Recently CEA celebrated its 22nd anniversary. Looking back, as an organization, it is satisfying and rewarding to see that the information from its numerous studies and research have contributed and continue to deepen the knowledge of the health of the ecosystems in Akumal. The research-based results that CEA has compiled over these years have been considered and integrated into various marine policies (including some that are currently in the works). One such concrete example of this is the decree of the Fish Refuge by the federal government this past April.
We collaborate through alliances with universities, other NGO's and government in a joint effort to ensure a future for all to enjoy Akumal in a sustainable environment. Our priorities are to tackle the degradation of the environment by emphasising the need for improved water treatment systems, efficient waste treatment, and different alternatives for mitigation and restoration of essential elements such as coral, seagrass and biodiversity of the flora and fauna. These are urgent matters and our team is working hard to create government awareness and action to impose the appropriate decrees.

Hector A. Lizarraga-Cubedo
Nesting stakes on Playa Tortuga (Jade Bay)
The turtle season is not quite over, yet compared to 2014, we have seen much more nesting activity as a whole. Our final nest count for 2014 was 647. As of mid-October 2015, we are at 905 nests. So far that is an additional 258 nests. 

As required, we submit our annual turtle report with statistics and findings to the government in the new year and we will be sure to share the results with our readers and social media followers as well. 
(As of October 9)

2,294       Akumal Sur / South Akumal

6,496       Bahia Akumal / Akumal Bay

7,676       Bahia Media Luna / Half Moon Bay

20,531     Playa Tortugas / Jade Bay
What makes the Turtle Protection Program successful are the people. To everyone involved:  the seasonal turtle staff (tortugueros) who patrol the beaches day and night; the volunteers who join the staff on the patrols play a key part in the program; the research students from Wallacea who, while conducting work for their thesis, assist with the beach patrols; the security guards, hotel, property managers and owners who work closely with us to ensure the nests, turtles and beaches are secure; the turtle parents who adopted turtles, nests or families, and donors who help support the program and conservation efforts, THANK YOU. 
A collage of the festival's activities

This year marked the 13th annual Turtle Festival held in Xcacel, Tulum and Akumal. With the torrential rains arriving a day before the originally scheduled events, organizers postponed the festival to the following week: October 23-25.
The purpose of the festival is to celebrate the end the of the annual turtle season and to act as an educational opportunity for kids and adults. From informational turtle poster drawing contests and sand sculptures to environmental education talks and hands-on activities and a Mayan tribute dance dedicated to the turtles, there was something for everyone.
"I am incredibly proud of all of my colleagues from various local organizations who collaborated in planning and coordinating this event. We are also very thankful to our generous sponsors--without them this event could not happen," says Mauricio Acevez Nunez, Turtle Program Coordinator at CEA and this year's festival organizing committee president.
The turtle festival saw an estimated 1000 participants over the course of the three days. Pictures and results of some of the contests can be found on the festival's Facebook page.
 Nesting stake on Akumal Bay

One way people get involved and help support the Turtle Program is through our annual adoption campaign. 

Those that adopt a turtle nest or a turtle family not only get their adoption certificate, but a follow-up on their nest or family with photos and data.

With hatching season upon us, we are starting to send out follow-ups. For all those that adopted a nest or family, keep an eye on your email box for your update through the month of November.

We will be launching our 2015/16 Adopt a Turtle Campaign for those that wish get or stay involved and help us protect the nesting and hatching turtles in Akumal.

In 2006, CEA implemented a Reef Monitoring Project with the objective of generating information on the status of the reef ecosystem and helping to develop strategies for coastal management and awareness for local users.
A reef patch in Akumal Bay by Tab Hauser

The Reef Monitoring Project monitors 10 different sites in Akumal and collects data on both the reef and fish.

Coral Reef Data
The following data on the reef is collected:
  • Diversity of species
  • Percentage of coverage of main benthic groups (including corals and algae)
  • Abundance
  • Size
  • Condition (including mortality rate, bleaching and diseases)
Fish Data
The monitoring project collects the following data on fish with ecological and economic importance:
  • Species
  • Approximate size
  • Abundance of species
Using this information we are able to determine the species biomass (the mass in grams of a given species within a given area at a given time).  
The reefs in the Akumal region have experienced a gradual but considerable degradation over time. In this region, from 2006 to 2015 we have seen the following:
  • a decrease in coral coverage by 50%
  • a fourfold increase in macroalgae


Macroalgae outcompete, overgrow and replace seagrass and coral reef habitats, resulting in reduced light availability to bottom communities, lower productivity, and habitat loss from low oxygen conditions.

