The captivating beauty of the coral reef is not just a popular sight for travelers, but also a living, breathing mechanism for supporting a biodiverse ecosystem and a natural phenomenon that is being destroyed by the careless actions of humans.
Corals are mostly found in tropical waters, but they are part of a much larger, connected ecosystem, providing a home to 4,000 species of fish, as well as crustaceans, reptiles, seaweeds, fungi and bacteria.
Corals are often described as an underwater rainforest, producing the oxygen we breathe. In addition, they provide protective barriers for coastlines against storms, as well as ample fishing grounds and tourist attractions. They are also used in medical research. The importance of coral reefs shouldn’t be underestimated: they provide food and resources for half a billion people in 100 countries.
From the destruction of the habitat of marine species to the detrimental effect on human lives, the price of continuing the activities that harm the coral reef will result in consequences that will be felt globally.
Rising temperatures cause a phenomenon known as coral bleaching – a process in which the coral expels algae that lives in its tissues. Because the algae provides up to 90% of its energy, as it leaves, the coral turns white as if it has been bleached and becomes susceptible to disease. If the temperature doesn’t cool, the coral will die, causing the death of the entire reef ecosystem with it.
The good news is that coral bleaching is reversible, but we must be conscious of global warming and address its causes. That means, among other things, working to stop deforestation, transitioning to renewable energy, reducing the carbon footprint, and supporting climate-smart policies.
Clean water is essential to the well-being of the coral reef. Water pollution from a variety of human activities – from farming and sewage to construction and mining – means that bacteria, pathogens and chemicals from fertilizers and pesticides enter the water. The presence of these elements upsets the ecosystem. Sediments can either promote the growth of algae, which kills the corals by smothering them, or blocks sunlight, in which case the algae inside the corals is unable to photosynthesize effectively and provide the coral with the needed energy.
Floating trash is another threat: by 2025, more than 15 billion plastic bottles will come into contact with coral reefs. The plastic, which often carries harmful bacteria, can also physically harm the coral reef.
Responsible travel is also an important part of preserving the coral reef. While corals may appear solid, standing on them or breaking off parts as souvenirs can cause permanent damage to the coral and the ecosystem around it. The key here is to be a curious observer, not an unwelcome participant.
What also matters is the type of sunblock lotion travelers use. The sunblock that protects humans does the exact opposite to the coral reef: tiny amounts of chemicals such as oxybenzone and octinoxate is enough to bleach the corals, making it more vulnerable. Many travelers are simply unaware of the problem. Th solution has already been invented – reef-safe sunscreens are widely available.
14,000 tons of sunscreen end up in the ocean every year; coral reefs in Hawaii are exposed to more than 6,000 tons of sunscreen lotion
73% of the coral reefs in the Maldives suffer from coral bleaching
Without coral reefs as natural barriers, coastal communities would have to build seawalls that are expensive, not nearly as effective, and can damage the environment. Without coral reefs or these walls, the coastal communities would not be safe from storms