The deadly Tigershark. The venomous Banded Sea Snake. The aggressive Giant Barracuda. When visitors to the Great Barrier Reef think of danger, many of their minds are immediately filled with images of deadly sea creatures, many of them sporting a fast array of sharp, jagged teeth or super-poisonous venom. However, many visitors may be surprised to learn that the single-most dangerous thing out at the reef, responsible for more injuries than anything else, is actually 149.6 million kilometres away. We’re talking about the sun. Sunburn, sun stroke, and heat exhaustion are by far the most frequent injuries and illnesses that tourism staff treats in a first aid capacity. However, with some simple tips, you can be sun smart and avoid getting burned while you’re enjoying the reef.
Out at the reef, the UV index rating can be at level 14, the highest level according to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology. The UV Index is a simple and informative way of describing the daily danger of solar UV radiation intensity. The most common exposure to UV radiation is in the spectrum known as UV-B, which ranges from between 280 and 320 nm on the wavelength. Aside from the immediate impact of sunburn, exposure to UV-B radiation causes skin cancer, hastens skin aging, and can cause eye damage. The human immune system can also be weakened by exposure to UV-B. However it is important to note that UV-B has always had these effects on humans.
So when heading out on a reef trip, there are a few tips that can minimise your exposure to these dangerous rays, as well as help lessen your impact on the coral. First off, during the summer months, it is recommended to wear a sunsuit, also known as a stinger suit. These full-body Lycra suits may not look very fashionable, but will act like an SPF 50 sunscreen, and cover 99% of your body. A couple of added advantages include protection against marine stingers (for more, read here), and also keep chemical sunscreens off the coral, which has shown to have negative impacts on the reef ecosystem. A wide-brimmed hat is also a good idea out of the water.
In addition to covering up, it is important when out at the reef to stay hydrated. In the tropics, once you start to feel thirsty, you are actually already about 50% dehydrated. Staying hydrated and out of the sun will keep you from getting overheated, and is the best way to prevent heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Symptoms of heat exhaustion can include confusion, dizziness, fainting, fatigue, headache, muscle or abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting, or diarrhoea, pale skin, profuse sweating, rapid heartbeat. If left untreated, these symptoms can lead to heat stroke, which can be dangerous and potentially life-threatening.
So when you come out to the reef, stay sun-smart, drink plenty of water or other fluids, and you will be able to maximise your trip and, ultimately, the rest of your holiday.