Updated: Mar 17
Cozumel is an important place for a lot of people, and other organisms. Since Jacques Cousteau raved about its reefs in 1961, decades of divers have flocked to this Yucatan island to marvel at its gin-clear visibility, colorful corals, and abundant tropical fish.
Mexico is proud that Cozumel’s long-standing marine park preserves some of the healthiest parts of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef. Scientists value Cozumel for its contribution to research and biodiversity. The island’s locals know that tourism and fishing are the two pillars of their economy. And endangered sea turtles, 105 coral species, and 262 fish species call Cozumel home.
Most divers already know that the ocean is struggling. Human society is waging a seemingly endless assault on the sea, from global warming to coastal development to plastic pollution to our gluttonous appetites for fish, no matter that most fish stocks are collapsing. Much-beloved places like Cozumel almost always suffer the most; imagine the environmental pressure of the 3.6 million cruise ship passengers who arrive yearly at its port- the fourth-busiest cruise ship port in the world. So if you’re going to assume the carbon footprint of flying to your favorite dive destination, try to learn something about who’s helping it survive, and how you might be able to support them.
So How Can I Help?
The first news is good news. The nonprofit MesoAmerican Reef Tourism Initiative runs an education and monitoring program with the government to train all Cozumel tour guides and boat operators on what to do and what not to do in the marine park. They not only train, but also observe and check operators for compliance. This initiative has helped boats clean up their waste disposal practices, and taught dive guides to keep customers farther away from the coral, stop interfering with local fish-life, and educate their guests about the environment.
On a smaller scale, plenty of ocean-loving organizations have opportunities for tourists to help and participate:
One of Cozumel’s most-loved marine conservation activities does not actually take place underwater: this is the turtle rescue program. The marine park authorities offer this opportunity from July through November, when baby green and loggerhead turtles are hatching on the beach. Turtle rescue means helping government volunteers look for hatched nests and excavate the holes to find any eggshells, unhatched eggs, dead babies or live babies who didn’t make it out. Participants rave about the feeling of finding a straggler baby turtle under the sand and releasing it safely to the ocean. You can find information about turtle rescue HERE and Here.
Make sure to book directly with government agencies so that your fee goes to them - not to a tour operator who offers to arrange it for you. (Park authorities to look for include CMAC, FPMC, or Subdireccion De Ecologia.)
If you must spend every possible moment with a tank on your back, there are underwater conservation projects you can join. The organization Cozumel Ocean Research offers conservation tours and courses ranging from one day to four weeks. The longer you stay, the more you can learn and contribute to their projects, but even a one-day experience gives them significant financial support- and gives you an in-depth educational experience!
Cozumel Ocean Research runs projects monitoring eagle rays, sea turtles, and corals, and also runs a ‘Dive Against Debris’ program to clean up the reef.
Cozumel’s eagle ray schools frequent the area from December to February every year. COR will have you photograph and record observational data about the rays you see.
In fact, you can contribute data online even without booking a course; just pre-familiarize yourself with the data sheet , and if you see an eagle ray while diving, take pictures like mad!
For a unique conservation experience with the passion project of a Mexican veterinarian-turned-marine biologist, you could look into the Cozumel Coral Reef Restoration Program. This six year old initiative practices coral planting to rebuild healthy reefs. Live fragments of corals broken by tourists are rescued and stuck onto structures in CCRRP’s planting zone of about 50 square meters. CCRRP has a wide range of techniques and collaborations, including one partnership with MINECRAFT which involved installing underwater sculptures of Minecraft game characters amidst the growing corals. You can volunteer or take a short course to try your hand at planting and caring for corals.
Become a zero-waste traveler
One of the best ways to help the ocean as a tourist is to become a zero-waste traveler. A zero-waste traveler makes it her/his goal to produce as little plastic trash as possible. Single-use-plastic like straws, smoothie cups, plastic shopping bags and Styrofoam take-out containers are among the millions of plastic items in the sea. By 2050, scientists predict that ocean plastic will outweigh ocean fish. Plus, ocean plastic has entered the food chain- from small fish, to big fish, to us.
If this situation upsets you, visit Cozumel’s very own zero-waste store, Básicos Mercadito Cero, where you can buy no-plastic products from cosmetics to food. And of course, practice the most important of the ‘FOUR R’s’ when you’re offered a single-use-plastic for your convenience: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, REFUSE.
The free-diving and mermaid instructors of Cozumel have lots of great zero-waste tips and products on their website (think glass straws, reef-friendly sunscreen, and bikinis made from fishing nets) , and you can take free-diving and mermaid courses with them as well.
It’s sad to say that some of Cozumel’s reefs are suffering heavy damage from 2018 until now from a new and deadly virus called Stony Coral Tissue Loss (SCTL). This coral disease was first reported in Florida in 2014. Scientists suspect that pollutants from improperly treated wastewater are to blame.
So anything you can lower your environmental impact as a tourist will buy time for experts to investigate SCTL, and hopefully prevent its spread. Cozumel is a jewel among Caribbean dive spots, and it will take all of our help to keep it alive.