Often referred to as "the rainforest of the sea," coral reefs are a natural attraction for travelers, sending snorkelers and divers around the world to get an up-close look at these colorful communities. More scientifically speaking, coral reefs are an underwater ecosystem characterized by colonies of coral polyps (soft-bodied organisms related to sea anemones and jellyfish) stitched together by calcium carbonate—they also provide food and shelter for the marine life that call these biologically rich ecosystems home.
"Everything starts with coral. Without coral, there would be no marine life," explains Roxane Boonstra, a recreational dive and volunteer coordinator from the Coral Restoration Foundation in Key Largo. Since the 1970s, the 125-mile-long stretch of reefs that line the Florida Keys (the world's third-largest barrier reef) has seen a 97 percent loss of the once-dominant staghorn and elkhorn coral. These corals have become some of the first to be included on the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species, and are both now listed as “Critically Endangered,” one step away from a listing of “Extinct in the Wild."
As vital ecosystems to our oceans, corals not only play a large role in protecting marine life but they help humans, too. These massive structures provide buffers for our shorelines and protect us against waves, storms, and floods. Due to the recent loss of coral reefs in the Keys, the absence of this natural barrier was believed to be a major contributor to the severe flooding caused by Hurricane Irma back in 2017, from which more than 7.7 million homes and businesses were left in ruin without electricity.
Recently, scientists haven't been the only ones taking notice of this ever-growing climate crisis. Around the world, coral reefs provide jobs, food, and income for an estimated 500 million people. As the rapid decline of coral becomes more evident, governments, tour operators, and even guides have all started to realize that these delicate ecosystems could collapse. When the coral disappears—will the billion-dollar tourism suffer as well? As fishermen, dive companies, and local businesses depend on the reef, if more action isn't taken soon, the loss of coral could prove to have catastrophic social and economic, as well as environmental, consequences around the globe.
Threatened by an increasing range of impacts—including pollution, invasive species, disease, unsustainable fishing practices, and global climate change—mass coral bleaching is becoming more frequent as ocean temperatures continue to rise. In response to these significant events, reef restoration programs in all corners of the earth have sprouted a new type of farming. Coral "farms" are the latest form of eco-tourism popping up in countries like Tahiti, Mauritius, Australia, and more. At the Coral Restoration Foundation, visitors can work side by side to help with the "out-planting" of corals from the nursery to the reef, or even snorkel above the nursery, through their dive program which has helped plant more than 66,000 corals back onto the Florida Reef Tract.
As we all work towards a common goal of saving our oceans, reducing our carbon footprint is crucial. Scientists are hopeful that if environmental conditions in the ocean improve, corals will be able to heal and recover from past, and future, bleaching events. And you can contribute to this effort as a traveler—with these 10 easy tips, you can help save our coral reefs.
Do Some Research Before Your Trip
When traveling to a new destination, it's always a good idea to check the local tourism website. Many have up-to-date information on local sustainability initiatives, volunteer information, and government-recommended "green" operators. On the Florida Keys tourism website, for example, you can find an entire page dedicated to sustainable activities to do while visiting. Other countries, like the tiny island of Palau, require visitors to sign a stamp in their passport, pledging to “tread lightly, act kindly and explore mindfully,” for the sake of Palau’s children as well as future generations.
Volunteer When You Travel
Whether you commit an hour or a full vacation, any amount of volunteering can help you leave a destination better than when you found it. Costa Rica, in particular, has long been an advocate for green initiatives. The environmentally friendly music festival, Envision Festival, for example, has taken a run-down cattle farm and revived the land by planting new native trees for a weekend-long musical festival, one that also has a policy of no plastic and minimal waste. Attendees are not only invited to better themselves through music, yoga, and workshops, but are encouraged to volunteer in a community-wide clean-up of the beach with the co-founder of Rich Coast Project—a fun way to keep our beach and oceans clean.
Nowadays, several tour operators are choosing to promote sustainability. Choosing a tour company that pledges to promote activities that are environmentally friendly encourages other companies to do the same. In Saint Lucia at Sugar Beach, A Viceroy Resort, tourists can go spearfishing or take the PADI Invasive Lionfish Tracker Specialty Course to learn about how these Pacific Ocean invasive species compete with local Atlantic reef fish for survival—a great example of how tourism and conservation can work hand-in-hand to save the reef.
Use Reef-Safe Sunscreen
Starting January 2021, Hawaii will be the first state to ban the sale of sunscreen containing chemicals that harm coral reefs. In Hawaii, an estimated 6,000 pounds of sunscreen per year are being deposited into the ocean by swimmers annually. Using reef-safe sunscreens that don't contain oxybenzone, avobenzone, or octinoxate is key to the survival of healthy reefs. Zinc or titanium zinc oxide are the only ingredients not harmful to corals, despite what the packaging containing those other harmful ingredients might say. Brands like Sea 2 Stream, Epicuren, and Raw Elements are great choices to pack for your next beach vacation.
Dine at Local Restaurants
Local fishermen typically catch what's available to them, meaning the catch of the day is fresh, and it enables fishermen to only catch only what they need, as opposed to large-scale fishing vessels that can overfish, kill unintentional bycatch, and pollute. Of course, not all menu items are created equal. In certain areas of the Caribbean, conch may be a local item, but due to overfishing, it's now considered an endangered species. When traveling, you can check Seafood Watch for sustainably sourced, domestic seafood guides. Download their app, Monterey Bay Seafood Watch, to check the sustainability of seafood menu items at specific restaurants and destinations.
In today's fast-moving world, single-use plastic is the easy choice, but it's not sustainable. Scientists predict that by 2050, the ocean will contain more plastic than fish. Packing your own reusable essentials—water bottle, shopping bag, straws, utensils, toiletries, and coffee mugs—to avoid single-use plastic is one of the simplest ways you can help save our coral reefs.
Pick Up Trash
Taking the pledge to leave a destination better than when you found it can make a difference. When your plastic is properly disposed of, it's less likely to wind up in our oceans. In addition to disposing of your own trash, try to lend a hand in picking up trash others have left behind when you're walking around town, hitting the beach, or going for a hike.
Skip Coral Souvenirs
From home decor to handmade jewelry, corals have long been popular as souvenirs. Many consumers, however, are unaware that these beautiful structures are made by living creatures. Souvenirs such as bleached corals, conch shells, starfish, sand dollars, and other popular ocean decorations, can promote the premature deforestation of reefs. When browsing through the airport gift store, refusing to purchase these products can drive the market to no longer invest in these items.
On that note, if you see something say something. Marine animals and corals are beautiful to look at but should never be touched. (One study showed that 88 percent of divers made contact with a reef at least once.) Even bleached or dead corals and shells should be left alone as other animals can use them for shelter. Avoid standing on reefs, picking up starfish or other live animals (including coral), and stay at least five feet away—even nearby recreational activities such as snorkeling and diving can stir up sediments and smother coral. When engaging in such activities, it's best to swim with a buddy, keep your distance, and be mindful of your buoyancy and fins while enjoying the underwater scenery.
Practice Safe Boating
Reckless boating affects everyone. When anchoring your boat, it's best to use moorings when available, or anchor in sandy areas away from coral and seagrasses so that the anchor and chain won't drag on nearby corals or reefs. Whether you're looking to volunteer, take a tour, or travel on your own boat, helpful websites like that of the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries can help you plan and organize your next trip.