10 Ways Your Holiday is Hurting the Ocean… and what you can do about it!

The dreamiest vacation of all is a getaway to the seaside. Vast ocean blues, soft white sand, long evenings, short dresses, salty hair, flirty skirts, hemp bracelets, flip-flops… Whether you’re with a group of friends, with your lover, with your family or all alone, being by the seaside is healing. Before doctors had pills for everything and cures for nothing they prescribed the ocean. Retire to the coast they suggested, if anyone had a spell of depression, a diminished immune system, a poor constitution, chronic pains or even a broken heart. 

Doctors’ orders or not, we continue to go to the sea, often and in big numbers, continually searching out another hidden aquamarine lagoon, another secret beach, remote and pristine. Curative as that might be for the traveller, what is it doing to the destination? 

Here are a few ways your dream holiday is a nightmare for the sea and what you can do to change that:

1) Sunscreen

What’s the problem?

We’ve all been told about how important sunscreen is for your skin to prevent sunburn, cancer and premature aging. While there is no doubt that sunscreen is important, it does contain chemicals that could be both bad for you and the ocean.

And though you might think the thin film you rub on yourself cannot impact the big sea, know that 4000 – 6000 metric tons of sunscreen washes into the tropical ocean each year from beachgoers that lather up before stepping into the ocean. 
Chemicals found in sunscreen have been shown to cause coral bleaching (just like with rising sea surface temperatures) even if they are in a concentration one part per thousand. Apart from causing bleaching, these chemicals also increase the ‘viral load’ on corals making them more susceptible to diseases that can be fatal for entire colonies. 

Its not an easy time for coral reefs right now, don’t let your de-stress break be the final breaking stressor…

What can you do?

Avoid being outdoors in the hottest time of the day. Invest in a straw hat, a beach umbrella or a light cover up to reduce your use of sunscreen. Sometimes with the skin-show, less is truly more! 

While sunscreen has served to reduce incidence of skin cancer, most of the chemicals in the product have only existed on this planet for about 10 – 15 years. Lets not overdo it until we have a clearer idea of the long-term effects of these substances.

Do use sunscreen if you are exposing yourself to hot tropical sunshine but try to use a brand that is reef safe or zinc-based. (See http://www.tropicalseas.com or http://www.ecofriendlyskincareandcosmetics.com.au

With regular sunscreen, keep at least 45 minutes between application and getting into the water, so less of it washes away.

Here’s a list of frightening chemicals to be avoided at all costs: 

  • Benzophenone-2
  • Paraben Preservatives and UV absorbers
  • Ethylhexymethoycinnamate (OMC)
  • Ocotocrylene (OCT)
  • Ethylhexlsalicylate (EHS)
  • 4-tert-butyl-4-methoxydibenzoylmethane
  • 4-methylbenzylidene

2) Using Plastic at the Beach

What’s the problem?

There isn’t enough that can be said about plastic and its problems in the ocean. It is consumed and gets stuck in the digestive and respiratory systems of whales, dolphins and sea turtles, it gets broken down into smaller pieces and ingested by small fish which accumulate in larger fish which in turn are eaten by us. Plastic also attracts and binds with toxic chemicals such as mercury, so it becomes more harmful than it already was before it entered the food chain. And whatever doesn’t get eaten along the way accumulates in gyres in every ocean, creating plastic islands floating in a plastic soup as big as France. 

What can you do?

Avoid taking disposables to the beach, even if you intend to put it safely in the dustbin. Dustbins often tend to get blown over on beaches, scattering their contents everywhere. Often they are not emptied on time, overfilling and spilling over. 

Try to avoid your contribution there by using metal waterbottles (they’re better for your health than a plastic bottle left out in the sun anyway!), non-disposable food containers and cloth or straw bags. Also, if you do happen to buy a drink on a beach, refuse the straw.

3) Theme parks and marine animals in captivity

What’s the problem?

Whales and dolphins are fascinating animals. Like us, they are mammals too. We share an ancestor somewhere far back in time, and while we continued our journey terrestrially to become primates, they traveled back into the ocean to become almost-fish-but-not-quite. Perhaps that is why we share such an affinity with them though we choose to express it in strange ways. 

Here are a few hard facts. Marine mammals have large brains and many have an emotion centre that is larger than our own. This means they feel happiness and sadness and a range of other feelings that we do not even have names for. They are also highly social – like humans they have a high level of maternal care and a lifelong bond with their mothers. They travel in ‘pods’ which are basically little groups of family and friends with whom they share a unique language (and do not necessarily understand the language spoken by another pod of the same species) and a strong bond. They live long lives and most are incredibly migratory – traversing hundreds of miles in just one day. 