The average biomass of fish recorded was 4705g/100m2, of which 2642g/100m2 corresponded to herbivorous fish and 363g/100m2 fish of commercial importance.

From 2007 to 2015 we have seen a reduction of more than 40% of the commercial fish--Groupers (Meros) and Snappers (Pargos)--biomass which are at critically low levels in relation to averages for the Mesoamerican Reef. 

Mat algae  have increased in alarming numbers. Looking at the reef substrate as a whole, our findings show that 32% is comprised of varies species of corals and sponges, while the remaining 68% is covered by algal components. Almost half of the algal components are made up of mat algae. 

When the mat algae coverage increases so do the levels of disease incidence  and mortality on the most ecologically important coral species. These coral species are the ones that provide complexity to the reef habitat as shelter for fish and invertebrate populations, and are also the most attractive species for observation.

Damselfish  stocks, which by their presence encourage the growth of algal mats and therefore coral mortality, are showing a significantly higher density in population within the bay compared to the fore reef (the outer portion of the reef that slopes from the reef crest towards the open ocean). This family of fish play a critical ecological role in respect to coral-algae coverage and patch reef health. We are seeing the damselfish population increasing due to the loss of their natural predators such as groupers.

Mainly it is a result of increased human activities (nutrient pollution and sewage from urban and tourist infrastructure, coastal erosion, direct damage caused by unregulated mass tourism, overfishing) and climate change.

A recent report released by the Spanish organization Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas has placed the Mesoamerican Reef as among the 10 most threatened in the world and concludes the similar causes for decline. 

  • With the recent declaration of the Fish Refuge off the coast of Akumal, we expect to see commercial fish stocks start to recover in the coming years with the ongoing support and collaboration from the community and stakeholders, as well as oversight by the appropriate government authorities.
  • Documents and applications proposing a Turtle Sanctuary for Akumal Bay have been submitted to the government and with whom we have been working closely.
  • As part of CEA's Water Quality Management Program, we are working closely with various groups and committees to push for better sewage treatment and planning of initiatives for the protection of the aquifer in Akumal.
These are just some of the things that CEA is working on to ensure a healthy reef and a sustainable Akumal.

In June of this year, a company hired by the Harbor Captain of Playa del Carmen, began installing new buoys for the zoning of Akumal Bay. The buoy system is part of the "Safe Beaches Program" created by the federal government and overseen by the Harbor Captain. This system has been used in other parts of this coastline.
The process from inception to implementation took almost two years as consensus was needed to be reached by local tour operators. That consensus was never arrived at, which is why the Port Captain used the already established "Safe Beaches Program" for Akumal. However, staff from CEA's Coastal Management Program who were included in the committee provided perspectives based on scientific research on such topics as recommendations for the sustainable use of the bay, conservation of the ecosystems and the safe usage of the bay by swimmers/snorkelers. We did not determine the size or the colours of the buoys.
The objective of the new buoy system is to establish safe and efficient use of the beach and the bay for both boats and humans. 

In June and July of this year staff from the Coastal Management Program, with the help of students from Ibero University in Mexico and Eco Field Studies course volunteers, undertook the annual census of the local juvenile green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) population in Akumal Bay.
Using photo IDs and comparison to the CEA database as reference, they were able to determine that the local sea turtle population shows a slight decrease of 5.17%.* 

A total of 55 sea turtles were counted: 33 were registered in past years and 22 were new registrations.
*CEA has been collecting the turtle ID data since 1997. Throughout this time, the turtle population has fluctuated each year--some years seeing an increase, and other years seeing a decrease.

As part of the Water Safety operations under the direction of the Coastal Management Program, staff verify the weather and conditions of Akumal Bay every day. This is done with field observations, data from CEA's weather station, and comparisons to weather models from and NOAA satellite imagery. Once completed, an email outlining the conditions of the bay, the colour of the lifeguard flag and safety recommendations is sent to those on the distribution list.
Wish to receive the weather update email?
Send an email to: with the subject line AKUMAL WEATHER REPORT.  Please note that your name will be added to this distribution list only and you can unsubscribe at any time via email.
Volunteers are the heart and soul of CEA. Whether they are in the field monitoring and collecting data or inputting it for reports, their work plays a critical role in fulfilling our mission of conservation and protection through research, education and outreach.

