Snorkelling with Akumal turtles is a bucket list experience for many visitors to the Riviera Maya in Mexico. It is widely marketed as one of the best things to do in Akumal, and it was one of the main reasons I stayed at Secrets Akumal; to have direct access to these graceful creatures.
Visions of swimming alongside the Akumal turtles and observing them in their natural habitat would be a highlight of my holiday to Mexico. Sadly, as I discovered, it’s not as simple as turning up at Akumal Beach with your snorkelling gear and having a leisurely one-to-one with a green sea turtle.
The truth about swimming with turtles in Akumal is more controversial than you might imagine. If you care about the turtles’ welfare, you might be surprised at how the ‘guided Akumal turtle tours’ are managed.
In fact, on my visit to Akumal in January, it was evident that the turtle tours monopolised the turtles’ habitat. And regardless of whether you were a hotel guest or a day tripper, if money hadn’t changed hands, the chance of seeing a turtle was slim, as there was no way to get anywhere near the preferred turtle grazing area.
In this post, I share my experience swimming with green turtles in Akumal.
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Where can you swim with the turtles in Akumal?
We initially thought we could walk into the sea outside our hotel (Secrets Resort) and swim out to see the turtles going around their daily business – not the case.
There is a main sea turtle grazing area (coloured yellow on the infographic). You can only go into this area if you have paid to join one of the overcrowded and, in my opinion, unethical turtle tours.
White buoys mark a no-entry protected conservation area directly out from Akumal Beach. The turtle grazing area is to the left of those white buoys.
We were under the impression that, as hotel guests, we could snorkel in the yellow area, so we swam straight out to the white buoys and then swam left towards the turtle-spotting waters.
On entering the yellow channel, we were yelled at by a skipper with his boat anchored in the turtle area. We also got a mouthful of expletives from the turtle guide in the water and were told we couldn’t go into that area without paying for a turtle tour.
Unbelievably, we were told to go under the buoys and rope and swim in the conservation area instead!
Of course, we didn’t do that, but we saw plenty of people slipping beneath the rope and swimming in this protected area.
We returned the way we had come and snorkelled close to the white buoys, and luckily, we saw a turtle gliding through the water and feeding on the seagrass.
Observing the turtle from a distance was incredible, even though I had already had the privilege to snorkel with sea turtles in other countries.
One time was in the Maldives, where we were both oblivious of one another until the turtle’s hard shell connected with my head as we swam along; a surreal experience, and once on a small nature safari tour in Barbados.
How many turtles can you see?
We were under the impression that we would see quite a few turtles just in front of our resort – sadly, this wasn’t the case when we visited in January.
Maybe the wrong time of year – who knows, but the number of daily boat tours taking people to the ‘turtle hotspot’ indicated plenty of turtles were there, just not in the ‘free’ area we were allowed to be in.
Should you do a turtle tour in Akumal?
I would have expected this would be an ethical experience with the turtles’ welfare as the main priority; sadly, I can’t see how it is.
Because I have seen firsthand the volume of visitors that continually go back and forth every day/all day from the beach to the turtle area, I would never book to snorkel with turtles in Akumal.
While I am not an expert on turtle stress levels, I can only imagine that the volume of swimmers throughout the day must cause the turtles some anxiety.
There are supposedly times that the turtle operators can work from and to (9 am – 5 pm), but it seemed apparent they were already there no matter what time we walked along the beach, whether in the e`rly morning or after 5 pm in the evenings.
Is there anyone official regulating the turtle tours in Akumal?
As far as I saw, the answer is a massive NO!
There doesn’t seem as if anyone is regulating the vast number of daily turtle tours.
There is a tented area at the end of the beach with a police presence, but that is more of a beach patrol rather than keeping an eye on what’s happening with the turtle tours.
The Akumal diving centre would have been the perfect organisation to protect and preserve these waters.
However, the turtle tours enter the beach area through this dive shop and rent their snorkels and life jackets, so for obvious reasons, they wouldn’t want to stop the number of daily visitors. More turtle tours = more money!
A sizeable wooden notice board on Akumal Beach has guidelines for conducting yourself in the water.
Sadly, I can’t see that many people take notice of it, especially the bit that says only six people at a time should be near a turtle and for 3 mins maximum!
Also, it states that one guide should be with every six swimmers; we saw way over that amount of swimmers in some of the groups.
This photograph shows a turtle group ready to go out. This one group alone shows how many people were on that turtle tour, but the sad thing is that there were already around six more groups this size at the turtle grazing area!
I can’t imagine it’s a particularly rewarding experience for paying guests and definitely not for the turtles!!!
Snorkelling in the Caribbean Sea makes a holiday to the Riviera Maya an unforgettable experience. Of course, a glimpse of a green turtle will be the icing on the cake, but let it happen naturally rather than joining an Akumal turtle tour.
Akumal means ‘place of turtles’ in Mayan, and let’s hope it remains that way and that the area isn’t over-commercialised to the demise of the turtles.
Seeing how the Mexican authority manages snorkelling with Akumal turtles was sad. Still, many of the locals’ livelihood seems to depend on the number of tourists brought to Akumal Bay, so I can’t see it changing any time soon.
If you are concerned about animal welfare, I hope this post has highlighted the reality of snorkelling with turtles in Akumal Bay. You may now think twice before booking an Akumal Bay turtle tour and find another destination to fulfil this bucket list animal encounter.
CHECK OUT THIS AMAZING VIDEO!!
Filming contains footage of the sea creatures from snorkelling (independently) and a PADI scuba dive in Akumal Bay.
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