I’m a snorkeler. Floating along the coast above coral reefs filled with life, feeling the warm sun above is one of my happiest places. So I have a soft spot for such environments and for the sea turtles that visit them.
My most recent travels took me to the Philippines. In El Nido, Palawan, local business people offered a nice opportunity to support a simple, local project to reduce damage to the coral reef: mooring buoys.
As we jumped in to help them raise funds, I was surprised at how many fellow visitors to the island didn’t really know anything about the coral reef they were swimming in and around. I mean, I can’t blame them. Most are big city folk who have had little opportunity to even wonder about such things. It turned out to be a great chance to brush up on some concepts and spread the word on how to be a kinder tourist in these beautiful places.
Here are some of the things we talked about.
First things first: Why mooring buoys?
One of the most common water activities in Palawan is Island hopping. Tourists jump on board small boats and go from one volcanic formation to the next, swimming, snorkeling, kayaking and picnicking. When we arrive at each island, the boat has to drop anchor. Often that falls right onto fragile coral structures.
As you might imagine, this does quite a bit of damage. Especially when you consider how often these boats come and go. Our group alone had eight boats visiting four islands… and we most certainly weren’t the only ones out there.
As a first step toward arresting the negative effects, the El Nido Chamber of Commerce decided to raise funds and help install more mooring buoys throughout the archipelago.
Why protect the coral reef?
Coral reefs may look like one giant organism, but they are actually an ecosystem of various life forms working together. The coral itself hosts polyps, tiny jellyfish like creatures that connect together to form colonies. These colonies attract algae, and through photosynthesis, the algae provide the coral with food and give the reef the gorgeous colors we all love so much.
When coral reefs are stressed, sometimes through our activities (like non-biodegradable sunscreen, plastic and other garbage dumping, boat anchoring, etc.), the coral expels the algae…which they need to survive.
No algae, no colors. And other creatures that live and eat there also leave. The result is bleached coral, a white dying skeleton. When we take measures to protect coral reefs before they turn brown and are in fact dead, they can be revived.
Saving coral reefs means saving ecosystems and economies.
Coral reefs buffer coastlines against storm surges and shoreline erosion by reducing wave energy an average 97%.
Without coral reefs, people on land face rising seas, fisheries risk collapse, and scientists lose opportunities to develop lifesaving medicines like cancer medications, painkillers, and bone grafts.
And then there are the animals
In terms of marine life, it means saving the many creatures, like the sea turtles and clownfish we come to see on our snorkeling tours.
Reefs occupy only 1% of the world’s marine environment, but they are home to a quarter of marine species. They support local tourism and the commercial fishing industry, both of which in turn provide food security for hundreds of millions of people.
Good guests make for good coastlines
When we use biodegradable sunscreen, keep the coast trash-free, donate to help programs that prevent damage, and support businesses involved in restoration efforts, we see more of these:
Near the coastlines, the green sea turtles live within shallow bays and protected shores. Coral reefs provide red, brown, and green algae for their diet and give protection from predators and rough storms.
While Hawksbill turtles live part of their lives in the open ocean, they spend more time in shallow lagoons and coral reefs where they feed on sponges, anemones, squid and shrimp.
Clown Fish… that’s right, Nemo!
Anemonefish like Nemo and Marlin live in coral reefs in sea anemones (a type of polyp). Their presence keeps the sea anemones alive, and as we talked about earlier, polyps like the sea anemone keep the coral reef alive.
We want to travel, eat well and be comfortable as we explore the world’s most beautiful spots. None of us—at home or away—lead perfectly eco-friendly lives, but all of us can surely take steps towards learning and having a gentler touch with our natural places.