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Swimming with sea turtles: just another day at the beach

sunny 33 °C


I wanted to finish off our Tulum adventures, as we leave tomorrow for an overnight stop in Chetumal (right on the Belize border), on our way to Palenque. We have learned our lesson. When Google map tells us to expect a 8-hour drive, we know they are just playing with us. I want to tell you all about our snorkelling adventure, while it is still fresh in my mind, and I probably won't get another posting out for a few days.

The photos above are of Akumal Beach, about 25 minutes from Tulum. While Tulum has a reef, and some terrific snorkelling, Akumal's is even better. It has a beach with a reef and a lagoon, and draws bigger crowds because of the many fish, the manta rays and the big draw - giant sea turtles. Neither of us have ever snorkelled before, so we could have seen goldfish and been happy.

There are two or three big dive shops in Akumel, and they take out groups of 10-12 people. We spoke to a small independent operator, and went with him - for 500 pesos (about $45 CAD), we had a private guide, José, and all the equipment - life jacket, flippers, masks and snorkels. We really appreciated José's approach with us and his respectful consideration for the ocean. First, he took us out to about waist-deep water, and then helped us on with our flippers. Because we were absolute beginners, he had a life-preserver ring with him, and instructed us to hang on on that, and stay behind him at all times. He showed us how to walk in our flippers to avoid churning up the sand, to keep our flippers up when going through the coral beds, and under no circumstances, to touch the turtles (it is actually illegal). On went the masks, in went the snorkels, and we were off.

We headed over to the left side of the beach (top photo), where we saw a number of submerged Spanish cannons. (credit to a Tripadvisor pic).


Up until now, the attraction of diving to see wrecks, and rusted paraphernalia (yawn) was incomprehensible to me. Not that I am ready to jump from a rental snorkel to full scuba gear, but, whoa - whole other world down there. (That's not the only cliché I mentally lapsed into - "mysterious", "unknowable" - I worked them all). We were out for an hour, and I did not want it to be over.

This is where the "epiphany" comes in. I have been known to describe exciting moments in my life as being "epiphanal", which often overstates the case, and has provided Alex with rich material to mock his mother. In this case, "epiphanal" is the exact right description of an experience which I feel was life-changing.

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I know it is a poor carpenter who blames her tools, but my little Coolpix (which is very limited at the best of times) simply balked at the idea of taking underwater photography, so I have swiped a number of Internet images to accompany this story. These teeny photos do not begin to do it justice, but they do show a few examples of the fish we saw. There were no great schools, but always something to look at - over there, a one-foot iridescent blue fish, a few little black fish with angel wings and emerging from behind a coral fan, a brilliant yellow, blue and white striped fish. Just as I had imagined it to be, swimming with tropical fish. There are barracudas out there as well, but José never pointed any out. Sharks reside safely beyond the reef.

After we left the cannons, we swam over to the reef, which is about 200-300 metres offshore. The water became a lot bouncier, as waves washed over us, and this was the point I was very grateful to have a guide -this is the point I may have bolted for shore. Soon again, the water calmed, and the impression was of being in an enormous, spectacularly stocked acquarium. José led us very slowly; our three faces just below the surface of the water, and our snorkels just above. Stephen and I kept pointing out various things to each other, and as soon as I got the hang of not talking with my snorkel in my mouth (impossible), we simply existed in a silent, stunning world. Crystal clear water, absolutely perfect visibility.


Most of the reef area is from 12-20 feet deep - beyond that, the sea drops dramatically. In the reef, coral beds feature prominently, and again, my imagination was far out-stripped by reality. Huge cactus-like formations provide hiding places for fish and sit solidly alongside delicately waving coral fans. Stubby coral branches reach out in shades of whites, yellows and pinks. Depth perception is shot - I moved my hand down to touch a coral branch and it shimmered far, far below me.


