An Ocean Quest Adventure guest close-up with a Humpback WhaleDEBBIE STANLEY, OCEAN QUEST ADVENTURES
One of my greatest adventures has been snorkeling with humpback whales in Newfoundland, Canada, one of the few places in the world where visitors have the opportunity to swim with these Leviathans. Humpbacks lack any fear around boats, so the chances of spotting them are good. I chose Ocean Quest Adventures the best company for this adventure, because they practically guarantee whale spotting.
‘Jump now!’ said Rick Stanley, Captain and owner of Ocean Quest Adventures as five of us, outfitted with wet suits, snorkels, mask and fins jumped into Newfoundland’s cold water and looked around for whales. After just moments, two came racing towards us like freight trains. I was sure I was about to be killed, but they dove beneath my legs. One of them flipped over right beneath me, so close I could see the white striations on the belly. And then they breeched and were gone. It’s an experience I will never forget.
Humpback Whale BreechingDEBBIE STANLEY OCEAN QUEST ADVENTURES
I recently learned that Silversea Cruises, an ultra-luxury line with spacious all-suite accommodations, has just introduced two bucket-list experiences: snorkeling with whale sharks in the warm waters of Cenderawasih Bay, West Papua, and cruising to the Northeast Passage on a route above the Arctic Circle. I’ve been to the Arctic, though not to the Northeast Passage, and I saw little to no wildlife while I was there. I’m also curious if swimming with whale sharks is as good as my Ocean Quest humpback experience, so I contacted Conrad Combrink, Silversea’s Senior Vice President of Strategic Development Expeditions and Experiences and asked some questions.
What is the behavior of a whale shark when they see a human?
The whale sharks are unfazed by our presence; they’re placid and somewhat playful. We have utmost respect for wildlife and would not allow guests to enter the water if it disrupted the animals. We maintain a deep respect for our planet.
Is it dangerous?
No, we wouldn’t do anything which could be considered as dangerous, both for the protection of our guests and the wildlife we encounter.
Does a guide accompany the snorkelers?
In the case of Donsol in the Philippines, yes. We follow the region’s strict regulations and protocol by the local rangers, and work with them together. In the case of Cenderawasih Bay in Indonesia, each Zodiac has at least one Expedition Team member for guests’ safety. Guests are given clear instructions, and, at certain times, several Expedition Team members are in the water with guests. A rescue Zodiac is always on standby for any snorkeler who needs help.
Snorkelers up close with a Whale SharkBRIGITTE WALTER
How many snorkelers get to go at one time? Usually, it’s six per local boat. In Cenderawasih Bay, up to 10 guests can swim at any one time.
What’s it like seeing a whale shark?
This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, truly magnificent. The gigantic bodies of those creatures seem to glide peacefully and majestically through the water.
What happens if the whale shark approaches the snorkeler?
The snorkeler should stay calm and nothing will happen. In case the snorkeler doesn’t stay calm, the whale shark will swim away. We generally advise guests to keep a distance of three meters (almost 10 feet) although the whale shark is harmless anyway.
Do you ever see whale sharks with their offspring?
Personally, no. But I hope to one day!
How many whale sharks can one expect to see at one time?
It depends on the season and luck. Of course, we cannot guarantee sightings. Those aboard Silver Discoverer saw about 10 animals on their voyage in May this year. Some say that Cenderawasih Bay has the largest number of whale sharks, but these are distributed over a large area.
Snorkelers with a Whale SharkBRIGITTE WALTER
What are the chances of seeing whale sharks?
At the right time of the year and in the correct areas, the chances are reasonably high, though we cannot guarantee seeing them. The animals might be in the area but not necessarily where we search for them. These are wild animals and we are visiting their natural habitat; we can only create the conditions for these types of moments to occur, but we cannot ensure they will happen.
How many dives does a guest make?
Guests are usually able to make one snorkel & swim stop, but we try to optimize this time. In Cenderawasih Bay, guests were each given three chances to swim with the whale sharks. At the second location we visited, everyone who entered the water had excellent views of the animals. This experience, like almost all of Silversea Expeditions’ excursions, does not cost anything extra.
And what about Northeast Passage in the Arctic? Do you get out in Zodiacs?
We take guests out in the Zodiacs as much as possible, but this is always dependent on the weather and sea conditions. Safety comes first. Zodiacs enable us to travel deeper in each destination, allowing us to access shallow and otherwise inaccessible waters.
When I went to do the Arctic Marathon on a cruise a few years ago, I saw no wildlife. Do guests see wildlife on your cruise?
