Heather Spence, Marine Biologist
Orchestrating Coastal Marine Ecology Investigation and Outreach

Heather Spence, Marine Biologist

20th Anniversary of Marine Protected Areas in Cancun, Mexico

Dra. Heather SpenceAn excellent time for the intersection of science and art!

This week I am in Cancun celebrating World Listening Day 2016 and the 20th Anniversary of “Parque Nacional Costa Occidental de Isla Mujeres, Punta Cancun y Punta Nizuc.” On Wedneday, July 20th, I presented at the official ceremony of the National Park held at the Ka’yok Planetarium in Cancun. My talk entitled “Sounds of the Reef” covered my work documenting the local soundscape and steps to mitigate noise pollution. To close the event, I gave a recital in which I performed the world premier of “Sonidos del Arrecife,” a work for solo cello and a soundtrack using underwater recordings.

Dra Heather Spence


Followed by some collaboration with the talented Daniel Gallo: ocean-themed cello – ukelele duos with excellent audience participation!

Heather Spence Daniel Gallo

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Great Barrier Reef Losses Signal Need for Attention for MesoAmerican Reef

The news is buzzing about a study on the Great Barrier Reef that shows over a 50% loss in coral cover since 1985 (De’ath et al 2012), conducted by the Australian Institute of Marine Science and the University of Wollongong. Long term monitoring is crucial for coral reefs, or we are not even alerted to these kinds of changes. Monitoring can also highlight patterns and correlations that can be taken into consideration in planning management strategies.

The MesoAmerican reef is the second largest coral reef in the world, and the Great Barrier Reef study not only highlights issues that need to be addressed there, but also at the MesoAmerican reef, where less information is available. The Marine Passive Acoustic Monitoring  program I launched in 2010 provides a steady stream of data on the conditions of the coral reef, and expanding this monitoring network throughout the reef would be a good start.

In 2011, an Eco-Audit of MesoAmerican Reef management gave it a 2.7/5 — definitely room for improvement.


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Whale Sharks Gather Off the Coast of Cancun

The day I went there were 89! Swimming in all directions, feeding on plankton.


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“The Listener” — merging art and science to take the pulse of Cancun’s Coral Reefs

Heather Spence is excited to be working with Jason deCaires Taylor to develop an underwater sculpture into a science lab. Spence, a Marine Biologist, is the founder of GRACIASS (Global Research and Art Center for the Investigation and Advancement of Sustainability Solutions). Her research program in Cancun began in 2007, and in 2010 expanded to include the first Passive Acoustic Monitoring in the Mexican Caribbean. “The Listener” is the result of a long collaboration between Spence and Taylor to find a way to incorporate her underwater sound research into his reef-forming sculpture.

The Listener in Jason's Studio

Jason deCaires Taylor working on The Listener sculpture in his studio

Spence explains, “By combining the art of sculpture and the science of sound, our project helps people to connect to the environment.” “The Listener” is covered with models of real human ears and actually listens… to fish. Fitted with NOAA-designed equipment, “The Listener” will provide much-needed data about sea life and coral reef development. Located within a marine protected area off the coast of Cancun, “The Listener” is designed to gradually become a new reef, and provides a fascinating alternative destination for divers.

In the waters surrounding Cancun, pressures from development, tourism, and shipping threaten the second largest coral reef system in the world. GRACIASS is finding creative ways to ease adverse impacts and promote healthy ecosystems. Amid the doom and gloom outlooks on our seas, beaches, and coral reefs, Heather Spence is an optimistic voice, stating, “Where humans are the problem, we can also be the solution!” And according to Spence, solutions will likely be cheaper, easier and more efficient. A noisy machine wastes energy in the form of sound; a more quiet machine operates more efficiently and reduces noise pollution. While many scientists seek research sites far from human development, Spence embraces the challenge and necessity of studying densely populated coastal areas. She favors acoustic monitoring because it is minimally disruptive and does not require a human presence. It is very cost-effective and can gather data night and day, in all weather.

Collaborators include sponsoring partner the BioMusic Research Group at the University of North Carolina – Greensboro, Oceanwide Science Institute of Hawaii, Michelle’s Earth Foundation, and local Cancun partners Universidad del Caribe, Comision Nacional de Areas Naturales Protegidas and Proyecto Domino.



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Cancun Earth Day Sunday Sculpture Contest

Sunday April 25, 2010 

Location: Lagos del Sol, Cancun Mexico

Time: 11 am to 5 pm

Benefits Red Cross

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Schools Connecting for Environmental Conservation – from MEF Newsletter

For the full newsletter, go to www.michellesearth.org
Arlington and Cancun Schools
Connecting for Environmental Conservation
by Heather Spence
As part of my continuing collaborative work with MEF and the National Parks office in Quintana Roo, Mexico, I am expanding a communication exchange project for Arlington and Cancun students. During my presentations to Cancun students over the past two years, they often ask where I grew up, are there coral reefs there, what do students there study? In my presentations to classes at HB Woodlawn, students have similarly been interested in the ecosystems and experiences of students in Cancun. Students from both places have expressed their interest in doing something for their environment. They want to know what they can do to help.

