Restoring our coral reefs

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.


Ideas to reduce waste this Christmas

Guess what. It’s December. Holiday season!

By Islabella de Goeij

A time of celebration, reflection, and giving. The holidays are commemorated in a variety of unique ways all around the world. I grew up in a household that celebrates Christmas and many people I know consider this one of the best times of the year. But for our planet, it’s the opposite.

Imagine this: It’s 6 AM on December 25, 2006. 10-year-old Isabella and her three younger siblings are wide awake, examining the shape and weight of the exquisitely wrapped presents underneath the Christmas tree. There’s counting involved. Who received the most presents? Who got the heaviest one? The biggest one? Yet there was a catch – we weren’t allowed to open the presents until our father finished the morning milking shift on the dairy farm. So, while the snow fell softly outside through the dark and chilly Alberta air, we would sit and wait on the living room floor quietly laughing, arguing and excitedly whispering under the dim glow of the lights on the tree.

Around 10 AM my dad would come in, my parents would tell us to eat breakfast first (I’m pretty sure they just enjoyed watching us squirm), and then finally it would be time to open those presents. Back to the living room floor we would go. Growing with each unwrapped gift was a pile of wrapping paper and ribbon, which was thereafter joined by the cardboard and plastic packaging that further encased the gift. As a child on Christmas morning, I didn’t really think about that pile. All my attention was garnered by the fun new toys in front of me.

I failed to truly notice and think about the waste produced during the holiday season year after year until I had grown older. That big garbage bag full of wrapping paper, ribbons, cardboard boxes and plastic wrapping wasn’t only showing up in my house. This was happening all over the place. The amount of garbage and food waste we humans produce, which increases significantly during the holiday season, is an important global issue that I am now conscious of.

I’d even say that my family is on the conservative side of being wasteful.

Approximately 540,000 tonnes of wrapping paper and gift bags are thrown out in Canada, while the United States sees about 4 million tonnes of these items end up in landfills each year. The amount of ribbon thrown away in North America equates to 38,000 miles – enough to wrap around the planet.

My mother saves and reuses practically everything, from elastic bands and Ziploc bags to cutting tubes of toothpaste in half so that we can scrape out every last bit. To this day, she tells us to unwrap presents carefully and slowly peel the tape off so that she can reuse the wrapping paper. But even so, we usually end up with a decently large heap of waste on the living room floor.

So, starting this holiday season I want to see if I can decrease the amount of garbage my family and I throw away. How am I going to do this? Well, I’m glad you asked. I did some digging and found some useful tips on reducing this type of waste during the holiday season.

1. Think about how you wrap presents

Make your own wrapping paper, use more eco-friendly materials, or forget about wrapping paper completely. The majority of wrapping paper isn’t even recyclable. If it contains materials such as foil, wax, sparkles or glitter it will be sent straight to the landfill. Ribbon and tinsel are also generally sent to landfills because of the materials they are made of and the complications they can cause in sorting machines while being recycled.

While wrapping paper can add flair to any gift, is it really worth purchasing just to be used once and then ripped off again? There are many alternatives to wrapping paper that can still enable you to wrap a gift without placing strain on the environment.

  • Use recycled brown wrapping paper or newspaper. You can make it look more festive by adding a sprig of evergreen, a slice of dehydrated orange, a stick of cinnamon, or even drawing on the paper.
  • Wrap the gift in a tea towel or scarf, making the cloth an additional element to the present. You could even make a set of cloth bags with drawstrings that can be used year after year, making the wrapping process quick and easy.
  • Reuse the ribbons and bows that you purchase. We reuse Christmas tree ornaments, why not reuse these items as well!

2. Give eco-friendly gifts

For those that celebrate Christmas, think about the presents you may have received that were enjoyable for a little while and then lost their novelty, only to end up in the trash. Many of us constantly feel pressure that we have to buy stuff for everyone but there is a way to give presents and not create near as much waste!

  • Give the gift of experience. Take someone to a concert, plan an outdoor experience, or partake in a cooking or dancing class together. By doing this you are showing affection to the people in your life by spending quality time together without having to buy more stuff.
  • Homemade gifts. There are so many items you could make from home that mean so much more than going out and buying the same thing. Consider making some ornaments, picture frames, candles, or even just some classic baked goods.
  • Locally made gifts. Seek out some sustainable products in your community and support your local economy all while benefiting the environment.
  • If you do buy something, try to make it an investment. An item that will benefit the receiver for a long time or be useful to them in some aspect of their life. For example, a new camera lens or a high quality suitcase that the person can enjoy for years to come.
  • Donate to a charity! Many charities will provide you with a certificate of your donation which you can then present as a gift. This year TripLit is supporting Room to Read!

