Scleractinian coral is vital for coral reefs providing 3D structure as well as a diverse food supply for a variety of species. These reef-building corals are facing extinction, and, without maintaining genetic diversity on the reefs, we risk losing entire populations if multiple colonies are descended from an individual lacking resistance to disease, warming oceans and eutrophication. Assisted fertilization of coral gametes has been pioneered over the last decade by local researchers, the Coralium Laboratory of the National Autonomous Univeristy of Mexico (UNAM) to improve fertilisation and genetic diversity juvenile coral recruits which are grown and transplanted onto the reef in the National Park of Puerto Morelos. Corals spawn only once or twice per year at full moons during the summer and in Akumal these gametes are collected for assisted fertilization and rearing in our on-site laboratory. However, with only a few nights each year in which gametes can be collected, the Coralium group urgently need data showing where the largest and healthiest coral colonies are located so they can target gamete collection appropriately and maximise success. Operation Wallacea is assisting this long-term research project in Akumal by mapping the distribution of colonies of coral species from the genera Acropora, Orbicella, Montastraea, Diploria, Pseudodiploria and Dendrogyra. Coral colonies will be assessed using belt transects in which all colonies of target coral genera are georeferenced, each colony is assigned to a size category and the health of the colony (% bleaching and evidence of coral disease) is recorded. Scleractinian coral distribution maps are then created for the Coralium coral reproduction research team to determine the best locations of gamete collection during spawning.
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.