Rising seawater temperatures, shallow waters, and polluting runoff cause coral bleaching. As a diver, you should always be aware of the impact that your presence has on marine wildlife but also your environmental impact when on dry land.
Something that you may find in a scuba divers bag is sunscreen. But does sunscreen harm corals & marine life? Yes, it does and one of the actions you can take is using only the best reef-safe sunscreens for divers that do not harm aquatic life.
You can check out a diver’s guide to using sunscreen for more info on how to protect your skin while also protecting the oceans. And read on to learn what causes coral bleaching and how you can help prevent further damage.
What Exactly is Coral Reef Bleaching?
Coral feeds on zooxanthellae, a type of algae, which survives on the coral themselves creating a micro-ecosystem. However, when coral experiences an extended period of stress it reacts by excluding the algae, its own food source.
Without zooxanthellae, reefs lose their vibrant color and become a pale and vulnerable skeleton – this is called coral reef bleaching. At this point, the species is not dead but it is more prone to disease, damage, and difficulties in reproduction.
What are the Causes of Coral Reef Bleaching?
So now you know what coral bleaching is, what is it exactly that causes coral reef bleaching? Environmental NGO’s, research institutions and government bodies such as NOAA identify several global warming effects as the main causes.
Heat stress is a major trigger; rising ocean temperatures, too much sunlight exposure in shallow waters and extremely low tides. Another damaging factor on reefs is land-based pollution, which is the main source of marine pollution.
Debris and pollutants can smother coral reefs and lower the water quality which in turn prevents the species from getting the necessary nutrients for maintaining health and its beautiful colors.
Why Coral Bleaching Matters
This is a world-wide occurrence, affecting 75% of tropical reefs, with lasting damage to entire ecosystems. Coral bleaching effects is not only important for environmental reasons but it is also a major element in the world economy.
Coral reefs are an essential element in the ocean micro- and macro-ecosystem and world economies as explained by the United Nations Environment Programme, a good source of coral bleaching facts. 25% of marine life depends on tropical coral reefs and just 1 hectare of it can contribute up to $1.25 million per year to the local economy.
Coastal communities and island populations have a close relationship with this aquatic biosphere and you can see a direct relationship between ocean health and the economy. When the marine life is suffering, so will the economy that depends on it.
The death of coral takes away a link in the oceanic food chain but also the natural habitat of several animals such as turtles, starfish, jellyfish and several types of shellfish. Populations of these marine animals will decline and with it a food source for many communities around the world.
Besides being a food source, reefs also have a protective role for humans. They are a natural barrier for strong waves and storm surges so their decline puts coastal residencies at greater risk.
With the impact of global warming, coastal cities and towns are already at a greater risk of flooding and other effects of extreme weather conditions. Damage to this natural barrier places extra stress on governments to find engineering solutions which are more expensive without guaranteed effectiveness.
Preventative Measures and How You Can Help
Fortunately, bleached coral is not yet dead so there is hope for recovery. However, this is an extremely difficult process that can take several decades.
Nonetheless, awareness of how your behavior and choices affect marine wildlife is a good start. Here are a few ways you can help protect coral reefs and how to prevent coral bleaching as a diver.
1. Use Reef-Friendly Sunscreen
There are certain chemicals in sun protection products that can cause damage to corals. Always check the label for these unwanted ingredients before buying or opt for swimming gear that covers your body.
2. Don’t Touch Coral
They are a sensitive species so never poke or step on them and make sure that your fins do not scrape them either. Avoid swimming in shallow water and be aware of your body’s positioning during a dive.
3. Safely Dispose of Waste
Land-based pollution is a major issue for ocean health so be aware of how wasteful you are how you dispose of your trash. Reduce, reuse and recycle whenever possible and never ever litter.
4. Support Conservation Programs and Environmentally-Friendly Businesses
There are plenty of initiatives protecting our oceans and you can do your part by volunteering or donating. Also, use your consumer power to support businesses that are already on the right track by placing an emphasis on sustainable practices throughout their supply chain, product development, and corporate social responsibility.