reef safe sunscreen

Not just a drop in the ocean….

Sunscreen is an essential part of almost everyone’s holiday preparations. We choose a sunscreen that we can afford, that offers the right level of SPF protection and that comes in a spray, cream or oil depending on our preferences. But do we look at or even care about what’s actually in our sunscreen? Is your sunscreen giving you and your environment the best protection it can? When it comes to the sea your sunscreen could be letting you down. Any diver who learned to dive with a reputable organization knows that caring for our oceans and everything that lives in them is an essential part of learning to dive and continuing to dive. New divers learn that it’s vital to protect the underwater environment for future generations to visit. But even the most careful diver could be damaging coral reefs systems without even knowing it.  Corals are vulnerable to many threats created by our modern world such as over fishing, rising sea temperatures, ocean acidification and run off from industry and agriculture. But corals are also being damaged by something much less obvious.  Something each and every one of us can do our part to address. Sunscreen!

Traditional sunscreens are loaded with preservatives, chemicals and nano particles that have now been proven to damage coral reefs by contributing significantly to coral bleaching, and cause damage to our bodies through absorption of toxins from the chemicals through our skin. The majority of these sunscreens contain oxybenzone, a chemically active ingredient that has been identified as one of the most damaging chemicals for corals. The active ingredient in sunscreen is the component that does most of all of the work to protect your skin from harmful UVA and UVB rays, which is great as long as the active ingredient is not oxybenzone or other damaging ingredients such as avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene and octinoxate or a combination of these chemicals.

A report published in 2015 in the Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology reveals that oxybenzone is a major contributing factor in widespread coral bleaching. Furthermore the chemical does not just kill the coral. It damages DNA in adult coral and deforms DNA in coral in the larval stage making it unlikely to form properly.  Sadly this means that anytime you wear a sunscreen that contains oxybenzone or other harmful active ingredients and swim in waters that contain corals you are actively allowing the damaging chemical to come in contact with fragile corals. The Washington Post (2015) notes that ‘the equivalent of a drop of water in a half dozen Olympic sized swimming pools’ is enough to damage fragile coral reef systems. Just think how much sunscreen it takes to cover every tourist that visits a beach that has coral reefs nearby! A lot, right? Well, it is estimated that 14,000 tons of sunscreen ends up in coral reefs worldwide annually (Huffington Post). 14,000 TONS!!!!

Sunscreen does not spread or dissipate easily in water. Therefore tourist hotspots tend to have much higher concentrations of the chemical in the water. Unfortunately, a lot of tourist hotspots also have coral reef systems. It is estimated that 90% of dive and snorkeling tourism is concentrated in 10% of the world’s coral reefs (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: NOAA).  But you don’t have to be a diver or snorkeler to contribute to the damage. Even if you haven’t been in the sea on holiday the sunscreen you apply every day gets washed away in the shower and ends up in the wastewater system thereby ending up in the sea anyway in most cases.

This is all very compelling evidence to suggest that we all need to be far more responsible when it comes to what products we take into the water with us. However this may not be compelling enough for those of us who don’t feel a responsibility to our environment (and sadly, yes there are people who don’t). Is there any other reason to switch to a reef safe sunscreen? Well, yes. There is also evidence to suggest that the toxins in oxybenzone are absorbed through the skin every time sunscreen is applied. Based on a representative sampling of children and adults it is estimated that 96% of Americans have oxybenzone in their bodies (Centre for Disease Control, Calafat 2008).  Laboratory tests have shown that oxybenzone upsets hormone levels and acts like estrogen in the system, altering sperm counts in many animals and causing endometriosis in women. It has also been found in mothers’ breast milk and been found to cause skin allergies. So whatever way you look at it and no matter what you are seeking to protect oxybenzone is bad news.

But do you have to decide between protecting your skin and protecting corals? Thankfully, no you don’t. First of all hats, long sleeve shirts and sarongs provide good shade from the sun’s harmful rays. There are also many different options now available for people who love spending time in the sea and who care about protecting our oceans.  No sunscreen is completely ‘reef safe’ but the term is being used to refer to sunscreens that cause much less damage to corals than traditional sunscreens. Reef safe sunscreens are oxybenzone free and are very often free of parabens, nano particles and other nasty chemicals, of which we are increasingly becoming aware and do not want in our skincare products. Mineral active ingredients such as zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, which have not been found to harm corals, or a combination of both provide the sun protection in reef safe sunscreens.

