For anyone who loves animals and under-water action a snorkelling adventure can be one of the highlights of the trip to Mexico. The Riviera Maya can boast with being home to the world’s second largest reef in the world and the diversity of the marine life is astonishing. One of the creatures found here is the sea turtle. Seeing one is always an unforgettable experience and at Akumal Beach you have the unique opportunity to experience this – for free! Here’s a complete guide to help you snorkel with turtles. Most importantly, make sure you don’t miss the section about how to show these animals the respect they deserve!
A Green turtle emerges
Photo: Akumal Beach, where the turtles can be spotted, is located by Akumal Bay. Akumal means “Place of the Turtle” in Mayan.
We submerge ourselves into the warm waters of the Caribbean Sea. Adjusting our snorkelling masks, getting used to breathing through our mouths and swimming further away from the shoreline – the first minutes of snorkelling are always tricky and unfocused.
At first glance snorkelling at Akumal Beach doesn’t look all too special – not the most interesting fish or the most colourful corals.
Then suddenly, we catch a glimpse of what we came here for: the silhouette of a majestic Green turtle! Mesmerized, we swim closer, positioning ourselves at a respectable distance from this beautiful creature. We watch fascinated as she nibbles away at the seagrass several metres under our feet. Occasionally she’ll stop and elegantly, yet effortlessly, sway up towards the surface. Making an adorable “aah”-sound, she’ll breathe air into her lungs before gliding back through the water to continue snacking.
Photo: Turtles can stay under water for up to five hours, but while feeding they’ll come up to the surface for air more often. Seeing them come up for air, like this one in the picture, was fascinating to watch!
Photo: We saw four turtles during our snorkelling adventure in Akumal.
Green turtles are true survivors
Photo: Judging by the four lateral scutes on this beautiful turtle’s back, it’s a Green turtle. The Green turtle is one of two species of sea turtles that frequent Akumal Bay. The other one is the Loggerhead turtle.
I fell in love with these amazing creatures after I saw a documentary about them some fifteen years ago. It really opened my eyes to what an incredible tale of survival the life of a Green turtle (or any sea turtle for that matter) is.
Did you know that the survival rate of hatchlings is only one in a thousand? That means that out of a bunch of thousand hatchlings only one single turtle will reach adulthood. Those are some pretty tough odds to beat.
Watching the beautiful Green turtle swimming in Akumal Bay, I couldn’t help but feel great awe being in the presence of such a fighter. Just imagine what this individual had to overcome to be here today!
First of all, her mother had to bury the eggs at just the right depth. If she would have dug the eggs to deep, it might have been too cold for the eggs to survive. Then again, too shallow and the eggs would be easy prey for many animals. Hatching from her egg, the Green turtle had to race towards the water as fast as she could, dodging hungry predators lurking in the air, on land and in the sea.
Even as an adult every day is a struggle to stay alive. The Green turtles face numerous threats: pollution, fishing, appetite for exotic animals in some cultures and plastic in the oceans, just to name a few.
Not just a glimpse – a unique opportunity to watch turtles for longer periods
Photo: If you’re a turtle, this picture is basically foodporn. Turtles love this seagrass that grows in Akumal Bay and come here practically every day to feast on it.
For a long time there seemed to be a curse regarding sea turtles and me. My greatest dream was to swim with turtles and be able to watch them in their natural habitat, but I just didn’t seem to have any luck. In Australia I even booked a turtle-tour specifically to see sea turtles, with almost guaranteed sightings of sea turtles. But still no turtles. The guide’s “This never happens”-comments didn’t do much to ease my disappointment.
Several other failed attempts later I finally got lucky while visiting the Galápagos islands in January 2018. The curse finally lifted and I got to see numerous sea turtles more or less every day of the trip. Yet, I never got to see more than a quick glimpse. A fleeting moment while the sea turtle came up for air or swam by rapidly.
At Akumal Beach this changed. It was the first time I got to admire sea turtles for more than just a few seconds.
