With summer fast approaching, what better time for a quick refresh on SPF fundamentals? We all have experienced the first summer day sunburn, from over-exposing our pasty white skins after a long winter. No harm should come to you this summer if you follow these must-know & do’s .
Australians are particularly aware of the role UV-rays have in fast-tracking skin-aging and increasing chances of skin cancer. Ensuring your SPF protects you with a maximum UVA filter is extremely important, particularly from an ageing point of view as these rays penetrate deeper into the skin and through glass and are as strong in the winter as they are on sunny days. They’re the main cause of patchiness, spider veins, enlargement of blood vessels, increased darkening and collagen and elastin damage while UVB rays are those that cause burning. Think of it like that UVA – Aging, UVB – Burning. Your SPF should protect you from both, so look out for the symbols UVA/UVB or the words ‘Broad Spectrum’ when choosing a brand.
Physical vs chemical
Physical filters (zinc oxide or titanium dioxide) sits on the surface of the skin deflecting rays like a mirror, while chemical filters (everything else), absorb the UV energy to prevent it from penetrating the skin. Chemical formulations are generally lighter and invisible, however most experts still recommend physical SPF as it offers both UVA and UVB protection and doesn't irritate sensitive skin.
It is recommended to wear sunscreen between SPF15 and SFF30 to give the correct level of protection. Anything below an SPF15 gives very little protection. As SPF30 blocks 97% of UVs and SPF50 98%, it is often asked whether anything higher than SPF30 is worth the greater level of sunscreen chemicals. Generally, it’s not essential unless you have a specific condition where SPF50/60 is recommended (e.g. hyper-pigmentation) but most skin cancer charities state SPF30 applied correctly and regularly is sufficient and limits the concentration of sunscreen chemicals the skin is exposed to, particularly sensitive skins and children.
Our commitment to 100% natural
Did you know that there are currently no 100% natural sunscreens with SPF50 protection sold in Australia (even though it can be labelled as such)? That is because SPF50 requires adding chemicals. As a matter of fact, formulating SPF50 requires 3x the amount of chemical ingredients than SPF30 for only 1% more protection. At P4O, we committed a long time ago to 100% natural…that means zero compromise and full transparency on our formulas. Until research allows fully natural SPF50 formulas, we simply won’t make one.
Our hero product, the SPF30 sunblock, is broad spectrum, 3-hour water resistant and of course, a 100% natural. Icing on the cake, it is lightly scented with our signature blend created with Spa specialist LaGaia Unedited. This product combines the high protection of a sunblock, the feel of a moisturiser and the finish and look of a spa treatment.
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After years of carefree Slip, Slop, Slapping, beach goers and reef lovers have recently discovered that their chemical sunscreen was somehow poisoning their favourite aquatic playgrounds. To protect its coral reefs and the economy depending on them, the state of Hawaii was recently first in history to ban oxybenzone and octinoxate; two chemical UV-filters widely used in sunscreen formulation. Scientific studies have demonstrated the deadly toxicity of these two compounds on corals and other marine organisms. My question is, if chemical sunscreens are detrimental to coral reefs, how come we allow these products on our skin? After reading this, you will probably think Hawaii’s initiative is also doing a favour to its people...
Have you ever felt clueless reading the ingredients listed on the back of your sunscreen? The toxicity of chemical sunscreens has been published worldwide, with scientific reports going back to the late 90’s! The more informed I get on the topic, the more clueless I am on the reasons why these compounds were ever approved on the market... Oxybenzone and octinoxate are used in 97% of sunscreens and 70% of cosmetics on the market. Like most chemicals, they become problematic once they are absorbed through the skin and enter the bloodstream via the application of sunscreens and other personal care products.
