The coral reef looms large in the mythology of Hawaii. The Kumulipo, a chiefly creation chant that follows all of life back to the beginning of time, says that the coral animal, the tiny polyp, was the first living thing on the earth. That is pretty insightful, as we are all children of the ocean, that first liquid incubator of life on earth.
Coral, the architect of our reefs, grows copiously in mounds, plates and fingers, in cauliflower shapes and nubby flats. Though sometimes it can look like rock at first glance, the coral reef is built by a tiny, clear, flowerlike animal hiding inside a calcium cup that it secretes around itself. Corals start as honeycomb-like colonies that grow over rocks and other hard surfaces near shore and even in deep, darker water where you wouldn’t expect them. When you are snorkeling, in many places everything beneath you is alive — and fragile — which is why the only good place to stand in the ocean is on sand.
The Hawaiian reef unfolds in undulating fields of green, yellow, pink and blue, all of it pulsing with life. For most of human history it grew abundantly and created bed and breakfast for countless fishes, urchins, eels, octopuses, marine snails, and us. You can think of the reef as a city, full of sheltering nooks and food; and without the reef, ever growing, there is nowhere for many animals to live and nothing to eat, for them or for us. The rise of commercial harvesting and uninformed, careless ocean recreation practices in the late 20th century started to make itself felt on the reef, with both visible and not so visible damage. Now, in response, we must all do the best we can to keep our reefs healthy and supported, because they support us and because it’s the right thing to do.
So, before you play in the ocean, take time to learn about the area. Read signs, and make yourself aware of any regulations — for example, know that feeding fish is illegal in some places and it’s a good idea not to do it anywhere in the world (people food is bad for fish and also disrupts regular cycles on the reef). Ask your concierge or water-sports activity companies what is and isn’t responsible behavior. And take a careful look at your sunscreen, or even trade it in for a hat and a sunshirt or rashguard—a shirt you will see on surfers that can be wet or dry, is light, and usually has long sleeves. Here’s why:
There is increasing evidence that your sunscreen may be toxic to corals.
Most commercial sunscreens have two chemicals in them that are banned in parts of Europe and in Mexico: Oxybenzone (benzophenone-3), and octinoxate. Oxybenzone is added to prevent skin from absorbing damaging UV rays. The impact of these chemicals on corals and other animals has become of great concern in Hawaii. An estimated 20,000 people enter the ocean around just the island of Maui every day. If half of those people apply only a 1/2 ounce of sunscreen (less than the recommended amount), between 50-70 gallons of sunscreen wash into the water, one swimmer at a time, on that day. Imagine allowing someone to back a truck up to the beach to dump a barrel of sunscreen in the water. Unthinkable, but person by person, that is what is happening, and just on Maui, on one day.
In a 2016 study, Craig Downs, executive director of the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory in Clifford, VA, showed that oxybenzone harms corals by damaging their DNA, is toxic to the coral larvae, and causes deformities in the delicate coral animal. Exposed to this chemical, baby corals can’t attach to solid surfaces to start new colonies. Juvenile corals can encase themselves in their own calcium cup and starve. Oxybenzone lowers the temperature at which corals will bleach, or expel the colorful little algae cells that live in their tissues and create sugar to help sustain the coral animal, an especially worrisome side effect. Damage can occur at tiny, tiny concentrations—62 parts per trillion.
For some, this also raises the question of what these two chemicals may be doing in the human bloodstream and urine, where oxybenzone is found just 20 minutes after skin application. In the US, oxybenzone and sunscreen chemicals are not regulated yet, so there are no standards for the labeling of products. To help get some information out to the public, the Facebook page Oxybenzone-Free Worldwide has many links to studies and photos that help explain results of lab experiments.
Furthermore, at an October 2017 hearing of the Maui County Council to ban oxybenzone and octinoxate, there was disturbing testimony by a local fisherwoman who insisted that the seaweed and sea life she gathers tastes like sunscreen. At the time, Downs explained, “Fish that taste like coconut, (that) is from coumarin, if they taste like jasmine it’s from the jasmonic acid,” Both ingredients are commonly labeled “fragrance” on sunscreen and cosmetics labels.
In answer to these concerns, Hawaii's democratic state senator Will Espero proposed a bill to ban the sale of products containing oxybenzone in order to protect reefs and tourism in Hawaii. However, despite being co-sponsored by both Democrats and Republicans, the bill was killed by lobbying from the sunscreen industry. The sunscreen business is extremely lucrative in Hawaii.
How to manage this, for yourself and for our ocean? Staying out of the sun at peak times (10 a.m. to 2 p.m.) is good, sunblocks using zinc oxide or titanium oxide are better, and covering up is best. Applying sunscreen only to your neck, face, feet and the back of hands reduces use by 90 percent, and you can cover up the rest of yourself with a great hat or local beachwear.
Some helpful hints:
- Avoid “nano” zinc or titanium oxide; nanoparticles are also toxic to sea life. In addition to avoiding oxybenzone, watch out for octinoxate, homosalate, octocrylene, and avobenzone—there is concern that these are also bad for people and ocean animals.
- If the list of chemicals is long and hard to pronounce—avoid it!
- Aerosol spray sunscreens are harmful if breathed in, end up on everything and everyone else, and one way or another enter the ocean.
- Even if you don’t get in the ocean with your sunscreen on, it gets there via the shower, as all drains drain to the sea.
Coral reefs are already stressed by the smothering of sedimentation from runoff, acidification (which reduces the coral’s ability to build that calcium cup, and then the reef at all), and global climate change—which overly warms the waters they live in, creating a whole cascade of problems. Changing your sunscreen use won’t solve all the problems, but this is one choice we each can make.
Maybe you haven’t had the time or opportunity to give the reef much thought, but it is where 25 percent of all the animals in the ocean live, many of which end up on our plates. Healthy reefs, always growing, also help keep coastlines from the battering erosion of big waves and steady currents. Corals may be tiny, but their work on earth is huge. We need them now more than ever. And we can do this.
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