The thing that makes this place unique is the fact that the bay provides an excellent buffet for turtles and many other creatures of the ocean. There’s lots of seagrass – a delicacy for turtles who swim long distances to get to this yummy spot.
Since the turtles come here to feast on the seagrass, they are here for long periods of time. Thus, you have a rare opportunity to watch them eat and go about their everyday business.
Photo: Although Akumal Bay might not have the most colourful corals, there’s still much more to see than just seagrass when it comes to marine plants.
How to show the sea turtles the respect they deserve
Photo: The Green turtle is an endangered species. Make sure you act accordingly!
I thought long and hard about whether or not to write this blog post. As I love animals, especially sea turtles, I don’t want to risk encouraging the wrong people to go swim with these turtles.
However, I sincerely hope everyone reading this is already a super conscious and animal-respecting traveller – if not perhaps reading this will provide some food for thought!
It’s always important to treat the environment with great respect, especially while visiting areas with mass tourism. Remember that whatever bad behaviour you might have been planning on doing (like littering), literally millions of others might be doing as well. Imagine the impact that has on the area!
Since the Green turtle is very much an endangered animal (more on the threats the Green turtle faces as well as why saving the Green turtle matters here), it’s even more important to act accordingly. After all, these guys have enough going against them as it is. So let’s all make sure the turtles like to come here in the future as well!
Important things to remember:
- Do NOT hover right above the sea turtle. It will come up for air every once in a while and you want to make sure you leave the turtles route for air free.
- Do make sure you use reef-friendly sunscreen if you’re using sunscreen.
- Do NOT touch or ride the sea turtles (hopefully this goes without saying, if not you should definitely stay away from this adventure altogether)!
- Do leave enough space between yourself and the turtle!
- Do remember you are a visitor, someone intruding in the turtle’s home – act accordingly!
- Do watch the turtle for signs you’re making it uncomfortable (the turtle should be munching away carelessly, if it’s looking up, looking apprehensive, you’re doing something wrong: try giving it more space)!
- Do think twice about bringing young kids here. Sure, this is an excellent opportunity for children to learn about conservation and how to help the turtles. But make sure your kids are old enough to truly understand how important it is to keep their distance and to avoid excessive kicking and splashing near the turtles. Unfortunately, we saw some families with children who didn’t grasp how important this is and a turtle that as a result looked very apprehensive.
- Do NOT damage the seagrass – it’s the turtle’s food! Avoid standing on it or harming it in any other way.
Please read up on the important turtle conservation efforts that Centro Ecológico Akumal is doing (click here to get to their website). To truly understand why the way you behave while visiting this place is so extremely important, make sure to read their blog post “The Place of Turtles – a Different Perspective”. It’s devastating that some people seem incapable of understanding the impact their actions have on the very creatures they came there to see. Don’t be one of those people!
Two ways to snorkel with the sea turtles in Akumal
Photo: Akumal Beach is a beautiful paradise beach. Remember to take a break from the snorkelling every once in a while and soak up the sun, or enjoy the shade of a palm tree.
If you want to snorkel with the sea turtles at Akumal Beach, you can either do it independently for free, or with an organized tour.
Several large hotels as well as tour companies offer package deals for snorkelling with the turtles. These usually include transportation to and from the beach as well as equipment. Some of them will include a meal too. If you’re part of a tour group you get to snorkel in a specific area for tour groups, one of the buoyed sections.
The advantage is having everything organized and easy. The disadvantages are the steep price tags (these tours are very expensive considering this can be done for free!) and the fact that you will be part of a large group gaping at the turtles. Doing it independently you might get lucky and spot one while you’re by yourself.
You can also book a tour on the road leading up to the beach. In fact, you won’t be able to miss this option, so eager are the people trying to sell these tours! In this case you’ll have to arrange for transportation yourself (scroll down for more information on this).
Snorkelling with sea turtles without a tour – renting gear or not?
Photo: We rented our snorkelling gear from Akumal Dive Center for 200 pesos per person for the whole day.