One of the main criticisms leveled at sunscreens containing mineral active ingredient is that they are hard to apply and have a ‘paint like’ quality. However this is something that manufacturers are aware of and new more user-friendly versions are coming out all the time. Another draw back critics site is cost. Reef safe sunscreens tend to be all-natural and unfortunately they are often a little more expensive than the cheaper common chemical based sunscreens. However they are similar in price to sunscreens from some of the bigger manufacturers so this argument does not hold a lot of water.  But personal experience confirms that reef safe sunscreens last a very long time and do provide excellent protection from the sun making them very good value for money. They are best applied on well moisturized skin that is dry to the touch So it might take you a little longer to rub the cream in before you hit the water but is it really worth contributing to coral reef damage just to save two minutes and a tiny bit of elbow grease?

When it comes to being responsible for our environment people often say that anything one individual can do will make no difference. Despite the fact that this logic is flawed (but that’s another article for another time) wearing reef safe sunscreen is actually something that individuals can do that can make a very big difference. In fact, everyday average people are those best placed to address this problem. By making one simple change to your holiday preparations you are not only ensuring that you and your family are protected, you are also making sure that one of the most important ecosystems in the world is being protected. It is within your capabilities. Make a difference and go reef safe today!!

Report by RD Comms Officer Ivana Rubino


planting day

Protect Earth. Restore Land. Engage People.

On Friday 17 June we were invited by YSO Madagascar (Young reSearchers Organisation) to attend their fifth birthday celebrations. We’ve had the opportunity to work with the YSO on a few different projects recently including coral bleaching surveys, so we were very happy to be included in the celebrations. The YSO’s fifth birthday happened to coincide with World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought which has been commemorated every year since 1994 when the United Nations implemented the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). Both of these occasions meant that last Friday’s celebrations were important to a lot of people.

So, what does an organisation of researchers, conservationists and scientists do to celebrate their birthday on World Day to Combat Desertification and why is it important? They plant trees, of course! The slogan for World Day to Combat Desertification this year is – Protect Earth, Restore Land, Engage People. And that’s exactly what the YSO aimed to achieve on their birthday with the help of the local community and a number of local NGOs. Early on Friday morning a taxi brousse brought our interns, volunteers and staff to the Songeritelo sand dune. The sand dune provides protection to the mangrove forests in Ambondrolava, where NGO Honko Conservation and Management and VOI Mamelo Honko are based, and in Ambotsike. However due to deforestation the motile dune system requires stabilization to preserve the barrier it provides. As the ReefDoctor team climbed out of the taxi brousse we could see that work was well underway.  A line was forming in front of us through the field and to the edge of the water, made up of people from the nearby village of Songeritelo, YSO members, NGO Honko Conservation and Management and VOI Mamelo Honko, NGO Hunger Hilfe and GIZ –Page environmental magazine.  We quickly joined the human chain and began passing Causina equisetifolia saplings, known in French as Filao, from the roadside down into the muddy banks where they were ferried across a stretch of water by pirogue. Once we had passed about 400 trees across, we all waded over and met the pirogues on the other side to unload all the trees and take them to the planting site.

After being welcomed to the planting day by a representative of the Mayor of Belalanda, the members of the local community and YSO, we were given a tutorial on how to plant the trees by Faustinato Behivoke, a member of YSO, and we got to work. Filao are salt tolerant trees found in sand dunes and form an important part of sand dune vegetation. They can be found growing naturally along the coast of the bay and provide, among other things, fuel for fires, dye for tanning and of course, stabilizing vegetation for sandy soil. It was tiring work but with so many people involved the majority of the planting was done in a few hours, after which we were treated to lunch.

‘Today, the land is considered a vital link in solving many other development challenges’ Faustinato explained to who brought the event to national attention. Every member of the community benefits in some way from protecting the land or, in this case, sand dune whether it is from having access to managed resources like wood, having a food supply when juvenile animals survive under the protection that the mangroves provide or protecting land from coastal erosion.  The activities of the 17th of June brought people from many different parts of the community together to protect a natural resource that can contribute greatly to the overall objectives of sustainable development.

Report by RD Comms Officer, Ivana Rubino


Suffering For Souvenirs

Today is World Environment Day, run by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). This year the theme is ‘Go wild for life: zero tolerance for the illegal wildlife trade’. During the early 1990s $160 billion was spent annually on the wildlife trade; it is considered the second biggest threat to species survival (source: WWF). We decided to support UNEP’s theme this year by highlighting the issues involved with the sale and exportation of marine life, in particular the coral reef curio trade.

An estimated 14–30 million fish, 1.5 million live stony corals, 4 million pounds of coral skeleton, 65–110 thousand pounds of red and black coral, and 9–10 million of other invertebrates are removed each year from marine ecosystems across the world to supply the aquarium, curio/home décor, and coral jewelry industries (source: Defenders of Wildlife, 2012). The marine curio trade is a global industry involving the sale of shells and dried marine animals such as sponges, seahorses, corals, and sea urchins. While a large portion of marine curios are sold legally, illegal trade still continues worldwide.

