There are seven species of sea turtle in the world, all of which are either threatened or endangered. Akumal (meaning “home of the turtles”) contains one of the few remaining healthy seagrass habitats in the Mexican Caribbean coastline and is home to a large resident population of green turtles, Chelonia mydas. Immature green turtles (roughly 5-20 years of age) feed exclusively on seagrasses before reaching sexual maturity and travelling out to sea. Due to an influx of sargassum macroalgae in the Yucatan Peninsula in 2015, many of the seagrass habitats in the region died, meaning that Akumal is one of only a small handful of suitable feeding grounds for immature turtles. Over 80 individuals have been recorded in the seagrasses of Akumal Bay, but several years of unregulated snorkel tours with these turtles resulted in a decline in the turtle population and considerable damage to the seagrasses. As Akumal Bay is now a marine protected area, the hope is that the turtle population will recover. Snorkel tours with turtles have been restricted to a set route around the bay and the use of snorkel fins is prohibited in order to allow seagrasses chance to recover. As the turtles preferentially graze in different areas each year, the distribution of seagrasses in the bay changes over time and the location of the designated snorkel route needs to change in line with this to ensure the continued recovery of the ecosystem. Research into green turtle feeding preferences will involve snorkelling with the turtles throughout the day to record their foraging patterns. Seagrass quadrat surveys will be used to determine the availability of the various species of seagrasses, which can then be compared to turtle feeding preferences obtained from behavioural observations. Belt transects throughout the bay will be used to estimate population density of the turtles and photographs of turtles along transects will be used to identify individuals in order to monitor departure of turtles as they reach sexual maturity and new arrivals into the bay. Photographs will also be used to monitor the recovery of turtles suffering from tumours that resulted from the combination of water contamination and chronic stress from unregulated snorkel tours prior to the formation of the new protected area.
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.