This far north, the wildlife is spectacular: polar bears, walruses, seals and seabirds.
What makes this a stand-out adventure?
Most people never have a chance to cruise to the Arctic Circle. It’s a place where the ocean freezes and the sight of the sea ice extends to the horizon. It’s very hard to describe, but it’s a kind of ‘polar dessert on the ocean.’ It’s truly humbling.
South African Hanli Prinsloo draws crowds with ocean photography but sees irony as she goes downstairs past masses of shark fin restaurants
Free diver Hanli Prinsloo holds her breath for several minutes at a time as she plunges into the deep blue sea. It may sound terrifying, but what distresses her more is the way Hong Kong consumes seafood.
The South African visited Hong Kong to display ocean photos in “The Last Wilderness” exhibition.
“I meet so many people who love our photographs and the stories we’re telling,” she said. “But it breaks my heart to know just downstairs from the hotel I’m staying in there are restaurants serving shark fin soup.”
Over the course of her free-diving career she has seen the ocean change.
Hanli Prinsloo feels a sense of freedom when she dives. Photo: The Last Wilderness
“In Hong Kong and into mainland China, an understanding of how we consume seafood can really influence the well being of our ocean,” Prinsloo said. “There are many places where I’ve seen the disappearance of sharks and I can see the devastation it can cause to the reef.”
It is not just Hong Kong, though, as she has seen bleached coral, plastic-strewn beaches that were once pristine, dolphins playing with plastic bags where they once played with puffer fish and over fishing devastating ecosystems all over the world.
Free diver Hanli Prinsloo at the opening of The Last Wilderness exhibition. Photo: The Last Wilderness
“It’s heartbreaking to see a place you’ve explored and loved for so long being destroyed because of our actions and because we haven’t thought about what our actions can do,” she said. “ But I believe in sharing a hopeful message – if we give up hope the ocean is hopeless.”
The photo exhibition, which is by former swimmer Peter Marshall, who held eight backstroke world records during his career, and features Prinsloo, is showing at 29th floor Wyndham Place on Wyndham Street until August 18.
Prinsloo’s path to free diving was not an obvious one, as it is for many who take up the sport after growing up on the shore or on islands.
When sharks disappear it can devastate ecosystems. Photo: Brian Skerry/Photographers Against Wildlife Crime/Wildscreen
She grew up on an inland farm near Johannesburg where her father raised horses. It was not until she moved to Sweden in the 1990s that she found a free-diving coach.
“The first time I free dived was in a fjord, in dark water, my wetsuit didn’t fit and my mask was fogged up but it felt like coming home,” Prinsloo said. “It was the freedom I’ve always been looking for, that total immersion and being part of nature.”
Since then, Prinsloo went on to break a number of South African free diving records and became the first South African to hold records in all competitive free-diving disciplines – such as diving to 126 metres with no fins, a dive known as dynamic apnoea.
Hanli Prinsloo descends into a school of fish. Photo: The Last Wilderness
“Free diving is a mental sport,” she said. “Mental prep is around being incredibly calm and centred. When I was competing for really deep dives, it wasn’t just in a couple of hours leading up. It was days leading up of calming down and almost being simplistic.”
“The breath really helps you connect with the mental side of the body. It becomes an anchor.”
She has gone on to set up I am Water travel and I am Water conservation, aimed at promoting sustainable habits for ocean conservation while giving people the chance to travel and interact with nature.
“Free diving is such an inclusive practise,” Prinsloo said. “You don’t need any equipment but because of the risks involved make sure you start with a teacher.”
Part of the Great Barrier Reef in the Coral Sea off NE Australia.
Credit: Rick Stuart-Smith
Research published today in Nature describes upheaval among fish and invertebrate communities after a marine heatwave hit Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea in early 2016.
The IMAS-led study analysed data collected across these areas by the Reef Life Survey (RLS) citizen science program.
It identified important changes in reef-animal communities that may affect the resilience of coral reefs, potentially reducing the capacity of corals to rebuild after mass bleaching.
Coral reefs are among the most valuable ecosystems on Earth, providing irreplaceable benefits to biodiversity and people. The World Heritage listed Great Barrier Reef is the largest coral reef system and a place of outstanding universal value.
“We know that coral reef ecosystems are changing dramatically in response to global warming, but the focus has usually been on the fate of corals, with clear impacts of mass bleaching observable from aerial images,” study leader Rick Stuart-Smith said.
“We were interested in how the loss of coral compared with other changes across the full region.
“After reviewing surveys of corals, seaweed, fishes and mobile invertebrates such as sea urchins at 186 sites across the Great Barrier Reef and western Coral Sea — before and after the 2106 heatwave — we realised that coral bleaching was only part of the story.
