7:00am. The first field staff arrive at Akumal beach to begin a day of data collection. Even if the waves are crashing over the reef crest towards us, there is an air of tranquillity. The bay is holding its breath before the tourists come leaking out of the beachside resorts. The familiar sour scent of sargassum, a brown alga, punctuates the breeze, as another tide of seaweed is washed ashore. In these quiet mornings, it’s easy to picture how Akumal began as an affable divers’ community in the 70’s.
Back when this coastal town was out of the way, experienced divers would hear of the remarkable reefs through word of mouth and make their way here to appreciate them. However, a series of hurricanes in 2005 changed the coastline for good. The heavy disturbance eroded the beach, flooding water inland, and in fact created the bay as we now know it. These shallow, uncovered nutrient-low waters then offered a new gift: ideal conditions for seagrass. Seagrass grows in beds, and as the only marine flowering plant, it creates an ecosystem unto itself, harbouring crustaceans, fish, algae and the adolescent sea turtles that feed on it. So as the grass grew, more turtles came by, and people’s attention began to shift closer to the shore. Word quickly got out about the impressive turtle population, and how easy it was to drift a few metres out and swim with them in the shallows. Roads were raised improving ease of access, and Akumal started seeing more and more visitors each year. Hotels sprang up along the curved coastline, accommodating those who wish to relax, perhaps dive on the reefs, and of course snorkel with the turtles. Scientists also became interested in the bay. Could the bay sustain so many turtles? And what consequences did all this urbanisation and coastal development have for the diversity of wildlife?
While Expedition Akumal’s efforts focused on the reefs, the first studies on the seagrass were designed by UNAM Senior Researcher Brigitta van Tussenbroek, in line with research covering the entire peninsula. Brashly understudied, she wanted to learn more about their ecology and importance. The feeding turtles caught the attention of Operation Wallacea, whose scientific staff noticed the pressure tourists were putting them under. Tour guides were taking large groups into the water, inviting them to witness the iconic creatures in their natural habitat. Come midday, tourists could be seen bobbing in mass all over the bay. Overexcited, some would even chase or attempt to touch the turtles. Though they were highly regarded by local culture, the seemingly endless income the large turtle population provided could not be ignored. However, the income relies upon the population staying, and under these intense conditions who was to say the bay would remain limitlessly fruitful? Additionally, without data to prove the impact the tours could have on the turtles, if things continued as normal unintentional harm could ensue. This didn’t need to be a waiting game, just watching how the cookie crumbles. The entire project became a collaborative effort to map the seagrass beds and corresponding sea turtle distribution, and to understand how the turtles were behaving in response to this stress from tourism. It became apparent and received national attention that the touristic growth facing Akumal was not only unsustainable, measures were needed to protect the wildlife that grants it its unique value.
The studies culminated in a milestone achievement in 2017, where the data collected won the establishment of Akumal Bay as a protected area for the turtles. This has been a hugely encouraging success for conservation, with far more people involved, and many more hours in the field and office than can be accounted for here. The data told the unavoidable truth. If the town continued to operate under business as usual, the turtles would suffer, and business would go out. It also illuminated the critical role tour guides would play in keeping these turtles safe. The observations made it clear that when with a tour guide, tourists were far less likely to try to touch and chase the turtles. So the new plan involved a route where snorkel tours were permitted, which tourists could only enter with a licensed guide. A portion of the beach was even dedicated to the turtles as a refuge, framed by buoys and off-limits to all but those with research permits.
The story can’t end here however. Achieving official protection is the first step. The management plan must be tested in practice, and the role of the scientist is to continue collecting data to monitor its effectiveness. Involving those who call this home is key to ensuring the bay remains cared for in the long-term. We need an open dialogue between researchers and residents, to exchange the important knowledge each holds. The scientists have their results and recommendations, and the locals understand how everything else operates here, what the people need and how they can realistically maintain new practices that scientists may suggest. Having those who live here take charge of the care of their own home is the ultimate success. In these tales, the scientist is merely a passing investigator.