Diving into Coral Reef Education with UCSB Marine Research Divers

Diving into Coral Reef Education with UCSB Marine Research Divers

Photo by Domenic Mosquiera

We interviewed divers at UCSB's Ocean Recoveries Lab and Marine Science Institute to get a deep dive (pun intended) into coral reef education - from the work that these divers do on Mo'orea, French Polynesia, to what "reef-safe" even means, to how Avasol makes a real difference. We hope that this article educates, inspires and empowers you to take small but meaningful steps to conserve one our most valuable and endangered ecosystems.

Photo by Whitney Nester

Corals are critical to sustaining life below water and above. Acting like the trees of the ocean, they absorb CO2 and produce oxygen, cooling our oceans and atmosphere. Not to mention, they support our communities, acting as a critical sources of food, medicine, and jobs/tourism.

Did you know that coral reefs infuse $3.4 billion a year into the US economy alone? From food sources, to medicines, to jobs and tourism, coral reefs are not only the backbone of our physical ecosystems, but our economic ecosystems as well. This is all the more reason to protect them.

By supporting Avasol, you are supporting the most critical marine ecosystems on Earth. Read on to learn more.

Photo by Nat Gerding

Tell us about the work that you do as a coral reef scientist/researcher.

Jada Alexander

Jada - As a marine scientist, my focus is on the changing dynamics of reefs in Mo'orea. The reefs here are experiencing a transition from coral to macroalgal dominance, primarily due to various human-induced stressors. Understanding the specific anthropogenic factors driving this shift is crucial but often requires significant time and resources. My research centers on investigating how macroalgal traits, including height, weight, and more, can serve as indicators of the negative impacts of anthropogenic stressors on reef ecosystems. By studying these traits, I aim to identify the specific stressors affecting the reefs and contribute to effective conservation efforts.

Alexis Sittenfeld-Parkhurst

Lexi- I work with a graduate student at UCSB researching the regenerative properties of coral under heat stress in French Polynesia. With increasing global temperatures and increasing threats to coral reefs, I want focus on research then can help us understand corals better. With our current research I hope that we can inform coral restoration projects and learn more about the energy budget of corals. 

Madeline Pacheco

Maddie - I study how anthropogenic stressors impact coral resilience, health, and survival in Mo’orea, French Polynesia. Currently, I primarily research how corals are affected by pollution and physical injuries. With the threats of urbanization, development, and high water temperatures increasing, it is vital to investigate how dynamic reef ecosystems are being affected and consequently change in response to human-caused disturbances. 

Francesca Fee

Fran - I am a third year undergraduate student at UCSB. I am a research intern with two different labs on campus at the Marine Science Institute. I have been an intern at the Burkepile Community Ecology Laboratory for a little over a year, where I assist graduate and post doctorate researchers who study coral reef ecosystems. I am currently working on my own research project using data from a field experiment based in Moorea, French Polynesia. This summer, I will also be a scuba diving research intern with the Caselle Lab, where I will assist with kelp forest monitoring and data collection around the Channel Islands.

Hayden Vega

What gets me excited about marine science is investigating the ways in which we as humans are tied to our natural environment. I’m currently working on a project that studies algae and how they contribute to the kelp forest communities we rely on. We analyze specimens collected from the present and the past, some of which are over 100 years old, to understand how our kelp forests might change in the future. 

What Are Some Mind-boggling facts you've learned about our reefs over the years?

