The Akumal Beach turtle swim / guided tour controversy rages on over the internet. Our 2019 visit sets the record straight. Do you need a guide to swim with turtles in Akumal Bay? A life vest? Will you be harassed on the beach? Is it really worth it to snorkel with turtles in Akumal Bay? Keep reading to find out the real deal when visiting Akumal Beach.
Just imagine snorkeling in the warm waters of the Yucatan surrounded by sea turtles. It seems like a dream come true, except we’ve heard one too many stories about pushy beach vendors and unclear regulations. We were fraught with questions, but we love turtles too much to pass up an opportunity to see them in the wild. Swimming with turtles from Akumal Beach turned out to be absolutely fantastic, once you know what you’re doing. Snorkeling Akumal Bay made our list for best Riviera Maya excursions.
Booking Tours at Akumal Beach
We had a simple game plan heading to Akumal Bay – play it by ear and see what the situation was at ground zero. We read dozens of articles contradicting one another. Some indicate that you need a guide, but most claim this is the biggest scam in Yucatan. I’ll be honest with you, it felt a little weird getting approached for tours even before we parked our car, but getting a guide is absolutely the right thing to do.
We said yes for two reasons. First off, they pointed out the facilities were closing soon and second, parking was included in the package. We paid our money and our guide, Jose, entered our car. He showed us where to park at Akumal Bay and walked with us to the public beach entrance.
Akumal Bay Public Beach (re: Do You Need a Guide to Swim with Turtles at Akumal Bay?)
We really appreciated Jose getting us into Akumal Public Beach. The entry procedure wasn’t intuitive at all. Access to the public beach is free, but the Centro Ecologico Akumal building facilities (washrooms, showers, lockers, lifeguards, palapas, etc.) are not. Jose led us to the ticket counter a located around the corner (entirely out of sight) and got us our locker key (also included on the tour). We changed and showered off before entering the water to keep our oils from contaminating the turtles’ home.
We noticed some indications of recent changes to Akumal Bay policies that contradict information we found on high ranking websites. It appears that these pages are offering outdated information. As of spring 2019, the rules and regulations were clearly posted. There is a “free zone” for the first 150′ just offshore. This is where the swimmers stayed, making it very murky with no turtles. Beyond that was the turtle trail that you could only enter with a licensed guide. Outside the turtle circuit was a no-entry zone forbidding all access except for boat corridors.
Do I Need a Life Jacket to Swim at Akumal Bay?
Anybody who tells you that there are aggressive vendors on the beach renting life vests hasn’t been there recently. There were signs everywhere forbidding beach vendors, especially life jacket rentals. There was also armed Procuraduría Federal de Protección al Ambiente (PROFEPA) personnel patrolling the beach, presumably to keep that business from coming back and to enforce the other policy changes.
Our tour did provide life jackets, which we put on before entering the water. Jose explained that swimmers don’t need them, but they are absolutely required for the turtle circuit. He said the guides are responsible for the behavior of their guests in the water. If they don’t wear their life vest, or if they harass the turtles, dive under the water, feed turtles, or break any of the park rules, it is the guides that are held responsible. He could lose his guide license and no longer be able to work in the park — what a great way to ensure responsible tourism.
Akumal Snorkeling with Turtles
We entered late in the day, about 4:00 in the afternoon. Like most animal encounters, it pays to be of the first or last tour of the day. The kick out wasn’t spectacular. Tour guests aren’t permitted to use fins, and there wasn’t a lot to see. Jose excitedly showed us fish and coral but the real stars, the sea turtles, weren’t out to play yet. Our first turtle sighting was almost out to the outer edge of the circuit. I don’t know if it’s more magical to watch baby sea turtles hatch or swim with them in the water, but I wouldn’t pass up an opportunity to do either.
The outside edge of the circuit was rough and choppy. We noticed large groups of snorkelers who were transported out here by boat. I would avoid this tour because of how choppy the water was. Additionally, I believe that these boat tours are an intentional circumvention of the Akumal Bay Management Plan which aims to reduce stress on the Akumal turtles.
The return swim home was the highlight of the trip. We were happy to get back to the calm waters of the bay, and we saw almost two dozen turtles! Unfortunately, we also saw a lot of independent snorkelers in this section. They were diving down to harass turtles and generally behaving poorly. It’s evident that, at the time of our visit, you could get away with swimming in the keep out zone, but should you?
