Did you know that 70 per cent of the world’s oxygen comes from the ocean? Yes, you read that correctly. A whopping 70 per cent.

by Mathilda de Villiers

I grew up running along and playing on white sandy beaches on the shores of Southern Africa, body surfing the waves for hours on end. My dad was in the National Sea Rescue Institute, so I spent a lot of time on the water and he taught me a ton about the ocean and safety around it. I was dubbed “water baby” early on in life. Even though I haven’t spent much time underwater in the past ten years, I still have a very strong connection to the ocean and a broad knowledge about it. Or so I thought.

There’s a saying, “out of sight, out of mind”. And when I was sitting on the grass with Amir Zakeri (@amirzakeri) and Justin Kalani Burbage (@justinkalaniburbage) at the TripLit conference earlier this summer, this kept popping into my mind. Because the fact is, when we look out over the ocean, we see beauty and serenity. But if you’ve never immersed yourself under the surface of it and seen first-hand what is happening beneath the surface, you might never know the damage. You might never realize the dire state that our coral reefs, known as the rainforest of the seas, are in.

Amir has spent a lot of his time underneath the waves and has, over the years, become incredibly passionate about its state and the damage that we as humans are doing to it. He was diving in Hawaii after he moved there from his hometown in Kansas when he realized what was going on with the corals and he asked himself, “why is no one talking about this?”

Shortly thereafter, Save The Reef was born, and the inception of their film ‘50 Minutes To Save The World’ started forming traction in Amir’s mind. Justin grew up in Hawaii and has always had a passion for the outdoors and the ocean. The two of them connected and they began the journey to create this powerful documentary that has reached over 4 million views on YouTube alone.

But there is hope

Coral Gardeners is a coral reef restoration and conservation program located in Tahiti, French Polynesia. They run programs where people from anywhere in the world can support them by adopting a coral, proceeds of which go towards research and restoration. They upload a photo and GPS coordinates of the coral that you adopt, making you a part of the process no matter where you are.

Chelsea Yamase (@chelseakauai) is one of their ambassadors and she recently spent a day with them planting corals and adopted her fourth coral. Chelsea has been passionate about sustainability and the oceans for years. Originally from Kauai, Hawaii, she has grown up with the ocean in her backyard and has continued to invest much of her career into being an advocate for the sea and to spreading awareness through her own social media channels.

Where does the oxygen come from?

So exactly how does this mass of mysterious water around us produce the thing that keeps us breathing? It’s all about the phytoplanktons and their fellow plants that live in the ocean. Oxygen is produced by the ocean through kelp, algal plankton and phytoplankton. These plants produce oxygen through photosynthesis, where carbon dioxide and sunlight is converted into sugars that the organism can use for energy. More importantly, this is linked to an ever bigger ecosystem relationship. The corals feed the little fish, who in turn are food for the bigger fish, so on and so forth.

Prochlorococcus, one type of phytoplankton, is probably the most abundant photosynthetic organism on earth. It releases countless tons of oxygen into the atmosphere, so small that millions can fit in a single drop of water. Prochlorococcus provides the oxygen one in every five breaths we take, according to National Geographic explorer Dr. Sylvia A. Earle.

The real impact

Meeting and speaking with Amir, I saw how tangible and powerful his passion is and it was a conversation that became imbedded in my mind when I carried on with my own daily life after leaving the conference. Personally, I’ve become a lot more aware over the past five years of living sustainably and being mindful of what I use that will eventually end up in the ocean or a landfill. What I do is not yet perfect and there are still many ways I can improve, but watching a documentary where their message comes through in such a tangible and applicable way, it stuck around at the back of my mind and I have already started making even bigger changes to the way I consume and live.

Maybe it’s because my hometown, Cape Town, was featured. Maybe it was because I got to listen and speak with Amir and Justin in person. But maybe, more so, it’s because their message is just so important and the way they tell it comes across so passionately and clearly. Either way, it made a massive impact on me and it really opened up my eyes, beyond what I was already aware of.

So what’s next?

What can we do? Well, I’m glad you asked. There is always something we can do as individuals. So what are a few things that we, as consumers, can do to reduce the harm we’re causing?

Use social media and tools readily available:
TruBeach is a free app you can download that allows you to report on the state of the beach every time you visit it. You take a photo, report ‘clean or ‘dirty’, and add in a review. It has also become a mobile platform for beach cleanup organizations and the general public to share their work.

Three R’s:
Always remember the three R’s – Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. This is for when you’re at home or the beach. What these principles do is help cut down on our waste and promotes a more sustainable way of living. Also, remember to go to the proper recycling centres and make yourself aware of the things that are easily recyclable and what is not. It really becomes as simple as taking your own reusable bags to the grocery store or not buying coffee unless you have your own mug.

The little things that you think might not have a big impact, are usually the ones with the biggest damage-causing properties. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has found that 32% of all the trash collected from the oceans represents cigarette butts. Marine animals mistake the butts for food, and because of the plastic components in them, they cannot properly digest them and die. The chemicals found in the butts leach into the water and cause a toxic ripple effect with long-lasting harm to the marine environment.

Use reef-safe sunscreen:
Yes, that’s correct – sunscreen can harm coral reefs. Some sunscreen ingredients like oxybenzone (BP-3), butylparaben, and octinoxate can severely harm the world’s corals. For instance, oxybenzone is so disruptive that it hampers coral reproduction and damages the tiny animals’ DNA. Unfortunately, this ingredient is found in more than 3,000 sun protection products worldwide. Non-eco-friendly sunscreen can harm coral organisms, in non-so-obvious ways if they contain plastic microbeads or nanoparticles, like titanium dioxide and zinc oxide.

You can protect corals by not using any products that contain the ingredients proven to harm corals and switching to reef-friendly products, like mineral based sunscreens. What’s more, keep in mind that the ‘Reef Friendly’ and ‘Reef Safe’ claims on labels can be misleading as the issue has not been regulated yet. So, research the ingredients on the labels yourself if you want to make a truly informed decision.

Ditch the fertilizers:
Having a lush, green lawn that will cause envy from your neighbours might be something you strive for, but it does come with a cost. Most fertilizers contain nitrogen and phosphorus, two ingredients that are extremely toxic to corals. But how would your fertilizer harm the corals even though you don’t live anywhere near the ocean, you might ask? Well, those harmful chemicals will eventually get into waterways and from there they lead into the ocean.

Small acts can create a ripple effect
Even if it seems like a small act or task, it matters. Every little thing we can do to help contribute towards a healthier ocean, a healthier land and in turn healthier air to breathe, will help that cause. So all we really have to do is look, pick up, be aware and spread the word as best as we can. If we all do our part, in as little or big ways as possible, it will make a difference.

I had a conversation with Emmett earlier this month and something he said stuck in my head. We were talking about Amir and Emmett said, “it’s a hard thing to be so passionate about because every single day you’ll see people doing things that go completely against [it]. Like just throwing plastic stuff in the garbage or using sunscreen that’s not reef safe.”

But Amir’s actions and others who spread the word about the state of the oceans are starting to make ripples in the public’s awareness. Amir uses social media as a strong conveyor for his message and continues to do work with organizations around the world.

If enough of us speak up, do our part and stop supporting companies who don’t align their values with sustainability, those big, positive changes can happen and actually are already happening. All it takes is that one small step. That one person to begin a movement. It all began with us and it can end with us turning it around.