April 6, 2024
Today´s Paper

The Untold Story of Swimming with Turtles in Akumal

There are conflicting opinions about Akumal, which means “land of turtles” in the Mayan language. While some sources praise Akumal as one of the best places in the world to swim with turtles, others criticize aggressive locals, unethical practices, the privatization of a public beach, and a negative impact on the environment and welfare of the turtles due to over-commercialization. As a result, tourists from all over the Riviera Maya, from Cancun to Tulum, visit Akumal to swim with turtles. To see the situation for ourselves, we traveled for 20 minutes from Tulum to Akumal.

Akumal’s Turtle Paradise: The Surprising Reason Behind their Arrival

The Untold Story of Swimming with Turtles in Akumal

The bay of Akumal is a favorite feeding ground for sea turtles, owing to the ample sea grass that thrives on the sandy ocean floor. The bay’s tranquil, sheltered waters make it an ideal spot for young turtles to develop during their early stages. Thanks to the bay’s U-shaped structure and the coral reef system that extends along the outer rim, these turtles are provided with a secure habitat. The turtle season at Akumal Beach aligns with that of the rest of the coast, with nesting occurring from April to October, while the majority of hatching takes place in August, September, and early October.

Sea turtles are an essential component of marine ecosystems, serving as critical links between various organisms and ecosystems. They play a crucial role in maintaining the health of seagrass beds, which serve as nursery areas for many fish species. Additionally, they act as seed dispersers, as they transport nutrients from the ocean to the sandy beaches where they lay their eggs.

Unfortunately, sea turtle populations have been threatened by human activities such as habitat loss, pollution, and overfishing. In response to these threats, conservation efforts have been implemented in many areas, including Akumal Bay. The bay has been designated as a protected area, and restrictions on development and tourism have been put in place to reduce human impact on the turtles and their habitat.

As part of the conservation efforts, visitors to Akumal Bay are required to follow certain guidelines, such as refraining from touching or approaching the turtles and avoiding the use of sunscreen or other chemicals that can harm the marine ecosystem. By respecting these guidelines, tourists can help ensure that the bay remains a safe and healthy environment for sea turtles and other marine life.

The Battle to Save Akumal’s Turtles: A Comprehensive Look at the Challenges

The Untold Story of Swimming with Turtles in Akumal

According to people who visited Akumal a decade ago, the bay was a pristine and untouched paradise with a beautiful white sandy beach and many free-roaming turtles. However, the bay has suffered in recent years due to a significant increase in tourism. A study conducted in 2013 by Opwal, Akumal Dive Centre, and Centro Ecologico Akumal revealed that the water had become contaminated due to human factors like sun cream, insect repellent, and human urine. This had caused significant damage to the seagrass habitat and a severe decline in the health of the turtles. Many turtles in Akumal had developed early signs of Fibropapillomatosis (FP), including tumours around the face, body, and internal organs. The main causes of these issues were chronic stress, contact with tourists, and exposure to chemicals and human urine.

The findings of the study were presented to the Mexican authorities in 2014, and it was revealed that on average, each turtle was being touched by tourists four times an hour, every hour, seven days a week. The bay was temporarily closed during the low season, but due to pressure from the local community, many of whom earned income from turtle tours, it was reopened in the following high season. However, in March 2016, the Department of Protected Areas (Comisión Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas, known as CONANP) announced that Akumal would become a protected area, and zones were established within the bay with new rules and regulations in place.

Unveiling the Concerns of Akumal Bay

The Untold Story of Swimming with Turtles in Akumal

A group of local businesses located on the seafront have recently collaborated to charge an entrance fee to the beach. While the beach is considered public and legally free to enter, it has become increasingly challenging for individuals to access the area without paying a fee through a private establishment. As of April 2022, the entry fee for the beach is 120 pesos or $6 USD (roughly £5).

Unfortunately, visitors have reported facing harassment when attempting to access the beach through alternative paths. Some have even complained of aggressive behavior from salespeople and guides who try to intimidate individuals who opt not to purchase a turtle tour, but rather hope to see one independently.

It is essential to note that charging an entrance fee for a public beach is illegal. Despite this, some businesses continue to exploit the popularity of the beach to make a profit. This issue not only harms tourists but also has negative implications for the local community as it discourages visitors from returning to the area.

