Are you planning to swim with turtles in Mexico? If you are, this ultimate guide will help you decide whether booking a turtle tour in Akumal is a suitable activity for you.
Swimming with Akumal turtles is a bucket list experience for many visitors to the Riviera Maya in Mexico. Indeed, Akumal is widely marketed as Mexico’s ‘turtle town’, and to have direct access to these graceful creatures was one of the main reasons I stayed at Secrets Akumal Resort.
Visions of snorkelling alongside the Akumal turtles and observing them in their natural environment would be a unique opportunity on my holiday to Mexico. Sadly, as I discovered, it’s not as simple as turning up at Akumal Beach with your snorkel gear and having a leisurely one-to-one with an Akumal green sea turtle.
The truth about swimming with turtles in Akumal in Mexico’s warm waters 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 favourite spots. Whether you were a hotel guest or a day tripper, if money hadn’t changed hands, the chance of a sea turtle encounter was slim, as there was no way to get anywhere near the preferred turtle grazing area.
In this post, I share my experience of swimming with green turtles in Akumal and tell you how to enjoy these sea creatures responsibly without harming their environment or well-being.
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 tour guides 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 sea turtle conservancy 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 beds.
Observing the turtle from a safe distance was incredible, even though I had already been privileged 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 Akumal turtles can you see?
We were under the impression that we would see large numbers of wild sea turtles just in front of our resort – sadly, this wasn’t the case when we visited in January; we only saw one. However, we saw other sea life, including tropical fish and sting rays, easily visible in the clear waters.
Maybe it wasn’t the best time of year, 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 an Akumal turtle tour?
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 early 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!
It doesn’t seem as if anyone is regulating the vast number of daily turtle tours despite green turtles supposedly being protected by the Endangered Species Act.
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 minutes 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 the turtle’ 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.
For further information on the conservation of green sea turtles, please refer to the NOAA Fisheries website.
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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