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The Coral Reefs of Huatulco: Unnatural Changes

By Julie Etra

I have been scuba diving and snorkeling here since our first trip in 2007, but I am no expert and certainly don’t have the decades of history and knowledge possessed by the locals regarding pre-Huatulco-resort (1985) conditions. What I can contribute are my observations from repeated trips to several reefs over the years, as well as some review of reef studies and possible preservative actions.

Huatulco’s nine bays and 35 beaches host18 coral reefs. For snorkeling I typically go to Entrega, San Augustín, and more recently, Riscalillo. Tejoncito is a sweet little cove within Bahia Conejos, but it is pretty rocky, with some coral but typically not great visibility. Arrocito is another popular spot for some of our good friends, but it does not have the fabulous reefs that support aquatic diversity. Maguey has a great reef for scuba diving, accessible by boat. All lie within the Parque Nacional de Huatulco, and all are managed under its jurisdiction. (The Park was established in 1998 through a presidential decree.)

Entrega. Huatulco’s reefs and beaches are gems, and like so many beautiful natural resources everywhere, they are being loved to death. Entrega is a bay within the larger bay of Santa Cruz, both protected and at the same time somewhat contained due to its configuration; it is the most popular and accessible reef of the nine major bays of Huatulco. Entrega has its own sewage treatment plant behind the restaurants.

We always make it a point to go early to Entrega as even during the week this beach is frequently packed. There are just too many people, too many boats, and, despite the treatment plant, perhaps inadequate sanitation.

Entrega, which means ‘delivery’ or ‘surrender’ in Spanish, is named for the unfortunate fate of Vincente Guerrero, the Mexican Republic’s second President. The liberal Guerrero was deposed by his conservative vice president, Anastasio Bustamante; in the ensuing conflict, Guerrero was lured onto a French ship in Acapulco, carried to Huatulco, and surrendered on the beach at Entrega. Thence he was transported to Oaxaca City, tried and convicted, and executed by firing squad.

San Augustín has a large accessible reef, both by car and boat, and no engineered waste treatment systems. There are baños/sanitarios but their design and effectiveness appears questionable. Sweet Riscalillo, recently accessible by car, has a gorgeous reef but absolutely no sanitation facilities. I have only been there a few times so can’t comment on its change, if any, but it is on my radar.

Studying the Reefs – about a Decade Ago

From 1998-2012 the Federal Government of Mexico monitored the health of various reef ecosystems in the Mexican Pacific, including reefs in Bahías de Huatulco. It used the Coral Health Index (CHI) to look at fish populations and the bottom layers of the ocean (an “ichthyic” and “benthic” survey). According to a 2013 master’s thesis on the survey, prepared by Montserrat Molina Luna, the CHI values for Huatulco were at an “optimal health state” after the initiation of protection measures through the creation of the Parque Nacional in 1998. The fish populations of all the evaluated reef ecosystems were herbivorous, which promotes a balanced ecosystem by controlling the proliferation of algae.

So as of 2012, the reefs of Huatulco, according to this report, were in good shape. But were they? In 2011, the independent news and analysis agency Quadratin published an article on studies conducted by the Parque Nacional, which found that the reefs of Entrega had diminished by 80%, due to such factors as climate change, pollution and poor tourism practices. Natalia Parra del Ángel, at the time coordinator of CostaSalvaje, an international eco-organization focused on preserving coastal and marine ecosystems, warned that these factors could lead to the extinction of Huatulco’s coral reefs.

At that time, the Parque Nacional suggested to the local CostaSalvaje team some actions that swimmers, boaters, and tourist guides could take to help preserve Huatulco’s 12 types of coral reefs. Boats should not drive over the reefs, much less anchor on them or drop oil or gasoline. The most important was that divers and snorkelers should make sure they did not damage the coral – preferably, they should be accompanied by certified, trained guides. Swimmers should not wear sunscreen, because it creates a floating grease stain that prevents light from reaching the live microalgae inside the coral. Divers, snorkelers, and swimmers should not stand on the reefs.

Protective Practices a Decade Later

And did these practices take hold? Not really – and this is far from a comprehensive list of examples.

2013: Scientists like Carlos Candelaria Silva, a research professor at UNAM, began pointing out that the deterioration of the coral reefs at Entrega and San Augustín was very “worrying.” Sediments carried down in the rainy season, rubbish left behind by beach-goers and swimmers, added to boat traffic and large numbers of snorkelers, were damaging the reefs. By 2015, Candelaria was saying that measures to “protect and heal” the coral were urgent.