Madison and Bobbie getting ready for a research dive

NAMES: Bobbie Renfro + Madison Becker
PROGRAM: Coastal Ecosystems Program + Independent Research

Bobbie and Madison met a few years ago in Akumal during their study-abroad field research program with the University of Texas, under the direction of Professor Kenneth Dunton. They enjoyed it and felt the desire to come back. Bobbie began to inquire about research opportunities within the Coastal Ecosystem Program as she felt that CEA was one of the few research institutes where volunteers gain an in-depth knowledge and practical experience with fish and coral identification while providing support for her independent research towards her Master's degree. 
When Bobbie and Madison first came to Akumal they studied and surveyed soft and hard corals, anemones, fish and several organisms that inhabit the bottom of the ocean. That data is being used as their baseline for their current research that focuses on fish.
"There are more herbivorous fish in the bay so I wanted to follow up with that for this project by looking at how they behave when tourists are around, for example, if they eat in front of them, or prefer not being disturbed," shared Bobbie.
Based on that, they observe differences in the numbers and behaviors of herbivorous fish in the areas that have concentrated tourism and compare those findings to areas further south in the bay where there are fewer people.
They are in the water by 6:00 a.m. They spend 5 minutes at a sample site allowing the fish to acclimatize to their presence by floating still. Once the fish are accustomed to them they spend 10 minutes collecting data like: counting the fish, classifying by species, or if they are feeding, socializing, sleeping, or fleeing from something. They do that every other hour until six in the afternoon.
Their hypothesis is that if snorkelers approach fish too much and disturb them, their foraging behavior is altered, which causes algae to overgrow and impact the health of the reef.
The overall goal of the research is to develop educational information for tourists and guides to have specific guidelines for swimming and/or snorkeling in the bay--for example, how far away they should be from fishes and what activities or behaviors disturb them, among others.
"It has been good. We have definitely faced some challenges in our fieldwork. Interestingly, coming back has allowed us to observe changes in the environment from the last two years," shared Madison.
"We love it here. We work a lot but it is amazing. Every time we are tired we remind ourselves that we have a job that allows us to be in paradise. It is pretty awesome," said Bobbie. 
At the time of publication, Bobbie and Madison have returned back to the United States. Madison has relocated to Hawaii and Bobbie was crunching the data and writing her thesis. Bobbie also co-authored a recent paper published by the scientific Journal Marine Biology. (See Bits and Bytes below.)
Elizabeth and Sharon Moeser

NAMES: Elizabeth + Sharon Moeser
COUNTRY: New Mexico, United States
PROGRAM: Sea Turtle Protection Program 
It all started three years ago, when mother and daughter came to Puerto Morelos on a family vacation where they had the opportunity to do a night walk with CEA´s Tortugueros and they were lucky enough to see a nest being laid and a hatching in the same night.
Elizabeth was determined to come back to Akumal and work with the turtles, but because she is only 17 years old, and CEA does not allow volunteers younger than 21 to come alone, her mom Sharon offered to come with her.
Over the course of the month that Sharon and Elizabeth spent with CEA, they worked six nights a week walking the beaches to oversee both the nesting and hatching activity.
While every night is different, the main work includes:
  • Once a turtle comes to shore, watch and be with the turtles through their whole process-from the turtle finding a good spot to nest, dig, and lay the eggs to covering the nest back up and heading back to the ocean.
  • Guide and give instructions for people on the beach on their behavior, use of lights, noise, or movements that could scare the turtles.
  • Record information of each turtle: type of turtle, its measurements, number of eggs, date, time, scars or unique identifiable markings, and tag number (if they do not have it, they need to tag them). 
  • Make sure that turtles don´t nest on top of existing nests.
When a nest hatches they guide the turtles to go towards the ocean because sometimes they get confused by the lights from houses and lose their way. Once the hatchlings are out of the nest, they will go through the nest to make sure that all the turtles were able to get out, and count the empty shells to determine how many hatchlings were fertilized. This allows for a detailed record of hatchlings.   
While Elizabeth and Sharon recounted their experiences, you could hear the enthusiasm in their voices and see the sheer joy when sharing stories of their latest encounters with hatchlings or a nesting turtle. Both were in their element and were such committed members of the team. Others who worked with them noted their passion and dedication.
" When I was a kid, I saw National Geographic films showing nesting sea turtles and hatchlings making their way to the ocean, but I never imagined that I would see it in person. The experience we had on the turtle walk three years ago was really amazing. I'm glad Elizabeth's participation in the program required me to be here. I find it very rewarding that we are able to help the turtles," Sharon said.
"I think it is so nice of her to come with me. She is doing a really good job. She is great with the tourists walking the beach at night and helps them understand why they should behave a certain way with turtles. If people are respectful and conscious about their behavior we can do our job with the turtles and also educate people," said Elizabeth. "I've really enjoyed working with the turtles and am so grateful for this opportunity."
Elizabeth said she was able to switch to a nocturnal existence within just a few days. Mom, on the other hand, relied on coffee to help her stay awake through the night.
Everything about the experience was great, from getting to know the other CEA volunteers and staff to taking photographs in the pueblo. Walking the beach in the afternoons, buying vegetables and fruits at the twice-weekly markets and just relaxing on the beach all contributed to a great month. Elizabeth also used her time with CEA to earn her PADI Advanced Open Water Diver certification. She is already planning to return as a CEA volunteer next summer. Her goal is to spend part of her time working with the Sea Turtle Protection Program and the remainder helping with research on the reef.