What happens in marine animal parks like Sea World, Ocean Park and other such places? Young whales are captured from their pods, separated from their mothers, going through deep trauma. They are then placed in a small pool – even though the enclosures look big to us, a whale would have to make 1400 rounds a day of even the largest enclosures to swim its usual distance in the wild. They go through physical injury too – all orcas in captivity develop a collapsed dorsal fin among other problems. And even though they are fed medicines including antidepressants everyday, they do not live nearly as long as their wild counterparts. Less than 1 in 10 of all orcas in captivity reach the age of 25, where as even the average in the wild is 30 years for males and 50 for females, though they can live for 80-90 years.

Marine animal parks like these are cruel – they do not contribute to conservation, research or rehabilitation and rescue. Same goes for dolphinariums or hotels with aquariums that house big fish like whale sharks and manta rays.

What can you do?

Just say no. Refuse to go to such hotels and attractions – cuddling a dolphin may make for a great profile picture, but brings no warmth to the poor animal stuck in a pool. Spectacular as it might be to watch an orca play racquetball with its fin or bounce a trainer on its nose, it pales in comparison with coming across a magnificent whale swimming freely in its natural habitat, looking into its expressive eyes and watching it maneuver its bulky body with the grace of a ballerina. Plan your vacation for that privilege, there are places in the world where such a thing is possible and is done ethically. Go out there to their natural habitats instead of a park that makes an amusement out of the pain of our ocean-cousins. 

4) Choosing your resort: location and lights

What’s the problem?

Sea turtle eggs are laid on beaches. From the moment the shell cracks and a baby turtle climbs out, he has to fend for itself. Step number one is to make it to the ocean. 

Baby hatchlings are programed to head towards the water by following the glow of moonlight reflecting off the waves. They quite literally follow the light! When beach resorts and other developments leave their lights on through the night, they not only waste electricity but also confuse the little dudes attracting them shoreward instead of seaward. 

For a little awkward animal with a body the size of a 2 rupee coin, just the ripples in the sand are equivalent to navigating a range of hills to get to the ocean where they can feed and reenergize. To lose their way is to lose their young life. 

What can you do?

If you are staying at a beachfront resort, ask the staff if it is a turtle nesting beach. Speak to the manager about whether the lights in public areas are left on at night, and request that at least the ones closer to the beach might be turned off every evening. 

As a patron of what are often expensive resorts, you have an important voice that will be considered by the management, so use it. Express your concerns, you might be surprised at just how far they are willing to go in addressing them and if they do not, well you can withdraw your custom in the future choosing more responsible and environmentally ethical resorts instead. 

5) Choosing your resort: solid waste and sewage disposal

What’s the problem?

Raw sewage flowing into the ocean causes all sorts of havoc. Mildly named ‘organic’ wastes such as sewage, leftover food and grey water causes a lot of damage to coastal areas. Essentially such waste acts as a nutrient – and not the healthy sort. If this happens in a coral reef region, the added nutrients make it harder for corals to compete against algae. An ecosystem that took millions of years to form colourful varied calcium carbonate structures and become a habitat for thousands of fish, mollusks and crabs is suddenly overwhelmed with nutrients that turn the entire area to a formless mass of algae that can only provide a home to a fraction of animal diversity. 

Even in areas that do not have coral reefs, such inflow of nutrients cause damage by causing blooms of harmful algae and create low or no oxygen areas in the ocean. This kills many fish and marine life in the area, or causes ‘walk outs’ where hundreds of lobsters, squid and other animals exit the ocean on to the beach to die. 

In many developing countries, laws regulating or monitoring sewage outlet into the ocean from resorts and tourism properties are lax. Development of these properties often occurs in spurts before the local infrastructure is ready for it.

What can you do?

Find out about the sewage and solid waste disposal mechanism that your resort uses. Ask them before you make your booking, if possible, and support only operators who are responsible in their practices. Stress that an environmental ethic is important to you. If you have already booked your accommodation, ask these questions once you arrive at the property and write in your suggestion to make infrastructural changes to reduce their environmental impact if necessary. 

6) Living in a resort: the unglamorous footprint of ‘luxury’

What’s the problem?

We all know that luxury has its price. It is presented to us in the form of an itemized bill so we know exactly what we’re paying for. There is a cost that is unaccounted for though – and that’s the price the environment pays on our behalf. 

All those crisp white bed linen, towels and napkins are washed everyday using litres of bleach – which can be harmful for environmental and personal health. Many beach resorts provide only mineral water for their guests, creating mountains of plastic waste every day. All the small toiletries from the tiny bottles of shampoo, conditioner and moisturizer, as well as plastic-wrapped soaps and toilet paper rolls, lead to a level of waste and garbage that we would never generate at home, and flood landfills that small coastal towns are not always equipped to handle. 

What can you do?

Enjoy the luxuries you are paying for, but reduce your use of what does not mean that much. Turn off the lights and air-conditioning when you leave your room (even if you’ve already paid for it). Carry your own soap and shampoo, which you can carry back with you instead of using the hotel soaps and shampoos that have to be thrown away once you leave. Ask the room cleaning staff not to change your towels and bed linen until you specifically ask them to. Reduce your impact on the environment by considering it as a cost even though it might not be billed to your card. 

