Since Shark Week is at its peak right now, it's important to not only marvel at their awesomeness but also to learn more about them. You've probably heard about this by now, but our oceans aren't in the greatest shape right now. It can be hard to understand, but the sea is a very tightly knit ecosystem, and the smallest things can have terrifying chains of consequences.
Perhaps one of the most publicized examples of the dire state of our oceans is the decline of coral reefs all over the world. But first, what are they, anyway? Coral reefs are made up of millions of micro-organisms, tiny animals, which is why they actually "grow" year over year if they have the right conditions. Their shape and physical groupings are also crucial because they provide an easy source of nutrients for most fish in the sea, as well as shelter. Many marine species have evolved over the years to resemble coral, or to at least match it's color to hide better.
Since a lot of fish hang out around coral reefs to feed off the micro-organisms present there, sharks see them as prime hunting grounds. Depending on the shark species, they act as predators at various levels in the food chain that coral reefs are. If there are no sharks around coral reefs, there's too many fish feeding off of them, in turn potentially destroying them. This is how something seemingly meaningless, like coral reefs disappearing, can destabilize everything. This could lead, for example, to sharks venturing closer and closer to humans because they don't have any food sources left.
The simple answer is pollution. We dump too many chemicals in the sea, and that, in turn, affects the fragile coral reefs. The two main chemicals that are being pointed at are oxybenzone and octinoxate. These chemicals essentially bleach the coral reefs, which makes them more vulnerable to disease, and can even damage their DNA and hurt their growth.
The worst part? If you ever swam in the sea, you probably unknowingly contributed to this issue. Oxybenzone and octinoxate are key ingredients in most commercially available sunscreen. Sunscreen washes off your body as you frolic in the water, and the harmful chemicals slowly make their way to the coral reefs. Now, it's still essential to wear sunscreen while swimming in the ocean for many reasons, but it's important to read the label of the product you're putting on your skin.
Most sunscreens on the market, the ones with oxybenzone and octinoxate, act in a very specific way: They aim to absorb UV rays before they can cause damage to your skin. Natural sunscreen alternatives have a different strategy altogether, they aim to block UV rays completely, hence why they're often called physical sunscreens.
These natural, physical sunscreens are considered Reef-Safe because their ingredients are absorbed by the micro-organisms in coral reefs. And if you think sunscreen can't possibly be that big of a culprit in the decline of coral reefs, it's actually so bad that Hawaii passed a law earlier this year banning the sale of conventional sunscreen in their state. The main target of this law was the protection of coral reefs.
Environmental protection is a very overwhelming subject. It feels like we, as individuals, can't possibly make a meaningful change. Part of that is true, coral reefs are dying for many reasons, and some like ocean warming that are pretty much out of our control. Changing the brand of sunscreen you use? That's easy, and it makes a real, concrete change.
It's something you can do right now, and it'll ensure that Shark Week will never be about an awesome but extinct animal.