A Brief Introduction

A pretty pocket of eastern shoreline on Mexico’s Yucátan peninsula. Clear Caribbean waters, radiant wildlife, enthusiastic residents and visitors. It’s hard not to be charmed by Akumal. Those who come don’t want to go. Those who stay are working hard to utilise, research and conserve the important habitats within and beyond its crescent bay.

Akumal is a quaint coastal hub of activity. Just a few hours from the well-known tourist destination Cancún, but offering a more idyllic and personal experience, its popularity is growing rapidly. In addition to the photogenic reefs, the bay’s seagrass beds bring in a great number of feeding and nesting sea turtles. The demand to see these natural gifts grants responsibility to Akumal’s residents. Tourism means income, but also pressure on wildlife, and effective planning is needed to ensure the longevity of its benefits.

This is where the science and conservation are key. Four years ago, a keen team of divers and biologists began a local venture into coral restoration that became Expedition Akumal. Recognising the precarious status of the important coral species on these reefs, they took action. Now the organisation is co-ordinated by Jenny Mallon, a postgraduate researcher in coral reef biogeochemistry, with vital support from Hotel Akumal Caribe. The project began with the collection of coral fragments that had broken off the reef and were stranded on the sand flats. These fallen corals are not dead, but without a substrate to fuse to they struggle to thrive.

A colony of Acropora cervicornis coral fused to the reef. Photograph by Aaron de Verés

The form of a coral that is most recognisable is what we call a colony. You may have come across this fact before, but the picture above shows hundreds of biological individuals, living together in a colony of polyps. Each polyp is an organism, and as it grows it may multiply and fuse to adjacent polyps, creating the familiar larger structure. The glue that holds it all together? That’s their skeleton, secreted slowly, but built to last. Imagine a whole crowd of eternal tiny teenagers each living in their own flat in an oddly shaped tenement, only interested in sunbathing to absorb energy during the day and popping their heads out to feed at night. Not so different from us really.

The importance and role of corals does stray a bit from that of a teenager however. Certain ‘reef-building’ species create the 3D structure that everything else on the reef relies on. Their regeneration therefore provides habitat and refuge from predators for all the organisms that want to live here: the fish, lobsters, sea urchins, rays and more. So, Expedition Akumal staff attached the collected coral fragments to PVC lines that were strung across the reef and left to grow. The maintenance of these nursery lines remains the backbone of Expedition Akumal’s now greatly expanded activities. The practical restoration efforts and ecological research are now supported by students, other staff and a variety of organisations including SECORE International, Operation Wallacea and the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM). The primary aim: to develop and practice methods of conserving and restoring the coral populations, in collaboration with other similar projects across the Caribbean.

Nursery lines with suspended Acropora cervicornis fragments. The sandy bottom below the line reflects sunlight, allowing maximum wavelength absorption and speed of growth.

The power of conservation efforts such as this can and must be maximised beyond the strong local roots they need to be embedded in. Sharing and advocating our trials and achievements is the currency of empowerment in this field. This work should not be ploughed through with your head down. Grafting the most hours does not guarantee success, and the opportunities that propel us require a reach. Neglecting to communicate research beyond its immediate audience is a wasted opportunity.

So this summer, Akumal will be heard. Expect factual updates, personal insights, intriguing developments and pensive discussion. If you ever want to, you can always get in touch through our Facebook page. Join the discussion, ask questions, or even inquire about how you can get involved. The more we have on board, the further we’ll sail.

Aaron de Veres

Intern Marine Ecologist at Expedition Akumal
A Biological Sciences student at the University of Edinburgh, pursuing a career in conservation biology research. I lead Undergraduates Changing Oceans, a junior research group in marine ecology, and co-coordinate the activist society People and Planet Edinburgh. I am also interested in translating research into accessible and high-impact outreach materials. Currently, I work as an intern marine ecologist with Expedition Akumal and the University of Edinburgh, investigating the biomass and diversity of algal and herbivore communities on a Caribbean reef.

Latest posts by Aaron de Veres (see all)

Aaron de Veres

A Biological Sciences student at the University of Edinburgh, pursuing a career in conservation biology research. I lead Undergraduates Changing Oceans, a junior research group in marine ecology, and co-coordinate the activist society People and Planet Edinburgh. I am also interested in translating research into accessible and high-impact outreach materials. Currently, I work as an intern marine ecologist with Expedition Akumal and the University of Edinburgh, investigating the biomass and diversity of algal and herbivore communities on a Caribbean reef.
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