2016: Fisherman and oyster and octopus divers complained that the construction of Barlovento, a 15-condo development above a little beach next to Entrega, was dumping tons of construction debris – dirt, stone, and mud – right onto the coral reef. If the coral reef were to die, the divers and fishermen would lose their livelihood. While the divers and fishermen were not opposed to development per se, the fact that the Barlovento was taking no measures to protect the reef was unacceptable. Meanwhile, the presale materials for the Barlovento touted how ideal “the quiet bays of Huatulco” were for a “wide range of water sports. If you practice diving or snorkeling, you will be amazed at the purity of the waters. The rugged coast of Huatulco and its unrivaled coral reefs will surprise you with their extensive underwater biodiversity, waiting to be exploited.” While they might have meant “explored,” yes, they said “exploited.”

2018: This was a mostly bad news/some good news year. The Chiapas-based news service Noticias: Voz y Imagen reported that snorkelers and divers who rented equipment and set off to view the living coral reef were being allowed to snap off chunks of live coral as souvenirs. No one, “not the restaurant owner, not the waiter, much less the maritime business that rented the equipment and sent them off into the sea,” told them breaking off the coral would “significantly alter one of the most valuable ecosystems” for thousands of marine organisms and hundreds of species.

The problem was most out of control at San Agustín; the coordinator of Nature Tourism for the Municipio of Santa María Huatulco, Pedro Gasca, said that with 44 restaurants and 20 places that rented snorkel gear in the low-season, many more in the high season, it was difficult to counteract the business practice of “the customer can do whatever the customer wants.” He suggested that education was the key, and prepared a workshop for the snorkel outfits; the content focused on educating the customers how to view the reef without destroying it.

At this point, the three major threats to coral reefs were identified as climate change, ocean acidification, and the usual biggie, mismanaged tourism practices. Climate change and ocean acidification combine to make it very difficult for coral to create and deposit the calcium carbonate that extends the “skeleton” of the reef. This is most obvious as bleaching; when corals are stressed by changes in temperature, light, or nutrients, the symbiotic algae living in their tissues die, causing them to turn completely white.

Between 1998 and 2018, Pacific corals thinned out, i.e., they were 20% less dense and grew more slowly (they were only making a centimeter – just over ⅜ of an inch – of skeleton a year as it was!). Some corals (the slowest-growing ones) adapt, others bleach out and die.

Given that mismanaged tourism is a more immediate problem to address, CONAMP started supporting CostaSalvaje in projects to protect the reefs. CostaSalvaje used CONAMP resources to string buoys to keep tourist boats from driving over and dropping anchor on the reefs. CONAMP developed educational programming for tourism providers and guidelines for tourists, although it appears the latter must be accessed on their website,

2020: In January of this year, CostaSalvaje and CONAMP were among multiple government, educational, and organizational sponsors of the first annual Festival Coralinos de Huatulco: Tesoro del Pacifico Mexicano (The Coral Reef Festival of Huatulco: Treasure of the Mexican Pacific). With scientific poster sessions, workshops, and meetings on the marine environment, the goal of the Festival Coralinos was to inform the public about the importance of the reefs to the region and to promote better tourism and environmental practices. Informational installations were set up in the central park in La Crucecita, in Rufino Tamayo Park, and in the Sports Plaza.

What It Really Looks Like Right Now

When I first arrived in November 2019, Entrega beckoned. I went out there with my good buddy PauI Biernacki and was appalled to observe what appeared to be an obvious decline in reef health since my last visit in April 2019. Huge algal blooms floated over and coated the reef, especially close to shore, where the sea seemed unusually murky and almost oily.

Algal blooms are described by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as “overgrowths of algae in the water, which can be caused when nutrient pollution (nitrogen and phosphorus) in the water fuels algal growth. Note the murkiness of the surface water due to overgrowth of algae.”

Local guides I have spoken with have also noted the decline in reef health at Entrega. Basically, the blooms suffocate the reefs. Guides continue to see other sources of reef damage that have been discussed over the last decade (bleaching, sedimentation, physical damage, and chemicals such as sunscreen). Although the sedimentation can be natural, it is undoubtedly exacerbated by the turbidity caused by boat propellers.

