Reality Check when Swimming with Sea Turtles

Akumal Beach in the state of Quintana Roo, Mexico is known by travel guides and internet bloggers to be a place to swim along side sea turtles. We took the colectivo early morning around 8am from Puerto Aventuras to Akumal station. There’s a foot bridge that allows for safe crossing of highway 307 where the maximum speed of 60kms/ 37mi seems to be a suggestion to motorists rather than a law. Most seem to be driving at a rate of 120kms/  74mi. It’s a short 15 minute walk to the beach after crossing the bridge.

Dave and I were just talking about how amazing the colectivo public transit systems were in compared to our slow, expensive buses in Canada. These little vans can only hold up to 12 people but are very frequent. They zoom by every 15 to 30 minutes or so and are air-conditioned. They run up and down the main highway that nearly borders the Caribbean Ocean. There’s really no need to rent a car or take a taxi. We feel part of the community on a colectivo, travelling along side Mexicans. The children really like them also. This is what we were discussing while crossing the foot bridge to the beach when a Mexican started talking to us about the area. He was headed to work that morning. He explained to us that thousands of people from all around the world come to visit this beach to get a chance to see these beautiful creatures up close. Unfortunately, this amount of traffic is causing a lot of damage to their natural habitat.  High amounts of chemical sunscreen is being leeched into the water. The foot traffic and flipper use is churning the sea bed and browning the vegetation. The turtles have developed malignant cysts from eager tourist wanting to touch them. Facts we were somewhat aware of, I mean we constantly hear how the human species is the main contributor to destroying earth’s natural habitat. To have this discussion as we are headed towards the beach to meet these endangered animals, made me sad. Why can’t we live in a world were industry’s primary objective is to protect the environment? Why is it that we have products that employ adjectives like biodegradable, green, organic when it should be the norm? Their poisonous counterparts should not even be on the shelves in the first place. While reaching this beach in question, I noticed mega resort hotels less than 50 ft from the waters shoreline with only palm trees acting as a natural buffer zone. In Canada, we have laws that have adopted strict implementations on leaving a minimum of 50ft span of mix indigenous plant species bordering any body of water. This natural biodiversity is crucial to the delicate balance of the waters that neighbour it.  I think when bordering a massive body of water like the ocean in Mexico, it should be a minimum of 150ft of natural, indigenous jungle to help the biodiversity thrive. It’s inauspicious to think that building mega resorts with advertisements to see and swim with sea turtles when the probability of their life expectancy at this rate could be less than 20 years.

When we reached the ocean with our Mexican friend, he slowly lead us to a billboard reading the state laws regarding swimming in the bay of Akumal. That we needed a guide in order to swim with the endangered reptiles, and we needed to pay a rate of 500$MXN/ 32$CAD for the five of us. These are only guidelines and not law, unfortunately they are not strictly enforced. While swimming, I have seen guides with tourists wearing flippers, standing on the grasses and no one seems to have to take a shower before entering the water. Even though he was trying to haggle us to hire him, there’s a bottom line intention he was conveying; it’s essential to wear biodegradable sunscreen, not to wear flippers, not to stand on the grasses and not to touch the turtles. As enticing as it may be,  they are wild creatures in essence, not pets from a dolphinarium.

We decided not to take the guide, but Dave didn’t feel secure without a lifejacket, so he rented one for himself and our two youngest boys. Tristan and I swam without one. The turtles are easy to find, just follow the trail of grasses between the shore and the coral reef. We noticed instantly the lack of green in the grasses, the water was very murky by probably an over saturation of sunscreen and flippers churning the sands below. There’s no doubt that tourists are affecting their habitat. Being in the presence of these gentle creature is truly sublime. If I was able to say one thing to you Dear turtles, I sure hope with our knowledge and technology we will do all that we can so you can still be with us in 20 years time. We love you!

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