The beginning stage of this project is a video song exchange. The idea came from one particular workshop in Cancun, when we did not have funding or supplies for an art project, so we divided the students into groups, gave each group pencil and paper, and told them write a song about environmental conservation (in this case, specifically Wetlands since that was the theme of the workshop). I filmed their performances, and posted them online so others can see their creativity and enthusiasm. The students were so excited and it was such a popular activity that I expanded it to other groups in Mexico and now to Arlington students as well. After viewing the films of the Cancun students, HB students in a fluent speakers class are the first to create their own video song about local ecosystems. This will soon be shown to Cancun classes (most students there do not have access to a computer outside the classroom). We hope to expand the video exchanges (with translations as necessary) to more classes, grades and schools. Possibly we will be able to host real-time video conferences so that students can discuss environmental issues and solutions. We also want to provide online forums for ongoing communication.

To participate in this effort or for more information, please e-mail me at

info (at) heatherspence (dot) net.

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Flamenco Show in Cancun!

Saturday Nov 14
@ Casa de la Cultura

Flamenco show extravaganza

Including Dancing, and Puppets, and Dancing Puppets, and Cello and Cello Puppets and Circus arts….
starts at 8pm

See you there!

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Update from Cancun

Hurricane Ida’s outer bands brought intermittent deluges and gusty winds on Friday and Saturday. Then on Sunday, when the hurricane actually passed, it was less dramatic.

Pictures taken of Bahia de Mujeres, Cancun:

Seagulls before Hurricane Ida

Seagulls face the wind

Rains during Hurricane Ida

Huge raindrops

Hurricane Ida

Grey water

Frigate birds gathered

Frigate birds gathered - why?

After the wind and rain subsided ….

Rainbow on the water

Double rainbow after Hur. Ida

Double rainbow

Many interesting things had washed up on the beach. If you have any information about the following or others, please let me know!

Octopus, washed up on the beach





Animals came out of hiding:

Ant Hills the size of a fist

Ant Hills each one the size of my fist

Iguana, about 3 ft long

Iguana, about 2 ft long

Today, a fairly steady wind began to blow from the North, which is unusual for Cancun.

Water looks green

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MesoAmerican Reef in MEF newsletter

For the full newsletter, go to www.michellesearth.org

The Mesoamerican Coral Reef
by Heather Spence

With the help of MEF, my work in Cancun is a prime example of “small actions = big changes.” In a region renowned for both natural wonders and massive tourism – which also has a city of almost a million people – for the past two years I have been helping students to become environmental stewards. They learn to consider that what they do makes a difference. Every small action counts. This is especially important in an area with no marine biology programs, no research centers, and a National Park department of educational outreach consisting of two people and no funding.

I have been able to begin to address this gap by developing and initiating new programs to be hosted collaboratively by the National Park office. Through presentations and videos, school children on Isla Mujeres and in the city of Cancun now understand that coral is a living animal, and some high school students have taken the initiative to start green clubs. The results that MEF has helped achieve are long term, and I wish I could adequately describe on paper the excitement of students as they learn about their natural world, and the power they have to help others to see the wonders and learn to respect them.

Cancun is situated on the Mesoamerican Reef, second largest coral reef system in the world. Its wonders attract tourists from many countries, yet local people are largely unaware of the natural treasures that surround them. When I talk to school groups, their teachers, and sometimes their parents as well, I explain about the reef, and the way it protects the beach from the force of storms. I tell also how the mangroves around the lagoon are nurseries for fish and other animals. Kids are fascinated to hear about the diversity of life and how everything is interconnected with the reef. We discuss how to turn harmful actions into helpful ones. Students come away excited to talk about it with their friends and family. Sometimes, with the cooperation of local tour operators, it is even possible to take groups of students out to see the reef. They love getting to know more about the special features of the place where they live.

Together with outreach staff from the park service, I teach that appreciation of the natural world begins right where you are. Special things are everywhere. I had to do research to find out about native wildlife and local ecosystems because no one had studied them before. It is exciting giving interactive presentations about local flora and fauna that can be found right under our noses. To reinforce our lessons, I distribute copies of the bilingual activity book I’ve written – “Marine Life of the Mexican Caribbean.” It suggests various activities to try. One of the things I like best is to ask kids to just stop and listen. We so often focus only on the visual, but when we tune in to sounds around us we become aware of a whole other dimension.

My work, fundamentally, is not just training environmental stewards, but motivating spokespeople for the environment. I help students want to learn about their environment, and encourage them to reach out to others. With help from MEF, I designed and made T-shirts with the National Park slogan “Admire, but don’t touch!” which serve as great conversation starters. Although most of the people I work with do not have easy internet access, I do make videos when I can and try to post interesting items on my website. Mexican TV and radio stations have shown some of my videos and invited me to discuss my outreach efforts. I hope to establish a research and cultural center in Cancun to serve as a focus for bringing attention to the need to promote sustainable strategies so people can live in harmony with the natural environment, especially in high-pressure coastal tourist areas.

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Listening to the Reef

I’m developing a new research initiative in the Quintana Roo marine protected areas: a passive acoustic monitoring system, using a series of underwater microphones, so we will be able to listen to, record, and analyze the sounds of fish, crustaceans, cetaceans and other natural sounds. It is exciting to think about having the ability to continually track individual species and biodiversity of the areas, and link patterns to specific events. This data will be of great help in informing managers of the areas about selecting the most appropriate measures to ensure the sustainability of the reef.

Passive acoustic marine monitoring equipment and reliable research methods are already being developed in other parts of the world, especially in Hawaii where NOAA has developed the Ecological Acoustic Recorder – check out http://www.pifsc.noaa.gov/cred/ear.php to learn more!

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