Year-round you can find immature green turtles, Chelonia mydas feeding on the seagrasses in Akumal Bay. These turtles have become a popular tourist attraction and there is concern that both the number and behaviour of tourists is affecting the behaviour and welfare of the turtles. Multiple studies of “swim with wild dolphin” based tourism have indicated that when the number of tourists gets too high, or the tourists attempt to touch them, the dolphins issue evasive responses to attempt to escape from the tourist. If the tourism continues to maintain high numbers, the dolphins simply move their home range to areas inaccessible by tour boats. As the availability of healthy seagrasses in the Mexican Caribbean coastline is limited, the turtles in Akumal Bay may not have the option of leaving the area to avoid large numbers of tourists so the snorkel with turtle tours need to be strictly regulated. As Akumal Bay has just been declared a protected area, data is urgently required to determine the carrying capacity of snorkel-based tourism. Data collected since the formation of the protected area can also be compared to previous data as a means of investigating positive behavioural changes in the turtles as a consequence of more sustainable management. Research into green turtle behaviour will involve snorkelling with the turtles throughout the day to record their activity budgets and rates of evasive responses to tourists using focal animal sampling with continuous recording. Each turtle can be recognised individually and at the start of each focal sample the turtle will be photographed from various angles for subsequent identification from the turtle photo ID database. The number of tourists within a 5m radius of each turtle and the behaviour of these tourists (whether they abide by the rules and maintain a safe distance from the turtles or attempt to interact with them) will be recorded throughout each focal sample to determine the effect of tourism on turtle behaviour.
*Although you are able to learn to dive whilst on site, this project is exclusively snorkel-based
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. Research also aims to monitor the combined impacts of water quality and turtle grazing on the abundance and health of the seagrass ecosystem. In addition, the new protected area provides the opportunity for recovery of the coral reefs, but as natural coral recovery rates are so slow, coral reef restoration projects are extremely important. Assisted fertilisation of coral gametes is used by restoration managers to improve genetic diversity before corals are grown and transplanted to nurseries as coral recruits. Corals spawn only once or twice per year at full moons during the summer and in Akumal and Puerto Morelos these gametes are collected ready for fertilization in the laboratory at UNAM university. Operation Wallacea is assisting this long-term research project in Akumal by mapping the distribution of healthy colonies of hard coral species.
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.