“Changes were also happening around the bleached corals, to the fishes and other animals that the reefs support, and which in turn assist coral recovery.”
The study’s most important finding was the detection of broad regional ecosystem change that was distinct from the degree of coral loss at each site.
An overarching change was consistent across all the surveyed reefs, even those not affected by coral loss due to bleaching.
“While severe declines in live coral cover occurred on northern Great Barrier Reef reefs, losses in the northern Coral Sea were even greater,” co-author and RLS survey leader, Professor Graham Edgar said.
“However even in the worst hit areas, coral losses varied greatly from reef to reef, with a few sites showing small coral gains.
“The only change in fish or invertebrates that clearly matched this patchy change in coral cover was a decline in coral-feeding fishes such as butterflyfishes.
“Other big changes related more directly to the effect of warmer temperatures on the fishes and invertebrates.”
An example of this change in animal populations was seen in parrotfishes, which occurred in fewer surveys across the northern reefs after the bleaching event, but this response was not directly associated with sites of coral cover loss.
These herbivorous fishes play an important ‘functional’ role in preventing algae from taking over and displacing corals on disturbed reefs. They appeared particularly sensitive to the warmer conditions, and their loss may affect the capacity of corals to rebuild.
“Our observations suggest that recovery processes will depend on such functional changes in reef communities, which in turn depend on how temperatures change the makeup of fish and invertebrates that live on the reefs,” Dr Stuart-Smith said.
“Although we are lucky that herbivorous fishes are not heavily targeted by fishing in Australia, our results highlight the potential for some ecologically important groups of reef animals to be disproportionately affected by warmer temperatures, particularly near the warm edge of their distributions.
“So as well as considering how to conserve and restore corals in areas affected by bleaching, we also need to consider how to maintain or build the broader fish communities that provide reef resilience.
“This may mean considering where particular species in these important groups are subject to overlapping pressures such as fishing, warming and habitat loss, to better plan protected areas or manage human pressures like fishing for a warmer future.”
A freediving school based in Gozo has just introduced the very first European Freediving Festival to Malta – and when it’s not teaching all of its magical free diving tricks to beginners, the divers are setting national records.
“It’s a dynamic zen,” co-founder of Innerdive, Luke Cassar said. “You have to focus on the free-fall sensation and really, truly, and deeply relax.”
While the diving instructor might appear to be referring to comfortable sitting-room meditation, the truth couldn’t be further from this assumption. Submerged 120-feet beneath the surface of Malta’s Mediterranean is where Luke, and co-directors Jesper Stechmann and Anja Senn from Innerdive find their inner-zen.
The festival itself runs all week until 16th September, and is open to everyone; from beginners intrigued by the concept, and physical, spiritual, and psychological benefits of the sport, to world champions like co-founder Jesper Stechmann, and other certified divers competing for world titles. Introduction classes and discussions are offered to people who are new to the sport, while certified divers (who have safety buddies beside them) are welcome to challenge the fresh freediving records in Malta.
The festival offers a variety of events, including a static competition where divers essentially remain still underwater for as long as they can manage – typically around five minutes for the more practiced athletes.
“You tap into a different state of being towards the end,” Luke Cassar said. “It’s almost a euphoric state. Your mind is thoughtless – just, peaceful. When you train enough, there’s no panic. You transcend the urge to breath. Freediving athletes really strengthen the power of mind over body.”
There are also three depth competitions being held:
Free Immersion Diving – divers can use a rope to guide them as far as they can manage, however they must maintain the same weight throughout their dive and are not allowed to use fins to propel them down, or back to the surface.
Constant Weight Diving – Divers may use their fins, and a rope to guide them down. However, one can’t tug on the rope to assist in propulsion.
No Fins Diving – Divers must use only their arms and legs to reach their depth, no fins are allowed.
On top of their first annual competition, Innerdive is leading expeditions out to shipwrecks and caves around the Maltese archipelago, giving world class divers a taste of Malta’s unparalleled underwater world; the heart of the Mediterranean.
Innerdive hope to not only continue hosting annual freediving competitions, but to put Malta on the map as the premier training destination for professional competitors leading up to other world challenges. Apparently, the underwater landscape surrounding our islands is simply perfect for freediving.
“Malta is the perfect place to host this. We have 100 metres to dive, and another 100 metres after that,” Luke Cassar said. “There are very few places like this in the world.”
If you think you’ve got the lungs to handle it, give these gents a call and dive deep for some underwater zen.
