Call me an optimist, but I’ve always believed that people are inherently good and want to do the right thing when they are informed and educated.
In today’s world we are bombarded with information, much of it conflicting and that can lead to confusion and complacency.
Having lived through the catastrophic Hurricane season of 2017 that brought the US and its Territories storms named Harvey, Irma and Maria, I have no doubt that our Earth is changing and that average temperatures are rising. And these subtle temperature changes are having a devastating effect on coral reefs across the globe.
But the other day, I read something that made me proud to be a Virgin Islander and gave me some hope. Our local Government has introduced legislation to ban the retail sale, distribution, and importation of topical sunscreen products containing oxybenzone and octinoxate with Bill 33-0043.
If signed into law, this will go into effect as of January 2021. The bill follows the lead of the state of Hawaii who passed similar legislation in May 2018. To date, Hawaii is the first and only state to pass this kind of ban. If signed into law, The US Virgin Islands would be the second out of the 50 states and Insular Territories to ban sunscreens containing these harmful chemicals.
Coral Reefs and Climate Change
Why is this such a big deal? Because coral reefs are dying at an alarming rate and anything we can do to slow or reverse that decline is imperative.
Coral reefs provide a source of food and income to over 500 million people worldwide.
Here in the Caribbean, reefs provide food for people and marine life, a source of income from tourism and barrier reefs protect our islands’ shores from larger waves and storm surge. If you think of the Earth like your body, our waterways (both fresh and salt) are like the blood circulating through your body. The oceans and tides pump water across the globe and into the atmosphere. Coral reefs are like the tiny capillaries that feed your muscles and tissues to sustain life. A critical piece of the circulatory system.
Facts About Coral Reef Bleaching
A rise of only 2°C or 3.6°F in ocean temperature can cause a catastrophic coral bleaching event in just a matter of weeks. When you get a fever, it causes a stress response in your body. You sweat, get the chills and can become delirious. If your fever is high enough, brain cells can start to die. For coral reefs, their stress response to a high fever is called “bleaching”.
The corals themselves are the backbone of the reef ecosystem. One coral organism is made up of hundreds of thousands of tiny coral polyps. The coral polyps live in a symbiotic relationship with tiny plant cells (algae) called zooxanthellae. During the day, the zooxanthellae feed the coral through photosynthesis. These tiny algae are what gives the coral its color.
At night, the coral polyps come out of their shell, reach out their tiny tentacles and catch microscopic animals in the water known as zooplankton.
When a coral is stressed by an increase in water temperature, they expel the tiny plant cells. When the zooxanthellae are gone, what we see is the calcium skeleton of the coral because the polyps are clear. The coral appears bright white. This is known as bleaching. It also means that the coral is slowly starving to death.
It is estimated that 80-90% of the coral reefs in Florida have died off. In the past 30 years alone the world has lost about 50% of its coral reefs through bleaching events.
Coral reefs are known as the rainforests of the sea. Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is the largest living structure on Earth and is visible from space. In 2016, 29% of the Great Barrier Reef died in a bleaching event. That is the equivalent of losing all the trees from Washington, DC to Maine.
Let that sink in for a moment.
… can you even visualize that? 😳
Addressing things like Climate Change saves lives. It is within our power to make changes in our personal lives that incrementally make a difference. Make informed choices. Reduce waste. Buy locally sourced food and products when you can. Be an informed consumer and support products and businesses in your community and globally that are making a difference. Together we CAN change the world.
Coral Reef Safe Sunscreens
So what does this all have to do with sunscreen? Studies have shown that when corals absorb oxybenzone and octinoxate, they react in a similar way to a bleaching event. The chemicals cause added stress to the coral animal that makes them susceptible to disease and less likely to survive minimal rises in temperature. These same chemicals have been linked to endocrine disruption, neurologic and behavioral changes, and embryonic deformities in fish. Yuck! Imagine what that does to you when you absorb these chemicals through your own skin.
Of course, protecting your skin from the harmful rays of the sun – particularly when you are in the Caribbean and out on the water – is important. No one wants to ruin their vacation with a painful sunburn.
No matter where you are, but especially when in the Virgin Islands or near coral reefs, be sure to use coral reef safe sunscreens. By choosing Reef Safe sunscreens, you can avoid adding additional stressors to the reef ecosystem and our oceans.
- Look for sunscreens that DO NOT contain oxybenzone and octinoxate.
- Choose mineral based sunscreens with zinc oxide and titanium oxide. These ingredients stay on top of your skin and block harmful UV rays. They are not associated with coral bleaching.
- Make sure that the minerals are “non-nano” this means that the particles are larger than 100 nanometers and cannot be absorbed by corals. (or you!)
- Scrutinize the labels. Many sunscreens will say “Reef Safe”, read the ingredients to be sure.
- Wear UV filtering clothing and hats. Check out our 38-40 UPF Rashguards (UPF = Ultraviolet Protection Factor)
Here are some recommended Reef Safe Sunscreen brands:
I’ve tried to include links to Reef Safe Sunscreens that are less than 3oz and can fit in your TSA 311 approved carry-on liquids. Larger bottles can be packed in your checked luggage. You can also look for Reef Safe sunscreens at local scuba and snorkel charter shops on St Croix.
There is Hope for Coral Reefs Worldwide
It’s not all bad news! There are some great organizations here locally and across the globe, researching ways to grow and restore corals at a more rapid rate.
Right here on St Croix, The Nature Conservancy has been part of a revolutionary project that uses cutting edge technology and some fairly straight forward techniques to grow and restore corals. Cane Bay on our North Shore is home to a successful coral nursery growing coral embryos.
The 50 Reefs project was created during the filming of the Netflix documentary, Chasing Corals. The goal is to identify and protect 50 coral reefs globally that have the best chance of surviving the impacts of climate change. The Bloomberg Foundation has pledged 86 million dollars to the conservation project.
Love the oceans and coral reefs?
Three-quarters of St Croix is surrounded by one of the longest contiguous island barrier reefs in the Caribbean, which means there’s lots of amazing snorkeling right offshore. Its the perfect way to appreciate and enjoy our coral reef ecosystem. Learn more about snorkeling on St Croix.
Be sure to include a snorkeling trip to Buck Island on your next St Croix adventure. Part of the National Park System, most of Buck Island Reef National Monument is underwater. The NPS requires new visitors to the underwater trail to explore the reef with a licensed guide.
Want to go deeper and see more reefs? Book a dive with one of our local PADI certified scuba tour operators or learn to scuba while you’re here.