Reefs on the Rebound
Just off the sugary shores of Mexico’s Riviera Maya, rows of baby coral are—quietly but steadily—battling the devastating effects of climate change.
Travelers from the world over flock to the Riviera Maya for its tropical weather, laid back vibes and pristine sand beaches. Beginning in 2005, though, after dual hurricanes had ravaged the area, the conservation team at Mayakoba, home to Rosewood Mayakoba, soon realized that the resort community was losing an average of nearly 15 feet of sand each year.
Experts from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México explained that theirs was not a simple—or exclusively local—problem. “They showed us what is going on around the world,” recalls Cristina Leo, sustainability director for Mayakoba. Namely, that climate change, among its many adverse effects to the global environment, is also hitting coral reefs hard. And that has contributed to the beach erosion Mayakoba was witnessing.
As critical to the sea as rain forests are to terra firma, coral reefs cover just 0.1 percent of the ocean’s surface, yet support at least 25 percent of all marine life. Higher water temperatures can lead to coral bleaching, in which corals shed their symbiotic organisms and lose their color. It’s a temporary phenomenon, but it can take a decade for even the fastest corals to recover.
As bleaching events become more frequent—in 2016 and 2017, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef suffered unprecedented mass-bleaching events back to back—reefs have less time to rebuild. Bleached reefs provide less shelter for the abundance of marine life that calls them home, and afford the coast less protection against increasingly wild seas and storms.
That’s a pressing problem at Mayakoba—and not just because guests expect to be able to lounge on a wide, pristine beach. The resort also includes 150 acres of protected mangroves, which shelter turtles, alligators, and dozens of species of birds, among other wildlife.
“The best time to protect a reef was 50 years ago. But the second-best time is right now.” Dr. Kristen Marhaver
“The best time to protect a reef was 50 years ago. But the second-best time is right now.”
Dr. Kristen Marhaver
“All these ecosystems are very sensitive,” Leo says. “If we lose the beach, it’s just a matter of time before we lose the mangroves.” Mayakoba could replenish the beach with sand, but that alone would be a short-term solution. (Case in point: a massive government-funded beach restoration in Cancún in the early 2010s quickly washed away after just a few years.)
“If they don’t invest in the reef, they will have the same problems year after year,” says Gabriela Nava, founder and executive director of Oceanus A.C., a local conservation organization that is partnering with Mayakoba and UNAM on the project. So Mayakoba searched for a better approach.
“The best time to protect a reef was 50 years ago,” was the alarm bell sounded by Curaçao-based marine biologist Kristen Marhaver in a 2017 TED Talk that has since gone viral. “But the second-best time is right now.” Worldwide, governments, businesses and activists are heeding her call, devising new ways to protect and replenish reefs. Solutions range from the simple—like discouraging the use of sunscreens containing parabens, which can damage coral—to the extreme: A proposal to build a floating sun shield over the entire Great Barrier Reef is dominating headlines in Australia.
One innovation that’s caught on from Dubai to Delaware is artificial reef building. At Mayakoba, scientists have erected a series of concrete grids, planting them with small fragments of coral that should eventually create a self-sustaining colony. The artificial reef will link up with a small existing natural reef—the remains of what scientists say was once a longer colony damaged by extreme weather conditions.
Trials have been encouraging. Bits of acropora palmata—better known as elkhorn coral, a brownish species whose branches spread wide and flat, like an elk’s antlers—are thriving on the concrete barriers. “They’re growing well,” Nava says. “They are already starting to branch and they are healthy.”
The reef-building will shift into high gear this summer. Nava says it might take two years for the coral to mature into a strong colony, but after that they should grow faster. “After four years, we hope to see them reproducing,” she says.
The reef will not only help protect Mayakoba’s mangroves and beach, but by drawing fish and other marine life it will eventually create an opportunity for guests to snorkel—and learn firsthand about the battle against climate change. “They can go to the reef, help place the coral, learn how sensitive the reef is,” Nava says. “And also see that in the face of climate change, it is possible to do something positive.”