Along the coast of Cozumel, which is an island just east of Playa de Carmen in Mexico, a very special project is beginning to take shape and grow. Cozumel is one of the most popular cruise ship destinations in Mexico and its nearby coral reef is the second largest in the world after the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. Unfortunately, cruise ships that come to port in Cozumel stir up sediment which is damaging and destroying the nearby reef. German Mendez is the founder of the Cozumel Coral Reef Restoration Prorgram (CCRRP), and he’s on a mission to not only restore these coral reefs, but also educate travellers all about coral and the important role it plays in our ocean’s ecosystem.
When Mendez first moved to Cozumel thirty years ago, he fell in love with diving its cerulean blue waters. Back then, the coral reefs were abundant, colourful and teeming with aquatic life. Soon tourism began to develop in the area and as more cruise ships began to port in Cozumel, Mendez watched as the reefs he had fallen in love with were beginning to deteriorate. Inspired by his love of these reefs, he made it his life’s work to learn how to protect and restore them. Mendez received his master’s degree in marine biology from Florida State University and visited reefs throughout the Caribbean to aid in his research. Much to his dismay, upon his return to Cozumel four years later, he noticed that the state of his beloved coral reef had rapidly declined and he estimates more than half of the nearby coral had died during his absence.
While it may appear to be plant-like in nature, a piece of coral is composed of a collection of tiny animals called polyps. They are soft-bodied creatures that build up a shell of limestone to protect themselves and then attach to rocks or others structures (along with other polyps). As the polyp colonies grow and die, the cycle of life repeats itself and the coral body grows, allowing it to live on for many generations. Since coral is not a plant and cannot create its own food through photosynthesis, it is reliant on a symbiotic relationship it shares with algae and the pair help nourish one another. The coral houses the algae within its tissue, which protects the algae and provides it with carbon dioxide. In return, the algae transfers some of the energy it creates through photosynthesis directly to the coral, along with ample oxygen that allows the coral to thrive and grow.
While coral reefs cover only one percent of the ocean floor, these mutually beneficial ecosystems are essential as they provide homes and breeding grounds for many rare species of fish, and also help protect shorelines from storm damage. Mendez initiated the Cozumel Coral Reef Restoration Program with the goal of restoring his beloved reefs and educating others about the important role they play. His program is housed in a research laboratory where Mendez gives presentations to travellers about the importance of protecting our coral reefs. Following the presentation, guests are given a tour of his facilities where researchers are hatching coral polyps and encouraging them to attach to concrete castings. By opening up his facility to travellers, such as those on excursion from Oceania cruises, he hopes to raise awareness about coral reef conservation around the world.
After learning all about coral at Mendez’s lab, guests have the opportunity to see his conservation efforts up close and under water. His centre is located right next to Sand Dollar Sports, which is a popular scuba and snorkel centre. They provide you with everything you need for an underwater tour of the experimental coral farming. After a quick five-minute swim off shore, a shallow dive reveals a flourishing coral nursery. Aside from cruise ships stirring up sediments that affect the coral’s ability to survive, other threats to the coral reefs are many. Recent efforts to eliminate sea urchin that can cut tourist’s feet while they swim has led to harmful algae clouds overtaking the reef’s waters. Additionally, changes in the ocean’s temperature, light and nutrients can stress the coral and cause them to expel the symbiotic algae that is living in their tissue, which causes them to “bleach” or turn completely white. As climate change occurs and the ocean’s temperature rise, our coral reefs are becoming increasingly more vulnerable.
However, Mendez is proving that reef rebuilding can occur under the right circumstances: “I have to start in my backyard. And if I start in my backyard maybe I can make an example and other people [will] want to do it in their backyard too,” Mendez says. “Let’s not love the reef to death, but learn about it”. By opening up his research facility to travellers, Mendez hopes to educate others about these fascinating creatures and generate awareness about protecting these crucial ecosystems. His goal is to prove that reef rebuilding can occur under the right circumstances, and he hopes to restore endangered coral populations not only in his native Cozumel, but also around the world.
To visit his research centre on your next Mexico cruise, contact one of our Cruise Specialists today. Call 1-800-387-8890.