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Marine Life & Conservation

The Yucatan Cenotes – A paradise under threat from tourism

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An interview with Sam Meacham by Jeff Goodman

A few years ago I made a film for the BBC called ‘Secrets of the Maya Underworld’ and was about the Cenotes and forests of the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico. Previously I had always promised myself not to ever cave dive as I had a fear of being lost or trapped far underground with no escape route. Then a few very good friends told me of the Cenotes and the incredible wildlife that was associated with them. I had to see for myself.

Yucatan-Cenotes-2It was then I met Sam Meacham, an American living near Cancun. He had been exploring the caves and passageways of the Yucatan Peninsula for the previous 18 years and now to date has discovered with other divers 252 known caves and cave systems in that region with a total of 1,103.3 km or 685.5 miles of surveyed passageway between them.  Two of the five longest caves on the planet Sistema Sac Actun and Sistema Ox Bel Ha are found close to the town of Tulum.

The Yucatán Peninsula was once a shallow coral reef and now over a few million years has become a porous limestone shelf covered with forest and wildlife. There are no visible rivers; all the fresh water rivers are underground. Being porous, caverns and caves formed where the fresh water collects – hence the Cenotes or water sinkholes.

Recently, the Cenotes have become a great dive destination and the eastern Yucatan coastline an ever developing tourist area for sun worshipers and beach goers. The seemingly uncontrolled developments are taking their toll on this unique ecosystem.

I recently got back in touch with Sam to see if things were improving.

Jeff:  Can you just tell us exactly what the Cenotes are and what is so special about them?

Sam: Cenotes are karst sinkholes that occur in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.  The Cenotes are windows into the freshwater aquifer of the region and the entrances to the very complex flooded solution cave systems along the Caribbean coastline.

Yucatan-Cenotes-3Jeff:  The underground water systems give life to the forests above where wildlife is obvious to find, but is there life in the caves as well?

Sam: Most people think of the cave environment as a very sterile place.  In fact, there are over 40 life forms so far identified that live in the dark recesses of these caves.  The majority are crustaceans and they are all considered extremeophiles because of the conditions they live in.  The Cenotes themselves are also magnets for life; this includes a number of freshwater tropical fish species, crocodiles, turtles in the water and birds and mammals (including jaguars) at the surface.

Jeff: How long has man know about the Cenotes?

Sam: There is growing evidence that the caves and Cenotes were accessed by humans during the last ice age, which was 8000-10000 years ago.

Jeff: Did the Maya have any idea about the complexity of the underground waterways?

Sam:  It is hard to say if the Maya realized that some of the Cenotes were connected by the intricate and complex cave systems. Many of the underground rivers flow out to the sea in very impressive upwellings; perhaps they put two and two together when they observed this.  It was not until the 1980’s that cave divers really began to probe the depths of the Cenotes and really revealed just how complex and extensive they were.

Jeff: Are the Cenotes and reliant ecosystems in any threat now due to the commercial tourist developments?Yucatan-Cenotes-4

Sam: There is a very real and continuing threat from the development of the tourism industry along the coastline.  Karst landscapes like the Yucatan are very susceptible to contaminants that leach through the porous limestone and into the aquifer.

Jeff:  What are the main issues?

Sam: The main issues we face are contamination from solid waste (garbage) and sewage.  Once contaminants hit the aquifer there is the high potential for them to be transported through cave conduits and out to the Caribbean Sea.  High concentrations of contaminants cause algal blooms that cover the Mesoamerican Reef and kills the corals.  If we lose the reef, we lose the protection to the beaches.  If the beaches erode, where will the tourists go?  Effectively, we risk killing the goose that lays the golden egg.

Jeff:  Is anyone listening to the conservation needs of the area or is commercialism taking its full toll?Yucatan-Cenotes-5

Sam: Well, I think worldwide conservation efforts are always facing an uphill battle and this area is no exception.  But I do think there is a great deal more awareness about the existence and importance of the flooded caves.  My personal belief is that the outreach and education about the caves is the only way we can engage the public and effect change.

Jeff:  As Divers, how can we help preserve this unique ecosystem?

Sam: If you dive in the Cenotes, it is a great opportunity to perfect your skills particularly your buoyancy and trim.  Really, any time you go diving you should be perfecting your skills.  We, as divers, are privileged visitors to the underwater environment and must make every effort to protect it.

Jeff:  If readers want to learn more where can they get further information?

Sam:  Here are a few websites:

www.mcep.org.mx

www.cindaq.org

http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2011/02/18/skull_in_mexico_cave_may_be_oldest_american_found/

http://www.caves.org/project/qrss/qrss.htm

Jeff Goodman is the Conservation editor and also the Underwater Videography Editor for Scubaverse.com. Jeff is an award winning TV wildlife and underwater cameraman and film maker. With over 10,000 dives to his credit he has dived in many different environments around the world.

