If you have ever gone scuba diving or snorkeling around coral reefs, you know how amazing these vacation experiences can be. The colors, complexity, and diversity of the corals, the fish, and other marine creatures are simply unforgettable!
But because coral reefs are fragile ecosystems, they can easily be damaged. Currently we are witnessing the intense and frightening die-off of coral reefs in many locations. Scientists are fingering a number of contributing factors such as increasing water temperatures. Ocean-loving travelers will be surprised to learn that they, too, are contributing to the problem.
Corals and the reef colonies they build consist of individual polyps: small tentacled invertebrates that live inside a tough, colorful calcium carbonate exoskeleton. It is the exoskeletons that we see. There are hundreds of different types of coral.
As a habitat, coral reefs are remarkably biodiverse. Even though they cover less than 1% of the ocean floor, “nearly one million species of fish, invertebrates, and algae are estimated to live in or around the world’s coral reefs" US National Park Service. A rapid decrease in coral reef populations has alarming implications.
There are many scientifically-determined factors: global warming, ocean acidification, over-fishing, and shoreline development, according to the UN Environmental Programme. Now a new culprit has been identified: everyday skincare products.
As consumers we use sun protection sprays and lotions to protect our skin from harmful UV rays. Naturally we want to avoid developing melanomas or other cancers. But what happens is when we go into the ocean our skin cells slough off introducing all those skincare products into the sea water. The problem stems from certain ingredients; these are primarily oxybenzone, cinoxate, and butylparaben. The chemicals eventually coat the corals, and this can start a chain of events leading to coral viruses, bleaching, and ultimately the death of entire colonies.
Research is ongoing. Meanwhile a growing number of marine parks, such as Xcaret Park in Mexico, are turning away visitors whose sunscreen products are not "approved."
SO HOW CAN I PROTECT MYSELF - AND CORAL REEFS?
Awareness is the first step, making a different choice is the second step. Here are several options.
1) Use only sunscreens recommended by the EWG.
The Environmental Working Group publishes an annual ratings guide for a wide range of consumer products, including sunscreens. Sadly, the worst offenders include some big brand names. Be aware that even "biodegradable" formulas are not necessarily "reef-safe" (if they contain PABA or oxybenzone for instance). Buy and use products the EWG recommends.
More cover means less skin exposure. Enter a dive shop like House of Scuba in San Diego, California, and you will find wetsuits and UV swim clothes for sale as well as reef-safe sunscreens. If you cannot find any retailers selling protective swimwear in your area, you can shop online: Coolibar or Solartex Sun Gear are two examples.
3) Be Selective and Ask Questions.
Choose wisely by asking questions before you make any purchases - whether from a dive shop, a PADI instructor, or a tour agent. Quality of knowledge and practices can vary widely from Destination A to Destination B. You will feel better knowing you are spending your money with an ethical and eco-friendly business. "We get involved in beach clean-ups ourselves," says Brent Miller, Sales Manager at House of Scuba. "All of our salespeople are knowledgeable about responsible diving, and we try to inform and enlighten our customers." As for dive operators, make sure they take you only to permitted locations and that they are careful about where they drop anchor. Avoid operators who "chum" the water to attract sharks and other fish in order to "improve" your diving experience. That's dangerous.
4) Enjoy But Don't Touch.
Once you are outside and in the water snorkeling or diving - have fun! Just remember to keep some distance between you and the corals. Do not touch them or knock into them by mistake with your arms or flippers. Take nothing but underwater photographs or videos to share later with friends at home. At the end of the day, each of us can do our part to keep the reefs alive and healthy for ourselves and for generations to come.
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