THE GREAT BARRIER REEF IS ONE of the Wonders of the Natural World. But it might not be around much longer: a recent study by an Australian task force has found that 93% of the reefs in the Great Barrier Reef have been affected by coral bleaching, which puts the coral at a great risk of dying.

Bleaching is a process that has affected reefs all over the world in recent years: in short, coral depends on an algae that it has a symbiotic relationship with to survive. If stress is put on the coral — whether it’s through a rise or fall in water temperature, or if a reef experiences pollution — the algae is expelled from the coral, causing the coral to turn white (hence the name “bleaching”), which makes it more likely to die. If the bleaching is severe enough, it can kill off entire reefs, causing mass destruction to the ocean’s most important ecosystem. The cause of the bleaching is likely due to man-made climate change, both from the rise in water temperatures and from pollution.

The Northern part of the Great Barrier Reef, the largest coral reef in the world, is in serious decline — the study estimated that 50% of coral in the Northern part of the reef has already died. If the trend continues, the Great Barrier Reef could become no more than a skeleton in our lifetimes.

But this doesn’t mean you should necessarily rush to go visit the Great Barrier Reef now without taking precautions: a spike in tourism is not likely to be good for the reef, as snorkeling, boating, and diving has caused significant physical damage to reefs in the past. On top of that, most common brands of sunscreen contain a chemical that has been tied to reef bleaching. And coastal development for tourism purposes can cause sewage run-off and sedimentation that can harm reefs even further.

Fishing on the reefs doesn’t help either: Just last week, there were reports that the movie Finding Nemo — which had a very pro-conservation message — had led to a drop in wild clownfish populations because people wanted the movie’s cute tropical fish in their tanks. There are worries that the upcoming movie Finding Dory could have the same unintended effect.

So if you still want to see this natural wonder, take precautions: don’t touch anything. Don’t take shells as souvenirs. Don’t take fish from the habitat. Only go with responsible eco-conscious companies. And wear reef-safe sunscreen.

The Great Barrier Reef may yet be saved. But it serves as a warning to humans that the most beautiful things on our planet are fragile, and that we shouldn’t just assume that they’ll always be around for us. We may, in our lifetime, lose one of our most spectacular natural wonders. And we’ll only have ourselves to blame.

Featured photo by CJ Anderson