The Caribbean coast of Mexico teems with hotels, resorts, and timeshares that cater to tourists in what has become known as the Riviera Maya. The beaches are beautiful, to be sure, and there are many opportunities to watch attractive people cook their skin — if you love being in crowds, this is paradise.
About an hour’s drive south of Cancún is a little village called Akumal (Ah-coo-MAHL) that’s more to my taste. It’s still a bit scruffy, although developers are doing their best to purge its charm. Eventually every square inch of beachfront will probably have a home or resort on it. For now, though, the reason for going there isn’t a luxury hotel; it’s what is in the turquoise water of Akumal Bay.
In addition to undersea clouds of tropical fish, there are lots of sea turtles that swam up to check us out while we were snorkeling; often they would come within a few feet of us. It turns out that this stretch of coastline — and this bay in particular — is where the turtles come ashore to lay their eggs. In fact, in the Mayan language, Akumal means “place of the turtle”. A local environmental group is working to preserve their habitat; Sally and I volunteered to help one night. Here’s what I wrote about that experience in a journal entry dated May 23, 2005:
Someone, somewhere, had proclaimed this World Turtle Day. By coincidence, we had signed up through the Centro Ecológico Akumal (CEA) to take a “Turtle Walk”. This is the time of year when the turtles come ashore to lay their eggs, and the objective of the walk is not just a late-night stroll, but to identify and protect the nests.
We were instructed to report to the Centro at 9 p.m. wearing long pants and long-sleeved shirts (for protection from the bugs). The first item of business was a PowerPoint presentation giving an overview of turtle anatomy, behavior, natural enemies, etc. It was pretty much what one would expect at an ecological center, although this was rather challenging to follow because the speaker used heavily-accented English — and was suffering from laryngitis.
This same guy — whose name was Pablo — was also our leader on the turtle walk, which began at 10:00 p.m. The patrol consisted of (besides Sally and me) Pablo, a young couple from Colorado, and two volunteers from CEA. We were to maintain silence — no problem for Pablo, who by now had been rendered virtually mute — and to use no lights that didn’t have a red filter.
Our route took in the entire sweep of Akumal Bay, and farther south around Jade Bay. We walked in single file; occasionally Pablo would stop and point out tracks in the sand that gave evidence that turtles had been here. He and I followed one track up the beach and into the back yard of a private home. We saw no turtle, just a middle-aged woman wandering inside her house in a bra.
From time to time a security guard would suddenly appear; Pablo would have whispered conversations with them and then we would trudge on. Despite the late hour, it was quite warm and muggy.
So the rain felt good for a while.
Pablo signaled that we were to take a 20-minute break when we reached the southern point of Jade Bay. We sat in the sand and silently perspired. Then we got up and walked back toward Akumal. At the edge of Akumal Bay, he gave us a choice — we could continue on patrol, or return to our hotels. The couple from Colorado had had enough and said their goodnights, but Sally and I decided to stick it out a while longer. Again we walked in the dark to the south end of Jade Bay, then took another break.
On the northbound trek, we finally had a turtle sighting. She was just coming out of the water! Pablo was excited and rushed closer. The turtle picked up his scent and retreated back into the bay. Damn.
Pablo had one more turtle sighting; he crept closer and then remained perfectly still. So did the turtle — it was a rock. It was well after midnight when we were again given the option of staying on patrol or calling it a night. We chose the latter. We were sweaty and sandy and had fresh bug bites, but we’d certainly had an adventure. It was quarter-past-one in the morning when we fell onto our bed and waited for the ceiling fan to take effect…
(May 24) A postscript to last night’s Turtle Walk: during our errands, we stopped in at CEA and found Pablo. We asked him if they’d had any sightings after we retired. “No,” he said, confirming that we had made the right choice.
That next day, though, we were swimming with the turtles again, just as we did almost every day of the trip.