It’s warm outside, and people are finally breaking free from their quarantine walls. Even airlines have seen a major uptick in travel, as people make up for a year without it.
But don’t forget: While the world was locked up for a year and a half, the ocean thrived without tourism. You didn’t need a worldwide pandemic to tell you that tourism affects ocean life; there have been plenty of studies about how sunscreen harms coral reefs. One study even estimated that approximately 14,000 pounds of sunscreen are deposited into the ocean every year, according to The Ocean Foundation. And coral reefs are extremely important to the ocean’s ecosystem — they basically have superpowers. They’re the home to 25 percent of the ocean’s fish, they protect coastlines from erosion and storms, and more than half a billion people depend on reefs for food and income.
Craig Downs, Ph.D., executive director of Haereticus Environmental Laboratory, started studying coral reef deaths in the Virgin Islands National Park in 2004. “We were investigating why coral reefs were dying in the park, and one day we couldn’t figure out because there were no boats in [the water] and no homes in the watershed,” says Downs. “It should’ve been a healthy reef and yet, it was pretty much dead.” While he and a few other scientists were chatting, a local told them it was because of the tourists that came in on the cruise ships. Locals would notice that once they left the water would have an “iridescent” sheen on it because of the sunscreen in the water and that they believed sunscreen was the culprit of the reef death. “And so that began our investigation into what they call ‘personal care products,’ including sunscreens and their impact to the environment,” says Downs. A few popular tourist beach destinations are taking notice, and some are banning certain types of sunscreen. For example, the state of Hawaii has banned the sale of sunscreens containing four different chemicals known to impact the reef habitat.