Well, here we are again. Akumal is in the headlines with the recent suspension by PROFEPA (Mexico’s Environmental Protection Agency) of all activities involving snorkeling with the turtles. When I first started visiting the region in 2006, one of my favorite activities was to grab my snorkel gear and head to Akumal. My friends and I would make a day of it, alternating hanging out on the beach and quietly snorkeling with the turtles as they fed on the seagrass that covered the floor of the bay. For a few years, we could comfortably head to Akumal knowing we would be just a small group of tourists that would share the beach with other small groups of tourists and locals. Unfortunately, as with so many areas across the globe, businesses started to see Akumal as a way to make big money, and commercial snorkel tours were allowed to enter Akumal with little to no oversight. The last time I went to Akumal, about two years ago, I knew I would never go back. The road into Akumal was a zoo, snorkeling tour vendors were shouting at us, ¨encouraging¨ us to hire them to see the turtles, and the walk to the beach was packed with tourists with paid tours. I was shocked to see how many people there were! Then, when we got to the bay, I nearly cried. The beach was packed, and the bay was dotted with what seemed like hundreds of tourists. My friends and I turned around and went home. We had no interest in joining the mayhem.
It doesn’t take a conservation scientist or marine biologist to determine that what was happening was having a severe and potentially irreversible impact on the turtles, on the seagrass, on the reef, the quality of water – the entire marine ecosystem. I began reading articles that the turtles were displaying papilloma, a disease formed by uncharacteristic growths on the skin. The combination of overdevelopment by large resorts and the number of people in the water was taking its toll on these incredibly fragile creatures. It was then that I made the personal decision never to go back to swim with the turtles.
I have since spoken to many people who live in the area who made the same decision. Do I want to see the turtles and snorkel with them again like I used to? Absolutely! But the benefit would be entirely mine, and the negative impact would be absorbed completely by the turtles who I claim to love so much. So, I stay away.
It will be interesting to see how PROFEPA handles their current suspension. Will they quietly remove the suspension and grant the commercial businesses unfettered access again like it seems has happened in the past? Or will they develop a real and lasting environmental sustainability and management plan that will help give the reef and the turtles a fighting chance?
Please remember: Never touch a wild animal – ever. You can pass along germs, diseases, injure or even kill an animal by touching them. There is never a benefit to the animal when you do so.