Swimming with sea turtles in Akumal, Mexico
There’s this small window in being a parent when it seems okay to do really cool things without your kids. Examples include dinner in a Michelin star restaurant, getting a tattoo when you’re traveling for work, swimming with sea turtles in the Caribbean… So, I did two of these things on my last solo travel adventure. Swimming with sea turtles in Akumal was incredible, but the kids wouldn’t have been into it… yet.
While sailing around the Caribbean aboard the Oasis of the Seas (like I said, work trip) we made port in Cozumel. While I would’ve loved to explore the small island, my little group took the half hour boat ride over to Playa del Carmen for some different adventures. I’ve already shared part of the amazing time on the Yucatan with the story of snorkeling in the Cenotes Dos Ojos, but there’s more to the story.
What you'll find...
Journey to Akumal
Since I arrived in the area via the cruise port in Cozumel, there was a passenger ferry required to get to the actual Yucatan Peninsula. The ride was fast and rocky. Like, so rocky they were passing out barf bags if anybody wanted one. I was fine… but had a moment where I thought I could’ve fully utilized the bag. Anyways…
Once to the dock in Playa del Carmen, we met our wonderful tour guide, Tanya, who escorted us through the tourist area just off the shore. On our walk to our van we saw huge tropical rodent things scurrying about the ruins and through the lush vegetation. Once to the van, we started our drive.
It was only about 20 minutes from town to Akumal beach. If you’ve never driven or been a passenger in Mexico, the ride would’ve been thought of as… thrilling, perhaps, but it wasn’t even close to the worst we’ve experienced. We arrived at the beach safely and headed to a palm covered building.
Preparing for swimming with sea turtles
While you could always go without flippers, swimming with sea turtles is easiest with the fins and snorkel. Not that you’ll be chasing anything in the water, but it’s helpful to be able to get out away from the shore quickly to maximize your snorkeling time.
We were fitted with flippers and got our masks and snorkels and then left the rest of our stuff in the locked van. There was no need for anything else once down at the water, except sunblock for your back and shoulders. And the back of your legs. And top of your head.
Note: the driver stayed with the van for the duration of our visit. His name was Jesus. Jesus was watching over our belongings.
Tip: put on your sunblock way before you arrive at the beach so that it has time to cure and doesn’t just wash off. You want it to be effective AND you don’t want the excess washing into the water with all the animals. That said, you should also ALWAYS get a “coral safe sunscreen” as the chemicals in sunblock damage the undersea life.
Rules for swimming with sea turtles
When you’re swimming with sea turtles, you’re a guest in their home. You may find yourself enchanted with the sea turtles’ beauty and amazing movements, but you need to keep your distance. The following rules are for THEIR safety and yours (provided by NOAA):
- Observe turtles from a distance
- Do not attempt to touch, ride, or feed turtles
- Limit your time observing an animal to 1/2 hour
- Sea turtles should not be encircled or trapped between boats or shore
This all seems very logical and like “Duh. Why would you even need to call this stuff out?” Well, like with any sort of attraction or wildlife viewing, people do stupid things and endanger themselves and the creatures. Sometimes calling out the obvious is helpful to just one random person and that’s enough. People do ridiculous things sometimes.
Swimming with sea turtles and other sights underwater
Besides swimming with sea turtles, you’ll see much more in Akumal. The colorful fish, sea fans, coral, and urchins are really beautiful and quite abundant. There are also stingrays in the waters at Akumal. I thought I’d be lucky just to be swimming with sea turtles, but I got to watch a few sting rays too, including catching one on video… which was cool despite my poor filming.
Note: as docile as a stingray may seem, remember that they’re wild and dangerous and you need to be super cautious when you’re around them.
Check out a quick review of the amazing beauty in the reef at Akumal:
Swimming with sea turtles was for sure the highlight though. Even without trying to seek them out, the huge sea turtles were all around. I was spooked by one who was all of the sudden swimming next to me as if out of nowhere. Others were just hanging out five to ten feet below the surface having lunch.
Tip: the best way to enjoy swimming with sea turtles is just to float above them and take in their movements. They’ll look at you and say “hey” and “sup?” and “nice weather we’re havin’.” They’re really chill.
The cove at Akumal is very mellow and would be amazing to hang out in even if I hadn’t been swimming with sea turtles. The shore is clean and the sand is really soft. There is some undersea vegetation, but not too much. It’s enough that the sea turtles know that this is a good place to eat. The rocks are teaming with life and as you swim you must be wary of the coral. The sea fans are plentiful enough, as are the urchins, that your fins can easily kick them and cause damage, so like with any other snorkeling, you’ll want to be very careful.
And because swimming with sea turtles is too incredible to not share:
My initial impression of swimming with sea turtles was nothing but “Woah!” As I explored underwater more and more, I continued to feel overwhelmed with the amazing creatures and their environment. It was beyond amazing and when the kids are older, they’ll love it.
The downside of this activity in Akumal was the number of people. My tour group was very aware of how swimming with sea turtles could impact the creatures and they were all good about keeping distance being safely respectful. We did see another tour group that completely circled a very large turtle in a rather shallow area and you could easily tell that it wasn’t the proper way to either appreciate or be respectful of the sea turtle. She didn’t have a clear waterway to escape if she got stressed and people were close enough to touch her, which is not okay to do.
Note: this was the only instance I saw of this and I did see the snorkel group leader working to disband the participants, but the situation looked unhealthy for the sea turtle in the middle of it.
Would I go back with the kids for more swimming with sea turtles? Yes, I would as it’s an unforgettable experience and an opportunity to see an incredible, beautiful, alien-like creature in their own environment. Having said that, I think it’s very important to be selective about the tour we would do this with or if we’d be doing it on our own. Cancun Adventures was who I went with and my guide was wise and aware of the animals and environment. She was thoughtful about the participant experience, but much more so was thoughtful about not impacting the sea turtles we saw.
I cannot wait to return to Akumal for more swimming with sea turtles. I know the kids (and Chris) will enjoy the whole experience and I look forward to sharing it with them!
And here’s a fun image of the amazing wildlife of Akumal if you’re in the mood to pin!
Rob Taylor is the founder of 2TravelDads, the original LGBT Family Travel blog. Focusing on ecotourism and education, 2TravelDads inspires LGBT families (and traditional families also) to go beyond their usual getaways and use travel to learn about and be part of a bigger world. “Traveling the globe and giving the kids a broad worldview.”