Where do the nitrogen and phosphorus that kick off the algae blooms come from? Obviously not agriculture. Sewage? Currents bringing in contaminants from other sources? During multiple trips to Entrega over the winter, I noticed the currents had pushed the algae and deposited it on the northern part of the reef. I am happy to report that on an early morning swim on March 16, most of the algae was gone and the huge schools of green jacks (jurel bonito) were back.

I have not noticed algal blooms at either Riscalillo or San Augustín, locations that don’t get the same constant traffic as Entrega; however, like Entrega, San Augustín appears to be suffering from bleaching. We have seen the algal bloom called “red tide” from time to time in Huatulco, but red tide occurs naturally. And that sargassum we hear about over on the Mayan Riviera? It’s a type of kelp that isn’t often found in this area of the Pacific.

Of course, reef deterioration can be cyclical and caused by multiple factors, including seasonality and temperature associated with prevailing and changing currents. But human impact – those poor tourism practices – cannot be underestimated. Unfortunately, restricted use or quotas imposed by the government are unlikely to occur in a beach destination like Huatulco, whose economy depends on that tourism. It would be nice to at least see a monitoring program designed and implemented, and good science conducted with data made available to the public. Certainly, the universities on the coast, especially those that participated in the Festival Coralinos, can help.

San Agustinillo, Zipolite, Mazunte, Puerto Ángel: The Times They Are A Changin’

By Carole Reedy

It’s just about an hour’s drive from Huatulco west to the small communities of Puerto Ángel, Zipolite, San Agustinillo, and Mazunte on the Oaxacan Coast. Puerto Escondido is yet another hour farther. Each of these communities has its own spirit and quirks, as well as an invisible thread that binds them closely. But in its own way, each has grown, developed, and changed with time, as all things do.

I landed in the region 21 years ago this month, charmed by the isolation and beauty of the area and by its distance from the clanging modern world. Over the decades, the influence of tourism and the presence of foreigners has changed some aspects of life in these areas, but certainly not the loyalty to land and community.

The beauty of the Oaxacan Coast is undisputed: shifting shades of blue, golden sands, a great expanse of sky, and the surrounding velvety vegetation welcome each day. In the evening, a red sun dips into the ocean, heralding restful sleep. The strong Oaxacan women and men, with Zapotec roots and little Spanish blood, awaken early to begin the day before the heat sets in.

A Bit of History

For decades the economy of the Costa Chica depended on the hunting, slaughter, and sale of turtles. Every part of their bodies, including their eggs, was sold. Most people in the region were employed in this venture and San Agustinillo was at the center of it, with the turtle abattoir enjoying prime beachfront property. Five hundred turtles daily were killed there.

In 1990 the Mexican government banned the killing of sea turtles and the locals had to look for new ways to make a living. With the government’s help in the form of permits, boats, and other financial assistance, the men became fishermen, bringing in tasty delicacies such as tuna, pez vela (sailfish), dorado (mahi mahi), and huachinango (red snapper), which were then sold to markets and distributed to businesses throughout the country. Shark was also a popular commodity, but lately it is frowned upon to fish for shark.

Back when turtles were slaughtered, an unpleasant (to say the least) odor permeated the coast. But without this stench the tourists began straggling in, despite the challenge of getting there: no roads or poor dusty, rocky tracks, basically through a jungle. There were few conveniences and no hotels, but some people would rent rooms to the visitors. Locals did not own cars, TVs, stoves or refrigerators.

Some foreign visitors viewed the isolated beach as a paradise and decided to stay, maybe even build a home and start a business, a restaurant, or rooms for rent. Since they knew what worldly tourists wanted and needed (more privacy, nice bathrooms, screens on windows for protection from mosquitos and little animals) they developed profitable ventures, and the locals followed suit.

When I began my 10-year stint in San Agustinillo, it was 1999. We were one of two residents who had a refrigerator, television, and car. There were no land lines or cell service, making communication with the outside world difficult. Lack of basic services was a deterrent for high-rises and big chain hotels, which to this day remains an advantage of this sleepy area. Yes, there’s still a corner of the world not dominated by tall buildings and glitzy services.

The Coast Today

Little by little, more conveniences arrived as the reliability of water and electricity service improved; a better road helped as well. A larger variety of items to meet the demands of people from all over the world lined the grocery store shelves. Young men started taxi services, providing tourists and locals with an alternative to the camionetas (small pickups) to get to Pochutla, Puerto Escondido, Huatulco, and the airports and bus stations. Eventually a cell phone tower appeared, as well as internet connection and service.