Every year tourists take home mementos from their favourite holiday destinations. These mementos are often bought from vendors on the beach, in markets and in resorts. These transactions are, more often than not legal and therefore it may be the case that people buying these mementos are not aware of the impact their actions have on the environment locally.  Its just one shell, right? There is no harm in that.  And if it were just one shell there would be no harm in it. But if every person who goes on holiday or buys shells from vendors buys just one shell that quickly adds up over the course of a year and the affects can be significant.

But if you don’t buy or take endangered species there is no problem, right? If you only buy shells and jewelry you’re not affecting any vulnerable species, right? Unfortunately, no, that is not the case. The marine aquarium and curio trade represents a prominent threat to coral reefs. In many cases, the local and regional intensity of marine species collection appears to be occurring at unsustainable levels and some surveys have indicated that almost all reefs have been affected by over-collection.

So, exactly what damage does the curio trade in specific do to coral reefs and local marine species populations? Firstly the empty shell that tourists buy once had an animal living in it. In the Toliara region of SW Madagascar many of the shells you see on sale are cowrie shells. They are very shiny and smooth, and look as though they have been polished.  And they have, by the snail that lived inside it. Cowries cover their shells with the lobes of their mantle and the action of covering and uncovering the shell leaves the surface polished. When the shell is collected the animal dies. Cowries have been valued for centuries as ornaments because of their smooth surface and attractive colouring.  Many of the bracelets and necklaces you see for sale on beaches contain cowrie shells. But they are not the only creatures collected for the curio trade. Dried puffer fish, seahorses and sea urchins together with many different species of shells including scorpion, triton and murex snails can also be bought regardless of how vulnerable that particular species is. The curio trade does not discriminate between vulnerable and abundant species.

Second, many of the shells and all coral fragments collected for the curio trade come from coral reefs. These reefs are often damaged by people collecting for the curio trade by breaking coral to remove it, stepping on fragile coral and other organisms and sometimes blasting parts of the coral with dynamite to get at shells and invertebrates. Third, shell materials left behind by dead organisms perform many important ecosystem services such as beach stabilisation, provision of colonization surfaces for algae and encrusting organisms, and habitat creation (material for bird nests, home for hermit crabs etc.) Furthermore, shell material is continuously dissolved in most coastal areas resulting in elemental recycling back into the global marine carbon reservoir. Therefore, the removal of shells will lead to changes in local calcium carbon carbonate cycles, with large-scale biogeochemical consequences.

Continued support of the curio trade encourages over exploitation, which puts pressure on the resource and on the health of reefs where these creatures are found. This in turn can disadvantage the local community. What do they do when all the shells are gone or the reef is so damaged it cannot sustain the local fish population that feed on coral and algae?

Shells are really pretty, that’s why people like to wear them and decorate things with them, but they are so much prettier when you see them in their natural surroundings on a beautiful colourful reef full of nooks and crannies to look into. Instead of buying shells why not use the money to pay a local boat owner or dive shop to take you to a reef to snorkel or dive to see how beautiful everything looks in the place it should be? Take a picture and leave the shell and everything else there for the next visitors to see.

Story by RD Comms Officer Ivana Rubino

turtle release

World Turtle Day 2016

Today is World Turtle Day and here at Reef Doctor we focus heavily on turtle protection. There are seven species of turtle in the world, with four of these seven species classified as endangered according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.  In southwest Madagascar, five species occur naturally, however the most common type of marine turtle in the Bay of Ranobe is the Green Turtle (Chelonia mydas), so named because of the layer of green fat under the carapace (turtle shell).  We also see the occasional Hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata), a critically endangered species.

Sea turtles face many threats; plastic pollution, nest predation, changes to beach structure associated with urban development, boat strikes, by-catch, and of course, ubiquitous climate change.  However, around the Bay of Ranobe, they are also the target of a commercial fishery, despite being a legally protected species.

Reef Doctor, with assistance from The Rufford Small Grants Foundation, investigated the role of turtle fishing in Vezo culture, to understand the social and economic importance of these animals to local coastal communities.  We identified that the once highly revered role that marine turtles played in traditional ceremonies was largely eroded, with a greater value placed on their meat for direct consumption, or sale.  Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world, with 95% of the population living in poverty (World Bank, 2015).  The average daily income for a fisherman in the Bay of Ranobe is around 2,000 Ariary.  When a large green turtle can easily sell at market for 200,000 Ariary, it is easy to understand the economic incentive to catch this species.

