Diving With Green Turtles and Lettuce Coral, While Searching for a Silver Bullet

By Elena Rohner

Plug Akumal, Mexico into Google Maps and you’ll see a tiny town 60 miles south of Cancun on the “Riviera Maya” with a few restaurants, a large resort, and a pueblo on the other side of the highway that 1,200 people call home.

What Google Maps doesn’t reveal is the impact that tourists are having on the reef’s health.

I recently spent 20 days in Akumal—which means Place of the Turtle in the Mayan language—researching the size and health of lettuce coral as part of an Ecosystem Field Studies course run by the University of Montana.  I quickly felt overwhelmed by the sheer number of snorkelers crowding the water to see the town’s main attraction: the gentle green turtles who feast on sea grass at the bottom of Akumal Bay. During my time there, I saw quite a few snorkelers diving down to touch turtles or standing on coral, actions which harm both of the respective organisms.

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Green Sea Turtle seen at Horseshoe Reef, Akumal

Akumal’s tourism industry has skyrocketed in the last five years. Centro Ecologico Akumal (CEA), a local environmental NGO, reports that the monthly number of snorkelers increased by more than 400% between 2011-2014, while coral cover in the bay decreased by 79%. CEA is trying to educate tourists about how to reduce their impact with a short informational video before they go out snorkeling, and life jackets that keep people on the surface of the water.

After observing the intense human pressure on the bay, I posited that lettuce corals might be smaller and less healthy on reefs in the bay than further out on the barrier reef. My data was inconclusive on that point, but I did observe fewer lettuce corals in the bay, and those that I did see were often heavily bleached or covered in algae.

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Healthy lettuce coral (A. agaracites form danai) observed at 54ft at Half Moon Bay Reef, Akumal

Coastal and marine ecosystems around the world are degrading rapidly in the face of both local and global stresses. Increased concentrations of atmospheric CO2 are making our oceans warmer and more acidic; locally, tourism, overfishing, and fertilizer runoff are all taking a toll.  Out on the reefs this translates into more frequent and more severe bleaching events, excessive algal growth, and lower resilience.

I left Akumal with so many more questions than when I’d arrived. The most complicated question I left with was, is it possible to have it all?  Is there a way to ensure that tourists and researchers can enjoy and learn about this incredible marine ecosystem without having such a negative impact?  Is there a tourism business model that generates enough income for the people who live in Akumal while preserving the reef and turtles?

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Unhealthy lettuce coral (A. agaracites form carinata) observed at 47ft on La Isla Reef, Akumal.  Coral is bleached in upper right corner and whole left side is covered in algal growth

I realize that there probably isn’t a silver bullet solution, but I’m interested in exploring whether a market-based approach to environmental protection might be one part of the answer. Diving in Akumal opened my eyes. I saw the harm that’s happening to an amazing underwater world, but I also saw huge potential for improving how we interact with that world.

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