On our way from Tikal, Guatemala to Cuba, I visited Tulum, Mexico for the second time in six months. This time around I decided to get a little more creative with my day trips. I read blogs, asked hostel owners, and talked to locals about where to visit. I realized there was a big stop that I had missed the first time around: snorkeling with sea turtles in Akumal.
Akumal is a Riviera Maya resort town about an hour north of Tulum. Like the rest of the Riviera Maya, it’s home to perfectly white crescent beaches and clear-as-glass water. Unlike the rest of the Riviera Maya, the grasses of Akumal bay are a feeding ground for sea turtles. And, at least for now, you can snorkel with them for free.
You heard me right. FREE.
The idea of that is unbelievably foreign to me. A group of sea turtles that hasn’t been either a) protected by the government and/or environmental activist groups or b) turned into a singular capitalist opportunity? I couldn’t believe it when I heard it, and the image that popped into my mind was some sort of out of the way, wild, unkempt bay; a secret spot, where you crest a dune and look down to see a dozen people snorkeling peacefully in an otherwise empty ocean. I imagined Akumal to be some sort of tiny untouched oasis in the bustling, glittering, tourism machine that is the Mayan Riviera.
Spoiler alert: that is definitely not the case.
Arriving in Akumal
We rented snorkel gear and caught a northbound collectivo out of Tulum. Half an hour later we were dropped off on the side of the highway, in front of the path to Akumal. But the path before us wasn’t a secretive, beachy opening to an untouched cove: rather, it was a well-paved, impeccably marketed entrance to a resort town. The ten minute walk to the shore from the highway weaved between beachy restaurants and souvenir shops.
As we stepped off the path onto sand and moved forward to the beach itself, we came across a large sign erected before us: SNORKELING WITH TURTLES WITHOUT A GUIDE IS ILLEGAL.
We balked. Had we misunderstood? Was all our research a few years out of date? Was Akumal now regulated?
A Scamtastic Greeting
As we stood there, confused, several men approached us and offered to guide us to the turtles. They all wore nametags and wetsuits and snorkel masks around their necks, exuding an air of legitimacy. These were guys who could make sure we saw the turtles legally and safely. For $85, of course.
I cringed. We had come all this way, but $85 was several days of funds. I would never have chosen to spend that much on this experience if I knew what we were getting into. Seeing my hesitation, one of the men leaned in. “Okay,” he said, “I could do it for $75.”
That’s when we started to suspect something was amiss. This was not a certified, specialized, deluxe snorkeling experience. This was a guy with a boat and few masks, out to see how much he could get people to pay to take them out 50 yards into the water. I looked back at the sign. It wasn’t permanent, as I first assumed. It stood on a wooden frame that could be moved (and hidden) at the end of the day.
On Second Thought, Nah
Nah. We decided to keep walking, down the beach and away from the men and their sign. The beach stretched out in front of us, a row of pastel resorts, colorful beach umbrellas, and well-dressed waiters carrying frozen drinks. There were a lot of people here who were paying buckets of money to be in Akumal beach for the sand and the water and the luxury — not the turtles.
We walked further down the beach, until we got to a group of people from the closest resort. We looked around furtively, then walked into the water and started snorkeling. It worked! We were fine.
But we didn’t see any turtles. Half an hour later, we came back to shore, sat on the sand, and looked around with confusion. Were the turtles not here today? Had we come too late?
We saw other people doing the same thing we were doing, with no success. Another couple told us they’d been out there a few hours and hadn’t seen anything. I became suspicious again. Something wasn’t adding up. I was told the turtles were always there, and you could just wade out and look underwater and BAM! There they were.
Stickin’ it to The Man
I looked back over to the men with the fake sign. Behind them, a swimming area had been roped off in the water. Beyond the rope, several groups of snorkelers were bobbing around – all with a guide. It suddenly clicked. The turtles weren’t all over the bay – they were in one area that was covered in the sea grass they ate each day. And these snorkel scammers set up right in front of it, made it look official, and started selling entry.
I got back in the water, swam over to the rope, and ducked under it. When I reemerged, there was a man in front of me. He wore a life vest, a whistle, a nametag, and he was speaking to me. “Not allowed.” He said. “You can’t snorkel here.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“You have to have a guide,” he said.
Michael, bless his heart and his fear of authority figures, succumbed. He tried to get me to swim back to shore, hinting that perhaps we should just leave. I dug in my heels, my stubbornness ignited.
“Who says?” I asked the man. “I know it’s not illegal. Who are you?”
He started to fumble, telling me it was illegal, that he couldn’t let me through. I asked who he was again, and he waved a badge at me. I swam closer and looked at it. The label said “Akumal Adventures.”
Now I was certain I was being scammed. I began protesting again and he started to get flustered. At that moment, another pair of snorkelers approached the rope on the other side. He looked at me helplessly, then swam off to confront them.