Oxybenzone (aka Benzophenone-3) is a photo-toxicant, especially in the presence of ultraviolet light. This means that the greater the light intensity, especially in the UV and near-UV spectrum, new forms of toxicity manifest, and usually in a dose-dependent manner of both oxybenzone and light. It is directly absorbed through the skin and can be detected in urine within 30 minutes of application [1,2]. Oxybenzone can also contaminate semen , placenta and breast milk of marine mammals and humans [4,5]and is even linked to Hirschsprung’s disease, a development abnormality in humans in cases of prenatal exposure to oxybenzone . That explains why it is not recommended to use oxybenzone-based products during pregnancy, breast-feeding, or on children under the age of 2. I personally believe this is enough reason to avoid oxybenzone all around.
The most common pathological reaction to octinoxate is contact dermatitis and photo-allergic reactions [7-13].When seating on the skin, it is degraded by sunlight into toxic by-product. Once in the body, octinoxate can cause toxicity to a number of different organ systems.It is a fat-soluble chemical, which means that some of it that is absorbed by the body will be metabolized and excreted in urine, but much of it will be stored either in fat tissue or lipid-rich tissue such as the placenta [14,15]. In sunscreen formulations, octinoxate can react with avobenzone (another chemical filter) reducing the overall sun protection factor of the product, leading to photo-instability and an increase risk of sunburn .
The list of scientific studies linking these two ingredients to health drawbacks is very long. To further read about it, I recommend reading full reports on www.haereticus-lab.organd www.ewg.org. If you are now looking to avoid these ingredients, there are safer alternatives with mineral-based sunscreens that use zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide as UV-filters. P4O sunscreen is formulated using zinc oxide and is 100% natural and biodegradable.
1. Meeker, J.D., et al., Distribution, variability, and predictors of urinary concentrations of phenols and parabens among pregnant women in Puerto Rico.Environmental science & technology, 2013. 47(7): p. 3439-3447.
2. Gonzalez, G., A. Farbrot, and O. Larkö, Percutaneous absorption of benzophenone‐3, a common component of topical sunscreens.Clinical and experimental dermatology, 2002. 27(8): p. 691-694.
3. Zhang, T., et al., Benzophenone-type UV filters in urine and blood from children, adults, and pregnant women in China: partitioning between blood and urine as well as maternal and fetal cord blood.Science of the Total Environment, 2013. 461: p. 49-55.
4. Rodríguez-Gómez, R., et al., Determination of benzophenone-UV filters in human milk samples using ultrasound-assisted extraction and clean-up with dispersive sorbents followed by UHPLC–MS/MS analysis.Talanta, 2015. 134: p. 657-664.
5. Hines, E.P., et al., Concentrations of environmental phenols and parabens in milk, urine and serum of lactating North Carolina women.Reproductive Toxicology, 2015. 54: p. 120-128.
6. Huo, W., et al., The relationship between prenatal exposure to BP-3 and Hirschsprung's disease.Chemosphere, 2016. 144: p. 1091-1097.
7. Collaris, E.J. and J. Frank, Photoallergic contact dermatitis caused by ultraviolet filters in different sunscreens.International journal of dermatology, 2008. 47: p. 35-37.
8. Schmidt, T., J. Ring, and D. Abeck, Photoallergic contact dermatitis due to combined UVB (4-methylbenzylidene camphor/octyl methoxycinnamate) and UVA (benzophenone-3/butyl methoxydibenzoylmethane) absorber sensitization.Dermatology, 1998. 196(3): p. 354-357.
9. Rodríguez, E., et al., Causal agents of photoallergic contact dermatitis diagnosed in the national institute of dermatology of Colombia.Photodermatology, photoimmunology & photomedicine, 2006. 22(4): p. 189-192.
10. Ang, P., S.K. Ng, and C.L. Goh, Sunscreen allergy in Singapore.American Journal of Contact Dermatitis, 1998. 9(1): p. 42-44.
11. Schauder, S. and H. Ippen, Contact and photocontact sensitivity to sunscreens: Review of a 15‐year experience and of the literature.Contact dermatitis, 1997. 37(5): p. 221-232.
