I’m sure you’ve seen the headlines about our dying and bleaching coral reefs. Tourists, scuba divers, and communities around the world are concerned about what this means for the future of our marine environments and animals.
If our planet’s coral reefs die, we will have lost a vital part of our ecosystem. Reducing our waste (e.g., single use plastics that clog up our waterways) and the use of harmful chemicals (e.g., the use of certain sunscreens) can make a huge, much-needed positive impact.
What is bleaching?
The common term ‘coral bleaching’ refers to disrupting the relationship between coral and the algae (zooxanthellae) that lives in its tissues. In other words, when its too hot or there’s too much pollution these algae (the main source of food for these reefs) leave the corals’ tissues leaving them vulnerable to diseases and infections. As a result, they turn very pale or white.
Where is this happening?
This is happening all over the world, but the places we really should be paying attention to are in the world’s ‘coral triangle’—the center for marine biodiversity—and other hotspots like the Great Barrier reef (both popular scuba diving destinations). These are densely populated with many species of coral and fish and need to be managed carefully.
Bali has become a popular tourist destination; this is important as it is situated in the coral triangle. In Les, Bali, about 20-30% of its coral reefs suffered from bleaching in 2016 alone. Organizations like the Indonesian Nature Foundation (LINI) are taking leadership in rebuilding reefs in this critical area, but they need our help in being responsible tourists and citizens by limiting our pollution and waste. Check out https://onedegreeworld.ca/ for tips on how to be a responsible traveller, and learn more about the choices and simple switches that you can make today!
The Great Barrier Reef
The Great Barrier Reef is one of the most spectacular underwater displays in the world. Travellers from across the planet make their way to this part of Australia to snorkel and scuba dive amongst the colourful coral reefs, with the hope of catching a glimpse of marine life. Sadly, though, The Great Barrier Reef is under threat. Corals are dying; the vibrant colours that tourists would have once seen are now washed out. Marine mammals are also declining in their numbers.
What’s the deal with sunscreen?
When you apply sunscreen, do you ever think about the effects it could be having on the environment? Lauren Pears certainly didn’t. That was until she visited the Great Barrier Reef back in 2017 and was advised by a scuba diving instructor to limit her sunscreen use.
You see, research has shown that most chemical sunscreens are seriously harmful to marine environments. They contribute to the bleaching of coral reefs and have been shown to inhibit embryonic development and fertility in sea mammals, and they can even cause gender shifts in fish. The key chemical that causes these problems is oxybenzone, which is found in most commercial sunscreens.
In June 2018, Thailand’s Maya Bay was closed to tourists indefinitely, due to the decline of the coral reefs, beaches and overall environment of the area. In fact, it was estimated that more than 80% of the coral around Maya Bay had been destroyed, thanks to pollution from litter, boats, and sunscreen.
Last year, Palau announced a country-wide ban on sunscreen that contains chemicals linked with coral reef degradation. Tourists caught with banned sunscreens will have it confiscated and could even face hefty fines. Hawaii and Mexico have since followed suit, with sunscreens containing oxybenzone and other non-biodegradable substances being banned.
It may seem extreme to ban sunscreens containing these chemicals entirely, but Dr. Craig Downs argues that just one drop of chemical sunscreen in a volume of water amounting to 6.5 Olympic-sized swimming pools could have a toxic effect. It simply isn’t worth the risk.
What can I do?
The problem here is that we need to wear sunscreen. It protects us from the sun’s harmful rays and isn’t something we can forego. Sure, we can wear clothes that cover our body and we can stay in the shade where possible, but there will always be times where sunscreen is needed. Being in the sea makes us even more likely to burn, particularly on our face, as the sunlight reflects back up from the water.
Instead of skipping sunscreen altogether, we need to take a good look at our sunscreen choices. Luckily, natural SPF formulas do exist. Incognito’s Second Skin sunscreen is a good option. It’s natural, vegan, and as an added bonus, also repels mosquitos. Oh, and the packaging is made from sugarcane plastic which has a significantly lower carbon footprint than traditional plastics.
Even some drugstore brands such as Avene and Boots Soltan avoid the use of oxybenzone in their products. There are plenty of alternatives available, you just have to look!
And how does single-use plastic harm reefs?
Millions of pieces of plastic end up in our oceans every year, and some plastics will never decompose. Think of all the water bottles, single-use plastic grocery bags, and other bathroom products that are thrown out (or flushed) each year.
Even more staggering is that we now know these plastics are killing our coral reefs. Recently, scientists uncovered (through a four-year study based on 159 reefs in the Pacific) that reefs in Australia, Thailand, Indonesia and Myanmar are significantly contaminated with plastic: “it clings to the coral, especially branching coral. And where it clings, it sickens or kills.”
But there is hope. While dead coral can never revive itself, restoration efforts can see results in just 15 minutes after the installation of an artificial reef. Many organizations are taking the lead, but they can’t do this alone; travellers are a huge contributor to pollution and need to be more responsible about their plastic use.
Bottom line: pollution is killing our coral reefs; alternatives to single-use plastics and sunscreen already exist—what are you waiting for?
More about OneDegreeWorld
OneDegreeWorld is a one-stop-shop for eco-friendly lifestyle and travel products and information. OneDegreeWorld helps travelers, foodies, young professionals, parents, and others do their part to help the environment by reducing unnecessary waste (e.g., from single-use plastic products) and making better, more informed choices. Visit https://onedegreeworld.ca/ for tips about sustainable living, responsible tourism, low-waste parenting, and more.
More about Lauren Pears
Lauren Pears is a freelance travel writer and blogger from London. With a passion for backpacking and outdoor travel, she aims to inspire people to get off the beaten path, explore the great outdoors and travel more sustainably. Follow her blog at www.laurenstraveldiary.com.