Visitors are advised to report any harassment or aggressive behavior to the authorities, and the businesses that are charging an entrance fee should be reported to the local council for their violation of the law. It is vital to protect public spaces and promote ethical tourism practices that benefit both tourists and locals alike.

Akumal Bay’s Rules and Regulations Explained

The Untold Story of Swimming with Turtles in Akumal

In 2016, regulations were established for Akumal Bay which divided it into different zones. The areas marked in red are designated as “turtle zones” where the seagrass that turtles feed on is located. Visitors are not permitted to enter these zones without the presence of a certified guide, and the channels between them are unsafe for swimmers due to boat traffic. The green area surrounding the coastline is designated as a free-swimming area.

Since turtles are primarily found in the deeper red zones, it is difficult to spot them independently. While it is possible to see a turtle while swimming in the green zone, it is unlikely. Kayak patrols monitor the boundaries of the turtle zones to prevent free-swimmers from approaching them. However, some tourists have complained of aggressive behavior from these patrols. There are indications that the rules were created to make it challenging for visitors to see turtles without paying for turtle tours. Although conservation efforts are appreciated, it appears that the rules were implemented due to excessive commercialization and now benefit tour operators at the expense of the turtles.
In the upcoming section, we will provide a list of each rule, clarify its significance, and indicate whether we observed it being adhered to.

You can only go into the turtle zone with a guide who has been certified by SEMARNAT

The Untold Story of Swimming with Turtles in Akumal

According to a press article on the Mexican Government’s website, SEMARNAT (Mexico’s environment ministry, Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resource) originally delivered 20 permits for non-extractive use in Akumal Bay.

Why? This regulates the number of guided tours in the bay, as well as ensuring guides can regulate tourists’ behaviour. Guides can also brief and educate tourists on turtle conservation before and during the tour.

Is the rule followed? No. Firstly, the permits were apparently granted without verifying or requiring the guides to have proper instruction or training, meaning anyone could become a guide. Secondly, there are numerous unlicensed operators who act as tour guides without consequence. It is almost impossible for the average tourist to tell the difference between a certified tour guide and a local looking to make some money. Therefore, far more guides than just those who are certified operate turtle tours in the bay. And many of those who are certified have no credentials that actually mean they know or care about conservation.

You have to stay with your guide and follow a dedicated path around the zone

Why? To ensure people don’t spread out around the zone and come into unsupervised contact with a turtle. By viewing a turtle as a group it can be left alone once the group moves on.

Is the rule followed? From our view on the shore, this rule seemed to be followed. But in practice it means that turtles are observed by large groups at once, which can be stressful. And once one group leaves another takes its place, giving the turtle no break.

You’re not allowed to wear suncream

Why? This rule is in place to protect the seagrass and coral which can be severely harmed by the chemicals within suncream. Even reef-safe, biodegradable suncream can be harmful to marine flora and fauna before it has time to break down.

Is the rule followed? No. We saw both tourists and guides topping up their suncream before entering the water. There is no way to know or regulate whether someone has put suncream or insect repellent on before entering the water.

You’re not allowed to wear flippers

The Untold Story of Swimming with Turtles in Akumal

Why? Flippers can churn up sediment from the seafloor and make visibility really poor. And more importantly, many tourists can accidentally kick turtles with their flippers.

Is the rule followed? No. Again, we saw both tourists and guides wearing flippers.

You must remain horizontal and wear a life vest

Why? To stop duck diving (diving under the water) to the bottom of the bay where the turtles eat the seagrass.

Is the rule followed? No. We saw quite a few tourists treading water vertically, putting them at risk of kicking a turtle or stirring up sediment. The lifevest rule was followed. It makes sense that it helps tourists tire slower as they expend less energy on swimming. It also makes it easier for the patrols to recognise who has paid for a tour and who hasn’t.

Guides can take a maximum of 6 people in a group

The Untold Story of Swimming with Turtles in Akumal
Schnorchler betrachten Gruene Meeresschildkroete, Chelonia mydas, Akumal, Tulum, Mexiko

Why? This ensures the turtles aren’t crowded by too many people at once, which can disturb them and cause them tremendous stress. It also helps to regulate the number of people in the zone at one time, as well as the number of visitors per day.