12. Cook, N. and S. Freeman, Report of 19 cases of photoallergic contact dermatitis to sunscreens seen at the Skin and Cancer Foundation.Australasian journal of dermatology, 2001. 42(4): p. 257-259.
13. Warshaw, E.M., et al., Patch test reactions associated with sunscreen products and the importance of testing to an expanded series: retrospective analysis of North American Contact Dermatitis Group data, 2001 to 2010.Dermatitis, 2013. 24(4): p. 176-182.
14. Schlumpf, M., et al., Exposure patterns of UV filters, fragrances, parabens, phthalates, organochlor pesticides, PBDEs, and PCBs in human milk: correlation of UV filters with use of cosmetics.Chemosphere, 2010. 81(10): p. 1171-1183.
15. Alonso, M.B., et al., Toxic heritage: Maternal transfer of pyrethroid insecticides and sunscreen agents in dolphins from Brazil.Environmental pollution, 2015. 207: p. 391-402.
16. Benvenuti. How does octinoxate degrade avobenzone?2012; Available from: https://http://www.futurederm.com/how-does-octinoxate-degrade-avobenzone/.
In my lifetime, our planet has lost about half its coral reefs. From dynamite fishing to coastal pollution, predator invasions and lethal marine heat waves...these ecosystems are retreating everywhere after thriving for millions of years. Today, we know that the chemicals in our sunscreens are an additional source of pollution on popular reefs around the world. But what if something as simple as making the switch to healthy sun protection could take some pressure off the world’s most endangered ecosystems?
This year, the state of Hawaii was first in history to ban the sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate to protect its coral reefs, providing countless goods and services to the people of Hawaii. This new law wasn’t received well by manufacturers, and here is why: these chemicals are used in 97% of sunscreens and 70% of cosmetics on the market as UV-filters. In other words, most personal care products seating on your bathroom shelf may contain oxybenzone (aka benzophenone-3) and/or octinoxate. So what lead Hawaii into making such a controversial ban? Since the start of my investigation I have become more and more clueless on the reasons why these compounds were approved in skincare formulations in the first place...
In case you didn’t know, oxybenzone and octinoxate are characterized as “Hazardous to the aquatic environment, long-term hazard » by the United Nations Global Harmonized System (GHS). As they leach off the skin – in the shower or swimming in the ocean – these compounds wash off into various water sources with insidious consequences on aquatic and marine life.
UV-FILTERS ARE TRAVELLING UP THE FOOD CHAIN
Oxybenzone and octinoxate are ubiquitous environmental contaminants and are found in streams, rivers, and lakes and in marine environments from the Arctic Circle (Barrow, Alaska) to the beaches and coral reefs along the equator [1-7]. They can be found in swimming pools and hot tubs, and even in our drinking water (municipal treated and desalinated sources).
Oxybenzone and octinoxate may also bio-accumulate and be biomagnified in organisms [8, 9]. Biomagnification means they may increase in concentration in the tissues of organisms as it travels up the food chain. A number of aquatic and marine species have been discovered to be contaminated, from carp, catfish, eel, white fish, trout, barb, chub, perch and mussels to coral, mahi-mahi, dolphins, sea turtle eggs, and migratory bird eggs [10, 11]. Finally, additional testings have revealed oxybenzone also acts as an endocrine disruptor on marine invertebrates such as shrimps and bivalves . Other ingredients commonly found in cosmetics – such as butylparaben, octocrylene and a chemical called 4MBC – have proven highly toxic to marine life. You can find the full list at www.haereticus-lab.org.
ARE THEY THAT BAD FOR CORALS? YES.
These compounds eventually disperse in oceanic currents, accumulate in sediments or are absorbed by organisms where they can have devastating effects on invertebrates especially on juvenile development stages . Downs et al. (2015) quantified impacts at the scale of coral fragments and coral polyps, showing death at certain concentrations within the conditions of an experimental tank. Laboratory testing showed that exposure to oxybenzone can inhibit and alter the growth of baby corals, is toxic to seven coral species and is likely to induce coral bleaching in the wild .