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Marine Life & Conservation

Review: My Octopus Teacher

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Regular contributors, CJ & Mike from Bimble in the Blue, review the Netflix documentary: My Octopus Teacher

My Octopus Teacher is the story of how filmmaker Craig Foster befriends a common octopus in the kelp forests off of the Cape Town coast.  Mike and I love to watch all things underwater and nature-based and so eagerly sat down to this documentary film, a new September arrival on Netflix.

Watch the trailer here:

After burning out at work Foster finds fascination and a deep connection with nature when spending time freediving at his favourite local spot.  In a sequence familiar to those who watched the “Green Seas” episode of Blue Planet 2, he comes across an octopus camouflaging itself with shells.  With his curiosity piqued, he begins to seek out the octopus on all of his dives, finding delight in its seemingly strange behaviours, learning what he can from the scientific literature and slowing working to gain the mollusc’s trust on his daily visits to her world.

My Octopus Teacher portrays a very anthropomorphised view of our subject and Foster’s relationship with her.  His conclusions tend to be more emotional than scientific and his eagerness to find similarities between himself and the octopus shows a great sentimentality.  However, you cannot help but be captivated by the incredible mutual curiosity and bond developing before you.  This relationship, and the stunning scenes of the kelp forest with its diverse inhabitants make for a deeply absorbing viewing experience.  There is some fantastic cephalopod behaviour, from the octopus adapting her hunting tactics for different prey, to strategies for outwitting predators and incredible colour and shape morphology.  Foster is also keen to point out how little we know about octopuses and that there is a great opportunity to learn something with every dive.

One of my favourite observations made by Foster at the end of the film is that by going into the water for liberation from daily life’s concerns and dramas, he realised how precious these wild places are.  As he starts to care about all the animals there, even the most minuscule, he comes to find that each one is both important and vulnerable.  Foster finds that his relationship with the octopus changes him and he feels a part of the kelp forest rather than just a visitor, an experience he then shares with his son.  To me Foster’s insight that we must connect with an environment in order to be truly motivated to protect it resonated very strongly.  For those fortunate enough to fall in love with our wilder environments and connect with them, seeing it mirrored in this documentary is quite moving.

Overall we very much enjoyed the film, especially the weird and wonderful behaviours caught on screen and the story as it unfolds.  Though our first reaction was one of pure jealousy (that Foster has such a stunning local dive spot and coastal property!) we soon moved past the envy and found My Octopus Teacher to be a very relaxing and enjoyable evening’s entertainment, which we highly recommend.

For more from CJ and Mike please visit their website here.

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Marine Life & Conservation

Marine Conservation Society recognises young ocean optimists with new award

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Nominations needed for the Young Ocean Optimist of the Year Award celebrating under 25s who have done something amazing to help our ocean

This year, the Marine Conservation Society is launching a brand new award to recognise incredible young people who go the extra mile to celebrate and protect the ocean. The winner of the award for under 25s will be announced at the charity’s online Annual Conference and AGM on 19th November 2020.

The Young Ocean Optimist of the Year Award has been set up to celebrate the achievements of young people who have worked tirelessly to protect, recover and celebrate the seas and wildlife around the UK coastline. The Marine Conservation Society encourages individuals to nominate any inspiring young person who uses their spare time to clean their local beach, raise awareness of threats to marine life, or shares their passion through research, art, social media, writing, walking or myriad other creative ways.

Sandy Luk, Chief Executive of the Marine Conservation Society said: “I’m so pleased to be able to recognise and celebrate the incredible young people around the UK whose passion for the ocean is limitless. I can’t wait to see all the nominations and learn about the amazing things that young people across the country are doing to explore, fundraise, raise awareness, protect and celebrate our blue heart. If you know an inspirational young person who has done any of those things, please nominate them now and shine a light on their brilliant work.”

Inka Cresswell, Ocean Ambassador for the Marine Conservation Society and judge for the Young Ocean Optimist of the Year Award said: “There has never been a more important time for us to use our voices for the ocean. I believe we all have an incredibly important role to play in preserving these ecosystems for future generations but there are some individuals who have gone above and beyond, to ensure a brighter future for our ocean and its inhabitants. This award is a fantastic opportunity to highlight the work of young people, leading by example, and showing how one individual’s actions can turn the tide on Ocean Conservation.”

Nominations for the award will be shortlisted by a cross section of staff and volunteers from across the Marine Conservation Society. A top ten list of nominees will then be sent to the judging panel, which includes: Sandy Luk, CEO of the Marine Conservation Society; Mark Haviland, Vice Chair of MCS; Inka Cresswell, MCS Ocean Ambassador; Tara Proud, MCS Volunteer and Community Engagement Manager for Scotland and Hannah Birse, Member of the Scottish Youth Parliament.

The winner will be decided by the judging panel, and announced live at the charity’s online Annual Conference and AGM on the evening of 19th November. Links to short videos (under 5 minutes), audio recordings (under 2 minutes) and social media or online articles/blogs are encouraged to be included in your nomination.

The deadline for nominations is 9am on Monday 19th October. To nominate someone, download the nomination form (here), and send to education@mcsuk.org.

For more information about the Marine Conservation Society visit their website by clicking here.

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