3. Reduce food waste

Food! Another key part of the holiday season. But did you know that wasting food is an enormous contribution to our greenhouse gas emissions? Not to mention the millions of people that do not have access to a sufficient amount of food. Yet worldwide we waste about 1.3 billion tonnes of food each year. The amount of brussel sprouts thrown away in the UK alone could power a home for three years! However, simply taking care to not waste food can be one of the easiest ways to address climate change. To reduce the amount of food waste you create this holiday season you could:

  • Use the “ugly” fruits and vegetables. Just because one apple looks more pristine than another apple doesn’t necessarily mean that it will taste better. It’s dark inside your stomach anyways!
  • Cook only as much as you need. This may require more diligent planning and cooking only for the approximate number of people that are coming instead of going all out and overboard.
  • Share your leftovers with family, friends, and strangers! As long as the food is still good, you do not have to throw it away.

4. Offset holiday travel

If you are someone who travels a lot throughout the holiday season whether it be going on vacation or going home to be with family, consider offsetting the fossil fuel pollution generated regardless of your method of travel. These are some websites I found where either you as an individual or as a business can donate to offset your carbon emissions:

5. Dispose of trees wisely

By the time New Years Day rolls around, a lot of people who celebrated Christmas will already have taken down or thought about taking down their Christmas tree. Depending on whether or not your tree is real or artificial will determine the most eco-friendly way of its disposal. If you use an artificial tree, try to get as many years out of it as you can. If you use a real tree, here are some ways you can get rid of them without contributing to the tree pile in the landfills.

  • Recycle your tree. Many cities have a curbside recycling program where they will collect trees at certain times during the weeks following Christmas. Or, just bring your tree to a recycling center that accepts them.
  • Make firewood or mulch from the tree so that it can be used to fuel your fireplace or improve the soil conditions in your yard.
  • Be creative and make wood coasters by cutting up the tree trunk.

There you have it. Five practical suggestions that I am personally going to use during the holidays this year to see if I can make a difference in the amount of waste I produce.

Now, I’d like to challenge you. I propose that you think about not only the festivities this season, but also the waste. If you utilize some of these tips, you could make a difference in your own life, and perhaps even influence a change in the consumption habits of your family. Even the smallest of efforts can lead to beneficial changes. What are you waiting for?


The race to save Africa's wildlife

I was lucky to be charged by an elephant. Future generations may never get the chance.

By Mathilda de Villiers

There’s something about being mock charged by an elephant while you’re on foot in the wilderness, that just sits with you.

But how on earth, you may ask, did I get myself into that situation? I was working second-camera on a pilot episode for a documentary we were filming on one of the many trips to the Umbabat Game Reserve, bordering the Kruger National Park in South Africa.

On this particular day, roughly six years ago, I was following a game ranger on foot, filming him walking with his puppy around two bull elephants, when the charge came out of nowhere.
Once we were charged, we were trapped. Between these giants, situated in a river bed, and separated from the safety of the compound we had just trekked from. All I remember was my friend telling me to turn my camera off. We sneaked behind the bushes around the elephants and at one point he turned around to me and said, “when I run, you just keep up.” We made it back to safety after an exhilarating sprint past the elephants over the dried-out river bed. What ensued were hugs from my brother who had watched the whole situation play out.

And yes, I still have the footage. Somewhere on a hard drive.

On the next trip, I followed that same game ranger, and friend, into the bush tracking a leopard on foot. He saw some fresh tracks of a leopard who had recently chased its lunch across the road we were driving on. When he turned around and asked, “ok who’s coming with me to go check this out?” I was the only one who said yes.

I have no footage of this experience. Only a very vivid memory of walking through the thick bush, silently creeping along looking for those unique black spots. We never found the leopard but it was a thrilling experience, to say the very, very least.

Wild, raw and unadulterated

I was privileged enough to grow up in Southern Africa, frequenting the bush as I grew up and well into my twenties. I have many more stories of pretty insane wildlife encounters, including a leopard coming right up to our house one evening, a crazy honey badger eating our dinner and me almost becoming a hyena’s dinner. Oh, and I can’t leave out that one time a hippo almost toppled over my father’s canoe as we were cruising down the Zambezi River. That was one for the books.

I had a raw, unadulterated, upbringing in the bush that I know is pretty rare. Each memory is incredibly special and I have a natural comfort level in the wilderness, surrounded by these wild creatures. Being able to follow wild dogs, or painted dogs, as they are hunting is something that not a lot of people these days can bear witness to. I consider myself very lucky, as even seeing one in the wild is so rare today, because they are one of the most endangered species in the whole of Africa.

Since I’ve moved to Canada, however, I haven’t been to the bush, or on the so-called ‘safari’, in over three years. I miss it dearly. I know that, even in my lifetime, I will see a massive decline in the incredible wild creatures I have bared witness to in the Southern African wilderness.

The truth behind that dream safari

With this upbringing comes many memories, but also a sense of responsibility. Behind the scenes of the amazing landscapes and these animals, it isn’t as glamorous as it may seem.
If we’re talking about the current population of wildlife in the whole of Africa, there is just no comparison to what it was 100 years ago.