Oxybenzone and octinoxate both induce coral bleaching and DNA damage at concentrations starting from one drop worth in an area the size of six and half Olympic swimming pools . That means that in highly touristic areas – particularly in heavily frequented, closed systems such as coves - sunscreen pollution should be addressed as an environmental hazard. Meanwhile, sunscreen manufacturers require “sound scientific evidence proving that, under naturally occurring conditions, sunscreen ingredients are contributing to coral-reef decline”. Scientists have however seen a clear effect on highly frequented – and contaminated - reefs in Maui and claim it is enough evidence to justify a ban .
What I think? Considering the critical state of coral reefs worldwide, applying the precautionary principle by promoting chemical-free and other mineral-based sunscreens on highly frequented coral reefs and coastal areas would take some pressure off these fragile ecosystems in decline. Besides, by switching to mineral sunscreens we will also be doing a favor to our skins and personal health. We don’t mention enough the skin and health impacts reported from exposure to these two ingredients in cosmetics. This will change in my next blog ;-)
DID YOU KNOW?
HOW CAN YOU HELP?
1. Tsui, M.M., et al., Seasonal occurrence, removal efficiencies and preliminary risk assessment of multiple classes of organic UV filters in wastewater treatment plants. Water research, 2014. 53: p. 58-67.
2. Tsui, M.M., et al., Occurrence, distribution and ecological risk assessment of multiple classes of UV filters in marine sediments in Hong Kong and Japan. Journal of hazardous materials, 2015. 292: p. 180-187.
3. Balmer, M.E., et al., Occurrence of some organic UV filters in wastewater, in surface waters, and in fish from Swiss lakes. Environmental science & technology, 2005. 39(4): p. 953-962.
4. Tashiro, Y. and Y. Kameda, Concentration of organic sun-blocking agents in seawater of beaches and coral reefs of Okinawa Island, Japan. Marine pollution bulletin, 2013. 77(1-2): p. 333-340.
5. Sang, Z. and K.S.-Y. Leung, Environmental occurrence and ecological risk assessment of organic UV filters in marine organisms from Hong Kong coastal waters. Science of the Total Environment, 2016. 566: p. 489-498.
6. Bachelot, M., et al., Organic UV filter concentrations in marine mussels from French coastal regions. Science of the Total Environment, 2012. 420: p. 273-279.
7. Rodríguez, A.S., M.R. Sanz, and J.B. Rodríguez, Occurrence of eight UV filters in beaches of Gran Canaria (Canary Islands). An approach to environmental risk assessment. Chemosphere, 2015. 131: p. 85-90.
8. Gago-Ferrero, P., M.S. Díaz-Cruz, and D. Barceló, UV filters bioaccumulation in fish from Iberian river basins. Science of the Total Environment, 2015. 518: p. 518-525.
9. Fent, K., A. Zenker, and M. Rapp, Widespread occurrence of estrogenic UV-filters in aquatic ecosystems in Switzerland. Environmental Pollution, 2010. 158(5): p. 1817-1824.
10. Gago-Ferrero, P., M.S. Diaz-Cruz, and D. Barceló, An overview of UV-absorbing compounds (organic UV filters) in aquatic biota. Analytical and bioanalytical chemistry, 2012. 404(9): p. 2597-2610.
11. Rainieri, S., et al., Occurrence and toxicity of musks and UV filters in the marine environment. Food and Chemical Toxicology, 2017. 104: p. 57-68.
12. Paredes, E., et al., Ecotoxicological evaluation of four UV filters using marine organisms from different trophic levels Isochrysis galbana, Mytilus galloprovincialis, Paracentrotus lividus, and Siriella armata. Chemosphere, 2014. 104: p. 44-50.