In response, Reef Doctor established FI.MPA.MI.FA, a local association of fishermen and turtle hunters who were concerned about the sustainability of this resource.  The result was signing into local law the first community-led marine turtle fishery regulation, a minimum size limit.  Initially set at 50 cm curved carapace length, this size limit was later increased to 70 cm, to fully protect juvenile turtles that have not reached sexual maturity.

To compliment this regulation, a tagging and alternative livelihoods program was established with assistance from the Darwin Initiative.  Under this programme, turtles caught under the size limit are brought to Reef Doctor where our team of trained staff and volunteers record specific information about the turtle such as size, where and how it was caught.  A unique identifying tag is then placed on the turtle, and it is released back into the ocean.  Data is shared with the Kelonia marine turtle observatory in Reunion, and within Madagascar to inform management authorities and guide fishery policy.  Data is also used to monitor the success of Reef Doctors’ other turtle protection programmes.

Last year, over 600 juvenile turtles were tagged and released – a substantial step forward in the protection of these beautiful species!

What’s it like tagging a turtle? At Reef Doctor volunteers have the opportunity to tag turtles. It’s a simple procedure to perform and once you get over the squeamishness, it’s not so bad. For those of us who worry about hurting the turtle (yes the non scientists!) it helps to bear in mind that despite the turtle having a really terrible day being caught (often with a spear gun) and dragged on land to be tagged, at least they don’t end up in a cooking pot!

For further information please visit our Fano Project and Alternative Livelihoods pages.

Story by RD Comms Officer Ivana Rubino & Aquaculture Project Manager Cale Golding



Mangrove Planting Day

After a week of cool weather, Saturday 9th April was a beautiful sunny day. Perfect for a spot of gardening. But why just do a little gardening or plant one tree when you can do a lot of gardening and plant 43,000 trees! That’s exactly what members of the community of the region of Belalanda, a number of NGOs based in the area, government officials from the Department of Industry and the Ministry of Fisheries together with the Mayor of Belalanda did.

The annual event, organized by the Regional Office of the Ministry of Fisheries in Toliara, took place in the village of Ambotsibotiske and an estimated 200 people attended. The NGO working to protect and plant mangroves in the area: Honko, and the local association VOI Mamelo Honko hosted the event.

The ReefDoctor team arrived smothered in mosquito repellent and sunscreen, ready to help plant three different varieties of mangrove propagules. Proagules are the seeds of the mangrove tree and are germinated while still attached to the mother plant. When the seed or proagule matures it falls and either becomes embedded in the soil or is dispersed by the tide. Planting proagules was a lot easier than expected, as they merely need to be placed the right way up in the soil, roughly one meter apart. Mangrove trees produce so many propagules that the easiest and best way to plant them, on an occasion like this, is to embed large numbers of propagules in suitable conditions and hope for the best. The success of this planting method and previous planting days could be seen in the replanted areas we passed through on the way to the sandbank we were replanting. It is also an excellent opportunity for people from many different sectors of the community to come together with a common purpose every year.

This year, the large crowd gathered near the sandbank in Ambotsibotske and listened to speeches and a short tutorial on how to plant the propagules, as they waited for the tide to go out. Once the water levels were low enough everyone crossed the river to get to the sandbank where 43,000 red, black and yellow mangrove propagules awaited. People filled bags and sarongs and carried armfuls of propagules, which were collected by Honko staff and volunteers and VOI Mamelo Honko, into the area to be planted, and got to work. There are six common species of mangrove. Planting focused on three species. Red mangroves (Rhizophora mucronata), easily identified by their arching props and aerial roots, are used locally for charcoal production. The large aerial roots provide an excellent nesting and refuge area for birds and marine animals. Yellow mangroves (Ceriops tagal) are one of the best charcoal sources and are used extensively for cooking fires. Known locally as Tanga; meaning single foot, the yellow mangrove has a buttressed base. Its durable wood is also used locally for construction poles. The bark is used for tanning and dyeing. Black mangroves (Bruguiera gymnorhiza) have roughly fissured grey- black bark and distinctive knobbly bent knee-shaped roots. Locally there is no distinction between yellow and black mangroves as they both have a single foot trunk and hard wood used for firewood and tanning fishing nets.

Honko has been operating in the area since 2007 and has successfully replanted and protected a large area of mangroves but due to the importance of mangroves both ecologically and economically this is an ongoing process. Madagascar has the third largest mangrove stands in Africa but on average 3000 hectares are lost every year (FAO 2005) to development and over exploitation.

Four hectares of mangroves were planted on Saturday 9th April. It is a small portion of the 3000 lost annually but a considerable amount of planting in just one day. Members of the community took part in rejuvenating and protecting their natural resources and volunteers from the various NGOs get to finish their volunteer experience knowing that they planted a tiny piece of Madagascar that will, hopefully, thrive for years to come.



Story by RD Comms Officer Ivana Rubino