Francesca - To me, one of the most fascinating things about coral is their symbiotic relationship with photosynthetic algae called zooxanthellae. The coral animal itself takes up this algae into its tissues, providing the algae with a safe place to live and the products it needs for photosynthesis. In return, the coral gets a huge portion of its food from the algae in the form of carbohydrates, which are the products of photosynthesis. Corals with this symbiosis actually get their color from their symbiotic algae. Coral bleaching is a stress response where the coral animal ejects their symbiotic algae, leaving the coral tissues a transparent color where you can see directly through to their white calcium carbonate skeleton. This symbiotic relationship is also why most reefs are in shallow habitats, because the corals need access to high light levels in order for the algae to photosynthesize. One way that coral reproduce is through mass synchronized spawning events that typically occur after a full moon. During these events, there is a mass release of coral gametes into the ocean. This method of spawning promotes the diversification and speciation of corals, as the gametes follow ocean currents and mix with genetically different gametes from other reefs. Corals are made up of small individual units called polyps that are all genetically identical, so another way that corals can reproduce is through fragmentation. If a piece of a coral breaks off, that piece can continue to grow on its own. This is a common method used in reef restoration! I also find it insane how reefs have formed over millions of years! Different kinds of corals and calcifying algae have left behind giant reef structures that the living reefs sit on top of today.

Lexi - Learning that corals flourish in nutrient-depleted waters by being incredibly effective nutrient cyclers was a mind-boggling fact that I only recently discovered. I also discovered that even after corals bleach, they are not dead; coral reefs may recover from bleaching, which gives me a lot more optimism for the future of corals. 

Photo by Whitney Nester

What Inspired You To Pursue This Field?

Lexi - Learning about coral bleaching and how vital corals are to this fight against climate change inspired me to research corals. 

If you had to sum up why we should care about our reefs in a simple call-to-action, what would it be?

Francesca - Not only do coral reefs support a huge portion of marine biodiversity, but they also provide humans with many essential resources and services. Huge populations of people rely on coral reefs as a food source, and these habitats often serve as important nurseries for commercially fished species at the larval stage. Coral is a foundation species, which essentially means that they provide a structural habitat that promotes biodiversity. This structural habitat also provides humans protection from large storms and heavy wave action.

Lexi - Coral reefs uphold the wellbeing of humanity and the world’s ecosystems, helping sustain life as we know it. Corals being threatened threatens us all, and is of the utmost importance.

Tell Us About Your Favorite Dive To Date. 

Jada - I had the most incredible dive of my life at the fore reef of Mo'orea, French Polynesia. Our team had been eagerly anticipating this dive for days, but the conditions had been non-permitting due to an intense storm that had recently passed the island. When we finally received the all-clear from our dive safety officer, we wasted no time. We quickly rushed to put on our wetsuits and the loaded the boat with our diving gear. The boat ride to the fore reef was exhilarating, with the boat bouncing and jolting through the remnants of the storm surge. As we reached our destination, we peered over the sides into the deep, powerade blue water—a shade of blue I will forever cherish. Filled with nervous anticipation and excitement, we geared up and plunged into the water. Descending sixty feet, we found ourselves immersed in a world adorned with vibrant coral. The reef was teeming with life, as each organism was vying for its place in this underwater wonderland. A plethora of fish species, sea turtles, sharks, rays, and countless other creatures graced the reef with their presence. Though we could hear the distant calls of nearby whales, we were unable to spot them. This dive will forever be etched in my memory like a tattoo. As a marine science researcher, I feel immensely privileged to be able to partake in such remarkable work. It is moments like these that remind me of the immense beauty we are working to protect.

How does Avasol come into play when diving? 

Jada - Diving as researchers, our time in the water can span from one to six hours, dedicated to collecting samples and conducting experiments. The island of Moorea, where we spend our research field season, is located near the equator. The sun's rays are particularly intense there, posing a greater risk of skin damage. As marine science researchers, safeguarding our skin is paramount. However, it's equally vital to choose a sunscreen that doesn't harm the delicate ecosystems vulnerable to certain chemicals found in conventional sunscreens. Thankfully, Avasol has created a sunscreen that effortlessly protects both us and the reefs we study.

Seeing as “reef-safe”is an unregulated claim, how would you classify it? 