13. Downs, C., et al., Toxicopathological effects of the sunscreen UV filter, Oxybenzone (Benzophenone-3), on coral planulae and cultured primary cells and its environmental contamination in Hawaii and the US Virgin Islands. Arch. Environ. Contam. Toxicol. , 2015 70, 2, 265 – 288.
Long gone is the time when we covered ourselves in mud or olive oil to protect our skin from UV-rays. Today, sunscreens are made in the lab and available everywhere at any price and texture. The down side is? Whether you pick the cheap 5L tub or a fancy mist recommended by your pharmacist, you are probably exposing your skin to loads of nasties...
In my twenties, I had absolutely no idea [and no care] what my sunscreen contained, as long as I didn’t get a burn... What’s more, I considered sunscreen an unpleasant thing and I wouldn’t put much thought into choosing one for me. As summer came around, I would go to the store and get it over with: pick the highest SPF at the lowest price. What I didn't know was that my life as a marine biologist would have me involved with sunscreens more than I could ever have imagined! But that will be the topic of another blog. This one is about helping you understand sunscreens and giving you what it takes to make an informed decision on your next purchase.
To act as required, sunblocks must contain some type of UV-filter that absorb, reflect or scatter UV light. Listed as ‘active ingredients’ on your tube, these filters are either of chemical or mineral origin (sometimes, both are used together in one formula). Formulators then achieve desired texture by adding varying qualities of anti-microbial preservatives, moisturizers and anti-oxidants, which are labeled ‘inactive ingredients’ and account for up to 70% of the product.
Oxybenzone (aka benzophenone-3 or BP-3), benzophenone-4 (BP-4), para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA) and PABA esters, cinnamates, salicylates, camphor derivatives, dibenzoylmethanes and anthranilates ... The list of chemical UV-filters is awfully long and unfamiliar. What’s more, they are generally used in combination because no single one, at currently permitted concentration, provides sufficient protection against UV radiation...Hello chemical cocktail!!
That was enough to raise my suspicions on a product I apply on my skin everyday. I started browsing the scientific literature and soon discovered that not all UV-filters are created equal. Chemical filters have been under the radar of the Environmental Working Group after scientific studies revealed – among other things - hormone disruption effects, photo-oxidative stress and - in some cases - skin cancer! [1, 3-5].
In 2008, the Scientific Committee on Consumer Products (SCCP) declared not advisable to apply chemical sunscreens [oxybenzone, avobenzone] before the age of 2. A few years later, several chemical UV-filters were detected in 85% of Swiss breast milk samples . From then, it was not recommended to wear chemical sunscreen while breastfeeding either. And guess what? That same study, detected oxybenzone in 96% of urine samples in the US, meaning ingredients contained in sunscreen enter the bloodstream via the skin. If that wasn’t enough, recent research also revealed that oxybenzone and its relatives [octinoxate, octocrylen, avobenzone] continue their destructive path on marine life and corals down the drain (read more in my next blog).
With oxybenzone and other chemical filters present in over 97% of sunscreens and cosmetics on the market, does that mean we should give up on sun protection and increase risks of sunburns, photo-aging or even skin cancer?
Fortunately, we have a good alternative in the minerals UV-filters zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Also called physical, these filters are photo-stable and, unlike chemical filters, they have the advantage of blocking both UVA and UVB rays, providing broad-spectrum protection (although titanium dioxide doesn’t protect against the whole range of UVA rays). It is important to note that mineral filters are sometimes used in the form of nanoparticles (ultrafine particles ranging from 1 nm to 100 nm). Research shows that nanoparticles are potentially hazardous under UV illumination, creating a wide range of toxic effects in various environments [6, 7]. So, carefully read the tag and prefer non-nano when it comes to mineral filters.
If you are looking for a clean sunblock, non-nano zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are the way to go, with zinc oxide being most efficient at reflecting the full range of UVs. But keep in mind that it is not all about sunscreen! Wear a hat, protective clothing, and try to avoid prolonged sun exposure between 11am and 3pm. If you haven’t been in the sun recently, try to gradually build your tan. And remember, the Sun created life on Earth and has many health and mental benefits like the secretion of Vitamin D and serotonin (the good mood hormone) in the body.