After their month volunteering with CEA, the pair was joined by Elizabeth's dad and a friend for a week-long vacation on Cozumel. Elizabeth started her senior year of high school shortly after they returned to Albuquerque. She is busy with school work, dance and submitting college applications. She is applying to colleges with environmental studies and marine biology degrees and intends to pursue a career in marine conservation. That turtle walk three years ago was truly the starting point of it all.
Bill and Betsy patrolling the "Miller Zone"

NAMES: Bill + Betsy Miller
COUNTRY: United States
PROGRAM: Sea Turtle Protection Program

FUN FACT: A strip of beach just past Akumal Bay Beach and Wellness Resort has been coined by CEA "The Miller Zone" as this is the zone that Bill and Betsy patrol during their volunteer stints.
The latest buzzwords that would attempt to describe couples like Bill and Betsy Miller are voluntourists or voluncationers--people who seek more than just a vacation, and find ways to enrich their travel experiences by giving back and getting hands on.
Now retired, Bill and Betsy first visited Akumal in 2011. As Betsy describes, "it was an e-mail travel special that alerted us to the Place of Turtles and since we are both scuba divers and love turtles, we booked straightaway. And to our surprise when we arrived, there were nests right on the resort property. We were thrilled."
Being the curious and enthused couple they are, they met another like-minded voluncationer (Tom Cochran) working with the Turtle Program at CEA and joined him during his patrols to see what the work entailed. Needless to say, they were sold on the idea of getting involved. When the Millers returned home, they checked their calendars and a month later they were back in Akumal volunteering with CEA.
"That's how it all began," explains Bill. "We have been back every year, usually for two weeks and once for four weeks. This year we were in Akumal twice."
Bill and Betsy have found their way to balance vacation time with volunteering. The vacation part, as Bill says, "... gives us a chance to stay at a nice resort and we don't have to worry about food or housecleaning, which allows us to focus on our volunteer work. After our patrols we always find time to enjoy the afternoons by snorkelling, relaxing or reading, but only after our work is done. We come to Akumal to work with the turtles."
As Betsy pointed out, "It is the turtles that brought us here in the first place and it is the turtles that keep bringing us back. It is an unbelievable experience to witness first hand a female digging for hours on end to lay her eggs. And then there is the work of cleaning a nest that has hatched. Finding hatchlings at the bottom that may not have made it out on their own is amazing. You know that you have made a difference in saving a few more and giving them a chance to survive."
We know we are lucky--we get a chance to see and do things that most people would never be able to see or do. Working right there, close and personal, with sea turtles is amazing. We love it. Of course it is hard work. It is physically challenging, but it is so worth it! And as long as we are able, needed and wanted, we plan to continue to volunteer on our vacations."

For those interested in combining volunteering activities while on vacation, please contact 

Congratulations to Michael Gil (PhD candidate at the University of Florida), Kenneth Dunton (Professor at the University of Texas, Marine Science Institute and long-time visitor/researcher in Akumal), Bobbie Renfro (a recent volunteer and researcher at CEA) and two CEA staff members--Baruch Figueroa-Zavala and Ivan Penie--for your research paper Rapid tourism growth and declining coral reefs in Akumal, Mexico being published in the international scientifc journal, Marine Biology

We are looking forward to future collaborations. 

If you have some images that you would like to be featured in our #TurtleTuesday or #MeetOurNeighbours posts, please send them to with your complete name. Photo credit will be given.
Whether you are looking for an internship or ways to incorporate responsible tourism activities into your travel plans, drop us a line. We would love to hear from you and see how we can work together.
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Centro Ecológico Akumal's mission is to produce and promote strategies for ecosystem management in Akumal, through research, education and outreach, for sustainability in the Mexican Caribbean.