From above, the coral quays and sandy pauses of the Great Barrier Reef appear as the great leopard spots of a luminous beast.
Like one living organism undulating from Gladstone to the northern most tip of Australia, the reef can feel enormous and invulnerable.
But the individual polyps and soft corals that make up the reef are sensitive to subtle changes in temperature and nutrient load and new research suggests the sun cream snorkelers wear could seriously impact the reef.
A U.S. study published in the Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology this week found a common ingredient in sunscreen caused deformities in baby coral.
The study showed low levels of oxybenzone produced morphological deformities, damaged DNA, and disrupted endocrine systems which could cause the coral to encase itself in its own skeleton leading to death.
While the solution might be wearing rash vests, Oxford University researcher Alex Rogers said coral was so sensitive to the chemical, it could be affected by runoff from the sewage system.
“Far too little attention is paid to the chemicals entering the ocean and their destructive impact," Rogers said.
"We need better understanding, testing and management to ensure that we are not eroding vital ocean resilience through the careless use of marine-toxic ingredients.”
James Cook University water quality expert Jon Brodie told Cairns Post the findings applied to Australian coral.
“We’re contaminating the ocean with a whole range of stuff which we have little idea of what the real risk is,” Brodie said.
“Something like this just adds to the concern about the state of the world’s oceans."
Indeed the concerns about the state of the Great Barrier Reef have been outlined in a new project by the University of Queensland seeking to understand the reef's future by looking at its past.
School of Earth Sciences professor Gregg Webb said the team was using core samples to go back to a time when the Great Barrier Reef was grassland.
“Before that, what is now the Great Barrier Reef was high and dry and consisted of a series of limestone tablelands complete with trees, grasses and soils,” Webb said.
“Our new samples allow us to see what coral communities first colonised those tablelands as they were inundated by the sea around 9,000 years ago.
“We are learning how rapidly the reefs grew, and how coral communities changed over thousands of years, in response to changing climate, through to the present day."
Webb said there was still much to learn about the Great Barrier Reef.
“By analysing the geochemistry of corals within the cores, we can understand how ancient water quality, seawater temperature and nutrient loads governed natural reef growth before humans arrived with their own effects on the environment, such as pollution," Webb said.