Community members work to defend a beloved dive site

Divers and photographers pose at Villablanca Reef.
More than 50 divers and photographers gathered to collect data about biodiversity at Villablanca Reef.

More than 50 divers and marine photographers came together on May 1st and 4th, 2021 to photograph species and collect data about the biodiversity of Villablanca reef. Their aim was to raise awareness about the vibrant marine life that is at risk if the government approves the construction of a fourth cruise ship pier at this location. The pier developers had recently submitted an Environmental Impact Statement to the government in which they claimed that there is little to no marine life or corals present at Villablanca, therefore purporting that this major construction project will have no significant environmental impact. The construction of this huge pier, and all the cruise ship traffic that will follow, will undoubtedly cause the destruction of coral formations and the habitat of marine creatures.

In response to the statement that the site had little marine life worth protecting, Punta Sur Divers’ DM and co-owner Cris sprang to action, organizing a group of divers who were as passionate about countering this false claim as she was. The collaborative photo log took place during a period required under Mexican law in which citizens and local experts can provide evidence to the federal government regarding the potential environmental impact of proposed projects.  The findings from this activity, as well as findings from other initiatives led by local NGOs and research groups, all confirm that there is indeed significant biodiversity at this site, including fish and coral species currently protected under Mexican law.

As the group of divers worked to create a collaborative photo log of different species at Villablanca in early May, they were doing more than just collecting data. They were raising awareness about an issue that impacts the reef as well as our whole island.

To promote informed decision making, local environmental experts have participated in community research in hopes of educating the public about the true implications of the pier project. Cris has been participating in local citizen science initiatives for years, and she’s passionate about community members collaborating through research to build knowledge. She believes it’s crucial to increase awareness of the ways that many development projects put stress on Cozumel’s delicate ecological equilibrium, especially considering that island’s ecosystems are particularly vulnerable to stressors such as water use, increased coastal development, mass tourism, and poor waste management. She hopes that the gathering of these passionate divers will draw attention to the fact that blind exploitation of the island’s precious resources without focusing on its long-term ecological needs could be irreversibly consequential.

Cozumel is flanked by a reef system that forms part of the second largest barrier reef system on the planet, a system that’s been declared a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO. Responsible development in Cozumel requires that people consider not only economic goals but also ecological balance and the health and wellbeing of our entire community and of future generations.  There is a growing sense among academics, NGOs, citizen groups and the public that we need to better understand the true implications of coastal development projects. More and more local residents are asking what responsible regenerative tourism can look like here. How can we continue to make Cozumel a competitive tourist destination while also keeping the long term health of our ecosystems front and center?

Divers and photographers shine their lights underwater during a night dive.

As of June 2021, the fourth pier project is currently still under revision. Though lawyers and community members will continue to lobby against the proposed project, Villablanca’s future is far from secure. Various interest groups will continue to put pressure on the government to approve this project despite evidence against its ecological viability. This is where you come in, dear divers and Cozumel lovers!

How can you help protect Villablanca Reef and Cozumel?

  • Sign the change petition here.
  • Share your Villablanca reef pictures on social media. Take a stance and help us educate others about the biodiversity that exists there.
  • Choose to spend your money in ways that create a positive impact on the local community. Practice responsible tourism and follow local laws and regulations. Hire legal operators that follow sustainable practices and abide by fishing bans.
  • Read and inform yourself about the environmental and economic impacts of mass tourism and the cruise ship industry.
  • Contact us here if you’re interested in engaging in coral reef restoration or a citizen science activity during your next visit. We’d be thrilled to help make your next vacation more than just a vacation.

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