News & Updates

Coastal Environments

Guest - March 28, 2013

Charleston, South Carolina: Over the past few weeks we have traveled through the Southeast along the coastlines of Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina. The wildlife, sandy beaches, and recreational activities have been a treat for two people that are not from a coastal area. Thanks to the Dry Tortugas and Biscayne Bay National Parks and our partner The Charleston County Parks and Recreation Commission we learned a lot about how to Leave No Trace when you are snorkeling, playing on the beach, or sea kayaking.


There is a lot of important information about traveling and camping on durable surfaces when you are among sand dune grasses because of how fragile they are.  When in coastal areas it is important to stay off of beach grasses and use established trails through the dunes. Another interesting beach impact is how important it is to keep your fires low, lights down in your RV, and minimize your use of lanterns and headlamps between the months of May through October. The reason for keeping your lights low is because sea turtle hatchlings use the light of the moon to direct them towards the sea when they hatch. One of the most interesting bits of information about costal environments is how to protect coral reefs. 

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At the Dry Tortugas and Biscayne Bay National Parks there are signs along the beach and information on their websites about the impact that sunscreen has on coral reefs. Coral reefs only make up 1% of the oceans floor, but host millions of different types of animals and algae. The soft-bodied animal called Polyps, make up the reefs and form amazing shapes. Symbiotic algae live within the corals and need to be close to the surface of the water to receive sunlight, which they convert into food energy for ocean life to eat.


One of the most popular activities at both of these parks and along coastal areas is snorkeling and scuba diving. People flock to the coral reefs to see the amazing coral structures and all of the beautiful fish and invertebrates.  When people dive and snorkel in a coral reef they have the potential of negatively impacting the coral reefs. Sunscreen can have an affect on the reefs by allowing coral viruses to infect the coral. When the viruses infect the coral, they lose the ability to retain algae and the coral turns a bleached white. According to the National Park service, 90 % of diving takes place in only 10% of the worlds reefs and 4,000 to 6,000 tons of sunscreen enters reefs annually. The sunscreen does not dilute and disperse into the ocean, but congregates on the reefs.

While we should make sure to protect ourselves from the sun, we also want to make sure that we are protecting the reefs as well. A couple of options can help us to protect the reefs and ourselves: by wearing a long sleeve rash guard, wetsuit, or any synthetic shirt can help reduce the amount of sunscreen you need to use. If you still want to explore a coral reef without wearing long sleeves or a wetsuit, you can look into buying sunscreen for kids or people with sensitive skin because the compounds are not as harsh on the coral. Buying sunscreen that contains titanium oxide or zinc oxide can also lessen you impact on reefs because they are natural mineral ingredients that do not affect corals.

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As spring breaks are currently happening and summer is nearing, take into consideration Leave No Trace when visiting coastal environments.

Pat and TJ


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