If you don’t want to opt for the tour and wish to do it independently, here’s how.
Do you have your own equipment? If yes, just head to the beach (scroll down to read how to get there), read the signs you’ll find there about where you’re allowed to snorkel and just jump in. Leave your fins at home! You don’t need them and they’ll only stir up the sand, making the visibility worse.
Pros of bringing your own gear:
- You’ll save money bringing your own gear.
- You’ll have gear that you know fits you and is comfortable.
Cons of bringing your own gear:
- You won’t have a place to store your personal belongings.
- You won’t have access to toilets and showers.
- You’ll miss out on lifejackets (assuming you didn’t pack one with you).
If you don’t have your own equipment, no worries! There are two dive shops from which you can rent gear.
We rented ours from Akumal Dive Center. It cost 200 pesos per person for the whole day and we left our stuff by the reception desk. After snorkelling it felt nice to be able to take a quick shower before heading for lunch.
Pros of renting gear:
- You’ll get all gear included as well as the lifejacket.
- You get access to shower and toilet.
- You can store your stuff.
- Quick briefing about where you can snorkel and what you can see.
Cons of renting gear:
- Pricey, compared to bringing your own.
- You’re using the same gear as someone else has had in their mouth.
- The gear might not be good (at least my mask was terrible, constantly leaking and pressing into my forehead uncomfortably).
Life jackets, who needs them?
Photo: Not mandatory, but useful. I recommend using a lifejacket for the sake of the turtles.
I asked the same question before heading out. I’m a good swimmer so is the lifejacket really necessary?
It turns out the lifejacket was very practical for this particular adventure. The whole point is to be able to watch the turtles and not disturb them. The lifejacket allows you to just float – minimum of kicking and paddling to stay afloat, therefore less of a nuisance to the turtle. The added bonus is that the visibility stays better – the more people are kicking about, the poorer the visibility gets as the sand gets stirred up. Stirring up the sand also covers the seagrass – the turtle’s food.
How to find the turtles and what else you can expect to see
Photo: Although the sea turtles are the main attraction, there’s lots more to see while snorkelling. Here’s a list of different local species.
To maximize your odds of seeing turtles, make sure to get to Akumal Beach early. We got there at about 9 am and I wouldn’t recommend going any later. After around 10 am the tour groups start to show up and more people in general come for a dip. This leads to the sand at the bottom of the sea stirring up and making the visibility poorer.
Ideally, you should be here at 8.30 am or at the latest at 9.30 am.
The seagrass is the turtle’s food, so try to head towards the areas that look darker – that’s where the seagrass is. If you’re not having any luck and are starting to loose hope, you can try to head towards clusters of other snorkelers. Odds are they’re checking out a turtle.
However, my advice is to just snorkel about calmly, just waiting for the turtles to come into view. That way you might get to watch without anyone else – this for me at least was the best part.
We stayed in the water for periods of 30-40 minutes at a time during a three-hour period, pausing for bathroom breaks and to adjust our gear.
During this time we saw numerous different species of fish, four Green turtles and a huge Yellow stingray.
Photo: These fish were frequent at Akumal Bay and looked funny with their sword-like heads.
How to get to Akumal Beach
Photo: Colectivos are Mexican shuttle buses. They wait for the bus to fill up before departing, which means you might have to wait for a while. On the other hand, it’s by far the cheapest means of transportation, especially if you’re travelling solo.
Akumal Beach is located at some 105 kilometres from Cancún, some 40 kilometres from Playa del Carmen and some 30 kilometres from Tulum.
There are several possibilities to get to Akumal Beach: driving your own car, taking a taxi or taking the colectivo (those Mexican shuttle buses).
Colectivos will take you there for a very reasonable price (of course depending on where your starting point is), but they will drop you off at the highway and you’ll have to walk for a little bit. Remember to tell the driver you’re going to Akumal Beach so he’ll know to drop you off!