Learn to tame it, not to fear it!
1. Chisvert, A., M. Pascual-Marti, and A. Salvador, Determination of the UV filters worldwide authorised in sunscreens by high performance liquid chromatography. . Journal of Chromatography 2001. A 921(2):207-15. .
2. Krause, M., et al., Sunscreens: are they beneficial for health? An overview of endocrine disrupting properties of UV‐filters. International journal of andrology, 2012. 35(3): p. 424-436.
3. Hanson, K.M., E. Gratton, and C.J. Bardeen, Sunscreen enhancement of UV-induced reactive oxygen species in the skin. Free Radical Biology and Medicine, 2006. 41(8): p. 1205-1212.
4. Autier, P., Sunscreen abuse for intentional sun exposure. British Journal of Dermatology, 2009. 161(s3): p. 40-45.
5. Sharma, P., et al., Reactive Oxygen Species, oxidative damage, and antioxidative defense mechanism in plants under stressful conditions. Journal of Botany, 2012. vol. 2012 (Article ID 217037): p. 26 pages.
6. Yung, M., C. Mouneyrac, and K. Leunga, Ecotoxicity of Zinc Oxide Nanoparticles in the Marine Environment. . Encyclopedia of Nanotechnology 2014.
7. Lewicka, Z., et al., Photochemical behavior of nanoscale TiO2 and ZnO sunscreen ingredients. . Journal of Photochemistry and Photobiology A: Chemistry, 2013. 263, pp.24–33. .
Most sunscreen formulas typically comprise up to 20 or more chemical compounds . As the skin rapidly absorbs these chemicals, your health is directly affected via the bloodstream. So while sipping a cocktail by the pool after slip slap slopping sunscreen, your body is soaking its own shot of chemicals.
Living most of my life in the sun (Born in Abu Dhabi, expatriated in Singapore, Mauritius, and studied in Australia and now a marine biologist), I’ve had growing concerns about the impacts chemical sunscreens had on my personal health over the years. Prone to beauty spots and freckles, I consult my dermatologist once a year for a full mapping. After my last consultation, she declared my skin-aging "above average" for my age and recommended that I wear sunscreen every single day.
I took these recommendations home, and started researching for the best sunscreen out there. My investigations led me to several scientific publications highlighting the potential health drawbacks from chemical UV-filters used in most commercial sunscreens: from increased free-radicals in the skin [2, 3], endocrine disruptive properties in the body  and – this is the ironic one – enhanced risk of melanoma in cases of sunscreen abuse for intentional sun exposure . All these years, my daily exposure to commercial sunscreens and cosmetics products (which most of contain UV-filters) were somehow putting my health at risk. I pursued my research with more questions on the insidious impacts of chemical UV-filters.
During my time working at restoring Seychelles coral reefs (2015-2017), another topic caught my attention: sunscreen pollution in the ocean. With the world’s coastal population rapidly growing along with our fear of skin cancer and our obsession for premature aging, the use of sunscreens and cosmetics containing UV-filters has dramatically increased (and will increase further), with millions of tonnes of sunscreen entering our waters ways and eventually, our oceans. As it turns out, UV-filters (e.g. oxybenzone) are detrimental to coral health and can lead to coral bleaching at very small concentrations. Second irony. Protecting my skin from the sun might have been impacting the very ecosystems I had been studying, protecting and restoring during all my professional life!
It has now been five years since I have banned chemical sunscreens from my life and switched to natural sunscreen formulas. I strongly believe chemicals in sunscreens are poisoning us from the outside in with subsequent insidious impacts on natural systems, down the drain or when leaching off our skin. Today, the issue of sunscreen pollution has caught the World's attention and chemical sunscreens will soon be something from the past. This year, Hawaii is leading the way by banning chemical sunscreens to protect its coral reefs.
