to know local rules and regulations and make sure that whoever is taking you out has the proper fishing licenses. Familiarize yourself with bag limits and what can be sustainably caught and kept. Better yet, practice catch and release, which gives prize fish a chance to live, mate, and produce equally robust offspring. To that end, make sure to use circle and barbless hooks—they are less apt to get stuck inside a fish and cause injury. Finally, leave Jaws alone. With an estimated 100 million sharks killed globally each year, their populations are in peril. “If someone is trying to get you to go out and catch a shark, they’re not a responsible tour operator,” Sentman says.

Dine discriminately.

“People get in the water and say, ‘Oh, that’s a beautiful this or that,’ and then go to dinner and order what they saw,” Sentman says. Considering one-third of global fish populations are overexploited, ordering conscientiously is a better way to go. And using your wallet to support sustainable choices may encourage businesses to do the same. Get in the habit of asking where the seafood on a menu comes from, and consult Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch guide, which grades options according to sustainability.

Pay your park fee.

It’s a simple way to help sustain the places you visit. Your money supports visitor facilities, trails, and services—as well as wildlife and wild areas off the beaten path.

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