Dive Deeper Blog

Leaving No Trace in Ocean-Side Communities

One Diver’s Opinion – Guest Blog post by Michelle Montgomery

When I moved to Key Largo in 2013, I was absolutely enamoured by the tightly woven relationship between our local reefs and the wellness of our community. Dive shops, snorkel operations, tour boats, fishing charters—our reefs bring thousands of divers, snorkelers, and water-lovers to us each year; it is the main attraction to our island and helps keep our businesses going.

However, a study published by the Environmental Health Perspectives journal in 2008 estimated that 4,000 to 6,000 metric tons of sunscreen wash off swimmers annually in oceans worldwide, and up to 10 percent of coral reefs are directly threatened by sunscreen-induced bleaching due to the specific ingredients of these sunscreens.

This means ocean-sustained communities like Key Largo directly contribute to the levels of sunscreen in the ocean, but despite being armed with this knowledge, we still allow the sale and use of harmful sunscreens via our shops, tour operations, and more.


We KNOW that specific ingredients in most sunscreens sold and used across our island are directly harming the reefs we RELY on to make money.


So what can community leaders and business owners do to educate tourists on the impact sunscreens are having on our ocean?

Culturally, being eco-conscious is a more important topic now than at any other time in history. The world’s focus has begun to shift to being organic and healthy, taking care to limit our ecological footprints, making a change, and living responsibly. It isn’t unreasonable to think we could make a huge paradigm shift in ocean conservation leadership if we can do what certain famous locales such as Xcaret, Xel-Ha, Garrafon Park, Chankanaab Park, and the protected marine park in Cozumel have done: make the use of biodegradable sunscreen mandatory, and any other type of sun products are confiscated upon entry to their facilities.

All it takes is a little initiative to make positive changes for ocean-sustained communities.


1.What if water-based tour operators looked to understand the ingredients of the sunscreen they not only sell in their shops, but that end up on their boats via their visitors and customers?


The following sunscreen ingredients are why there is major concern for all that sunscreen in the ocean:

  • Octinoxate
  • Octisalate
  • Oxybenzone
  • Benzophenone-2
  • Parabens
  • Coatings used on zinc oxide to reduce whitening
  • Mineral oil

These ingredients have been proven to be extremely harmful to our coral reefs and marine life.

Unfortunately, sunscreen brands use terms that make them sound extra-friendly to reefs and fish—they might even claim that they are—but a quick glance at their ingredients will tell you they aren’t.

If water-based tour operators knew what was harmful to the reefs, they could carefully choose to put on their shop shelves, and what they allow on their boats.

This would start to limit the amount of sunscreen in the ocean.

2. What if the subject of sunscreen was covered in ALL diving certifications, conservation programs and tourist education?


Dive shops who offer certification courses are in the perfect position to educate every single student about the effects of sunscreen; programs like Blue Star are in a position to make sunscreen education a part of their criteria for rating and recognition; snorkel boats and glass-bottom boats can add it to their briefings; all tourist hubs, like our Visitor Centers, hotels and popular planning websites, could include sunscreen education in the information they provide their visitors.

The best part about this idea? It would be easy to do for all of them.


3.What if we didn’t just talk about these ideas? What if our community decided to get serious about it?


Why are we—as a community who relies on the ocean for the majority of our business—not taking a stronger stance against harmful sunscreen? I wish there was some way to stop even the corporate stores on our island, like Walgreens for example, from carrying all brands that use proven harmful ingredients…but if not that, then it can start with the local businesses.

“We need the government to make the change,” someone told me when I was talking about this subject with them, and I felt my whole face twist into an expression that probably wasn’t all that attractive because…No, we don’t. We can’t wait for the government to come fix this problem: we can take care of our own communities, we can take care of our environment, we can take care of each other.


Make the choice to do better—decide how YOU are going to take action:


Figure out how you and/or your business can help make sunscreen education a part of your business model.

Yes, I said business model. Because if we continue to inadvertently support 4,000 to 6,000 metric tons of sunscreen washing into our oceans worldwide, and allowing up to 10 percent of coral reefs to be threatened by bleaching caused by those ingredients…our island will lose its biggest draw.

Change has a ripple effect. If you just choose to do ONE thing to make a difference tomorrow, like choosing to ban specific ingredients from your boat and telling people why, you are supporting that change and immediately affecting the amount of sunscreen that makes its way into our ocean.

Yeah, it’ll take a some community-wide effort…but seriously, the Florida Keys are pretty badass when it comes to its community. So let’s rock this ocean lifestyle!

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