Volunteer in Mexico to Conserve Coral Reefs
How an expedition in Mexico provided valuable research for the coral reef systems of the Mesoamerican Reef along with the reward of additional diver training
By Cheryl S. MacDonald
Resources updated 7/4/2019 by Transitions Abroad
View of the beach.
While finishing my transect for the morning’s fish monitoring session, I glanced up to find myself face to face with two beautiful gray angelfish. Quickly, I gathered my data slate—with notes about my morning's transect activities along with the measuring tape and monitoring stick—and put it back into the dive bag. I weighed down the gear bag with an extra two pound weight. Now I could play with the fish for the final eight minutes of allotted "bottom time." After a nod in agreement with a colleague that is was time to check out undersea life from the perspective of tourists and not scientists, we were off. As I slowly approached the beautiful fish they did not seem bothered by my presence, but rather curious. We seemed equally intrigued with each other. Now face to face with these two magnificent angelfish, I thought to myself: “Who would have ever imagined?”
|Angelfish staring back at me in coral reef. Photo by Cheryl S. MacDonald.
I had previously been a PADI certified Open Water diver for close to fifteen years, but was one of those occasional divers who would take a dive vacation once a year. A dive vacation, as far I was concerned, meant getting in one or two dives in a week’s time between Pina Coladas by the pool. Diving was something to be enjoyed but was not a big part of my life. That was until I came across an organization called GVI. The organization offers a 5 or 10-week program centered around diving and doing research on the Mesoamerican reef—the world’s second largest barrier reef. The program is designed for Scuba beginners and those more advanced. Although certified for several years, I was still very much a beginner. The 10-week expedition offers diver training, education, and research opportunities. We would live twenty meters from the shore, dive daily, and learn about local sea life while assisting the science officers by gathering pertinent data.
The site of our expedition was near Tulum, Mexico on the Yucatan peninsula and was about a two hour drive from the south of Cancun. The expedition base is called Pez Maya. The base is located in the heart of the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, which is home to a wide variety of flora and fauna.
Due to its remote location, there are a very limited number of conveniences which I had previously taken for granted; it was quite rustic. I was shown what would be my new home for the next ten weeks—a “hut” with three sets of bunk beds. Six of us would be sharing a rather small living space. The shower consisted of a bucket of water pulled up from the well and brought to an outdoor location surrounded by palm trees. We were allowed three buckets per week for our showers, but we found that one-half bucket per “shower” was more than enough. Conservation is a buzz word you hear often in Pez Maya. The bathroom toilet was also flushed by a bucket of water. Since we did not have access to permanent electricity, we also had no refrigeration, so most of our meals tended to be vegetarian and yet were very filling and healthy. Some aspects of this scenario might make the living conditions seem a bit miserable. But that was not the case at all. After a week of adjustment, I was embracing this new way of living. We did live twenty meters from the beach, with gentle warm breezes and swaying hammocks to enjoy in our down time and the smell of salt in the air.
Within the first week we were learning about the local reef fish, the coral reefs, and their impact on the environment. We also were taught various monitoring techniques used to gather data on undersea life. We were required to learn identification, stages of growth, and how to judge the size of 150 adult and 25 juvenile species of fish. If you were assigned coral you learned 50 coral reef species by their Latin names, as well as various types of bleaching and algae diseases and their effect on the coral. All of this was a quite a bit to take in during a week’s time, but the information was all so intensely interesting that it was quite easy to grasp. After testing assessments to ensure that we were able to accurately identify the fish and coral, we were ready to begin with our underwater data gathering.
By the second week—between additional lectures on marine conservation, oceanography, first aid, research diving skills, marine survey skills, fish and coral identification—we started to log more dives towards our Advanced Open Water certification, which was included in the 10-week package. After one week—learning so much about diving while perfecting my skills—I was hooked and wanted to learn more! There were certainly opportunities to do so. Because I had planned to complete the entire expedition, I was offered several options for additional diver training while continuing the ongoing research. I had elected to go through and complete my Dive Master Certification. Over the next nine weeks, averaging two dives a day, six days a week, I completed an Emergency First Response (EFR) certification, Coral Reef Research Diver, Cavern Diver, Rescue Diver, and finally my Dive Master certifications. While a lot of hard work—both physically and mentally—in the end it was all worth it. In addition, due to our remote location, we were also given the opportunity to work on first aid, oxygen machines, maintain diving equipment, use compressors to fill tanks, and learn regulator mechanics. When would I ever have the opportunity to do all this while on an ordinary vacation?
I began my 10-week adventure as a mediocre diver with less than twenty dives in my log book and left with close to 100 logged dives, several new certifications, and a new appreciation for diving and what it offers. When my travels are concluded, I now have a new option for a job in the dive industry due to all the training provided. GVI provided me with the tools and training—along with the confidence—necessary to enter into a great new career. And I gained all these valuable skills, experiences, and made these contributions to the study of an important coral reef during a great and memorable vacation!
For More Information
There are many exciting volunteer opportunities in Mexico and Central America. Several organizations offer programs which offer programs to meet the following interests: Conservation, adventure, and cultural initiatives. I chose GVI because of this expedition’s strong emphasis on diving education as well as the level of involvement with research and the conservation of local marine life. In addition, their vision and mission includes the promotion of sustainable solutions which matched personal goals.
What’s included in GVI's Marine Conservation Expedition in Mexico Program:
24-hour emergency phone
- 24-hour in-country support
- Access to Alumni Services and Discounts
- Airport pick-up (unless otherwise stated)
- All necessary project equipment and materials
- All necessary project training by experienced staff
- Community work workshop
Coral reef ecology
- First Aid & CPR training
Live and work in a protected reserve surveying deserted reefs under GVI’s research permit
- Location orientation
- Long term experienced staff
- Meals while on project (except on work placements for long term internships)
- PADI Coral Reef Research Diver Distinctive Speciality
- PADI Open Water (for 8 and 12 week volunteers) and Advanced Open Water
Global Vision International offers various other volunteer expeditions in Mexico (as well as many other countries in Latin America and worldwide) to meet almost any interest. For expedition itineraries and more information as well as photo and video libraries, stories from the field, and life on the expedition, visit their website.
For those interested in other volunteer experiences in this beautiful and richly varied area of Mexico and Central America, here is a sampling of options available with GVI or other organizations:
Conservation Based Volunteering:
- Sea turtle conservation
- Marine conservation
- Ecology conservation
- Working with school children
- Contributing to the community
- Teaching English
Cheryl S. MacDonald is on a two year long around-the-world adventure—volunteering, learning, and writing a book series “What Boundaries? Live Your Dream!”