Imagine for a moment – hundreds of thousands of rhinos and lions and millions of elephants wandering across nearly every region of the continent. That was then.

Today, only a fraction of them remain.

The immense number of wild animals that used to roam our earth has been dropping ever since by massive proportions because of habitat loss, hunting and poaching. We, as humans, are responsible for the loss of a whopping 60 percent of our world’s mammals, birds, fish and reptiles since the 1970’s.

That’s only 39 years. Read that again. Let it sink in for a second.

But even in the darkest truths, there is hope. In the same breath, humanity can be responsible for the rescue of a dying species. One example is the mountain gorilla. In 2010, their population was dwindling with approximately 786 individuals left due to entanglement in hunting snares, disease transfer from humans and habitat loss. However, conservation efforts have been paying off and the population is slowly increasing with the most recent count seeing the total number of wild mountain gorillas reach above 1000 individuals.

Now let that sink in. We can, collectively, make a significant change.

Real talk

But, sadly, this incredible conservation success story is not the case for all animals. Many are facing extinction within the next few decades if conservation does not win. Whether it wins is up to us. Up to us mere humans. To do our part and to assist those who are doing their part to combat this rapid decline of wonderful animals on our earth.

As humans, we’ll pay the ‘big bucks’ to go and see these animals up close, live in their quarters and get up at the crack of dawn to watch the sun spill over the African plain towards us. But what happens when there are no more elephants to track? No more lions to drive up to while they are basking in the sun? Will we wake up then? When it’s too late?

Luckily, there are already many organizations doing their part towards conservation and raising awareness around what needs to be done to keep our animal population alive and well.

Conservation itself is a complicated issue with many factors. Having spoken to some of the people who spearhead a lot of projects in the bush in South Africa, I won’t be diving into those deeper issues and projects. There is a lot to say about it and there are a lot of opinions out there. I can only speak to what I have witnessed, and I’m choosing to highlight a few efforts out there. There are many, but we don’t have time to write or read an entire book-worth of content.

Fighting off poachers with drones

Today, the world of practical use of new technology is booming. It has pushed many people and organizations to the next level in their own work to keep up with the digital world. One way this has translated over into rhino conservation is using drones to fight off poachers across Africa.

If you’ve been living in the twenty-first century and have been following even a fraction of the news with half an eye, you would know about the speedy decline of rhinos because of poaching. But, this practice is nothing new. It dates back to 1970.

Today, it’s a massive market of almost $70 billion per year, with over 1,200 African rhinos killed by poachers in a single year, averaging roughly three per day.

Let’s be clear. This is a criminal activity that has gotten out of hand and it is difficult to keep track of and control over poachers that they have even started dehorning projects to protect the animals. Basically, this means that they remove their horns in a humane way so that the rhinos still survive, equally not becoming a target anymore. It’s radical, but that’s what it has come to.

And let’s be equally clear about why this madness even started. Rhino horn, primarily made out of keratin, is used in traditional Chinese medicine, but is also increasingly used to display a facade of wealth and success. There are theories, myths and opinions out there on this. But the basics of it boils down to – it’s being used for purposes that aren’t even proven to work.

There are programs in place where rangers on the ground are trained to fight against rhino poachers. It’s not for the faint of heart and it is not something that you come back from with the same mindset as you went in.

I have known people who have gone into that line of work and still, even with their efforts, haven’t made enough of a difference to ward off enough poachers. They still sneak into areas to hunt and kill for a prized possession so tainted.

Drones equipped with infrared cameras, GPS and thermal imaging, alongside the use of military-style computer analytics can help rhino conservation. These special drones allow rangers to be one step ahead of the poacher and get deployed to those specific areas to ward off any oncoming attacks that might occur.

Another way that drones can help is that they can help deter the animals from a certain area where the poaching risks are high. You can learn more about this in this article.

There are drawbacks, however. With the use of drones increasing across many different fields, many national parks have banned the use of drones. It’s also not a cheap feat to have drones with such extensive equipment on board as you also have to have a highly-skilled and trained pilot behind the controls.

All of this also costs money.

So is there really hope then? Yes. I have seen and I know of many people and organizations out there who spend their time and effort protecting and fighting for these animals. They can’t do it without the help of countless on-the-ground volunteers, donations and government funding. They can’t do it without a pure love for the animal they are rescuing.

Organizations working tirelessly on the frontlines include:

  • Save The Rhino
  • African Wildlife Foundation
  • Wildlife Act
  • World Wildlife Fund
  • Painted Dog Conservation

We can all do our part. And do be aware that the animals I have spoken about here are not the only ones that need our attention – there are many. In the end, a happier planet equals happier species that inhabit it. An end to a ridiculous ‘medicine’ trade, ends the rhino poaching war zone.