7) What you take away

What’s the problem?

Take back memories from your holiday, take back pictures, take back the kiss of the sun on your skin, take back the few grains of sand lodged in your clothes and hair that tumble out most unexpectedly days after your return home.

Sadly these free take homes are not what people will tempt you with. Every year in touristy coastal areas hundreds of molluscs such as conches, cowries and nautilus are killed for their shells, driving them close to extinction. Baby sharks are killed for the jaw bones, larger ones for their teeth to be strung up as a shark tooth necklace. 

Corals that are sold as souveniers might not have been killed specifically for that purpose, but removing them from an island ecosystem is still harmful because they are meant to stay on even after they die. They are meant to be broken slowly by waves and eventually turn into the soft white sand that you sunbathe on. These ecosystems recycle and reuse eternally so continual removal of even dead objects like sand, shells and coral creates damage. 

What can you do?

If possible take no physical souveniers – surely the point of the holiday is to clear the clutter. If you do have to take something, buy something that you can use (Clothes, jewelry, local spices) and not just keep. If you enjoy decorating your space with things that remind you of a vacation, support a local artist and buy a painting, sketch or photograph. But whatever you do, don’t buy shells, corals, any shark product or indeed, any animal product at all. Beautiful things are beautiful in their place, don’t take them out of it and discourage others from doing the same. 

8) Choosing your activities thoughtfully

What’s the problem?

Jet skis propel water downwards with great force, harming the ecosystem beneath by smothering it under plumes of sand. Fish feeding during undersea walks, snorkels or scuba dives harm the fish in the long run, making them dependent on human feeding. Game fishing, even the catch-and-release variety can seriously injure animals by tearing out their lips so they are no longer able to feed and by giving them the ‘bends’ if they pulled out of the water very fast. 

What can you do?

Try surfing, paddleboarding, snorkeling, diving. If you do go out fishing, do so in the designated areas – many operators will try to illegally take you into marine protected areas to ensure better catch, but don’t succumb – and only catch what you can eat. Do not encourage feeding fish, rays or sharks. To watch these animals come to you of their own accord is so much more rewarding. Work instead on your water skills so you can be calm and still in the sea, the less you flap around threateningly, the more you will find the ocean communes with you.

If you come across a new activity, do not assume that it has no negative impact just because it is being offered. A little thought goes a long way. 

9) Beach side music festivals

What’s the problem?

Music festivals, fairs and flea markets are wonderful on the beach. There’s nothing quite like listening to your favorite band playing on the beach, shopping for handmade anklets while walking barefoot in the sand or dancing in the waves to a great DJ. 

But have you ever been to a large party like this, and noticed the state of the water and the beach in the sobering early morning light? At the end of every Full Moon Party in Thailand there are thousands of cigarette butts, straws, plastic cups and bottles, plastic floral crowns and synthetic ‘hippie’ peace and love accessories. All this is swallowed into the ocean during high tide.

What can you do?

Avoid massive beach festivals like this, unless the organizers have specifically stated their commitment to keep things clean. Look out instead for smaller beach parties, or make your own with a small fire, a friend with a guitar, lots of beach blankets and no garbage. 

10) Local Operators

What’s the problem?

When a remote village in a developing economy first begins to smell the profits of tourism, it is not for the most part the local people that benefit. Most resorts are operated by international groups and bring in their own trained staff from across the world. This means the local people still have to rely on traditional, and often extractive ways of earning livelihoods, such as fishing, wood collecting etc. 

Tourism, indeed your custom, can be a force of good. No underprivileged local fisherman would harm coral reefs, sharks and whales in his pursuit of livelihood, if some of the money you spent on seeing coral reefs, sharks and whales went to him. When this does not happen, tourist only becomes an extra pressure on a fragile ecosystem. 

What can you do?

Support local operators. Look out for hotels and adventure centers that focus on training and hiring local staff, try staying in a homestay or a BnB, dine in local eateries instead of foreign chains and try to ensure that more of the money that you have to spend either way goes to the right people.

Do no harm, OR do good.

If you are extremely passionate about the ocean go one step further than doing no harm. Do good. There are lots of marine conservation organizations around the world – from close by in the Andaman Islands and Thailand to further away in the Seychelles, Madagascar and still further away in the Galapagos or the Carribean – who welcome short term volunteers even with no prior experience in marine biology or conservation. Here you can combine a holiday, blue seas, white beaches, scuba diving and snorkeling with the opportunity to learn and give back. You might be involved in reef monitoring, rescuing turtles, tagging sharks, building artificial reefs and lots of other exciting activities. In such places you usually go to work with a small but passionate community who are grateful to have you there and this makes it a great way to travel even if you’re going alone.