The potential to sequester organic carbon is an ecosystem service that has been quantified for forests and with the concept of “Blue Carbon” it has similarly been quantified for mangroves and seagrasses, but for coral reefs remains poorly studied. The ability of ecosystems to capture carbon from the environment increases their conservation value and assessing coral reef carbon sequestration capacity will support conservation of the reef ecosystem on a global scale. Caribbean coral reefs are in decline, and reef restoration aims to return balance to the ecosystem, not only in terms of coral cover, but also within the context of carbon cycling, long-term carbon lock-down and protection of the ancient inorganic carbon stores within the very structure of the reef. Once blue carbon potential of a reef has been calculated, this can be used to measure changes in carbon processes, for example during phase shifts and those which are being restored. Our unique coral reef project in Akumal looks at the wider scope of biogeochemical processes on a degraded reef system and applies the findings to reef conservation and restoration decisions. Students will be trained in surveying techniques to characterise the health of the reefs and identify trends in benthic composition, and could even include benthic incubation chamber experiments in their projects. The information gained from these data can then be used to explore patterns in blue carbon on Akumal’s reefs, and to discuss their conservation implications.
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.