Sunday, September 14, 2014

A reef dive with sea turtles in Akumal, Mexico

Today I swam with some green sea turtles as big as a table top. There were three of them sort of nuzzling each other on the reef, about 40 feet down, and a couple of remora clung to the shell of one.

These were big adults. They can reach 400 pounds. I swam slowly alongside one of them, an arm's length away. Its yellow and green coloring stood out from the russet and brown corals.

Even at our depth the clear water allowed the noonday sunlight to brighten its coloring. Later I saw some other turtles hiding in crevices in the reef. One was underneath the skeleton of a motorcyle standing on the sand.

Photo from Green sea turtles swim beautifully.

We were only about a half-mile offshore of the town of Akumal, Mexico, about an hour south of Cancun. The town is famous as a nesting ground for loggerhead and green sea turtles. An ecological center uses staff and volunteers to make sure that when female turtles come ashore to lay their eggs, the nests are protected from predators and poachers.

Turtle nests on the beach

Bill, a volunteer from Pa., digs up a nest to count shells from hatched eggs. It's a way to monitor the population.
We are staying at a hotel on a beach dotted with little signs marking turtle nests. The beach is patrolled at night by security guards and volunteers, many from the U.S. and Canada. Cindy met some on the beach today checking on the nests and chatted them up. They said four females came in last night and laid their eggs right on our beach.

A baby green sea turtle, one of 130 captured as they emerged in daylight.
The babies are very active, just as they are when they hatch.

Other volunteers had collected 130 baby turtles as they emerged from a nest in daylight, a dangerous time for them to head for the sea. Birds and crabs could pick them off.

We saw these hatchlings stored in a cooler and went out with volunteers after dark tonight to watch their release.

Probably half of them never moved. We wondered if they had been better off taking their chances with the birds.

The hatchlings head for the surf under cover of darkness. The red light from volunteers' flashlights does not distract them from their task. About half of them made it to the surf. Half lay motionless on the sand.
The male turtles stay at sea and never return. The females reach maturity at around age 25, which is when they return to the beach where they hatched to lay their eggs.

The life cycle of sea turtles is a fascinating story in itself. I remember watching the 1970 Jacques Cousteau special where he described, in his dramatic Gallic accent, "the search for the mating grounds of the green sea turtle."
Five signs indicate turtles' nests, three near chairs of our hotel.
Developers swoop in

The truth is that developers are slapping up hotels and apartments for foreign visitors (mostly from the U.S. and Canada) along the Yucatan as fast as they can get around local and federal laws.

So you see signs everywhere advertising lots for sale.

Property for sale on the Akumal beach.
Mexico has lovely laws that are supposed to protect beaches and habitat for endangered species, like the sea turtles. But money talks, and tourism is about the only industry sector providing jobs for local people.

It's a miracle the turtles come ashore at all to deposit their eggs. Lights frighten them away, but some of the developments along this beach seem to have moderated the lighting. On Monday night, Cindy watched a female come ashore, dig a nest barely beyond the reach of the surf and deposit her 100 eggs. Volunteers captured the eggs and moved them farther up the beach where they are more likely to hatch. They incubate for about 60 days. 

A dive and a ruin

But I digress. I started out on the coral reef. Cindy planned this trip. Mexico has a four-day holiday weekend to celebrate its independence from Spain. It seemed like a perfect time to get away.

We saw many parrotfish, one of my favorite. Wikipedia photo.
She did a bunch of research and found that Akumal had a reputation for great diving and was also close to Cobá, an archeological site that she has on her list.

When I was in Cancun in March to give a lecture, I saw that some dive shops offered certification courses but we didn't have time to take one. So we decided that if we had time, we would try to come back.

In the 1970s, I was a certified diver but let the credential lapse. So to qualify for a "discovery dive" by the Akumal Dive Shop, I had to go through some training. My instructor, Alvaro, was not impressed by anything I told him about previous scuba diving experience (maybe 30 dives in Lake Erie, Ohio quarries, the Florida Keys, Costa Rica) except for the fact that my original certification was from the YMCA.

He had previously given Y certification and considered it among the best. So I watched a 30-minute video, spent about 20 minutes learning how to operate the equipment (the new technology has made it much safer) and then spent close to an hour in the water reviewing the safety skills with Alvaro.

One skill is to take off the mask and stay under for a minute, breathing through the mouthpiece without breathing through your nose. This has a very practical application. It is easy for a mask to get knocked off by a ledge of coral, or another diver's hand or fin. If you're 40 feet down, that is not a time to breathe water in through your nose.

Flying weightlessly

The reef we dived on had piles of coral shaped like towers in elfin tales as well as fan corals that swayed with the currents. The blues and purples and yellows cry out at you in the forms of fish and coral.

It is the sensation of flying that is one of the greatest parts of diving. You drift along slowly among all this pageant of color, mostly ignored by all of the creatures around you. This is one of the things that I had missed most.

Today, Sept. 16, I went out again. This time we saw four big bluefin tuna cruising along on the edge of our visibility limit. Their silver skin mirrors the sunlight as they dart past. Hundreds of tiny blue fish formed clouds over parts of the reef. We floated along on the current, 50 feet down, and watched the scene unfold below us. Glorious.

Much of Mexico's coast puts me in mind of the last scenes of "Shawshank Redemption."


When you say it, it's like magic: Tepotzotlán
Monarch butterfly reserve in Michoacán
Getting acclimated to Mexico City
Balloon launch over the ancient pyramids of Teotihuacán
Guanajuato: another magical place in Mexico
Coaxtla and Xochitécatl: stunning murals and pyramids
Zacatecas: Silver mines and the mystery of the Quemada
Tenochtitlán and Xochimilco: Mexico City before the Conquest
The Virgin of Guadalupe on a pancake grill and other mysteries

1 comment:

  1. Congrats on the trip, and on snorkeling with the turtles. It´s amazing how clear the water is on the riviera maya and how much allows you to see. That also cotributes on the animals well-being.