This is one story that has taken up so much space in my brain but always had a loss for words. Snorkeling with sea turtles in their natural habitat was a surreal, spiritual experience for me.
From the moment we decided to vacation in the Riviera Maya area of Mexico three things came to mind: archeological ruins, whale sharks and snorkeling with SEA TURTLES! The best time for whale sharks in that area is June – September. We wanted a break from our Canadian winters so that was out…..maybe another time. J was looking for a relaxing holiday and not my usual go-go-go, trying to pack every experience possible into one week. That left me to decide on minimum excursions. Tulum was chosen over Chichen Itza (another time). It was a joint choice to swim in a cenote, and snorkeling with sea turtles was always a must. Through Viator, J found us an excursion to Tulum with a cenote visit, and a separate excursion to Akumal to swim with sea turtles.
Snorkeling with Sea Turtles Guidelines
Akumal, meaning “place of turtles” in Mayan, is a small beach town between Playa del Carmen and Tulum. Green sea turtles, loggerhead turtles, hawksbill turtles and leatherback turtles have all been known to frequent the sea grasses in the Akumal Bay. The sea grasses that grow in Akumal Bay are the reason for the abundant turtles seen in this location. Sea turtles are endangered and are at risk of overcrowding and eco-system damage from irresponsible tourists. Please be a responsible and eco-conscious traveler when visiting by abiding by the rules set out by the conservation authorities.
There are strict restrictions for snorkeling with the sea turtles:
- no touching the turtles
- no flippers or snorkel fins
- no sunscreen
- only certified guides with a valid permit may access the reefs…..the restricted areas are marked by red buoys
- Don’t crowd the turtles and be sure to leave ample space (at least 6 ft.) between you and the turtles. You must never impede their movement as they must surface to breathe.
- Always stay flat at the surface and do your best not to disrupt the natural eco-system.
- Don’t stand up in the water as this can disrupt the sea grass where the turtles are feeding.
- Wear a rash guard or long sleeve shirt instead of sunscreen to protect and preserve the sea turtles and coral reefs.
The above photos show Akumal Beach. Notice the red markers. These areas are only accessible with certified guides.
You can go snorkeling along the outer edges near the shore without a guide but I highly recommend a guide. There is a better chance of seeing turtles and other fish in the reef areas. We used Viator to hook up with Akumal Ecological Guides. We used our own snorkel masks but they provided lifejackets (mandatory) and do have snorkel gear available for use if you don’t have your own. We, thankfully, had a very small group of three with our guide, Angel.
Spotting our first turtle, a green sea turtle, within less than 5 minutes of entering the water was sheer exhilaration. It was about 10 feet from us on the other side of the rope so we had to stay within the area and view from there. It still took my breath away. Holding my camera out to be as close as possible and taking as many photos as I could so I could be sure I had ones that were in focus. I didn’t want to risk any human error on my part.
I was using an Ikelite underwater housing for my Canon R5 with a 15-35mm wide angle lens. My camera settings were at 1/500sec, f5.6, ISO 100.
Knowing the lighting would be fairly low, I had my aperature open wide enough at f5.6 to allow a decent amount of light but not creating too shallow of a depth of field.
My main focus was the turtles so I figured 1/500 sec shutter speed would be sufficient enough to capture their movement.
ISO 100 was the choice as I was planning to have these printed as fine art images so I didn’t want any extra digital noise.
This was my first time experiencing these creatures and I was happy with the results. We did have a smaller underwater camera and had it set for the highest quality image possible. The one issue I have with it is the delay between squeezing the shutter release and when the image is actually captured. I did not try video on this trip.
I was so focused on the turtles I missed the “small” barracuda our guide pointed out. Instead I spotted a turtle on the sea floor beneath the barracuda. J got excited and tried to get a picture with our small waterproof camera but he only got its head and a bit of its body as the very top of the frame. We had a good laugh at his photos since they were mainly of his fingers. If only there was someone who could give him some photography instruction….hmmmmm.
My mom loved turtles. I’m not sure why but we always indulged her by bringing home turtle figures from wherever we visited. So, for me snorkeling with sea turtles was a peaceful and spiritual journey as my mom passed away in 2020 but I felt her presence with me and the turtles.
Within our hour of snorkeling, we found five sea turtles with one being a “baby”. It was only about 8 inches long. We knew after that experience that we would be back to snorkel with the sea turtles again.
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