As a woman, coral expert and ocean & sun lover, I noticed an absence of sun care products capable of addressing the collateral damages of sun exposure (e.g. pigmentation, skin-dehydration, pH stress, premature aging) while providing effective sun protection and still ticking the boxes of respect for personal health and Nature. Together People4Ocean and LaGaia Unedited, set out on a journey to create a global first: a natural sun system loved by marine scientists, luxury skincare users, eco-activists, ocean & sun lovers, resort and spa owners.
In our next blog, discover the ingredients to look out for - and the ones to avoid - on your next sunscreen purchase.
1. Danovaro, R., et al., Sunscreens cause coral bleaching by promoting viral infections. . Environ. Health. Perspect. , 2008 116 (4), 441−447. .
2. Hanson, K.M., E. Gratton, and C.J. Bardeen, Sunscreen enhancement of UV-induced reactive oxygen species in the skin. Free Radical Biology and Medicine, 2006. 41(8): p. 1205-1212.
3. Chisvert, A., M. Pascual-Marti, and A. Salvador, Determination of the UV filters worldwide authorised in sunscreens by high performance liquid chromatography. . Journal of Chromatography 2001. A 921(2):207-15. .
4. Autier, P., Sunscreen abuse for intentional sun exposure. British Journal of Dermatology, 2009. 161(s3): p. 40-45.
On this day two years ago, we were stranding on the white sandy beach of Cousin Island, a tiny piece of tropical heaven in the Republic of Seychelles.
Committing for a 2-months volunteering experience, we were determined to make the most of our time on “Cousin” as the locals call it. Nature Seychelles – the conservation NGO managing the island – was running a volunteer program at the time, offering training in island conservation. This tiny speck of land would attract people of all ages and backgrounds: from bird-lovers to engineers, journalists or lost hippies in search of wholesome life experiences... As marine biologists, we were a little skeptical about spending the next 8 weeks monitoring land-birds, seabirds, reptiles and pulling out invasive plant species. But we quickly realized we had underestimated the island.
Cousin is home to 5 endemic Seychelles’ land-birds and 7 species of nesting seabirds in numbers exceeding 300,000 individuals. Reptiles also thrive on the island including skinks, geckos and the Giant Tortoise of Aldabra. With pristine beaches and a Marine Protected Area, the island is one the most important breeding site in the Western Indian Ocean for Hawksbill Sea Turtles, with over 700 nest records each year. This tropical diversity was made possible by the complete makeover of the island and the eradication of rats. Like coral reefs in the ocean, plants are the foundation of forest ecosystems.... by replacing the pre-existing coconut plantation with indigenous trees Nature Seychelles allowed the local fauna of Cousin to thrive again. And by thrive, I mean I had to watch my step in the forest to avoid stepping on skinks, seabird chicks or baby tortoises!
Our daily assignments on Cousin included monitoring of the Seychelles Magpie Robin, nest counting of different seabirds, removal of invasive plant species, beach profiling... I quickly learned never to forget my camera when stepping out of my room or I would always find myself rushing back through the forest, hoping this cute chick would stay put or this hermit crab would keep eating that coconut!
Cousin has some of the best and worst conditions for photography. I had never been so intimate with wildlife before. Birds had always been high up in trees – making them so hard to photograph – but they were now literally at my feet. I could seat next to the chick of a white fairy tern as long as I pleased...or as long as I could bear the cloud of mosquitos trying to suck my blood through my heavy-rain jacket or my hiking pants! It took a lot of self-control to hold my camera still with five mosquitos on each hand and more on my face...but going through my pictures in the evening, I couldn’t wait to go back the next day! I started considering it a toll the island inflicts on souvenirs... give a little of yourself, you will be allowed to capture the beauty of the island and take it home. Nothing is for free in the jungle!