GO GO GO QUICK QUICK QUICK
I ducked under the rope and started swimming. Michael yelled out to me from behind the rope, pleading with me: come back, we shouldn’t do this. I felt a little panicky and not entirely sure of myself. I stuck my head under the water, just to see, and there she was: an enormous sea turtle. She hovered six feet away from me, munching on sea grass, enormous and ancient and wise and surprisingly agile. She wasn’t the slightest bit fazed to see me.
I popped my head out of the water and yelled to Michael to come over, they’re here, they’re here. The other snorkelers, now talking to the man, heard me. They swam under the rope in defiance and the man gave up, swimming back towards shore and his fake sign. I laughed, yelled out in my adrenaline, and stuck my head back under.
There was another! Smaller, less cracked and wizened, munching a tall patch of sea grass. Sand billowed up around him, clouding the otherwise crystal clear water. It was more natural seeming out here, with tall patches of seagrass and waves rough enough to kick up sand. It felt more like being in the ocean than the crystal clear, sugar-soft sand beaches of Tulum.
Michael joined me, looking nervous but thrilled. We floated there quietly, coexisting with the turtle. After a few minutes it turned and swam the other direction, and we turned in the same direction – to see another.
The Sea Turtles of Akumal
They were everywhere. Every ten or fifteen feet, a pair of eyes and a grizzled shell would peek through the sandy water. As we stared, other marine life became visible too: tiny squids, squirming backwards through the grass. Spotted rays and darting schools of small silvery fish. Large flat scaly fish, pushed up close to the shell of the turtle, eating parasites off the turtle’s back, living in natural symbiosis.
Like all underwater experiences, our time in Akumal had a solemnness and beauty imposed on it by the silence. With the muted, distant rumble of the ocean soundtracking our experience, we floated in the blue gray underwater world and observed the life around us. This was the first time I had ever snorkeled so close to large sea life without being with a big, flailing tour group. As a result, I was able to observe the complexities of the world around me and truly appreciate the importance of being respectful and keeping my distance from the animals. Of course we shouldn’t touch the ground here; of course we should keep our distance from the turtles; of course we should stay quiet and still and let everything around us happen, as best as possible, as if we weren’t there.
Twenty minutes later we surfaced and swam to shore. I was a bit shell-shocked: the excitement and strangeness of trying to game the tourist scams had given way, swiftly and suddenly, to a quieting, beautiful, borderline spiritual experience. That first sight of a huge turtle munching grass beside me is an image I will never forget.
The Complex Moral Implications of My Akumal Experience (And All Wild Animal Tourism)
Upon retelling, I feel slightly ashamed of several different aspects of our day in Akumal. It seems clear that the way that Akumal is being handled, in this moment, is exploitative, damaging, and downright dangerous tourism. And if that’s the case, what is the right way to be a tourist there?
On the one hand, there is a very real, very unfortunate scam going on in this story. In most cases, my single greatest recommendation for traveling ethically is to support the local economy, broadly and generously. But this wasn’t an issue of supporting local businesses, nor was I nickel and diming locals by refusing to pay so much for a tour guide. Rather, this was an example of one group of people exploiting foreigners and profiting massively off the tourism economy. My refusal to pay for snorkeling was partially me being a cheapskate, but also partially an understandable, kneejerk reaction to being screwed over.
But on the other hand, as a tourist concerned with environmental sustainability as well as economic sustainability, I should have paid some reasonable amount to snorkel with those turtles. And I would have, if I thought that money was also supporting and ensuring the preservation of the animals and their habitat. But it’s not – crowding around an animal with a tour group, many of whom are not confident in the water, is not sustainable. It does far more damage than allowing the confident swimmers and snorkelers to visit the feeding ground in small groups, in a way that is reminiscent of how local populations would have engaged with the phenomenon before this level of tourism development.
But realistically, that’s not sustainable either. Something like this is inevitably going to catch on and attract visitors, just like it attracted me. Eventually there will be too many people, the ecosystem will slowly become damaged, and the turtles will leave. Without an official, organized effort to protect and regulate the turtle’s area, it will change over time.
So What Does that Mean For Me, a Turtle-Loving Conscious Tourist?
What’s the right thing for a conscious traveler to do here, or a conscious business, or even a conscious Mexican government entity/non-profit? It’s not a simple answer. Theoretically, there are ecotourism practices that could be employed to benefit both the turtles and the local population. But that’s very difficult to implement once an exploitative tourism economy is already established. Whatever is done at this point will have a lot of repercussions on the local economy, likely ruining (or making) hundreds or thousands of lives. But as it is now, Akumal is an environmental disaster in the making.
That being said, selfishly, I’m glad I had this experience while I could. I will never, ever forget it. And if you’re a strong, conscious swimmer who can keep yourself still and quiet underwater, I highly recommend it.
P.S. While I was writing this post I realized I had exactly zero photos of Akumal. Thanks to Papers & Airplanes and Newcastle & Travel for letting me use their pictures to illustrate this post! Cheers 🙂