This six week expedition gives you an in-depth research experience with three weeks in the Calakmul Biosphere reserve forests and then three weeks working on marine research projects at Akumal. Your first week in the forest would start with the introduction to the ancient Maya and a Mayan jungle ecology course. For the next two weeks you will be focussing on remote biodiversity surveys helping teams of field biologists in the remote Dos Naciones camp. Initial data in this area indicates that these humid forests are crucial for the conservation of flagship species such as jaguar, tapir and spider monkeys and have the highest diversity of birds, bats and herpetofauna in the reserve. Here you will help with surveys on forest structure and tree species composition, birds, bats, herpetofauna, primates and large terrestrial mammals using the same methods as the standard biodiversity surveys and will experience a high number of animal sightings and captures. During remote biodiversity surveys, students will need to help with running the field camp as well as assisting with surveys and a good level of fitness is required due to the hilly terrain.
Your next three weeks will be spent at the Akumal marine protected area. If you are not already dive trained, then you will be able to complete a PADI Open Water dive training course before moving onto the Caribbean reef ecology course by diving in the following week. Your final week will then be spent assisting the marine science team. If you are already dive trained, or wanting to only snorkel, then your first Akumal week will be spent on the Caribbean reef ecology course by diving/snorkelling and having completed this course your next two weeks will be spent working with different marine scientists. The monitoring programme focusses on mapping hard corals and rapid assessment of habitat quality across the Akumal reefs and reef restoration nurseries, monitoring of sea turtle grazing of seagrasses and seagrass biomass in Akumal Bay and investigation of the carbon biomass, health and function of different mangrove systems, including the unique cenote fed mangroves found only in the Yucatan Peninsula. Students participating in this monitoring programme will have an active schedule that involves dive or snorkel based surveys to assess the health of the reefs and snorkel, kayak or land based surveys to monitor mangroves.
The Calakmul Biosphere Reserve (CBR) in Mexico is an UNESCO World Heritage Site of Culture and Nature and is part of the largest expanse of neotropical forest north of the Amazon, filled with ancient Mayan ruins and supporting one of the highest biodiversity levels in the world. The CBR is also an extremely important wildlife corridor that is crucial for migrating birds and animals with extensive ranging patterns such as jaguar and Baird’s tapir. Over the last 10 years the reserve has experienced a notable reduction in rainfall. Monitoring data on birds, bats, herpetofauna, butterflies, ungulates, felids
and primates are being used to evaluate the impact of climate change and changing rainfall patterns on the abundance, ranging and diversity of fauna to help determine when and where mitigation should be used to restore water sources. Data are also used to assess the efficacy of a range of sustainable development projects with buffer zone communities designed to minimise forest encroachment. In addition, there are specialist studies on jaguar and their preferred prey, behaviour of spider monkeys and population levels of Morelet’s crocodiles.
Akumal is a small coastal town located approximately 2 hours’ drive south from the major tourist destination of Cancun. The name Akumal literally means “home of the turtles” in Mayan. It earned this name due to the numerous turtle nesting sites along the beaches and the permanent presence of juvenile turtles in the seagrasses just off shore. Prior to established tourism in the Yucatan, the only real source of income was from fishing. The reefs were so heavily overfished that the entire ecosystem almost collapsed. Moreover, sea turtles and their eggs were a major food source rather than an attraction to be admired, resulting in a serious decline in the turtle population. In an attempt to save the reef ecosystem and provide alternative income for local people, dive and snorkel based tourism was actively encouraged by the Mexican government. Tourism in the area has steadily increased over the last 20 years, but now it has brought problems of its own. More hotels are being built to accommodate tourists leading to loss of important nesting habitat for turtles, loss of mangrove habitat that cleans water and prevents sediment from washing onto the reef, and too many people snorkelling with turtles.
At the marine site, the research is focussed on assessing the efficacy of the newly formed Akumal marine protected area on the abundance and health of seagrasses and the impact of snorkel tours on the abundance, health and behaviour of sea turtles. The new protected area also provides the opportunity for recovery of the coral reefs, but as natural coral recovery rates are so slow, we are assisting the process by attaching coral fragments to artificial reefs composed of different substrates of varying structural complexity in order to assess the best methods for coral reef restoration in the region. Combined with mapping and monitoring of the existing reefs we are able to determine the positive impact of the new protected area on the coral reef ecosystem. Another aim of the Akumal project is to monitor the impact of mangrove degradation on the adjacent reefs and to investigate the ecology of the unique mangroves surrounding sink holes (cenotes) connected to the underground river system that runs throughout the Yucatan Peninsula.
In Mexico it is hot and humid. Temperatures rarely drop below mid 20s even at night. It is unlikely to rain much, but you do get occasional heavy showers during the season.
Fitness level required
Medium in the forest, low on the marine site. There are some reasonably long walks through the forest, terrain varies by camp with some being almost completely flat and others more undulating. On the marine site lower levels of fitness are required (although you will likely be very tired at the end of the day after the in-water sessions).
Facilities in the forest are basic (sleeping in tents or hammocks in a camp site), with a mixture of dry and trench toilets. There are freshwater showers but water conservation is particularly important to bear in mind. There are some limited opportunities to buy snacks at some forest camps and there is no phone signal at any of the sites. On the marine site the facilities are a little less rustic – you sleep in bunk beds in dormitories about 10 minutes drive from the beach. There is good phone signal and the site is well supplied with shops.