Mangrove forests are highly productive marine ecosystems that are essential for the health of adjacent ecosystems e.g. seagrass beds and coral reefs. Yet, as much as 1-2% of the global mangrove forests are lost per year. Mangroves drawdown atmospheric CO², sequester and trap fine sediments, facilitate vital biodiversity mechanisms (e.g. fish nurseries) and improve fishery productivity. Despite the obvious importance of mangroves, mangrove forests in the Yucatan Peninsula have been under considerable anthropogenic impact from harvesting, causing a reduction in important habitat and biodiversity, carbon sequestration, and the productivity of adjacent seagrass and coral reef ecosystems. If the ecosystem services that mangrove provide can be quantified, then there is scope to develop a mangrove equivalent of the REDD programme in which fishing communities could receive economic investment in exchange for continued protection of the mangroves. Projects could therefore focus on a comparison of the structure, function, and faunal diversity of pristine and degraded mangroves, or an investigation of wood degradation processes across mangroves of differing quality. In addition, projects could investigate health and diversity of seagrasses and coral reefs in relation to the level of degradation of adjacent mangroves. Belt transects and permanent plots will be used to record tree composition, basal areas and tree densities. Biodiversity assessments will be conducted by investigation of the available mangrove substrata. Snorkel and dive based transect and quadrat surveys may be used to assess diversity and coverage of seagrasses, hard corals and algae.
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.