For many people traveling to the Riviera Maya paying a visit to see the Akumal turtles and getting to swim or snorkel with them is a pretty amazing experience. For many years this was one of our most popular tours, but we took the difficult decision a while back to not return to Akumal beach. In this weeks blog post we wanted to share with you some of the reasons why we stopped swimming with the turtles in Akumal so you can make your own decision about going or not.
Akumal otherwise known as the famous Turtle Bay in the Riviera Maya is a tourist hotspot with political, tourist and economic interests. If you take a look on TripAdvisor and read some of the reviews you will see some common themes of aggression and pressure from locals, being made to pay to enter the public beach, and may other horror stories from holiday makers. To really understand what is happening on Akumal Beach there are a few important things you need to know.
Akumal was founded in 1958 so it is quite a bit older than Playa del Carmen, Tulum, and Cancun. It was actually founded by a scuba diver as a base for him and other divers. Akumal beach is a public beach so you do not have to pay an entrance fee to be on the beach. You can not buy beach in Mexico. However the land next to the beach is available to buy and much of is has been bought by private companies, including hotels and resorts.
There are very few small passages that allow for public access to the beach. However the owners of the land surrounding the beach have blocked these public access points, or at least made them very hard to locate so unless you are a local it is almost impossible to enter the beach through one of the public access points.
Why did they close the public access to Akumal beach? Because the owners of the private land want to make you pay to enter the beach. It really is that simple. This is a very delicate situation and is a constant cause of tension in the area. The entrance fee is $100 pesos ($5 USD) and in fairness it does give you access to the bathrooms, lockers, and showers. If you are a local resident on a Sunday this fee is waved.
If you really don’t want to pay there are ways of accessing the beach without paying, but be warned if seen by a local there is a good chance they will let you know their unhappiness with you.
Akumal means the earth of the turtle. This beautiful bay is their home and they have been there for far longer than us!
The most common sea turtles you will find in Akumal are green sea turtles. They live in the bay while they are still juveniles. Think of Akumal like middle school for Turtles. The bay is full of teenage turtles who live here until they become adults. At this point they will leave the bay for the open water to find a mate.
Akumal Bay provides these young turtles with everything they need to reach adulthood. The U shaped bay and coral reef provides them with shelter, with the reef protecting everything inside the bay itself. Because of this protection most predators stay outside of the reef.
The coral bay also creates a microclimate inside of the bay which allows for 3 different types of seaweed to grow. This seaweed is the food of choice for the growing turtles making Akumal Bay the perfect choice for these green sea turtles.
If you are a regular reader of our blog you will know our stance on animal encounters. For those of you here for the first time we at Kay Tours only support ethical animal encounters. So that means no swimming with dolphins or any other sea animal in captivity. For a long time we took people to swim with the turtles in Akumal bay because the turtles were in their natural habitat and we had very strict rules for our guests about what they could or couldn't do while snorkeling with the turtles.
Observing Wild turtles in their natural habitat is a wonderful thing, and I understand why people want to go to Akumal to have this experience for themselves. It really is a beautiful site. But over the years the impact that mass tourism has brought to the bay has caused a lot of damage.
Before we get into the negatives, it is important to recognize the positive impact that tourism has had on Akumal, so here are a few positives:
Because of the tourists coming to visit the Turtles bars, restaurants, and even hotels have opened up.
Locals have started snorkeling tours to create their own source of income as well as sharing their local knowledge.
Tourism has given the local community a steady income something they rely on.
Even though the impact on the local people could be devastating the impact of mass tourism on Akumal Bay and the turtles is devastating and without action the environmental damage could be irreversible.
Here are the main issues with swimming with turtles in Akumal:
Human contact with the turtles
People think if they are touching the turtles it’s ok. It seems to be in our human nature to want to touch everything. I don't think I ever went to Akumal and didn't see someone touching a turtle.
But it’s not just us touching the turtles that is the issue…
The turtle area is roughly 300 meters 900 ft. In this area is where the highest concentration of turtles are because this is where they find the seaweed. On an average day 2000 people visit Akumal beach to swim with the sea turtles. During the high season this can reach upto 6000 people every day in this small bay area. That’s a lot of people!
Now to play devil's advocate, if just 1% of those visitors are touching the turtles that is still 60 people.
Now how about people peeing in the water. What percentage of those 6000 people do you think decide to save the walk back to the bathrooms and just pee in the sea... 10 % maybe? That’s 600 people peeing in that small area. I think this is a very low percentage and the reality is that much more people actually leave uric acid in the bay area.
And sunscreen, how many people do you think are putting on sunscreen on before getting into the water? That number is going to be pretty high, let's say 50% to be conservative. So that's 3000 people. Now you may think you are ok because your an environmentally conscious person and you are using the reef safe biodegradable sunscreen. But did you know that even that takes 1-2 weeks to dissolve?
The environmental impact of the hotels in Akumal is a separate issue and probably deserves a whole blog post of it’s own as the development in this area is having a huge negative environmental impact. Where the hotels now stand there used to be mangroves protecting the beaches from eroding as helping to keep the water clean. But now the hotels have taken away the mangroves which also provided important ecosystems. Added to this the noise and light pollution they cause which upsets the turtles it is causing distress for the nesting turtles.
These are just some of the bigger issues, there are many more.
Results of the environmental study in Akumal
A few years ago the Mexican organization CEA - Centro Ecologico Akumal - began monitoring the turtles and investigating the impact on them caused by tourism. What they found was that many of the young turtles had tumors and growths growing on their skin which are cause by the stress of being touched, human pee, and sunscreen.
They realized the impact of so many people visiting and snorkeling with the turtles was causing them to get very sick. At this point the government decided to take action and they shut down the bay completely. They even stationed police and military there to enforce this closure.
This was a huge hit for locals and caused a lot of local unrest. Many were very upset at the loss of income with little notice and no help to deal with this unexpected situation. Of course the positive from this was that the turtles got a much needed rest.
But then high season hit and the bay was opened again. It was really disappointing for us.
The Current Situation in 2019
The current situation is improved, but it is still far from perfect. There are now two areas completely forbidden for visitors to enter. These are now the turtles ‘safe areas’ and where the seaweed grows. You are still able to snorkel in Akumal, just not in these areas. There are also large signs on the beach in both Spanish and English letting you know the rules, what you can and can’t do while in the bay. Please read the rules and stick to them, they are enforced and you will be informed if you break the rules.
In short yes, you can still go, but it is not the experience it once was.
Swimming with the sea turtles in Akumal
If after reading this you still want to go to Akumal to swim with the turtles I would urge you not to book a tour. Instead travel there yourself. Enter the beach and take a look. If the beach is quiet then speak to one of the local guides and book a snorkel tour. The tour will cost around $500 pesos and your money will go directly to supporting the local people
Sometimes the local guides can get upset at people in the water who have not bought a tour. They feel entitled because this is their home to ask you to take a tour with them. It is their bay, they live there, and they feel like it belongs to them. Even if technically it is a public beach.
If you don’t want to pay the price of the tour then I would say avoid going here to avoid the confrontation. It is just not worth the upset it could cause to you and your family while on vacation.
And lastly please remember to stay 6 ft away from the turtles, use a rash guard, pee in the restroom, and don't use sunscreen.
If you are snorkeling stay horizontal, don’t chase the turtles or touch them, and try to not stir up the sand. The ecosystem is very fragile there and easily damaged if you aren’t careful. Pay attention, I’ve seen people accidentally kicking a turtle with their fin, while adjusting their mask or other parts of their equipment. Please don’t be that person!