Marine Life & Conservation
The Yucatan Cenotes – A paradise under threat from tourism
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.
It 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.
Jeff: 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?
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?
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:
Marine Life & Conservation
PADI partners with global skincare brand Medik8
PADI®’s global non-profit the AWARE Foundation™ is teaming up with leading sustainability-focused skincare brand Medik8 to save our most critical ecosystem on the planet – the ocean.
As the new corporate sponsor of the PADI AWARE Foundation’s 2023 Community Grant Programme, Medik8 will be supporting four grassroots conservation projects that range from protecting megafauna like turtles and whales from entanglement to fuelling hands-on citizen science initiatives like seagrass restoration.
The PADI AWARE Community Grant Programme is designed to award ocean protection initiatives that are in direct support of the United Nations Decade of Science for Sustainable Development in five distinct categories: coral restoration, developing marine protected areas, eliminating marine debris, reducing the effects of climate change, and protecting species threatened with extinction like sharks and turtles. In 2022 PADI AWARE™ dedicated nearly one-quarter of its public funds to empower local communities to take action for our shared blue planet.
“Last year we launched the Grant Programme to directly support PADI Members and NGOs driving meaningful conservation projects, often who have little or no funding support,” says Danna Moore, PADI AWARE Foundation’s Global Director. “This year, due to the collaboration with Medik8, we can provide more resources directly to local communities that need them most. Medik8 is a like-minded organisation that shares our science-based, sustainability-driven, and community-oriented values – and will be a strong partner committed to helping us create positive ocean change.”
Medik8’s support of the PADI AWARE Community Grants programme is in line with their ethos of making a positive impact through driving sustainability strategies with everything they do – from reducing carbon impact and waste to investing in being an ethical business with direct social investments. Their connection and deep love for the ocean is rooted in Medik8’s founder Elliot Isaacs, who is a PADI Master Scuba Diver™.
“As a brand, we strongly believe that increased social investment will allow us to make a more significant mark on wider society,” says Alexandra Florea, Head of Sustainability at Medik8. “Working with grassroots organisations who understand exactly what is needed on the ground will mean we can generate the greatest impact. We chose PADI as our long-term charitable partner because, like us, they put science at the heart of everything they do to bring about positive results.”
The PADI AWARE Grantee projects Medik8 is sponsoring fuel the impact of local citizen science initiatives driving global change like Kosamare Seagrass Restoration in Greece, a grant recipient from 2022 and now 2023. The other three grantee projects have also been selected and range from marine debris removal to climate change mitigation – and are set to be announced in the coming months.
The PADI AWARE Community Grant programme is open to all PADI Dive Centres around the world, along with locally-based NGOs and charities working on marine conservation issues that operate on a budget below $1 Million USD.
“With incredible partners like Medik8 who are equally committed to creating positive ocean change, a swell of hope for our shared blue planet is becoming stronger with every project we support – further proving that the ripples from local action really do have a global impact for us all,” says Moore.
The next round of proposal submissions is on 4 April 2023, with more information at www.padi.com/aware/grant-funding-criteria.
Marine Life & Conservation
Win ‘Gold Rush’ Mako Shark Sculpture worth £7,000
One lucky person is set to win a stunning, life-sized mako shark sculpture worth more than £7,000 for just £5 thanks to a lottery initiative developed by the internationally acclaimed marine wildlife sculptor Scott Glee to support Bite-Back Shark & Marine Conservation.
Tickets to win ‘Gold Rush’, an electric blue 7-ft mako shark sculpture with a 24-carat gold leaf dorsal fin have just gone on sale at https://tinyurl.com/win-gold-rush, with all proceeds supporting the UK charity’s campaigns to make Britain shark fin free.
The high impact artwork has been created to raise awareness of the global and unsustainable marine ‘gold rush’ to hunt sharks for their valuable fins alone and to help fund Bite-Back’s campaigns to end the UK’s trade in shark products.
Individual lottery tickets to win the sculpture are being sold exclusively through the Bite-Back website for £5 each plus money saving ticket deals in groups of 5, 10, 15 and 25 units.
Crafted from fibreglass, the dramatic, one-off sculpture has been sealed in a weatherproof clear coat providing the winner with the option of displaying Gold Rush indoors and out.
Artist Scott Gleed said: “I can’t think of a better way to announce yourself as a shark fan than a 7-ft shark in your garden, house or workplace. Sharks have been in my blood for decades and this is an opportunity for me to express my love of sharks and my anger at their exploitation in one piece of art. On top of that it’s a huge pleasure to support the hardest working shark charity in the UK. I hope this unique piece goes to a great home and raises thousands of pounds for Bite-Back’s campaigns.”
Tickets will be on sale for just 10 weeks before the winning ticket is picked by the artist himself after the 12 May 2023 deadline.
Campaign director for Bite-Back, Graham Buckingham, said: “This is a breath-taking piece of art with an important story to tell. Fins are the most valuable part of a shark and, around the world, fishing fleets are in a race to hunt sharks and separate the fins from the body with no thought to the global catastrophe that could follow. We expect this artwork to help draw attention to the issue and contribute important funds for our campaigns to end the UK’s role in the shark fin trade. We’re full of gratitude to Scott for his vision, generosity, and contribution to our vital work.”
Visit https://tinyurl.com/win-gold-rush to buy your tickets now and visit www.gleed3d.com to learn more about Scott’s sculptures and the chance to commission your own marine masterpiece.
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