Coral reefs are vital for ocean ecosystems, supporting a quarter of all marine species, but there are many increasing threats to the health of the world’s coral, and Hawai‘i’s coral specifically. In 1999, The Hawaii Division of Aquatic Resources (DAR) in partnership with the Coral Reef Assessment and Monitoring Program, began taking annual surveys of coral condition at nine reef areas on Maui. Their data, combined with data from Pacific Whale Foundation’s coral reef research from 1989-1998,  revealed that “nearly ¼ of all living coral was lost over that period.” The main culprit behind coral bleaching is elevated seawater temperatures, which are directly tied to climate change. However, there any many other factors that impact coral health, and scientific studies have concluded that something most of us wear anytime we are in the marine environment is also harmful to coral – sunscreen. 

Research has shown that some chemicals commonly found in sunscreen can damage coral reefs by disrupting coral reproduction, inhibiting growth, deforming coral DNA, and increasing the rate of zooxanthellae viruses and coral bleaching.

One chemical, oxybenzone, can be toxic to baby coral at levels as low as 62 parts per trillion. In plain English, that’s equivalent to one drop in 6.5 Olympic swimming pools. Testing done in 2015 shows that sites around Maui have dangerously high levels of this pollutant and repeat testing in 2017 showed increased amounts.

Pacific Whale Foundation advocates for the use of protective clothing and reef-safe sunscreen to help protect fragile coral reefs and to promote a healthy ocean environment around the world. For over a decade, we have encouraged the use of reef-safe sunscreen and offered it at cost onboard PacWhale Eco-Adventure vessels. We support the statewide ban on sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate and, beginning November 2019, we are moving from encouragement to enforcement and instituting our own ban onboard PWF vessels of sunscreens containing:

oxybenzone, octinoxate, avobenzone, avobenzine, homosalate, octisalate, octocrylene, and ethylhexyl methoxycinnamate

in order to alleviate any additional stress on the coral reefs of Maui.

When buying sunscreen, it is important to read the ingredient list, as the term “reef safe” is not regulated and can be used as a marketing device. Users should avoid sunscreens containing the previously listed chemicals and instead choose sunscreen that contains zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide as the active ingredients, as these have not been shown to damage coral. Also, avoid using aerosol or spray-on products and opt for lotions instead, as aerosols travel significant distances and can impact sea turtle eggs. If you are still unsure of what sunscreen to purchase, we ensure that all sunscreens sold at our Ocean Stores are reef-safe. 

Mahalo for helping us in our mission to protect the ocean by making the simple switch to a reef-safe sunscreen or using protective clothing. See you in the water! 🤙

To learn more about PWF’s conservation efforts, click HERE. To book an ecotour with PacWhale Eco-Adventures today, click HERE.

Posted by:Alicia Wood

Alicia joined Pacific Whale Foundation in 2018 as communications coordinator, after graduating from the University of Hawaii Maui College with a degree in Sustainable Science Management.

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