My favorite part about swimming in the ocean is diving underwater and seeing all the beautiful bright colors of the coral reefs. Bright blues, purples, pinks and greens pop out from every corner of my eye. It’s an entire other world living around and below us. Its occurred to me as I’m writing this that my generation is the last one to have the opportunity to see these beautiful vibrant colors. Our coral reefs are rapidly declining and with them so is the entirety of the ocean as it supports 25% of all marine species. The coral reefs are basically the mother of all mothers, the mothership you could say. It’s an ecosystem that connects all other ecosystems together. It is a home for all fish, oysters, crabs and clams. Not to mention it provides food for all those creatures and their prey, which has a massive domino effect on the food chain. Do you see what I’m saying? No reefs, no fish, no sharks, no humans.
Coral reefs not only provide for what we cannot see, our oceans, but for us! It’s an estimated 500 million people worldwide depend on reefs for jobs, recreation, food, and storm protection. Coral reefs only cover about 1% of the earths surface yet they have an economic worth of roughly 375 billion dollars(USD) each year for hundreds of coastal towns, and islands.
So what is exactly killing our coral reefs? Well in the last 5-10 years the decline of our reefs has increased exponentially due to over fishing, climate change, pollution, unsustainable coastal developments and destructive fishing practices. As well as jewelry making and souvenir shops, yes it’s cute and “trendy” to have a little coral reef necklace but keeping them alive and being able to go swimming through beautiful, colorful reefs is way cooler.
There are many reasons for the rapid decline of reefs but climate change takes the throne. Coral reefs are very sensitive to the water temperature, if it’s too hot the reefs will start to bleach and die off. Scientists expect the water to continue to rise in temperature meaning the decrease of coral reefs will eliminate them within a couple decades.
Healthy coral is very easy to spot as its full of bright beautiful colors. Those beautiful colors come from algae that feeds the coral reefs, called zooxanthellae which lives in their tissues. Once the coral is stressed from warming water temperatures and/or pollution it begins to loose the algae that feeds it, which then looses the beautiful color. Thus reaching the very vulnerable stage of bleaching where coral reefs are very susceptible to disease.
As you may have read in my last blog post pollution kills, and not just fish or ocean creatures but what holds the entire ecosystem together. I spent about 3 months in Koh Tao, Thailand where I realized how so many people on this earth have no idea what type of effect they have on this planet. Every dive spot was over crowded with boats that kept their engines running, leaving the water thick in oil. I never once saw coral that wasn’t stressed or already fully bleached and dead unless I took a 2 hour boat ride off the island to more secluded dive spots. Still, the reefs were stressed and damaged. It was heartbreaking. You really can tell when a reef is stressed and starting to bleach as you rarely see any fish or any other creatures. Its like a ghost town, all you hear is the boats up above, leaving trails of oil. And sadly it doesn’t stop there, oil pollution isn’t the only one, urban and industrial waste gets directly deposited into the ocean or by river systems that connect to the ocean. Sewage and farming runoff create a massive spike in nitrogen in the ocean which causes huge growth of algae. As I explained before, coral reefs work with algae to feed them and give them their bright color. But this algae is unwanted and extremely invasive. It takes over the entire ecosystem.
Pollution comes in many forms, it even comes off our bodies from what we put on our skin. What is used in your beauty products and sunscreen has many harmful ingredients that damage and kill juvenile and mature coral reefs. The main ingredient in the majority of sunscreens is Oxybenzone. To be precise, this chemical is very common as its found in over 3,500 skin care products. Worldwide. Can you imagine what our coral reefs would look like if those 3,500 skin care products didn’t use that ingredient?? Oxybenzone’s main propose is to protect your skin from the sun, although have you ever noticed the oily rings around you when you walk into the water? That’s your sunscreen coming off and not doing a very good job at protecting you from the suns harmful effects. This chemical makes it way into the environment not only from you but from wastewater. There are a couple major effects discovered from NOAA that showed what happens to young coral once in contact with this chemical compound; more vulnerable to bleaching, abnormal skeletal growths and deformities of baby coral. Meaning that the life span of these corals will be extremely short. The next chemical most commonly found in health products is benzophenone-2, specifically found in most perfumes/colognes, sunscreens, make-up products, and soaps. Unlike Oxybenzone, this chemical compound protects your skin from Ultraviolet light. But like Oxybenzone it also deforms and increases the susceptibility of bleaching.
These chemicals and more also cause deformities in fish, mussels, dolphins, sea urchins and even algae. For fish it decreases fertility which in hand decreases reproduction as well as causes male fish to have female characteristics. The chemicals increase in dolphins tissues which then passes onto their young. In both mussels and sea urchins the chemicals causes defects and deformities in young. It also causes damage to sea urchins immune and reproductive systems. The other chemicals you need to look out for in sunscreen, beauty products and soaps are Benzophenone-8, OD-PABA, 4-Methylbenzylidene camphor, 3-Benzylidene camphor, nano-Titanium dioxide, nano-Zinc oxide. But don’t get confused with natural zinc oxide as that is completely mineral based and reef safe.
So what exactly can we do to help save our reefs? The easiest one is to beware of what’s in the products that you use on your body. Use all natural and sustainable products that have no ingredients that will damage our oceans such as the ones listed above. The more conscious you are of what you put on your skin the easier it will be for our coral reefs to regenerate themselves. If you eat seafood, go for the most sustainable option and always know where it’s coming from and if it’s coming from a good place! When you go swimming in the ocean be careful of not touching anything as coral reefs are very sensitive to the oils on our skin. You can also volunteer with programs to help regrow coral reefs around the world as its needed now more than ever. Start your own beach clean ups and try and lessen your plastic usage, especially single use plastics. There are many things you can do to to help protect our reefs!
Roughly 96 percent of the world is water. So why aren’t we taking better care of it? The influence we have on our reefs is extremely important to their well being. The more we destroy our reefs the quicker our oceans will decline and the quicker we will be seeing ocean creatures being added to the endangered species list and soon to be extinct. Which includes us as well. We need to learn that we are not the only ones on this planet. Everything comes full circle, once our oceans collapse and die so do we. We cannot live a life without a fully healthy ocean.