‘Sunscreen Kills Coral Reefs’

NOAA Blue Star Operator

BLUE STAR FURE KEY WEST Our Fury Snorkel Guide ruined our day. With our own conscience. Because our Key West  Fury tour guide is a member of NOAA’s Blue Star. That’s Why. Sort of like mini-Pew Ocean. Sunscreen Kills Coral Reefs saw light because of the environmental stewardship of this one young man. The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary is worth protection, subsequently ideologies get into these young boat crew guys and, well, gives them an attitude. We liked it.

‘Sunscreen Kills Coral Reefs’

Sunscreen Kills Coral Reefs

Our BLUE STAR OPERATORS Fury snorkel guide briefed the 50 or so customers, his message was ‘do not destroy the reef, sunscreen kills reefs.’ He talks about it with passion on the 20 minute journey out to East Dry Rocks. They’d been to West Dry Rocks that morning, the captain and crew wanted to “see if we can find some better visibility, it’s been murky,” he said, wondering out loud if it was all the sunscreen.

“I see what needs to be done, but here I am dropping another boat load of people covered in sunscreen on the reef, it’s hard to find the balance” he says, despair evident in his frown, and I think, hey, if it wasn’t you, it could be someone who doesn’t care at all.

As a veteran ocean dweller, with 26 years of scuba instruction under my belt, i’ve seen a ton of reef abuse, mostly other peoples uncaring attitude. Whether its because an instructor has ‘perceptual narrowing’ while overtasked with students, or tourists who just aren’t good in the balance and buoyancy department.

The worst truly is the thick gobs of sunscreen, coconut – pineapple scented wafting really strong, and hair conditioner or whatever we protect ourselves with for a few moments in the ocean. Rash guards are effective alternatives to sunscreen.

I’m proud of this BLUE STAR FURY Snorkel guides energy and mild fanaticism. He talks about the reef destruction he has control over. Spray on or apply sunscreen before you leave dock, gives it time to sink in. Wear a rash guard instead. 

Our BLUE STAR FURY guide remarks there is an ‘oil slick’ effect when they jump in. He votes for fishing with circle hooks, catch and release. Leave the lobster there. No spearfishing on scuba. No plastic in the oceans. How the tiniest pieces of plastic are now small enough to be consumed by the oceans inhabitants without knowing it.

And guess who ends up eating the oceans inhabitants? And if you scoop up a cup of sand, a larger percentage of it will be plastic particles. He says he tries to steer people towards a non toxic to the environment sunscreen, but the one they recommend is expensive and doesn’t work, and how to make sure people are not too shallow where they’ll impact the corals with their fins or skins.

“In his briefing he mentions 6 feet of water as a minimum. Even with my experience I can’t tell what 6 feet of water looks like. I catch myself as I almost touch the former glory of Staghorn skeletons still reaching majestically to the surface, devoid of it’s living element, the zooxanthellae, as I snorkel with my 8 year old, it’s as if there isn’t enough space for us, the reef and the water to co-exist in the same space.”

Most of the stony hard corals on the reef are bleached, which is what happens when their symbiont partner, the zooxanthellae, depart the safety of their host. Factors such as salinity and temperature, visibility when elevated cause their colorful soft life giving symbiont to depart. Bye bye colors. Bye bye fish nurseries.

We get ready to jump in. Again. It’s a double dip: two snorkel sites! The French girls on board are covered in sunscreen, at least they applied it at the dock. They are very vibrant and young. They talk incessantly in French. One says “Le Grand Bleu” which means ‘the big blue’ and gestures to the ocean as we prepare to jump in.

I look at her and say “Non, c’est le grande vert,” which makes her frown, she repeats it nevertheless, she knows it’s true: it is the big green here, near Key West. With many cruise ships coming in and out of Key West every day and such a large population on this the end of the island archipelago, the pollution here must be intense.

Mira and I snorkel together this time. We swim at the Sand Key Light, people are knocking the reef with fins and holding it to steady themselves. Despite the briefing. Odd how we are all responsive to the signal that calls us back to the boat. They whistle. We are all very obedient. So why do people disobey and touch the reef when the briefing clearly states not to? Human fingers put grease, bacteria and sunscreen all over the corals.

This destroys their exterior layer of mucus, and means death to a coral already on the brink of dying. It can mean death to a healthy coral if repeated over time. Which is what we see all around us. On our dive we seemed to get lucky lucky lucky.

Mira on the surface, points down and screams loudly right out the top of her snorkel, a lobsters tentacles poke out from under a rocky overhang. Good eye for an 8 year old! We hope no one ever takes him from his home. We snap a GoPro Hero 4 movie.

Scientists who conducted their research in Hawaii and the U.S. Virgin Islands found that the chemical oxybenzone — used in more than 3,500 sunscreen products worldwide, including those by popular brands such as Coppertone, L’Oreal and Banana Boat — was extremely harmful to fragile coral reefs.

“The chemical not only kills the coral, it causes DNA damage in adults and deforms the DNA in coral in the larval stage, making it unlikely they can develop properly,” a news release reported.

The researchers said even a tiny amount of oxybenzone-containing sunscreen can damage corals. As The Washington Post noted, “the equivalent of a drop of water in a half-dozen Olympic-sized swimming pools“ was sufficient to cause harm.

Every year, approximately 14,000 tons of sunscreen ends up in coral reefs worldwide.  Huffington Post

Mira screams again, this time underwater, sound travels 25 times faster down here! A young turtle is close by, we follow, I begin filming, he rockets away. The soft corals we do see are the purple sea fans and a few finger sponges. There are damsel fish, surgeon fish, blue tangs, a French angel, a massive parrot or two, lots of French grunts, some Sargeant Majors, a Graysbee and lots of humans wearing sunscreen.  Washington Post

Sunscreen Kills Coral Reefs