Francesca - It is very unfortunate that “reef safe” is an unregulated claim, because lots of sunscreen companies will falsely advertise reef safe on their packaging. I have seen certain brands market a product as reef safe just because their product doesn’t include a certain chemical like oxybenzone which is not reef safe, but it will still include other harmful chemicals in the ingredients. It can be frustrating because people think they are buying something that is reef safe even though it is not. I would classify reef safe as a mineral based sunscreen (usually containing zinc oxide or titanium dioxide as the only active ingredients).

Maddie - I would classify sunscreen as “reef-safe” if it contained ingredients that are least likely to cause harm to marine ecosystems and reefs. Unfortunately, there is no standardized process or definition for identifying something as “reef-safe” which can lead to inconsistent products and claims in the market. I would use existing research to look for what ingredients are the least likely to harm the reefs. 

What tangible effects of coral bleaching and ocean acidification have you observed?

Francesca - In my personal experience, I see the degradation of coral reefs first hand when I am conducting my research. I am currently analyzing time series photos of a coral reef experiment in Moorea, French Polynesia. To collect my data, I am analyzing photos of coral plots throughout a multi-year experiment. In this process, I have watched once thriving plots of healthy corals turn into algae covered skeletons. It is disheartening to see this occurring first hand. Once a section of coral reef gets outcompeted by algae, it is really difficult to reverse and return to the coral dominated state. Although it is sad to see the corals in this experiment die, there is really important research being conducted to analyze how multiple factors, such as nutrient pollution and fish predation, are impacting the health of reefs, and it is really cool to know that I am contributing to that research.

Maddie - In Mo’orea, coral bleaching events have been observed which leads to big losses of coral cover and consequently biodiversity loss. Bleached corals tend to die at a high rate and with stressful events occurring with higher intensity and frequency, the structure of the marine ecosystem in Mo’orea is being impacted. Coral reefs have the ability to bounce back after disturbances, but it is vital to preserve ecosystem health and function as the climate continues to change! 

What do you think the hypothetical impact on the reef would be if everyone switched to reef-safe sunscreen like Avasol?

If everyone switched to a reef-safe sunscreen like Avasol, it would holistically improve our reefs. Sunscreen can seem like a drop in the ocean of problems facing our reefs, but when we stand together, these small, intentional actions can create waves. The direct, reef-safe impacts are only one side of the benefits. If everyone chose to put on reef-safe sunscreen we would be choosing to put reefs first. Action without regard for the environment is what got us into this mess, but through small, intentional actions, we can do our part to help the nature we love.

If for nothing else, choose Reef-Safe to Protect our beloved Waves!

Photo by Domenic Mosqueira

As the South Swells come marching in, igniting iconic surf spots across the hemisphere, let's take a moment to appreciate the complex set of factors that make these waves break the way they do - and how reef-safe sunscreen has a major impact.

According to the research done by Dr Cliff Kapono and his team at The Mega Lab, some of the best waves in the world form because of the way the coral reefs are structured beneath them. If you want to preserve waves in their highest natural state, it’s especially critical to make sure we introduce nothing but reef-safe substances into the ocean.

Chemical sunscreens (or even mineral sunscreens made of nanoparticles) and petroleum chafe creams are #1 suspects when it comes to harming coral reefs, as they are toxic to the base of the food chain. It’s critical that we switch out harmful products for bio-based products like Avasol instead!!

As Dr. Cliff says, if for nothing else, protect your reefs for the sake of maintaining wave quality!!

Avasol's Commitment

Photo by Domenic Mosqueira

Here at Avasol, we do all that we can to protect corals. That's why our sunscreen is Non-Nano. When we go in the ocean, it's inevitable that some of our sunscreen gets into the water. Nanoparticle sunscreen interacts with corals, causing cell damage.

How do you tell if a sunscreen is made of nanoparticles? If it rubs on clear, steer clear; safe sunscreen will always be at least slightly tinted because of the larger size of the particles. Don't let "clear zinc" fool you - Choose a non-nano, reef safe sunscreen that keeps corals in mind! Choose Avasol!

Meet the Student Scientists

From left to right: Maddie, Lexi, Jada and Hayden

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published