After Valladolid, we continue our journey towards Tulum, a small town just a few kilometers south of Cancun, in an area known as the “Riviera Maya”. The backbone of the economy here is tourism. The beaches in the Riviera Maya are known for their great beauty and in Akumal people have the possibility to swim with sea turtles. Of course, we tried this unique experience. It was an amazing feeling and truly outstanding to swim two meters away from several of these animals.
The region has experienced rapid tourism development and many hotels have been built on the coast, sometimes in link with strong controversies. As tourist, we have the feeling that the waterfronts of Akumal and Tulum tend to resemble, to some extent, the one observed in Cancun. Luckily by moving away from the cities we can still find paradisiac beaches. They are not overcrowded and more importantly, they are protected.
Due to the massive presence of tourists, coastal urbanization and the few regulations prentely applied here, the impact on the environment is significant. As traveler ourselves it is difficult to imagine the changes that have taken place in recent years. We are here only for a few days so we do not see directly the strong impact that was measured on the coral reefs1. With the decline of coral reefs the biodiversity is jeopardized. Especially it compromises the presence of sea turtles that attract the majority of tourists to Akumal. Undoubtedly biodiversity is one of the most important wealth of the region and this wealth may be lost because of unsustainable tourism growth.
Several associations work together to study and protect the biodiversity in this part of the world. One of their continuous tasks is to inform the local population as well as tourists about the ways to have as little impact as possible on this source of wealth.
It is thanks to the Centro Ecológico Akumal, a structure with which she collaborates, that we have the opportunity to meet Jenny Mallon. She is a marine biologist and coordinator of a reef restoration project sponsored by the hotel Akumal Caribe. As surprising as it may sound, hotels can also be involved in the protection of the environment.
It is in her office located a few meters from the magnificent beach of Akumal where Jenny meets us. An idyllic place for a busy life shared between voluntary teaching, scientific activities, reef restoration, diving and collaborations with the University of Mexico (UNAM) and Cancun.
We are interested in her job on the spot. Jenny works in the frame of Expedition Akumal. She explains in more detail the method of restoring the reefs. She works on the coral called “staghorn”.
The staghorn coral is a critically endangered species. Before going further, it should be noted that coral are not plants but animals. The living corals are composed of thousands of individuals called polyps that secrete a limestone exoskeleton (the white corals that are sold on the beach are just the limestone exoskeleton).
To restore the reefs, fragments of broken but still alive corals that are found on the seabed by Jenny and her team from the neighbouring diving center “Akumal Dive Center” are placed on structures in ideal conditions of brightness . Indeed even if they are not plants the corals use photosynthesis like them to feed themselves. Therefore on these structures close to sunlight the conditions are perfect for corals to proliferate and grow. It seems that this gigantic work pays off gradually but still much remains to be done and all help is appreciated.
This kind of job, it must be said, is the dream of many biologists. How did she get there? After a prolonged stay in Colombia where she learned Spanish and completing a 4 year degree in marine biology at St Andrews University (Scotland), she volunteered for two months for Expedition Akumal. The experience was very positive and the hotel offered her a role of lead biologist here, in Akumal, to continue her work on the reef protection and restoration project. Diving here is more enjoyable than in her native Scotland so she accepted the offer.
Her advice to anyone interested in following these steps is to start volunteering as soon as possible, even if you have little experience in the field. Sharing and exchanging knowledge are important and it can be useful in the future. It is always possible to exchange know-how and bring in many ways your stone to the building, for example if you have skills in photography, video or website. Nothing beats the experience on the field. It is where you learn the most. There are several associations that offer volunteering projects for multiple topics and destination. For example Operation Wallacea is an association specialized in the conservation of species through partnerships with universities. Several organizations providing sponsorship for this kind of project can also give idea on where to look for volunteering. For example Oceanus a.c is sponsoring Jenny’s work and many other reef restoration sites.
The interview ends. We keep in the back of our heads her advice to try diving in order to really discover the world from below, this ocean that seems to us at this moment much closer than it has ever been. Sea is a whole world, immense and, at the same time, fragile that we must protect.
1 Rapid tourism growth and declining coral reefs in Akumal, Mexico. Michael A. Gil, Bobbie Renfro, Baruch Figueroa‑Zavala, Iván Penié, Kenneth H. Dunton. Mar Biol. 2015