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 of tourists and the 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.
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.