We need more eco-tourism influencers, says globe-trotting scuba diver Catherine Capon – but how does that role square with today’s carbon-footprint concerns?
“There are many influencers and bloggers in the travel sector but relatively few in conservation and eco-tourism,” says Catherine Capon, when asked about the challenges influencers face these days in securing sponsored visits to prime locations. “I wish there were more!”
So competition at least isn’t a concern for Catherine, who specialises in reporting on wildlife ecotourism, travelling the world in search of adventures to entertain followers on her YouTube channel. “I try to stay totally focused on my own areas of expertise, which are eco-tourism, conservation and sustainability,” she says. “I don’t just preach to the converted; I try to reach a wide audience by creating content with high production values.”
Her reports on wildlife focus on its protection topside as well as under water, so does she always try to get dives in, wherever she finds herself in the world? “Yes, yes, yes! Even if I’m not making a film about a marine species, I’ll sometimes add a few days R&R to dive at the location,” she says.
A PADI Rescue Diver, she started diving some 10 years ago in the Red Sea “and I really don’t know why it took me so long to learn. If I could have my time again, I’d have learnt in my teens. For me it’s all about the wildlife encounters, and I’m as happy diving at the poles as in the tropics.”
Most recently, the focus has been on warmwater diving. “I hadn’t actually dived much in the Caribbean, so I might just have been spoilt with Grenada and Carriacou,” she says. “Stunning shipwrecks, richly coloured reefs and the famous underwater sculpture park give a great range of sites for all divers.
“Grenada’s monkey-filled rainforests are full of natural beauty, but I believe it’s the marine life around Grenada that draws the majority of ecotourists.”
So how did the destination rate in terms of protecting its environment, compared to others Catherine has visited? “Grenada is taking sustainability very seriously. From pioneering artificial-reef projects to locally sourced cuisine, the island is ensuring that its beauty remains unspoiled for generations to come.”
They’re the sort of enthusiastic quotes that delight any tourist board. For most divers Grenada scores on its many shipwrecks, which come in all shapes and sizes up to the mighty Bianca C liner. Which site did she enjoy most? “That’s like asking me what my favourite animal is! Each wreck-site I visited has its own unique beauty. And if you’re visiting Grenada, I highly recommend spending a few days’ diving in Carriacou as well.”
Wildlife was in short supply for Catherine while she was growing up. “I was born and raised in London, perhaps as far removed from nature as you can get,” she says. “As a child, I remember craving being outdoors, but my choices were fairly limited.
“From a very young age, I was obsessed with the natural world. My mum used to find me watching ants for hours on end, and she helped nurture this innate fascination within me by introducing me to wildlife documentaries. As a child, being transported around the planet via film and learning about the beauty and majesty of the planet was my biggest joy.
“Once I started work, I think I purposely chose a career that would allow me to escape the human zoo. I always felt most calm and happy away from big cities and surrounded by nature.”
Catherine studied zoology at London’s Imperial College, “where I loved learning the theory but really yearned to see the fauna I was studying in the wild. I went on my first expedition to the cloud forests of Honduras to study bats and it was during this time, being surrounded by a pristine ecosystem, that I knew I had to dedicate my life to protecting endangered species and biodiversity.
“Rather than staying in research academia, I dreamt of communicating big and important messages about the natural world to the masses.”
Her first job after graduating was as a researcher at the BBC’s Science and Natural History Units, “and my career path unfolded around film-making, sustainability marketing and digital media. I was lucky enough to learn the techniques on the job.”
Catherine says that as a self-styled eco-adventurer she seeks out the simple life when she is away on trips. “I’d always choose an authentic and adventurous trip over a purely luxurious one,” she says.
Travelling light isn’t always easy for divers, of course, especially when camera equipment is added to personal dive-kit. “I’m an ambassador for Fourth Element and love its gear and ethics. I’ve been using a Halcyon BC and regs system, which is super-comfortable. I definitely prefer to use my own gear, but sometimes my baggage allowance won’t let me!”
Two elements have put a bit of a dent in Catherine’s wanderlust in recent years – motherhood and Covid-19. “My life before children saw me travelling several times a year, and I’d usually spend around 10-14 days at each destination. Travelling is slightly trickier for me now, but I still try to get away about four times per year.
“I have a very supportive family and believe my children benefit from my adventures and passion.”
The pandemic was a different matter. “From a personal perspective, it felt like a huge source of my joy and purpose had been removed from my life when I was unable to travel. I’m aware that this hardship was trivial compared to the difficulties that many suffered – however, my mental health did decline. I am so thankful to be able to travel again now.”
Asked about her stand-out scuba experience, Catherine says it’s a tough choice but “the most fun dive I’ve ever had was off Isla los Islotes in Mexico, where I dived with the sea-lions. They are so playful and engaging – I could have stayed down there all day.”
Her worst experience came while deep cage-diving with great white sharks off Guadalupe island in Mexico – and it wasn’t the sharks that were the problem. “I had a really bad cold during the trip, and was unable to equalise my ears in the cage. However, the cage-operator didn’t feel me shaking the rope to stop descending and I damaged my eardrums.”
These days there is a question that faces all diving travellers, not least someone like Catherine Capon, whose mission is to inspire people to choose wildlife destinations for their holidays. Such locations are often long-haul, so how does that square with the trend towards limiting travel for the sake of the environment?
“I get asked this question a lot,” she says. “I believe that humans are innately curious and will always travel. In an ideal world, we’d be able to do this in a zero-carbon manner, but for most people’s budget and time off work, air travel is usually the only option.
“Choosing eco-tourism over mass tourism is the swap I’m hoping to inspire in people. I believe that responsible eco-tourism is the best tool we have to protect endangered species and wilderness areas.
“The money that you spend travelling to see wild animals will help ensure that those animals are worth more alive than dead. Local communities will benefit from tourists visiting and this will prevent things like illegal poaching, overfishing, deforestation and the bushmeat trade.
“The important thing is to travel lightly and to ensure that the local community is benefiting from your stay.” She offsets her own carbon footprint by subscribing to carbon dioxide removal (CDR) companies including Climeworks (direct air capture) and Treedom (afforestation). “I also have a plant-based diet,” she adds.
CO2 offsets sorted, what is on Catherine’s upcoming list of diving destinations? “I’m actually heading back to Grenada for its Dive & Conservation Festival soon, and can’t wait to get back in the water there. Socorro, Raja Ampat and Ningaloo are all on my bucket-list – which is getting longer, not shorter!” Find more on Catherine Capon’s YouTube Channel.
More about Grenada & Carriacou on Divernet: Passing Through Where They Know How To Put On A Show