Eco-tourism took off. There’s a Turtle Museum in Mazunte where visitors can view the various types of protected turtles and read about the history of the area. Several times a year there are turtle-release ceremonies in which children, adults, and tourists can accompany baby turtles in their return to the sea. The relaxed ambiance of the region also attracts yoga groups. Today there is plenty to keep you busy: fishing, boats tours to see dolphins and whales, small shops including artesanías (handcrafts), surfing, and swimming. Or just sitting on the beach with a good book. San Agustinillo, Mazunte, and Zipolite now boast libraries, and a wine store recently opened in San Agustinillo.

Thriving businesses in San Agustinillo are examples of the new economy, some owned by locals and others by the foreigners who chose to settle in this incomparable paradise. The area is definitely more prosperous now than 20 years ago, but nothing can change the smiles on the locals’ faces or the determination of their hearts.

To reach the area by plane, fly into Huatulco or Puerto Escondido (each one hour from the four towns). If coming by bus, buy your ticket for destination Pochutla. Grab your sunscreen and bathing suit. Any time of year is good for a visit, perhaps with the exception of the very hot and dry month of May.

Ten years after settling into this idyllic coastal life, I left the 250 inhabitants of our small coastal town of San Agustinillo to join the hustle bustle of 20,000,000 urban dwellers in Mexico City, but I return regularly to see many old friends whose roots run deep.

New Trend, New Building: Huatulco’s First Home for the Elderly

Screen Shot 2016-01-01 at 11.23.58 AMBy Deborah Van Hoewyk

As the first U.S. and Canadian baby boomers age through retirement—those born in 1945 are now 70—Mexico is jumping on the assisted living bandwagon, offering facilities, activities, and medical care at far more affordable rates than in the States, and somewhat more affordable than in Canada, but with way better weather! Puerto Vallarta, Lake Chapala, San Luis Potosí, Mexico City—all boast northern-style assisted living facilities that are marketed north of the border. Continue reading New Trend, New Building: Huatulco’s First Home for the Elderly

Bamboo: Sustainable Super Grass

Screen Shot 2016-01-01 at 11.00.05 AM.pngBy Kary Vannice

I’m sure you remember that children’s story about the three little pigs. The one where the wolf huffs and puffs and blows their straw house down. Well, no offense to the pigs, but they used the wrong grass! There is, in fact, a grass that is just as structurally strong as the brick house that fended off that nasty wolf.

You’re probably wondering in what crazy science lab they are cooking up this new super-grass. But humans have been building structures out of it for centuries. Continue reading Bamboo: Sustainable Super Grass

Rent, Buy or Build in Oaxaca

By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.

We didn’t have millions in the bank when we decided to retire early and move permanently to Oaxaca. But we did have some savings and we sold our Toronto residence, which gave us the option of buying a home or building one in the state capital. We opted for the latter. On the other hand, many snowbirds and expats of reasonable means elect to rent. While the rules for foreigners buying on the coast are generally different from those inland, I’ll treat it as a non-issue, something which can be explained by a competent local notary public. Continue reading Rent, Buy or Build in Oaxaca

You Have the House—What Now?

By Deborah Van Hoewyk

Screen Shot 2016-01-01 at 10.12.57 AMSo, you’ve just joined the ranks of Huatulco’s expats. You rented or bought a house or a condo, and supposedly it came furnished—but not so much. You sank all your pesos into your abode, so now what do you do? It probably didn’t come with a lot of gorgeous tilework, or natural wood beams, or carved window screens, or any of the other delights that show up in the halfdozen high-end Mexican shelter books. And it definitely doesn’t “look like a million bucks” coastal-modern. Continue reading You Have the House—What Now?

Landscape Architecture in Mexico

Screen Shot 2016-04-15 at 6.39.20 PMBy Julie Etra

Although this discipline was formally initiated in Mexico is only about 25 years ago, it really began in the gardens of Chapultepec hundreds of years ago by the tlatoanis, the collective name for the villages where Náhuatl, the ancient language of the Aztecs, was spoken. There are of course the famous floating gardens of Xochimilco, (founded in A.D. 919 and meaning “flower field” in Náhuatl), which today are the remnants of amazing and sophisticated agricultural complex in lake Texcoco, where the City of Mexico was originally founded. Continue reading Landscape Architecture in Mexico