We began this week with a little two day adventure trip, starting with a 7am ferry ride over to Cancun from Isla Mujeres on Saturday morning. On the other side we were picked up by Felix, who was to be our driver for the day. Initially we had planned to make our first stop at the ‘Cenote Verde Lucero’, but we ended up getting there half an hour before opening so decided instead to make our first stop at the Botanical Gardens in Porto Morellos.
During our 1 ½ hour tour through the gardens, Dario (a friend and our own personal tour guide for the weekend) gave us a lot of information about the beautiful flora and fauna in the region and also about ancient Mayan culture. During our time there we lucky enough to see a wild pig and also a group of spider monkeys who were swinging around in the canopy above. We also walked across a very rickety foot suspension bridge which was scary (but fun) with views across the protected mangroves. However, we were followed by a plague of mosquitos the whole time we were there, biting us all over. Nevertheless, we still really enjoyed our lovely and informative walk through the green Botanical Gardens. Oh, and back in the car park area we spotted this snake (we hastily took the photo on Dario’s request for ID purposes!).
Once safely back in the van, we made our way to the Porto Morellos beach where we went for a much needed snorkel in the sea to cool off. During our snorkel, we saw a huge variety of fish species as well as healthy and colourful corals which was absolutely gorgeous to see. Before continuing our journey to another cenote, we refuelled ourselves at a small vegan restaurant in the quaint town.
At Cenote Azul we had time to refresh ourselves again in the cool water, exploring the underwater life and rock formations which were spectacular! Some of the volunteers were brave enough to jump from a high rock into the centre of the Cenote. Once suitably refreshed and full of energy, Felix took us on to the Jungle, our last activity for the day.
We walked through the jungle for around three hours with Raul, who is researching the population of Jaguars in this area. On our walk we saw a tarantula, a golden orb spider, heard a mutmut singing and spotted some other (unknown) birds. At our destination, we collected footage from two cameras traps set by Raul at different spots of interest. The footage had captured a really cute agouti as well as quite a few racoons. Then, finally we saw a margay and even caught a fleeting glimpse of what Raul thought might have been a jaguar! We all really enjoyed our trip to the jungle and learning from Raul’s vast conservation experience!
Our day ended by putting our tents up at a beachside camp site in Punta Soliman. After we enjoyed our dinner directly under the palm trees on the beach, we observed such a clear sky full of stars (we could even see the milky way) and chatted away before going to sleep listening to the sound of the ocean.
The next morning we had time to relax on the beach, go snorkelling or for a walk as we chose. Some of us saw a couple of eagle rays during the snorkel which definitely made their day. At around lunch time we packed up and made our way back u to Cancun and then to Isla Mujeres. We ended our two day trip by going out for dinner at our favourite local Taco Restaurant on the island.
Rounding up the Tortugranja duties
Back on the island, it slowly started to dawn on the group that our final week in paradise had begun ☹. Considering how much we had all missed our backyard ocean view after just two days away, none of us were ready to think about leaving just yet. But, with so much left still to do, we thankfully didn’t have much time to dwell on this fact for too long.
Our last day shift at Tortugranja was a really amazing day. Firstly, we added the finishing touches to our ‘Plastic Ocean’ mural (the @mantamexicocaribe and @mantatrust social media tags), cutting the letters from an old newspaper. Afterwards, we went outside to check the nests for any late hatching turtles, only to find hundreds of little turtles emerging from the sand (from nests ‘planted’ late June). Although the eggs usually hatch early in the morning, sometimes the weather can speed up or slow down the process. On this occasion, the rain from the previous day had likely caused an early hatch, which wasn’t ideal in the midday heat, but thankfully the team were there to be on vigilant turtle watch for the next few hours. Hooray! We had many tourists asking that day about what we were doing and why, congratulating us on our good work. One lady even asked if she could give Claudia a hug for doing such a good job, how sweet! It’s such a pleasure to speak with people interested hearing about important conservation work.
The last few turtle night shifts were extremely busy, both in terms of turtle numbers and volume of tourists. Here, you can see the considerable number of people watching just one nesting turtle, which is a challenge to try and manage. Another concern is the (currently unfinished) apartment developments seen on the left hand side of the photo. We’re not exactly sure what is happening with these, but the thought of completion makes us feel sad for the future of this little nesting beach.
Below, you can see the tracks of one green turtle that made her way all the way up the beach until she reached the boundary fence of the popular hostel ‘Pocna’ (encapsulating it’s beachside bar, dancefloor and drunken travellers) before turning back to the ocean. The sight of turtles failing to find suitable nesting locations will always be distressing to witness.
Nonetheless, I can say that the general behaviour of tourists around the nesting turtles seems to have improved since those first few shifts back at the beginning of the month. As well, members of the local community appear to be being a bit more vocal advising on the use of turtle-safe lighting and keeping a respectful distance, which is really great to see. Perhaps by setting an example and encouraging conversation, our work on the island has had a small impact in the end!
The last - but certainly by no means least - task for the group was to produce a report on the summer 2017 Mexican Caribbean Manta Ray Project (MCMRP), to provide information to the Manta Trust and the Mexican government on our progress and project findings. The team worked tirelessly on the report for almost a whole week, with each volunteer taking responsibility for a different task. Rupert was in charge of producing maps using the QGIS software (manta sightings, breachings, CTD, Manta Trawl etc), Steph was in charge of population structure analysis (graphs and statistical analysis using Tableau and R), whilst Lydia was in charge of scientific writing and formatting for the report itself. Melissa and Claudia produced a separate report on the Manta Trawl and Marine Debris Survey results!
Everyone worked extremely hard and we’re all so thrilled with the results! A total of 68 mantas were successfully ID’d by the team across July and August - 61 were new individuals and seven were ‘resightings’. Interestingly, two of the resightings in August were mantas also seen in July by the previous volunteers! How cool is that?! In addition, a total of 305 breaches were also recorded over the two months, which we think is pretty epic!! Furthermore, nine Manta Trawl deploys collected over 60 microplastic samples for analysis and 30 completed marine debris surveys highlighted some interesting views of the local tour operators. It has been an honour to participate in this vital data collection and to be able to contribute in such a tangible way to the MCMRP goals.
Our last day together
(From L to R: Santi, Mel, Steph, Lydia, Rupert, Kanina, Claudia)
On the morning of our last day, we went to the Isla Mujeres mural to take a group picture with our beloved Manta Ray <3. Afterwards, some of us went to buy souvenirs for friends and family back home. After some more tacos at our favourite local place, everyone went for one last snorkel out the back (during which we saw an awesome spotted Caribbean sting ray!).
Around 6pm we headed over to the north beach for a sunset swim altogether, playing frisbee and having a lot of laughs. On our way home we went to a different Mexican restaurant for a supper of nachos, fajitas and sopes (consisting of a fried tortialla base with pinched sides to contain your topping of choice). We ended the evening together in Pocna where we enjoyed dancing to Spanish music and the songs that have become the soundtrack to our summer.
On behalf of all the volunteers, we would like to thank the MCMRP for giving us this wonderful opportunity to work in such proximity with the majestic manta rays of the Mexican Caribbean, to integrate with the local community, meet some truly inspiring people and make some awesome new friends.