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Being Cozumel: A Call for Intelligent Tourism

Story by: Myfanwy Rowlands Photography by: Michele Westmorland

“I’ve never been cave diving before. In fact, for the most part, I think cave divers are completely insane.” I said this to world-class cave diver, Germán Yañez Mendoza, as we were setting up our scuba gear in Cozumel, Mexico. We were about to enter El Aerolito, Cozumel’s most well-known cenote.

El Aerolito is now under threat from the new marina. Germán Yañez Mendoza holds an undescribed echinoderm.

This particular cenote, or freshwater cave, lies tucked in the midst of a quiet stand of mangroves just north of the Caleta, Cozumel’s natural marina. We prepped our gear on the banks of what looked like a shallow marsh pool. Nearby, a local couple was sitting under the shade of one of the hibiscus trees, holding hands and talking quietly to each other. On the periphery of the pool, the mangroves bent, tangled and twisted over their flooded roots. The water was clear, and a soft-looking layer of algae-covered rocks carpeted the shallow bottom of the cenote, forming a shaggy green path to the far side of the pool where the water turned dark. This was where we entered the cave. It was a sunny Tuesday morning, and Germán guided Michele Westmorland and me 600 feet into the cave to make photographs and record video of a unique collection of sea stars and urchins. This group of animals makes their home in El Aerolito, and seemingly only in El Aerolito. They’re entirely endemic to this small cave on the island of Cozumel.

We splashed in and I soon forgot my apprehensions about cave diving. The tunnel was spacious and crystal clear, and I felt no hint of the claustrophobia I had previously feared. Hundreds of brittle stars slithered into holes in the wall simultaneously as they sensed the approach of my camera lights, leaving behind an impression of life squirming just below the surface. We pressed on deeper into the cave, scarcely moving our fins lest we stir up the fine silt all around us. Urchins, sea stars, and a species of fireworm found only in the cenotes of Cozumel dotted the walls and ceiling and rested on the shadowy rocks below our lights. At one point, Germán stopped us. “Under the highway,” he wrote on his wrist-slate, and pointed upward. My mind was fairly blown. Every day, thousands of people drive literally on top of this extraordinary environment, but are altogether oblivious to it. It is difficult to describe the feeling Michele and I had that day as we made photos and videos of those animals. Since most of the species are new to science, no one had recorded them on camera, and there is a certain feeling of wonder that accompanies such original and purposeful documentation. And since El

Aerolito is slated for destruction, it is unlikely that anyone will ever do so again. Construction will dredge channel between the Caleta and the site of the new marina being built. The dredging will allow salt water to flood the cave, suffocating its current inhabitants. The seepage has actually already begun -- the construction is ninety percent complete. El Aerolito provides an almost eerily appropriate metaphor for all the marine environments of Cozumel. While the destruction may not be immediately visible, it has undeniably begun to seep in. PART II: “BE COZUMEL.”

A pleasant multimedia piece streams at you when you visit the official Tourism website of Cozumel. In it, a slideshow of blithe photographs dissolve lazily into one another, depicting incorporeal fingers fondling cocktail glasses and bare feet dangling from chaise lounge chairs. Throughout, viewers are entreated by a tagline sparkling at the top of the screen: “Be Cozumel,” it says. To which Cozumel, I wonder, does it refer? Judging by the tone of the site, I’m inclined to believe it refers to a place I’ve begun to call New Cozumel: the Cozumel demanded by an increasingly aggressive, entitled, notoriously fickle and Cancunified tourist demographic. That is, the Cozumel that panders to upwards of 2.5 million cruise ship tourists annually. While New Cozumel gets better at meeting the high sanitation and hospitality standards of its relatively affluent visitors, the tourism hub of San Miguel (Cozumel’s only city) attracts too many rural immigrants who

Land near El Aerolito prior to new construction of marina. Images provided by Robert Cudney

New marina that can potentially impact El Aerolito. Image by © Roy Toft from recent ILCP RAVE Oct, 2009

Vibrant queen angelfish swims the reef areas of Isla Cozumel.

A young girl from Cozumel participates in the turtle release program while volunteer researchers collect sea turtle hatchlings from nests. These programs provide protection for the species and positive reenforcement to the local community as to the value of the marine life that surrounds Isla Cozumel.

compete for too few jobs. The government of Quintana Roo, the state in which Cozumel resides, is unable to keep up with the growing requirements for infrastructure and basic services to its own residents. Yet when it comes to meeting the transportation demands of its cruise ship visitors, New Cozumel rises to the occasion spectacularly. One day Michele and I counted over 150 taxicabs within a two-block radius of the cruise ship dock. Many of them sat in the sun for hours while their engines idled on, so as to stay air-conditioned for potential passengers. In fact, the number of registered taxicabs on Cozumel works out to just over one taxi for every 100 people in San Miguel, or one third more taxis per capita than all of New York City. The height of gratuitousness, though, belongs to the infamous sand reclamation project, wherein sand was to be pumped and dredged from Cozumel and shipped over to Cancun, whose poorly planned and managed beaches are now eroding. Two million cubic meters of sand were pumped from Isla Mujeres in a previous attempt to build the beaches before the project was abandoned due to fiscal incompetence. Within a few months, all the sand had washed away again. In sum, this place that I call New Cozumel is parading all too enthusiastically in the sunken, hung-over footsteps of its overrun predecessors: Acapulco, that proverbial spent courtesan of the tropics, and Cancun, the infamous Squalor itself. And so the entreaty “Be Cozumel” on the tourism website probably speaks to New Cozumel. But in the wake of my visit, I’ve begun to let myself believe that perhaps, just perhaps, it refers instead to what I’ve come to call Isla Cozumel: a gorgeous Caribbean island and its still-vibrant fringing coral reefs. In spite of some very good efforts to the contrary, Isla Cozumel remains a world-class dive destination. Isla Cozumel has a breathtakingly wild eastern coastline, frequented by locals yet overlooked entirely by cruise tourists who speed past it on rented scooters.