Free diver Brady Bradshaw swims in the Carlsbad Lagoon. Photo by Shana Thompson
ENCINITAS — What could you do in one breath?
In the span of a single inhale and exhale, free diver Brady Bradshaw descended 51 meters (about the height of a 17-story building) below the surface of the water and then resurfaced two minutes and five seconds later. That was his deepest dive to date.
Bradshaw’s longest free dive was two minutes and 40 seconds, and on land he has demonstrated that he can hold his breath for five minutes and 50 seconds.
Free divers like to say that they dive to look within, while scuba divers dive to look around.
Photo by Carey Blakely
Like Bradshaw, those who rely on the physiology-defying ability to hold the breath and surrender to the ocean’s pressure find a zen state that keeps compelling them back to the depths.
To understand the sensation of free diving, Bradshaw explained how the lungs compress during the descent and that around a depth of 15 meters, the buoyancy of his body gives way to increased atmospheric pressure, allowing him to sink rapidly. This is called the free fall. At the same time, blood moves from the extremities to the core, and the heart rate slows in a process called bradycardia — a name that makes Brady smile.
Around 30 meters below the ocean’s surface in the San Diego area, the water becomes dark. Sometimes the only thing Bradshaw can see is the dive line, and the only sound — as he descends faster and faster — is his hand running down that line.
Bradshaw said the dark, quiet state of the water “melds” with a relaxed, meditative state of the mind and body for what he described as the “best feeling in the world” and the “perfect opportunity for total surrender.”
Bradshaw lives in Encinitas, works for the environmental nonprofit Oceana and free dives twice a week off La Jolla Shores. About one-quarter mile from the shore there is a canyon about 50 meters deep, providing the perfect spot for diving. Sea lions occasionally swim underwater alongside Bradshaw and his friends.
But like other extreme sports, such as big-wave surfing or climbing daunting peaks, free diving comes with risks. Bradshaw, for instance, is currently recovering from a tear in his trachea brought on by what’s called a “squeeze,” which results from the pressure of going too deep too fast without first being adapted to that depth. He’s refraining from diving for four weeks until his trachea heals.
Bradshaw once blacked out — a common risk brought on by a lack of oxygen — during a free diving competition in a pool. In those competitions, participants swim as far underwater as they can in one breath. Bradshaw attributes his blackout to being too competitive that day and not relaxed or in sync with his body.
At the extreme end, people have died from free diving, including the female phenom Natalia Molchanova, who was hailed as the greatest free diver in the history of the sport. In 2015 off the coast of Spain, Molchanova went down for a dive of her own after giving lessons to a wealthy Russian. She never surfaced. It’s possible that if Molchanova had been with another experienced diver that she might have been saved.
“Free diving is not dangerous if it’s done in the right way,” Bradshaw said. One of the top safety rules is to always dive with an experienced partner who functions as a safety.
Photo by Shana Thompson
“We can get obsessed with the depth” and about setting records, Bradshaw noted. He said it’s important to rein in the ego and realize that “it takes a long time for the body to adapt to a new depth.”
As a trained and frequent practitioner of yoga — with the om symbol tattooed on his right palm — Bradshaw explained how a person doing yoga can increase his or her range of motion over time as the muscles stretch and strengthen. He compared that process to free diving and said the nervous and circulatory systems require proper training, too. Bradshaw also stressed that “the body’s limits change day to day,” which is important to stay attuned to.
Before diving, Bradshaw likes to float on his back and look at the sky to get into a calm state. “If I’m too competitive with myself, it doesn’t work,” he said. He likes to keep his diving style as natural as possible, using fins only and no weights.
During dives, he’ll have fears that he pushes from his mind. Bradshaw laughed, recalling how he’s occasionally wondered if a shark was swimming nearby in the dark. “I also felt panicked the first time I dove to 51 meters. I looked up at the blackness, saw only the line in front of me, and wondered what have I done? Did I do something I can’t get out of?” That feeling reminded him of times he’d been mid-air on his skateboard and doubted whether he could land the jump safely.
But as Bradshaw sees it, “Panic is not an option. It’s physiologically discouraged because you need the oxygen.” He has worked to untrain the panic response and sees free diving as a “sanctuary and total reset. I come up and everything’s all good.”
One could call Bradshaw a free diving devotee. In 2015, he withdrew from graduate school in Australia to pursue his newfound and rapidly escalating passion for free driving, brought on initially by reading the book “Deep” by James Nestor and diving in the Great Barrier Reef.