Our time in the water was of course our favourite part of the day. We were too early in the year for sea turtle nesting season (September to May) but that didn’t keep us from swimming with these friendly creatures every afternoon. Escaping the heat and humidity of the forest, we would jump into the crystal clear waters, getting rid of the sweat from the forest hike and relieving ourselves from the itch of mosquito bites. Sea turtles, rays and sharks would be the highlights of our snorkelling sessions. It was not uncommon to spot several species of sharks in a single swim: white-tip reef sharks, grey reef sharks, nurse sharks and guitar sharks.
As a last reward, each day would end with a breathtaking sunset when all islanders would seat on the beach to talk about nothing and everything while spotting the first stars to glitter in the sky and watching the last seabirds fly back and snuggle for the night.
Cousin Island now offers a Conservation Boot Camp - a hands-on immersion into island conservation - over year-round 4-week periods. Read more about the CBC on http://www.natureseychelles.org/get-involved/conservation-boot-camp.
This time last year in the Seychelles, the lethal heat wave associated to the 2015/6 El Niño was weakening after several months of deadly impacts on the reefs. P4O was in the field, monitoring coral-bleaching impacts on a restored reef engineered by the NGO Nature Seychelles.
Spreading from the western Pacific, the lethal heat wave associated to the 2015/17 El Niño hit the western Indian Ocean around February 2016. Here in the Seychelles, the water temperature averaged 30°C for four consecutive months, peaking over 31°C on some days!
Corals are peaky when it comes to temperature: not too hot, not too cold. Reef building corals thrive in temperatures ranging from 23°C to 29°C. Exceed that limit – even by 1°C - for too long and you may witness coral bleaching...
Under normal conditions, each polyp of the colony live in symbiosis with millions of small algae called zooxanthellae. Using the energy of the sun (you may know a little about photosynthesis :-), the zooxanthellae make food for the coral, and provide up to 90% of its daily energy requirements! Last but not least, it is also the zooxanthellae that give their colors to corals.
If the water goes too hot for too long, those little food-makers start releasing free radicals and become toxic for their host. When this happens, the polyps will start expelling them in the water column. In a matter of days, the coral gradually looses its color and eventually turns white and starts to starve. Without its main source of energy, the colony’s immune system weakens, making the colony more susceptible to attacks from sponges and seaweeds. If the heat stress ceases, the polyps of the colony will slowly re-absorb zooxanthellae from the water column and the colony will recover. However, if the heat stress persists for too long, the colony will eventually starve to death.
We witnessed a mass coral-bleaching event in the Seychelles from February to August 2016. A particularly hot summer coupled with an intense El Niño caused water temperatures to rise and exceed season averages by 1 to 2°C for several weeks, triggering the phenomenon of coral-bleaching on the reef. As we received bleaching alerts from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) as well as bleaching reports from across world, we new what was coming...but what could we do to prevent it? From the start of March, we monitored over 20,000 vibrant colorful corals turning snowy white and remaining bleached for over 3 months. Mortality across the Seychelles averaged 80-90%. Despite the lethal effect of this bleaching event, many coral recruits (juvenile corals) settled on the reef in the following months, thus initiating the recovery of the reef.
Reef managers find themselves powerless against climate-related events because they happen on such a large-scale and because water temperature is a factor out of our control. Watching corals die-off in 2016 was completely out of our control...however, as we observed some corals resisting and surviving the event, we realized something could be done to help the reef recover and resist future heat waves. One month after the end of the bleaching event, we collected naturally detached fragments and coral colonies that were still alive after the heat wave. We re-fragmented them to small pieces (to increase stock size) and seeded them on a nursery. After 10 months of growth, we had generated a stock of about 3,000 heat-resistant corals that we transplanted back onto the reef. These “super-corals” are now living their life on the reef and generating more super-corals during each spawning seasons.
This bleaching event was an opportunity to build a new strategy for reef management in the context of climate-change. People4ocean now applies that strategy to restore coral reefs at large-scale.