The colectivos are great if you’re in no hurry, but they can be frustrating if you’re trying to get somewhere in time (like for example to see the turtles). If you’re lucky, the bus will fill up quickly. If you’re unlucky you might have to wait for a very long time.
Since we had a very short way to the beach we opted for a taxi to and from, easy and convenient. We entered the beach through the dive shop, which seemed like the easiest way. We asked our taxi driver to drop us off at Akumal Dive Center.
How much does it cost
Taking a tour you might pay up to 70-80 USD! Doing it independently you can snorkel with turtles at Akumal Beach for free (yes, you read correctly)! This is if you bring your own gear and don’t count the sum you’ll pay for transportation to and from the beach.
For us the whole trip in total was 350 pesos per person. This included the transportation to and from the beach as well as gear rental. It was definitely worth it!
Eating and drinking
Photo: Delicious quinoa burger at La Buena Vida restaurant, which is located at a short walking distance from Akumal Beach.
By the beach there is a hotel with a restaurant that you’re not allowed to enter unless you’re staying at the hotel. There’s also a restaurant that’s open to everyone called Lol-Ha that’s decent enough.
However, I suggest you bring some water and some snacks to get you through the snorkelling. Then after you’re done snorkelling head further along the road (continuing further away from the highway). Walk for some 700 metres and you’ll get to restaurant La Buena Vida.
This place was one of the best and cutest places we ate at during our whole trip to Mexico. Great value for money! The location is gorgeous: you’re sitting right on the beach (or if you prefer you can opt for the tree house) with palm tree leaves forming the roof.
Make sure you try out the local beer Akumal, you’ll find it under the microbrewery-section of the menu. It’s delicious and the bottle has a cute turtle on it – great way to raise a glass to the awesome turtle adventure you’ve just done! La Buena Vida also offers some great vegetarian food, like the quinoa burger for example.
Photo: What better way to celebrate your snorkelling adventure than with a nice, cold local microbrewery beer? Extra points for the cute logo!
When to go
Photo: Morning at Akumal Beach! Ideally, you should arrive at Akumal Beach at 8.30-9 am to better your chances of spotting turtles.
Turtles can be seen at Akumal Beach throughout the year. However, it might be harder to snorkel during the hurricane season from June to November, depending on weather conditions. The bay is very protected, but if the weather is really bad, visibility will suffer.
So ideally you should plan your trip sometime between November and June.
It’s already been pointed out a few times, but it doesn’t hurt to repeat it: make sure you get here early (8.30-9 am) to better your chances of seeing the turtles.
Fast facts and travel tips
- The place to snorkel with the turtles is called Akumal Beach, which is located by the sleepy town of Akumal.
- In Mayan Akumal means “Place of the Turtle”
- The beach is a public beach and you can snorkel there for free.
- Two species of turtles can be spotted here: the Green turtle and the Loggerhead turtle.
- Make sure you get there early as the visibility gets worse towards lunch. I recommend you get there at 8.30-9 am.
- Wear reef-friendly sunscreen
- Wear a lifejacket if possible (this will make it easier to just float and watch the turtle whilst disturbing it as little as possible).
- Renting gear will give you free access to toilets and lockers.
- Make sure you know how to swim backwards, using your hands to paddle yourself backwards. This will come in handy if the turtle suddenly starts swimming towards you and you need to maintain the space between yourself and the turtle, without having to turn your back towards it and risking accidentally kicking too close to it.
- There’s a restaurant by the beach called Lol-Ha if you need a quick snack or a drink. I recommend finishing the turtle adventure with lunch at another restaurant called La Buena Vida, a short walk from the beach.
- Make sure you respect the turtles by giving them space and being careful not to disturb them!
- Bring your under-water camera
- For information about turtle conservation in Akumal, check out Centro Ecológico Akumal here. Make sure you read their blog post “The Place of Turtles – a different perspective” as well, for some food for thought before going snorkelling here!
Photo: This map indicates where you can snorkel. The buoyed sections (marked red on the map) are protected areas and therefore off limits. Make sure you don’t touch any wildlife!