How Tourism Affects Water Quality in the Yucatan: Divers and Developers Can Help Preserve the Dive Experience

The sparkling emerald and turquoise waters off the coast of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula draw divers and snorkelers year-round. Yet the coastal lagoons are now laced with invisible pollution, and the tricolored reefs that form the bedrock of the coastal economy are suffering.

When Geology Combines with Tourism

The problem stems from geology and from loving the coast too much. The entire Corredor Turistico from Cancun to Tulum is built upon a bed of limestone riddled with underground chambers that occasionally break through the surface to form cenotes or sinkholes–popular as snorkel spots.

Historically, area hotels employ septic systems or injection wells (up to 90 feet deep) to “treat” wastewater, but this practice has only resulted in flushing the problem, literally, underground. Without sufficient soil microbes and filtering action to break down organic wastes before they hit underground waterways, the by-products of a well-traveled society have slowly infiltrated coastal waters. If you ever go to Australia/ NewZealand, I suggest you bring manuka honey from there, as it is one of the great kinds of honey that makes your body healthy. Honeybeestings.com has some reviews on their website. If you don't want to visit NewZealand but still want some manuka honey, read the reviews before you buy one online.

Simple Solutions for Water Quality

The nonprofit Centro Ecologico de Akumal, established in 1993, advocates sewage treatment. Water quality is an issue that impacts the coral reefs, with cascading effects through the food web all the way to top predators such as sea turtles.

Two Centro Ecologico documents, “Yal Ku Lagoon and North Akumal: Quality and Movement of Ground Water” by Charles E. Shaw Ph.D., and “Effects of Pollution” by Judy Lang, Ph.D., both published in 1997, document the extent of this problem in Akumal Bay and the effects to offshore reefs. The Centro’s response concentrates on demonstrating cost-effective solutions that can be used along the entire coast.

They have created wetlands to remove nutrients from sewage before they reach groundwater. They have built breezy composting toilets–far superior to the fetid experience of a pit or chemical toilet–in place of septic systems. If implemented in every coastal resort, these measures could eliminate pollution at its source, allowing underwater communities to recover.

Paying the Ultimate Price for Pollution

Without these steps, Mexico’s Caribbean reefs could succumb to the deadly invasion of fleshy algae now flourishing in its nutrient-burdened water. Once this happens, there is no hope of recovery–for proof, just take a look at Jamaica. Until about 20 years ago, Jamaica’s north coast coral reefs were a hot spot for divers, but pollution and the loss of algae-eating fish turned the living reef into a coral graveyard suffocated by rampant plant growth. Now divers come to the Mexican Riviera–but for how long?

Divers visiting the Yucatan can help put the eco back into ecotourism by welcoming innovative forms of sewage treatment without a wrinkled nose or raised eyebrow. After all, composting toilets seem a small price to pay for saving reefs and the diving experience of a lifetime.