We moved out of this coral "room" into a more open area, and there they were: two gigantic sea turtles. They glided up toward us - their magnificent shells like mosaic, and piggybacking remora - the sucker fish that help to keep their shells clean. They almost looked like they were checking us out, and one of them surfaced for air - its curious turtle face out of the water for just seconds. I did not want to embarrass myself by tearing up in front of José, but...seeing these creatures is like seeing a whale close up - it feels like an immense privilege, and it is very moving. We watched them for a while, then swam on - saw more fish, and more turtles, including a young one.


"Manta Ray!" The power and mystique of these strong, silent types is not to be underestimated. We saw two; each of them close to the ocean floor, with their sides folding in and out, feeling out their territory. They are magnificent.

Up until this point, we had not been overly aware of other snorkellers, but when we spotted the Manta Rays, the call went out. "Okay guys, this is your Nemo moment", shrieked one of the guides to his large group. I was so grateful to have José with us; his dignified presence and obvious pleasure at our enjoyment added so much to our experience.

As we left the water and walked back down the beach, I looked out over the bay, and felt amazed that it looks so benign and there is so much going on out there. I cannot wait until we have the chance to explore that world again. I can't stop thinking about it.

As we were gathering up our belongings, Stephen started to talk to this man, who was sitting in the shade, weaving palm leaves to make hats, bowls, little mats, flowers and grasshoppers.


His name is Denys Toquetti, from Brazil, and he is travelling around the world for $1.00 - the cost of the knife he uses to create his art.
His blog is: http://fibraverde.blogspot.mx/, and if you happen to understand Portuguese, you can follow his journey so far. From what we were able to understand with our English/French/Spanish, Denys arrives in a place (presumably limited to countries with palm trees), and sets up shop - a beach or market - to create small objects that people want to buy - this funds his travel. We were charmed by the idea and bought this basket for $150 pesos ($12) that he made in front of us. He then whipped up a flower and a grasshopper, and added them as gifts. On the way back to our car, a woman from Kelowna stopped us to see the basket - she had bought a similar one in Hawaii years ago, and she was so excited to see ours.


Back down to earth - today was our last day in Tulum - our last day at the beach and it felt quite bittersweet. Folks we had met on the beach a few days ago had told us about the many fantastic birds they had seen, including parrots, and we were keen to try and find them. They are staying in a condo compound halfway between town and the beach, and it has to be seen to be believed. Apparently it has been under construction for 10 years, with NO expenses spared. Tulum is expensive, but this is beyond. If it is ever finished, it will be its own destination. There are acres and acres and acres of jungle, with two condo complexes completed so far, and the beginnings of a pyramid built, as well as a mysterious courtyard. The plan seems to be to create a small village, and certainly the infrastructure would suggest that - so many paths and nowhere to go.


You can walk or bike for miles, and in the early morning, the birds are out in full force. We set the alarm, arrived over there before 7:00, and set out to bag some birds. The chirping and the chattering and the squawking sounded very promising, and poco a poco, they began to reveal themselves. We saw orange birds, and yellow birds and pink birds and blue birds - tropical birds galore. More specifically, we saw orange orioles, yellow orioles, Yucatan jays, tropical kingbirds, chachalacas, vultures, owls and quail. No parrots, and no photos worth keeping - outlines of birds on branches.

Still, very exciting to see what we did, and to see them in this strange half-finished world in a Tulum that is moving so quickly from hippie to haute.

Posted by millerburr 18:39 Archived in Mexico

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Oh, the sheer joy of visiting our aquatic cousins without putting them in cages or behind glass.
But we too know the difficulties of catching a snapshot of a bird on the wing.

by Hawkson

The first time that we went snorkeling (on the great barrier reef) was an epiphany for me too! I couldn't believe that it could be so amazing and that you didn't need to scuba dive to see the wonders of tropical fish and the reef.

by Brock

Now that you have had a taste of that remarkable submerged world, it's time to take up scuba diving. Your hols will never be the same after that.

by jon SNIPPER

Your description of snorkelling touched me deeply as I remember feeling much the same way you described when we were snorkelling in the Cayman Islands. Thanks so much for sharing!

by Heather

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