Nestor describes the marine mammal diving reflex that relies, in part, on bradycardia and the blood shift from the extremities to the heart, lungs and brain. Free divers utilize those same mechanisms, which, it turns out, are also inherent to humans.
In fact, newborn babies up until about 6 months of age exhibit the diving reflex. Put them under water and they’ll naturally hold their breath and open their eyes. Their heart rate will slow to conserve oxygen, and blood will primarily circulate to the vital organs, where it is most needed. According to an article in Live Science, that “instinct may be a vestige of our ancient marine origins.”
For someone who was studying marine mammals at the time, this connection between humans and marine mammals was fascinating and pulled Bradshaw away from the textbook and into the water.
While Bradshaw says his ego wants to win a competition and set a record, “which might be in reach in a pool,” his ultimate goal is to teach people to free dive. “I want to show people the capability of their own bodies,” which he compared to “magic.”
Bradshaw also hopes that anyone who experienced the beauty of silence while deep in the sea would want to protect and preserve our marine environments.
The whale shark is the largest fish in the world, but much of its lifecycle remains shrouded in mystery. These giants gather in just a handful of places around the globe – something which has long baffled scientists – but our new research has started to explain why. A better understanding of whale shark movements could help prevent further population loss in a species that has already experienced a 63 per cent population decline over the past 75 years.
When swimming solo, the whale shark, which can grow up to 18.8m in length and 34 tonnes in weight, travels all over the world. Recently, a group of scientists tracked the remarkable journey of one whale shark across the Pacific from Panama to the Philippines. At more than 12,000 miles it proved to be one of the longest migrations ever recorded.
Yet whale sharks are known to come together at just a few specific locations around the world. Anything from ten to 500 whale sharks may gather at any one time in areas off the coasts of Australia, Belize, the Maldives, Mexico and more.
Face to face with the world’s largest fish.Jil Kühne, Author provided
Approximately 20 hotspots have been identified – mere pinpricks in the vastness of the world’s oceans – but we don’t know what exactly attracts the whale sharks to them. In some cases the sites are linked to a specific biological phenomenon – such as the spawning of land crabs at Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean, which provides whale sharks with the seasonal equivalent of a Christmas feast. Our new research aimed to discover whether there was something else that united the places where these giants of the ocean hang out.
Our new global study shows that whale sharks congregate in specific areas of shallow water, next to steep slopes that quickly give way to areas much deeper water (usually between 200m and 1,000m).
We identified three main reasons. First, the deep water is used by whale sharks for feeding. Studies have shown the sharks diving to depths of almost 2 kilometres (1,928m to be precise) to feed on zooplankton and squid.
A group of whale sharks feeding near Indonesia
Second, the steep slopes are known to bring nutrients up to the surface from the deep, which in turn increases the abundance of plankton and attracts large numbers of filter feeding species. And finally, in shallow water, as well as feeding on coral and fish spawn, the sharks are able to thermoregulate, warming themselves back up after their dives into deep water which gets as cold as 4℃.
Valuable but vulnerable
If you’ve ever seen or swum with a whale shark, it was most likely in one of these relatively shallow aggregation areas. Knowing where these hotspots are has provided local communities with a windfall from ecotourism. In the Maldives alone, economic benefits from whale shark-related activities were estimated at US$9.4m per year. Whale sharks are worth a lot more alive than dead – and with many of these meeting points in developing countries, the income is invaluable.
But with the increasing pressures of tourism comes new dangers for the sharks. Crowds of snorkelers and tourist vessels are increasingly disturbing the whale shark’s waters, and – more worryingly – risk potentially fatal strikes by boats. To protect these beautiful creatures and continue to reap the rewards of ecotourism, we recommend that marine protected areas should be set up around whale shark gatherings and codes of practice be followed when interacting with them.
Whale sharks are imposing, but feed on krill and other plankton.MWSRP, Author provided
Deep mysteries remain
These discoveries have narrowed down some of the key reasons why whale sharks congregate where they do, but many mysteries remain. Do individuals travel between these hotspots? Coastal gatherings are predominately made up of immature male sharks, usually still just four or five metres long. So where are all the girls? And where do whale sharks mate and give birth? Mating and pupping have never been seen in the wild – but, intriguingly, up to 90 per cent of the whale sharks passing through the Galapagos marine reserve are female and thought to be pregnant.
Could this be a key labour ward for the world’s whale sharks? Last year a BBC film crew at the Galapagos attempted to follow a pregnant female in a submersible to watch it give birth, but to no avail. That’s one secret that the depths are keeping for now.
