THE GREAT BARRIER REEF IS one of the natural wonders of the world, and it’s dying. That’s according to scientists, who say the reef is “terminal” thanks to the massive bleaching events that have happened as a result of climate change.

This is an enormous tragedy for the planet — the Great Barrier Reef is one of the most beautiful and biodiverse ecosystems on the planet, and its collapse is mostly the fault of mankind. Huge swaths of the reef are going through what’s known as “bleaching.” In short, bleaching is what happens when coral is put under great stress in its environment, possibly by a rise in temperatures or an increase in pollution. When coral bleaches, it is more likely to die. And if enough coral in a reef dies, much of the other life in the reef goes with it.

Fish collage

Photos by Scott Sporleder

We saw this coming, too — scientists have been warning us about the damage being done to the Great Barrier Reef for years. As the temperature of the ocean rises, as pollution increases, and as ocean acidity gets worse, this will happen in other reefs, too.

An orange fish in turquoise coral

Some types of coral may be hardy enough to survive the mass bleaching, but the remaining reef will be a shadow of its former self. We destroyed in a matter of about a century and a half an ecosystem that took hundreds of thousands of years to develop.

Purple, yellow, and orange striped fish

The impulse, as a traveler, may be to try and visit the Great Barrier Reef before it disappears entirely. But if you want to go, you should educate yourself first. Unfortunately, tourism hasn’t always helped the reef. At times, irresponsible tourism has actively damaged it.

The reef in view below the surface

A view from above the waterline.

First, there’s the physical damage that tourism does to the reef. Snorkelers and divers who have behaved irresponsibly and have touched or even physically damaged parts of the reef have been part of the problem, as have the propellers of boats that have struck the reef while taking tourists out to go diving.

A cuttlefish changing colors

Likewise, some forms of sunscreen contain chemicals that, in small doses, can kill huge swaths of coral. So if you must go, take reef-safe sunscreen.

 Heart ReefWhitsunday Regional, AustraliaWords can not define the feeling of flying over the biggest coral reef in the planet!
September 2016

Tourism has also driven a demand for coastal developments near the reef. This can result in the dumping of chemicals into the sea, which can harm the reefs.

A rainbow over the water

Tourists, of course, are not the only ones to blame. Overfishing has also been a problem. Some rare tropical fish are even caught using a stunning cyanide spray that leaves nasty chemicals in the reef they were taken from.

Bubbles and light rays in blue water

And ironically, movies with a pro-conservationist message like Finding Nemo have driven demand for the reef fish featured in the movie. And this has paradoxically harmed the reef.

A casual turtle

In response to the problems that tourism has caused at the reef, operators in Australia have been becoming more environmentally friendly, and more eco-conscious.

A cod's face with a diver in the background

The real problem, though, is climate change. Reefs are very fragile (and very important) ecosystems, and their collapse is not a good sign for our planet’s future.

A snorkeler swimming near the reef

The collapse of the Great Barrier Reef is truly sad. Travelers can learn a lesson here, though — wherever you go, make sure you’re leaving as little of a footprint on the local environment as possible. We have a great big world to go out and see, but we should leave it better than we found it. If we don’t approach our planet with that mentality, there will be more tragedies like this one.

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