It is Isla Cozumel, not New Cozumel, that is home to the Microatolls: a heartbreakingly

Splendid toadfish endemic to Cozumel.

National park researchers measure and survey the health of the reefs.

Snorkelers enjoy the nearby reefs but can have serious impact if not attentive to their delicate nature. The major cruise port for Cozumel is seein in the background.

gorgeous stretch of reefs built entirely of coralline and calcareous algae. The Microatolls represent a microecosystem that occurs only rarely worldwide, and nowhere else in the Western Caribbean. A proposal to make them a marine reserve has been submitted. A small push is all it would take for the presently buried proposal to pass and make the Microatolls belong to the community landscape forever. It is not New Cozumel, but Isla Cozumel that is the photographer’s paradise, with a richness of endangered and endemic populations both terrestrial and marine. Thriving conch beds can still be found on the northeastern tip of the island. Isla Cozumel has at least twenty-five cenotes. Their underwater corridors meander for hundreds of miles underneath the ground of Isla Cozumel, many of which Germán Yañez and his colleagues have yet to explore. When the rains come and the groundwater swells, the flat interior of

The impact of the cruiseline industry is significant. Huge numbers of visitors pour off the ships each week.

Development comes in many forms. Some attractive - and some not.

Isla Cozumel becomes a maze of mangroves so complex that one could spend a week navigating them in a canoe. These and numerous other remarkable eco-tourism experiences are the true marine treasures to be had on Cozumel. Unfortunately, they are not what presently come to mind when one attempts to “Be Cozumel.” Dolphin Discovery is a theme park holding some 13 bottlenose dolphins primarily for the entertainment of tourists.


I am not against development. I am not against tourism. I am, however, steadfastly against the type of shortsighted exploitation and irresponsible expansion perpetuated on Cozumel by tourists and locals alike. Cruise ship tourism is a quick shot in the arm for the economy of New Cozumel. The local benefits are short-lived, high-impact, and cripplingly habit-forming. Laying economics aside, the true tragedy of New Cozumel is its unabashed and depressing artificiality. In the end, New Cozumel is undeniably ersatz in nature. Why should Isla Cozumel need to slather itself with campy dolphin parks and absurd numbers of diamond outlets? Why should Isla Cozumel, a cornucopia of tropical resplendency, need to recreate,

Myfanwy Rolands filming one of the healthy reefs of Isla Cozumel.

There is hope that the microatolls at the north end of Isla Cozumel will be included in a protected zone. Microatolls occur rarely worldwide.

Exotic lionfish from the Pacific have invaded the Caribbean. They are a threat to the endemic species. Dive programs have been establish for the collection and irradication of lionfish

The mangrove areas at the north end of Cozumel are very delicate habitats for many forms of life. There could be possible impact to the environment with future development or sand reclamation projects.

sterilize, and miniaturize every natural environment found on the island and then designate it a Natural Monument? People came to Cozumel in the first place to see wonders like Isla Cozumel’s Microatolls, its vibrant coral reefs, and its wild, pristine shorelines. New Cozumel is calamitously falling all over itself in a misguided attempt to artificially re-create and package what Isla Cozumel already has, and its efforts on this behalf are shoddy and unsustainable.

Michele Westmorland and I came to Cozumel as participants of the 2009 Yucatan RAVE: a Rapid Assessment Visual Expedition. An initiative of the International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP), the purpose of a RAVE is to bear witness to a region of the world that is at an ecological and economical crossroads: a critical tipping point between preservation and exploitation. The island of Cozumel is facing such a crossroads. Like the community of animals in El Aerolito, Cozumel is already feeling lasting effects of almost irreversible change seeping in. Fortunately, and unlike the community of El Aerolito, the residents and visitors of Cozumel have the opportunity to look down the two forks of the road and decide which Cozumel it is they would rather be. Will it be New Cozumel? Or will it be Isla Cozumel?

Beautiful hawksbill turtles are frequently seen on the reefs of Isla Cozumel.

“The great thing about Cozumel’s wilderness is that it is always hidden from those who couldn’t care less for it, yet it nurtures all aspects of life on the island. I trust that conservation of our wild environments will prevail at the core of our vision for tourism in the future.”

Robert Cudney

Yucatan RAVE_ Cozumel  

Story by: Myfanwy RowlandsPhotography by: Michele Westmorland

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