Sunscreen is vital for skin protection. But researchers are finding that even ‘reef-friendly’ versions may pose serious environmental threats
The link between sunscreen and skin protection is watertight. Unfortunately, many common sunscreens may be devastating for the health of coral reefs. (RuslanDashinsky / iStock)
Earlier this month, Hawaii banned sunscreen. Not all sunscreen—just the kind containing the active ingredients oxybenzone and octinoxate—but that encompassed most of the major brands, from Banana Boat to Coppertone. The reason for this seemingly perverse law, which goes into effect in 2021, was recent research confirming that the lotion we slather on to protect our skin can also do grave harm to the world’s coral reefs.
The Hawaiian ban was based on a 2016 study by Craig Downs and colleagues at the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory, which showed that these two chemicals were to blame for slowing coral growth and increasing the rate of coral bleaching. (Bleaching happens when conditions like temperature change so dramatically that corals turn completely white and the symbiotic algae living in their tissues flee their homes.) In February, Downs told The New York Times that sunscreen and other chemical wash-off through showering and swimming plays a bigger role than climate change in damaging coral reefs.
But just how conclusive the evidence on sunscreen’s impact on coral reefs—and whether consumers should switch to “reef-friendly” sunscreens—remains disputed. According to marine ecology researcher Cinzia Corinaldesi, who has studied the impact of sunscreens on coral reefs since 2003, the problem is that “unfortunately, oxybenzone is not the only harmful ingredient of sunscreens.” Other UV filters, including zinc oxide, are proving to have an impact on coral bleaching—and the ban does nothing to prevent these.
There are two kinds of sunscreen ingredients on the market, which work in different ways. Physical sunscreens, also called mineral or inorganic, block or reflect both UVA and UVB rays; zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are the two most common physical sunscreen ingredients. On the other hand, chemical, or organic, sunscreens, which typically include oxybenzone, octinoxate, avobenzone and PABA as ingredients, absorb and reduce UV rays’ ability to penetrate the skin. Some sunscreen formulas include both kinds of sunscreen actives.
The mounting research on the impact of sunscreen on coral reefs and marine environments is more important than ever, says analytical environmental chemist Felix R. Roman-Velazquez, a professor at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez and one of the researchers behind a new experiment to remove oxybezone from bodies of water. “By 2020, over one billion people around the world will be visiting oceans for recreation and tourism,” he says. “We’re talking about lots of sunscreen that is going to be dumped into the ocean.”
While it’s unclear to what extent exactly bleaching actually affected by sunscreen compared to other factors, an estimated 6,000 to 14,000 tons of sunscreen go into coral reef areas each year. And this is enough, says Corinaldesi, to make an impact.
She would know. In 2008, Corinaldesi and her colleagues the Polytechnic University of Marche in Ancona, Italy, found that three individual chemical, or organic, sunscreen ingredients—oxybenzone, butylparaben and octinoxate—can bleach coral reefs. Considered the first scientific evidence on the impact of sunscreens on coral reefs, the study confirmed what some scientists and locals had witnessed: that swimmers, surfers and divers in popular beach destinations were affecting marine ecosystems. On the Yucatan coast in Mexico, for example, resort managers had noticed living species were dying off in enclosed pools known as cenotes where people regularly swam.
“Up to 40 percent of coral reefs are being bleached,” says Roman-Velazquez. “In the Caribbean, it’s near 60 percent. In Puerto Rico, there’s a lot of bleaching in this area, near our island.” (Seaphotoart / Alamy)
Since the 2008 study, the evidence suggesting chemical, or organic, sunscreen negatively impacts coral reefs has only gotten stronger. And yet organic filters like oxybenzone still dominate the sunscreen market. That’s largely because the alternative—mineral or physical sunscreens containing ingredients like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide—leave behind a heavy white cast that can look ghostly on people with darker skin, and they’re often greasier and tougher to blend in.
But given the evidence, there has been a push in recent years for “reef-friendly” alternatives. While these options, typically in the form of mineral sunscreens, have been considered safer, more environmentally friendly in the media, some new research has suggested that’s not the case. Since 2009, Corinaldesi has been putting these “reef-friendly” ingredients to the test. She has proved, along with other researchers, that some mineral sunscreens and those marketed as “eco-friendly” are no safer for coral reefs than chemical ones.
Confirming previous research, Corinaldesi and her team found in a newly published study that zinc oxide causes severe coral bleaching, damaging hard corals and their symbiotic algae. “Our studies indicate that zinc oxide nanoparticles are very harmful for marine organisms, whereas titanium dioxide with surface coatings and metal doping, have a much lower impact,” she says. “Unfortunately, despite several cosmetic products and sunscreens available in the market are defined ‘reef-safe’ or ‘eco-friendly’ or ‘biodegradable,’ they are not so, and indeed lack specific tests on marine organisms.”
