Swimming with Sea Turtles in Akumal

Dear Asher,

A long time ago, Grumpy gave Granny the nickname Turda because she would always wear curlers in her hair which she covered with a sac. This resembled a turtle shell and there was also an animated turtled on TV that wore curlers in her hair. Granny also loves turtles because they remind us all to slow down. Since then, Granny Franny has always had a special connection with turtles, be they the smooth painted slow walkers or the rugged snappers that swim under the docks at the camp. Granny photographs each one, builds fences around their eggs, and stops to help them cross the highway. So when I read that we could swim with the mighty Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles in Akumal Bay, this was a must see before Granny and Grumpy flew home.

We set out early and jumped on a collectivo into Playa Del Carmen where we transferred to a collectivo bound for Tulum. The Yucatan Peninsula is covered with a vast network of comfortable collectivos with set prices that are the same for locals and tourists, making it extremely easy to get around. For just under $2.00, we rode an air-conditioned collectivo to the foot bridge that crossed the highway toward the center of Akumal. The main road to the beach was lined with tour operators selling $15 packages to swim with the turtles, but we knew that all we needed was a snorkel and a mask. We rented a set for only $8 then took turns swimming in the rough waters and playing with you on the sand. Akumal is normally one of the calmest bays on the Caribbean coast, but today the high winds made sure we had to work to see the gentle giants that grazed below.

Since your mom has some trepidations when it comes to ocean swimming far out from shore, I volunteered to go first to see if there were any turtles around on such a windy day. Within ten minutes, I saw eight giant turtles gracefully gliding along the bottom, providing free rides for the sizeable sucker fish suctioned to their giant shells. It was amazing to see such ancient creatures who have managed to exist in this changing world for over 110 million years. Your mom and Granny took their turns but the wind had picked up, throwing around the water, and they were unable to swim out far enough to see anything. Grumpy managed to get lucky and saw one closer to shore so your mom wanted to give it a second try. This time when she returned, she was beaming, having seen several up close and even watched one turtle surface, take a deep breath and look her directly in the eye.

After a long day, you were ready to head home and Granny was too tired to try another round, so we walked back to the main highway, sad that Granny did not get to swim with these beautiful creatures. Asher, sadly all species of sea turtles are now endangered and because of over-development on the beaches, the majestic Kemp’s Ridley turtles are now critically endangered. Indiscriminate fishing also drowns sea turtles in nets which prevent them from surfacing to breathe. Like yaks on the Tibetan plateau, the sea grass ecosystem needs sea turtles to continually graze in order for it to thrive. Asher my dear son, despite turtle breeding programs, it is likely that you may not grow up to swim with the turtles in Akumal. In fact, Granny may never get the chance again as well, so on the bus home, we decided to return the next day and have another crack at it.

The next day the wind was worse and red flags lined the beach, warning swimmers to stay clear, but determined to fulfill Granny’s dream, we rented two sets of snorkels and set out in the choppy water. I literally dragged Granny over the first turtle I saw and she was so excited to be swimming alongside them that she swallowed a mouthful of water when she screamed with excitement. Now energized from the thrill, Granny plowed through the waves finding turtle after turtle and called me over to see each one. She found groups of twos and threes and we watched several of them surface for airy gasps of oxygen. We were so happy that Granny did not give up and at 61, she proved to everyone that ‘where there is a will, there is a way.’ We were also happy that Granny took you for a stroll around town so your mom and I could snorkel together, hand in hand, and glide with these ancient reptiles, these echoes of the past and premonitions of the future.

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