Backing into Eden: Akumal and the Sea Turtles

Photo Credit Local Quickies
Turtle in Akumal Bay, photo credit Local Quickies

I spent the last week vacationing in the Mexican Riviera Maya, which runs from Cancun west along the Caribbean sea. The first time I came here, in 1998, a long somewhat sleepy highway ran along the coast and hand-made signs led to beach locations. We stayed in a small hotel, the Blue Parrot Inn in Playa Del Carmen. There was only one large resort in Playa, and another under construction at that time, and the tourist road, 5th avenue, was somewhat sleepy.  The population of Playa was under 40,000 people. Playa has since grown so that it resembles a smaller and lower version of Cancun, which is a nightmare of a place where humans ruined a beautiful, ecologically critical location by scattering bits of Las Vegas across a pristine beach, no offense if you are a “Vegas Guy” but this is unacceptable. In Playa there is some city planning and locals are proud of the three story height limit.  Today there over 150,000 residents. That’s almost 200% growth in less than twenty years. Almost all of this growth is fed by the tourist industry.

On this trip, I stayed in the Princess Riviera Maya, which is one of a long string of resorts that follows the coast, as if someone had taken a hundred cruise ships or more, split them open, and folded them out flat. Huge busses show up in lines every morning and take people to Mayan theme parks, snorkeling locations, and ruins like Chitzen Itza and Tulum.

One of my best memories from the first trip was when my son (who turned eighteen that year) and I went to hike the Na Pali coast and snorkeling in Akumal. At the time, it was a sleepy seaside Mexican town only a little swelled by ex-pats and dive shops. I remember that it had a large tourist hotel.  Essentially, we simply drove up near the beach, parked, and walked across blazing white sand to the ocean. We were immediately surrounded by huge sparkling schools of multicolored fish, so many that it looked like a river of fins. The reef below us was full of purple and red and orange and brown. Colorful life  blossomed and swam and moved everywhere we looked. Sea turtles and angelfish and parrotfish, barracuda and a hundred other species we had no names for. The ocean was full to bursting. We were enchanted.

I believe there were no more than about ten others snorkeling the beach the day we were there.

Snorkelers politely surrounding a turtle, photo credit Local Quickies
Snorkelers politely surrounding a turtle, photo credit Local Quickies

I didn’t get to Akumal on our middle trip, but I went there on this trip, with our family eighteen-year-old for whom I am a handy extra adult. The large schools of glittering fish were gone. Most of the color had faded, at least if my memory serves me at all. The quiet was certainly gone…the entire bay is ringed with high-end resorts and tourist shopping and restaurants. Most Mexicans can no longer afford to live there. We did see a number of turtles, a single barracuda (very big!), two rays, and some squid. I spotted one parrotfish, a few yellow angels, and a number of smaller and less distinctive fish. The coral was almost all brown and white, with a few pale purple colors.

We shared the water with hundreds of people. Hundreds. I would bet a thousand people snorkeled there the day we did.

It has become wholly unrecognizable as the place which enchanted David and I almost two decades ago. The picture above is what happens to sea turtles when one is spotted: snorkelers float nearby and watch for up to two minutes, being careful not to come too close to the turtles.  Our guide made sure we were careful. In spite of that, I felt intrusive. This must happen to each turtle something like a fifty times a day.

Our guide, Gil, grew up in Akumal. He now lives on the other side of the large, busy highway and yet he can still be found on the Akumal beaches almost every day. He is part of a collective working to save the bay, and to save the turtles. The collective works together to take snorkeling trips out, to monitor people’s behavior and make sure they resect the coral and the turtles. They share any money they make evenly between all of the guides in the collective.

According to Gil, the bay was even worse a few years ago, and it is now rebounding. We watched for turtles who had not yet been tagged – which meant that they were new young ones who appear as juveniles (apparently there is a specific set of juvenile years that the turtles spend in Akumal eating a specific sea grass). We saw at least two, maybe three untagged turtles. Gil reported that the turtle population last year was about fifty-five and that now it may be sixty or more. He is very proud of the work that he and his collective are doing, much of which seems to be managing tourists in such a way as to create a win-win situation. Others in Akumal protect nesting sites, herd baby turtles to the beach, and help educate the tourists.

In spite of how the differences in the reef  saddened me, this was a real and unexpected “Backing in Eden” moment for me. The entire bay is known and mapped. Almost every turtle is tagged, and they get a yearly doctor’s visit. A fragile and nearly–destroyed ecosystem is beginning to bounce back. The locals are in on the preservation efforts, and my be driving them. The turtle’s chances of survival are increasing.


As always, more links for you to follow. Fewer than usual since the connectivity down here is nasty and I didn’t need to go the Internet for the lesson. The one came to me in person.

Centro Ecologico Akumal:

A great tale of the work being done in Akumal

Interesting because it talks about conservation and the reviews, of course, are written by tourists.

The tour company I went with, Local Quickies, which seems reasonably ecologically conscious.

3 thoughts on “Backing into Eden: Akumal and the Sea Turtles”

  1. Thank You, I snorkeled here with my daughter last year in april (with the tour) and again this year ( without the tour). I was shocked as to how many people were in the water this year as opposed to last year. I only stayed in about 15 minutes and gave up because of all the activity. I also felt sorry for the marine life that has to live with this habitat. It was clear to me that many tourists were not wearing bio sunscreen as I can smell it when they walk by. It angered me and we actually cut our trip to the bay short and found other pursuit’s. I felt that Yal Ku Lagoon was a good snorkel trip and was walkable from our Condo. Try it if you go back to the area. I am encouraged by the fact that the turtle population is growing. Thank You for including all of that information in your report.

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