But not everyone believes the evidence is so clear-cut. Seemal R. Desai, a clinical assistant professor of dermatology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, says there aren’t enough large-scale trials to suggest that the connection between sunscreen and coral reef damage is absolute. “There are some small studies that have shown potentially some association with chemical sunscreen [to damage to coral reefs],” he says. “However, we don’t have enough data to say that for sure. So I’m very cautious to buy into the argument about sunscreen causing environmental damage.”
A review of research on studies related to sunscreen and coral reefs by the International Coral Reef Institute suggests that further research is needed. “To date, experiments have largely been undertaken exsitu and there are concerns that they may not properly reflect conditions on the reef, where pollutants could be rapidly dispersed and diluted,” the report states. For example, the report states, concentrations of sunscreen chemicals used in some research work have been higher than those in real coral reef environments. This may skew the perceived impact of reef damage.
Desai is concerned that Hawaii’s ban “may be sending the wrong message that sunscreens aren’t [safe] for use, and I think that’s really dangerous.” A trade association for sunscreen companies also warned in a statement that the ban is putting people at risk of skin cancer. Any environmental damage caused by sunscreen is no excuse to skimp on the sunscreen, given the alternative, Desai warns: “There is no denying the link between UV rays and skin cancer, so not wearing sunscreen would certainly be harmful to the individual patient.”
Dermatologists suggest people should wear sunscreen on a daily basis because UVA rays (which penetrate deep into the skin) and UVB rays (which burn the superficial layers) can wreak havoc on our skin, and they can both directly contribute to skin cancer. In fact, one in five Americans will develop skin cancer by the age of 70, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. Most skin cancers are caused by the sun, and some are deadly.
For consumers both interested in protecting their skin from sun damage and protect the environment, what’s the right choice?
Unfortunately, right now there aren’t many alternatives on the market. One of the reasons is that, since it claims to prevent skin cancer, sunscreen is considered a drug by the Food and Drug Administration, meaning the process for approving sunscreens is more rigorous than other cosmetics. There are only 16 FDA-approved active sunscreen ingredients, and only a handful of those are commonly used, so the choices are limited.
The last time the FDA approved a new sunscreen active ingredient was in the 1990s, and currently, eight new ingredients are pending approval. By contrast, the European Union allows nearly 30 active sunscreen ingredients.
Sandy Walsh, a spokesperson for the FDA, says the agency is working on reviewing additional sunscreen active ingredients as required by the Sunscreen Innovation Act, a 2014 law that was supposed to expedite up the process of over-the-counter sunscreen approvals. “[We’re] doing our part to provide consumers with safe and effective sunscreen formulations,” says Walsh. “To be successful, we need industry’s help, and they need ours. That’s why we’ve also been meeting with manufacturers to discuss sunscreen data recommendations and why we have issued relevant guidance to assist them.”
An effort called the Public Access to SunScreens Coalition has also been working to improve and accelerate the FDA process for new ingredient approval since 2012. But for the time being, the group says Hawaii’s ban is detrimental without viable replacements. “A ban on these ingredients without adequate, FDA-approved alternatives and without extensive research demonstrating that this action is needed to properly balance environmental impact with the risk to public health from inadequate UV protection is premature,” the group said in a letter to Hawaii governor David Y. Ige before the legislation was signed into law.
This sentiment has also been echoed by the Skin Cancer Foundation, which said in a press release that “the legislation in Hawaii emphasizes the need for new sunscreen ingredients and should send a message to the FDA.”
Especially given the most recent study on zinc oxide, Sachleben points out that there aren’t any sunscreens proven to be safe to coral. “The most safe [option] is UV-protective clothing for use in the water. Right now that’s the only thing that has a good sun-blocking capability and minimal impact on coral.”
But you can’t rely only on sun-protective clothing, Desai notes. “Sun-protective clothing does not replace sunscreens,” he says. After all, some skin cancers, like basal and squamous cell, happen most often on the face, arms and necks—areas exposed to the sun and which are not always easy to cover up with clothing, especially on the beach.
In the meantime, scientists are working on a few possible solutions. One research team from the College of Pharmacy at the University of Florida is working on creating a “natural sunscreen” from shinorine, a UV-absorbing ingredient harvested from algae.