Is the rule followed? Absolutely not. We saw groups of 10+ people getting into the water with 1 guide.

Tours can’t run on Mondays

Why? All tours are forbidden from running on a Monday and nobody is allowed in the red turtle zones to give the bay and the turtles a break.

Is the rule followed? Nope! We visited on a Monday and saw countless tours run in the bay. We even saw that the national guard was present and just looking on. There seems to be nobody actually regulating what happens in the bay.

Tours must be run between the hours of 09:00-17:00

The Untold Story of Swimming with Turtles in Akumal

Why? Again, this means that turtles get a break from human presence in the mornings and evenings.

Is the rule followed? No. We arrived to the bay at 08:00 and saw the first tour go out shortly after. We’ve also heard tours continue running after 17:00.

A maximum of 400 people are allowed in the bay in one day

Why? This restricts the numbers of people who enter the turtle zone, meaning the turtles aren’t exposed to too many people and overwhelmed or severely disturbed by human presence.

Is the rule followed? Absolutely not. We saw more than 400 people go through the zone in the space of 4 hours! We asked the ‘guide’ who told us this fact what happens when the day’s count reaches 400 people – do the tours stop for that day? We were told that no, the tours continues running all day, despite the number being exceeded.

Don’t get within 3 metres of a turtle

The Untold Story of Swimming with Turtles in Akumal

Why? This distance is to give the turtle space, ensuring it doesn’t get stressed out by human presence.

Is the rule followed? No, we saw lots of tourists swimming within 3 metres of a turtle and you can find videos and photos on social media that have clearly been taken within 3 metres of a turtle at Akumal.

A maximum of 6 people should observe a turtle for no longer than 3 minutes in a semi-circle to one side

Why? This is an important rule to give the turtle room to swim away. It ensures it has enough space to behave naturally and also gets a break from humans after 3 minutes.

Is the rule followed? Nope. As groups often exceed 6 people and swim around the zone together, there are often more than 6 people per turtle. Also, because there are so many people in the water at one time, when one group moves away another one takes it place, meaning the turtles get no break.

Don’t chase or touch the turtles

The Untold Story of Swimming with Turtles in Akumal

Why? This one should be obvious but unfortunately it’s still necessary to tell many tourists to respect turtles as living animals and not harass them.

Is the rule followed? As we didn’t go in the zone we can’t attest to this one. We’d hope that the guides who operate do actually care about the turtles, despite the questionable practices we witnessed, and would enforce this.

We were also disappointed to see several boats drive right through the red turtle zone, dodging tourists as they went. If the red zones are protected areas for turtles, how are boats allowed within them? One of the biggest causes of injuries to turtles is from boat propellers, yet they drove right through the ‘protected’ zone.

To Snorkel or Not to Snorkel with Turtles in Akumal: An Ethical Dilemma

The Untold Story of Swimming with Turtles in Akumal

We were troubled by what they witnessed in Akumal. They believed that the conservation effort there had good intentions, but there were several issues that bothered them. The tour groups were too large, too many people were allowed in the area, it was difficult to differentiate between licensed and unlicensed guides, and rules were often broken.

Although they are not typically angry individuals, the situation in Akumal upset them. They saw it as a poorly regulated form of eco-tourism at best and possibly even greenwashing. They were saddened to see the turtles and their habitat suffer due to the pursuit of profit.

The writers felt that the regulations put in place were not effective in protecting the turtles. They believed that if the regulations were truly intended to benefit the turtles, there would be more effort put into enforcing them. Inspectors would monitor the situation to ensure compliance with regulations, and penalties would be imposed for those who broke the rules. Alternatively, the turtle feeding zones could be designated as completely no-swim areas.

We advocated for observing wildlife without causing disturbance. They found it paradoxical that regulations were put in place to protect the turtles, including an exclusive zone for them, but then thousands of tourists were allowed into that area to view them. Additionally, the turtle feeding zone was crucial for the turtles’ survival, and any interaction in that area could disrupt their feeding and be harmful to their health.

What could be done instead?

