Marine Biology Maestro in Mexico

I spent the better part of last month in Akumal, Mexico, co-instructing a field course in marine biology for juniors and seniors at the University of Texas at Austin (my alma mater). This course and I go way back, actually: I was enrolled as an undergraduate in summer 2007, I was a guest researcher in 2009 (when it was held in Puerto Rico, due to swine flu…and the Mexican drug cartel didn’t help), and I co-taught it in 2011 and this year. Once again, it was a very special experience.

The location is a pretty incredible place to get introduced to marine biology the right way: in the field! For three weeks, we stay just steps away from your typical Caribbean white-sand beach, beyond which is a sheltered bay that is home to an extensive coral reef and seagrass meadow. This ecosystem supports so many sea turtles, it’s hard to not encounter one on a casual snorkel.

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Akumal Bay at sunrise on Day 1 of the class.

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A green sea turtle chomping on some Thalassia testudinum seagrass (aptly dubbed ‘turtle grass’), as I take his/her headshot.

This place is appropriately named: Akumal means “place of the turtle” in Mayan. In addition to the sea turtles (or ‘charasmatic megafauna’ as they are sometimes called by jaded marine biologists ;)), there is a whole suite of life for the students to discover in the reef. Each time I visit this place, I find myself enamored with the diversity of coral species that persist here, boasting colors and patterns that seem like they’ve been pulled from a dream:

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This coral, Porites asteroides, reminds me of golden hills in some surreal landscape.

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Another coral, Montastrea species, with much larger polyps.

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This coral, Diploria labyrinthiformis, looks just like its namesake.

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A gorgonian (or ‘soft coral’) called a sea rod. You can see the tentacles of the individual polyps: jellyfish-like, wouldn’t you say?

It never ceases to amaze me that coral reefs exist because a bunch of tiny upside-down jellyfish (coral polyps) are able to form colonies (coral colonies) that essentially grow rocks (coral skeleton), allowing countless organisms to inhabit the reef environment. Here are some of those organisms–a few reef fish that we would regularly encounter:

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A butterfly fish, which uses its tiny mouth to eat the coral polyps shown above. They also use the corals for shelter, so essentially they eat their own house.

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A cowfish that seemed to like my camera. What an eye! Seems eerily similar to a cow’s…

Of course I love spending time in the ecosystem that I have come to study for a living, but introducing this system to people is a rare treat. There is something about working with students with genuine interest in a field setting that makes teaching this class feel like you’re being spoiled as an instructor.

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The whole gang of instructors and students for the 2013 Maymester in Akumal class.

We started out with a crash course in field-based scientific research and natural history and then broke off into student-led research projects. This translated to lots of time snorkeling in the reef and seagrasses of Akumal Bay. Some of the students even missed their formal graduation from the University of Texas at Austin to participate in the course. But we had them covered with a surprise commencement ceremony, complete with homemade cardboard graduation hats with seagrass tassels:

The college graduates of the 2013 Akumal class!

The college graduates of the 2013 Akumal class!

 An additional gem that lies in this area of the Mexican Caribbean (called ‘the Mayan Riviera’) is a series of cenotes, or underwater caverns that give rise to natural springs. These cenotes are formed when a part of the ceiling of the water table below ground collapses, due to erosion, revealing a hole from the surface into crystal clear and naturally filtered waters. We brought the students to several of these special spots, though my favorite of all has to be ‘Cenote Manatee’. Though there haven’t been manatees there in decades (rumor has it that there was one there once, hence the name) it is nonetheless an incredible spot. This is one of the rare locations where mangroves exist in so clear and calm waters that one can explore them with unique clarity. Snorkeling in these waters made me think of the movie ‘Avatar’, but underwater, and being in this system really makes you appreciate the abundance of life that teems among the mangrove roots, which researchers have shown are vital habitat for juvenile fish of all sorts:

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The two worlds of the mangrove forest: air and water.

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An emerald paradise.

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A wide-angle perspective from below.

Though our days were jam-packed with field work, lectures and discussions, on several evenings we (the instructors and students) found the time to unwind with beachfront acoustic guitar sing-alongs, led by my fellow instructor Dr. Phil Buccolo. Who knew a $20 guitar bought from a desperate man in front of a pawn shop could sound so good? We had the beach all to ourselves at night, to sit back, sing a few tunes, and watch the clouds and stars pass by in the clear sky overhead:

I would like to end with a side note. So, the main grocery store nearest the beach was a place called Super Chomak. We loved this place, and in particular, we loved the sign out front, which showcases an ancient Mayan sport.

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Dr. Buccolo and I demonstrate our athletic prowess and our sheer admiration for sacrificial Mayan athletes on the roof of Super Chomak (photo incredibly taken by Kathryn Thompson).

We later found out that this sport, though it may appear to be humorous, was in fact, serious business. Ancient Mayans believed that the very stars in the video above were actually demons that were kept at bay by sacrifices. So, to decide who would appease the demons, they created a team-based sport, in which players must hit a ball into a raised hole, without using their hands. The catch is that when the sun went down, the losing team was sacrificed. Like I said, no joke. But we still could not refrain from many a joke about how crazy it must have been to be on such a team; can you imagine how hard it must have been to recruit new teammates? “Hey Joe, so we are down a man for tomorrow night’s match. Are you in?” Thankfully, sports are less serious these days…

As many great experiences do, the class seemed to fly by, and before I knew it (4 days later), I was on a plane bound for French Polynesia, where I will spend the rest of the summer. Stay tuned!

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One Comment on “Marine Biology Maestro in Mexico

  1. Hi Michael, I really enjoyed reading this (as I always do). Makes me really want to go to Akumal, which is much easier and cheaper to get to than Moorea. The pictures are phenomenal. It’s hard to belive they were taken under water. I am going to send this to Holly and maybe get her interested in a trip to Mexico.

    Talk to you soon. Miss you.

    Love, mom xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

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