Akumal Bay Turtle Management
Akumal Bay has been a wild west of ecological management. Kind of a ground zero between local environmental groups and businessmen looking to make a quick buck. The results created a confusing myriad of pseudo-rules with arbitrary enforcement.
“The declaration of the Refuge for Protected Marine Species and with that a new bay management plan now being enforced has created many problems and issues which in turn is confusing and bewildering to those visiting the bay… It does not help the situation either that for the past year at least there have again been groups of guides from several of the tour operator cooperatives that are now “bay monitors.” Many of these are the very same individuals from the former “Vigilance Committee” of the summer/fall of 2016 that were stalking and extorting visitors to take a tour. They were very convincing with their official looking green shirts or “bay patrol” shirts but in fact, they were not any legal authority, and many were reported for their actions and bad behavior towards tourists.”
We created this short timeline of events at Akumal Beach to help clear up the confusion:
March 2016 – Akumal Bay Refuge for Protected Species was declared
August 2016 – Wildcat path cut through Hotel Akumal Caribe property
February 2017 – Snorkeling suspended in Akumal Bay
April 2017 -Snorkeling resumed in Akumal Bay
February 2018 – Federal Judge issued a court order to close the wildcat path permanently.
January 2019 – Coleman Concierge visit to Akumal Beach( foundation for this article)
At the time of our visit, the rules were clearly posted. The only question is should responsible travelers follow them?
Why You Should Follow the Rules of Akumal Bay
Carlos Ortiz Salinas, President of Akumal Ecological Center, has a scary warning about the ecology of Akumal Bay – “In the last ten years, it is estimated that approximately 50% of corals and 40% of seagrasses have died and fish populations have decreased by 60%. If this trend continues, Akumal faces an ecological disaster that will affect the local community in the first instance, since its economy depends entirely on the delicate balance and functionality of this ecosystem.”
The turtle swim circuits weren’t put in place to give tour guides the best access to Akumal’s turtles. They were created to keep people off the grass beds and give turtles a safe place to eat. Swimming up to the outer edge of the circuit directly violates that primary purpose. The guides themselves aren’t included as a money grab scheme. They are the first line of enforcement for park rules the include good behavior and limited access. Besides, as ethical travelers, you should feel good contributing to the local economy and providing income for hard working guides.
The rules not only limit where visitors can go but how many can visit per day. Ecologists put thought and effort into creating these guidelines for the preservation of the ecosystem. What right do we have as foreign guests to violate them? How would we feel if visitors to the US carved their names in redwoods or chipped off pieces of DC monuments to take home as souvenirs? It’s not a matter of “can you get away with it,” but more should you even try?
Akumal Snorkeling Guidelines
Always stay inside the bay.
Always stay horizontal. Know where your fins are at all times. You don’t want to kick up the sand or kick the reef or turtles.
Never stand on the reef. You can harm them and injure yourself.
Never touch or chase the turtles or other sea life.
Never dive down or swim underwater. You can damage the ecosystem and are at risk of boat traffic not seeing you.
Never crowd a turtle. Stay at least 3 meters away.
Spend no more than 2 minutes observing one turtle.
Wear a sunshirt or biodegradable sunscreen.
Know your limits! It is advisable for your safety to wear a lifejacket.
Be careful! You are visiting a natural area and there are hazardous animals that can harm you. Watch where you step.
Know the beach warning flags. Pay attention to the flags, and lifeguards, on the beach.
Final Thoughts on Snorkeling with Turtles at Akumal Beach
You should absolutely go snorkeling with turtles at Akumal Bay, but do it responsibly. The chance to swim beside Hawksbill Turtles, Green Turtles, and Loggerhead sea turtles in the wild is awesome. Follow the rules, wear reef-safe sunscreen, and take a guided tour. It’s well worth the money, and we loved having a guide because it let us focus on each other traveling as an adventurous couple, and not on all the rules and details. The approximate cost was $30/person and took about 2 hours to complete. Tours begin at 9 am and finish at 6 pm. Try to go on the 9:00 opening tour or a 4:00 end of day tour if possible.
Akumal Beach is about halfway between Tulum and Playa Del Carmen off the Federal Highway. It’s the perfect complement to a Rio Secreto cave tour, and a must do if visiting either Tulum or Playa Del Carmen. There are about 40 turtles who live year-round in the bay. If everyone keeps following the rules, these turtles and this ecosystem might be around for generations to come.
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