Another team in Puerto Rico is working to create biodegradable beads that could soak up oxybenzone from oceans, as highlighted in Popular Science. The moment you step into the ocean, the oxybenzone you’ve slathered on your skin begins to seep into the waters around you. It doesn’t take long for it to build up to dangerous levels, the researchers reported last summer at the American Chemical Society national meeting.
The absorbent beads Roman-Velazquez and his team have created are a bit bigger than poppy seeds. Made from materials derived from algae and chitin, the beads would take about a month to completely disintegrate. In testing the beads for oxybenzone, they were able to remove 95 percent of the contamination within one hour. In theory, the beads could be used in conjunction with other efforts in high-tourism areas. “After people bathe in the beach all day, we can probably develop a process where we have a boat and drag these beads around [within a net] before [the chemicals] wash toward the corals,” Roman-Velazquez says.
Corinaldesi says any efforts to reduce the impact of sunscreen on coral reefs are a move in the right direction. “I appreciate the work done by these scientists to develop new systems to clean up marine water from the oxybenzone for the conservation of tropical reefs,” she says. “This is a first and important step forward to reduce the impact of oxybenzone in marine systems.”
And while their research—which they hope to publish as early as this year—has focused on oxybenzone, Roman-Velazquez says his team is hoping to test other sunscreen ingredients for future studies. He adds that while neither his team’s beads nor Hawaii’s ban offers a simple solution to clear the corals of damage, it’s an important measure. “Tourism is so big in Hawaii, so they should be concerned about protecting those resources,” he says.
An entangled whale shark swims near Molokini on Thursday. — JENNIFER MEYER photo
An entangled juvenile whale shark reported on the backside of Molokini, off of Maui’s south shore, was spotted Thursday for the second time last week, state Department of Land and Natural Resources officials reported Saturday morning.
Witnesses saw the whale shark ensnared by heavy gauge line wrapped around its midsection, officials said. Initial reports put the whale shark last week Sunday off of Olowalu and on Thursday several commercial snorkel and whale tour companies reported the shark near Molokini.
ProDivers provided photos that showed the entanglement as a tight wrap around the whale shark’s body, forward of its pectoral fins, officials said.
“The wrap is cutting into the animal, which is somewhat emaciated,” officials reported. Fisheries experts believe the entanglement to be life threatening.
Whale sharks are listed as endangered worldwide, with an estimated decline of more than 50 percent since 1975. Like many marine animals, they are at risk to threats like entanglement.
Officials asked anyone who sees the entangled whale to report its location by calling (888) 256-9840.
If conditions and resources allow, responders trained in disentangling large whales may attempt to remove the gear, officials said, adding that the responders are with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program.
“While obviously not a whale, if the whale shark was to remain at or near the surface, the team would attempt to use a hooked knife deployed from a long pole (and from a boat) to cut the wrap of line entangling the animal,” officials said.
Whale sharks are an endangered species whose growth and reproduction are poorly understood, according to the research.
Traditionally, the size of whale sharks had been determined using vertebral samples from dead animals, but that was limiting for research purposes.
So the group of researchers used noninvasive techniques to investigate the growth of whale sharks in the South Ari Atoll, Maldives, an area that may be a nursery ground for the sharks.
Scientists analyzed repeat measurements of free swimming whale sharks over a 10-year period.
Total lengths of the sharks were estimated using three methods: visual estimates (which often underestimated the size of the sharks), and laser and tape measurements, which yielded similar results to each other.
After hundreds of shark encounters, researchers estimated that the sharks can live to be 100 to 130 years old and can grow between 50 and 62 feet long at those ages.
“This study suggests that, like some other shark species, we may have been underestimating age by quite a bit,” said Alistair Dove, a marine biologist and conservationist at the Georgia Aquarium. “We used to think whale sharks lived to be 75 to 100.”
But these numbers only show that more research about whale sharks is needed to better understand them.
“Differences between these estimates and those from other studies, underscore the need for regional studies,” the research concluded.
Whale sharks are listed as a vulnerable species, with a declining population, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Even though their numbers are decreasing, whale sharks still are hunted in parts of Asia, including the Philippines.
Fortunately for most oceangoing creatures and those that visit the ocean occasionally — like people — whale sharks’ favorite food is plankton, which they scoop up in their colossal, gaping mouths while swimming near the surface.
Whale sharks are also typically docile, sometimes allowing swimmers to hitch a ride.
The sharks have flattened heads with blunt snouts and short barbels protruding from their nostrils. They are gray to brown on their sides, with white spots along with pale vertical and horizontal stripes. Their bellies are white.
Whale sharks usually prefer warmer waters, which means they can be popularly found in tropical seas, but they can be found along coastlines around the world, including the East Coast of the U.S.