The Untold Story of Swimming with Turtles in Akumal

We acknowledged that tourism was a significant source of income for the residents of Akumal, and that many locals earned their livelihoods through turtle tours. However, they believed that there were numerous ways to protect the turtles while still generating revenue from tourism.

They argued that truly sustainable tourism could still provide a source of income for the community. For instance, talks and demonstrations could be organized to educate tourists about the turtles’ needs and behavior, and explain why the rules were in place to protect them. The narrative surrounding the tours needed to be changed from “swim with turtles” to “learn about why the turtles are being protected here.”

The writers suggested that if the government provided more resources to the local community, they could make significant conservation efforts. If the conservation efforts were genuinely committed to, the turtle population could begin to recover. They believed that Akumal had the potential to become a successful case study for eco-tourism.

Where can you see turtles ethically?

The Untold Story of Swimming with Turtles in Akumal

Unfortunately 6 of the 7 species of sea turtle are classified as threatened or endangered. And with only 1 in 1000 babies making it to adulthood, the odds are already stacked against their survival. Turtles face a multitude of problems, from pollution to poaching to injury and death from human causes. With their decline, it’s becoming increasingly more difficult to see them in the wild without negatively impacting their lives. But it’s not impossible.

Hawaii is one of the best places in the world to see turtles. We’ve written extensively in our Hawaii guides about the local wildlife and how to see turtles in different parts of Big Island, without disturbing them.

The best place to snorkel and dive with turtles in Mexico

The Untold Story of Swimming with Turtles in Akumal

Don’t worry if you’re in or planning to visit Mexico, you don’t have to miss out. Cozumel is an island on Mexico’s Caribbean Coast, not too far from Akumal, that is one of the best places to see turtles in Mexico. We’d highly recommend taking a snorkel or dive tour on the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the largest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere. We couldn’t recommend Cozudive more. They really care about the wildlife and its conservation, are very professional and offer competitively affordable dives. The team – Marilyn, Alvaro and Memo – are all fantastic and we can guarantee you’ll have an incredible time with them.

How to visit Akumal responsibly?

The Untold Story of Swimming with Turtles in Akumal

Obviously we’re not going to sit here and tell you to never visit Akumal Bay, having been there ourselves. We wouldn’t recommend taking a turtle tour, but it is still possible to enjoy Akumal Bay’s beautiful beach for free. If you’re really keen to visit, or happen to already be there, here is how to visit with the least impact possible.

There are several points you can enter Akumal beach from:

  • You can donate to the CEA by entering through the small museum or pay to enter through Akumal Dive Centre.
  • If you stay in one if the beach-front hotels you will be granted free access to the beach.
  • If you are a paying customer of one of the restaurants, like Lol-Ha, you can then enter the beach.

To enter Akumal Beach for free, you can walk around the northern headland along the Akumal Trail. There are some useful instructions on how to do this in the reviews of this location pin in Google Maps. Following the coast path into the bay means you don’t have to put money into businesses that offer turtle tours.

To be honest though, the snorkelling at Akumal isn’t the best in east Mexico. To see the Mesoamerican Reef near Akumal, you need to take a boat out to the entrance to the bay (which requires taking the turtle tour, or hiring a guide or captain). The coral within the bay itself doesn’t compare and there’s very few fish, although we did see some species of reef fish and a barracuda. Visibility is poor as the sand gets churned up by all the swimmers and the current. Akumal also suffers from the same sargassum problem that hits the rest of the riviera Maya between April-October. Despite digger-loads of seaweed being carried off the beach, there’s too much to completely clean up.

To get to Akumal from Tulum you can take a colectivo. They pass along the main road to and from Downtown Tulum and Playa del Carmen from 05:00-23:00 every 5 to 10 minutes every day. It’s 40 pesos (~£1.50) per person. Alternatively you can drive yourself and park in one of the car parks in Akumal.

Mexico was not the worst place in the world for wildlife tourism. During their three-and-a-half-month stay, they witnessed various conservation efforts and sustainable initiatives. However, they believed that more could be done to protect the remarkable species that shared the planet with us, and they hoped that public discussions would lead to greater action.


Get Tulum's Latest News Direct to Your Inbox

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *