As plants photosynthesise, they capture carbon dioxide and release oxygen. This carbon sequestration is well documented in terrestrial ecosystems and with the concept of “Blue Carbon” it has similarly been quantified for mangroves and seagrasses. However, for coral reefs it remains poorly understood, despite carbon sequestration increasing conservation value. Tropical coral reef biodiversity and the unique physiology of calcifying corals makes their carbon budget more complex than other ecosystems, as their metabolism includes multiple processes: photosynthesis, respiration, calcification and dissolution, which all have different roles in coastal carbon cycling. Another important coral reef management tool is reef restoration, which aims to return balance to the ecosystem by artificially increasing the cover of reef-building scleractinian corals. In Akumal preliminary research has been conducted to trial success rates of coral nurseries where Acropora cervicornis, one of the Caribbean’s fastest growing but most threatened corals, is grown, propagated and then transplanted onto the reef. The methods used are minimally invasive and require cheap materials. Once blue carbon potential of a reef has been calculated, this can be used to measure changes in carbon processes, for example during reef restoration. At each reef site, benthic transects at two different depth profiles will be used to assess coverage of live and dead coral, macroalgae and sponges, measuring the number and size of individuals to estimate their rates of calcification, photosynthesis and respiration. Additional transects will then be conducted for key algal grazers such as urchins and herbivorous fish. The information gained from these data can then be used to calculate community metabolism and contribute to our understanding of the carbon cycle of Caribbean reefs, and to discuss their conservation implications in relation to reef restoration efforts.
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.