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  • Writer's pictureCourtney Heard

Atheist Life Hacks: How To Make Friends With Sea Turtles

I think it’s the sound of being underwater that I love the most. The noise of the world dulled and cloudy as though far away, the liquid sound of bubbles and the surface meeting air and objects and other swimmers. It’s quiet, peaceful, relaxing. It’s beautiful, too. In the ocean, as the sun’s rays burst into the deep, illuminating little air bubbles as they escape from fins and snorkels and sea life. Like glitter ascending to the heavens. Feeling suspended, near-weightless and floating in this zen soup is one of my favourite things in the world. I love the ocean and every little creature in it.

Sea turtle Akumal

We used to head out to Akumal at least once a month. When I lived in Playa Del Carmen, Akumal was not near the tourist trap it is now. You used to be able to find a quiet Sunday to go and lay your towel down in the fine, cream-coloured sand and only be one of a handful of people there. Tourists caught on though, that every swim at Akumal was a swim with huge sea turtles and now, it’s a goddamned zoo.

Before it turned into that, though, I would slip into the little bay, which was protected by a reef, and put on my mask, snorkel and fins. I’d swim for hours, roasting my back, dipping and diving to get closer to brightly coloured fish and sea turtles the size of my pregnant belly. Some even bigger. I’d watch, suspended in liquid silence, as their little flippers brought them to the surface and their tiny heads breached to gasp air. If you came up to see their heads pop out of the water, you could hear their little breaths and every time I saw it, I would grin with utter delight.

It never took long to spot a turtle back then. It was almost immediate. You’d still be able to touch the bay floor with your fingertips when you spotted your first turtle of the day. They were everywhere, frolicking in the shimmering blue. I’d swim all the way out to the reef and bob up and down in the waves circling the brightly coloured coral below. Schools of fish would appear and surround me and completely throw off my sense of direction before they were gone again, just as fast as they had appeared. I’d dive down to the turtles and get as close as I could without scaring them away. I’d just watch as they nibbled on underwater plants and swept the sand with their flippers. We’d rock together in the current, me in my bright blue fins, and the turtles in their rich browns, vibrant yellows and gorgeous oranges. Inevitably, I always had to come up for breath sooner than they did, but I’d dive right back down again as soon as my lungs were full.

The last time I went to Akumal was 2014 and the beach was wall to wall bodies. There were men roaming the shore selling tickets to see the turtles, turtles I used to swim with for free. There were line-ups 40 or 50 people deep just to get a life vest, which is now required to snorkel in this calm bay where I used to spend the entire afternoon, submerged in the Caribbean blue, 7, 8, 9 months pregnant no less. And the turtles? The turtles were nowhere to be found. In our stubborn refusal to leave without seeing one, we finally spotted him after hours floating in close proximity to obnoxiously loud tourists in brightly coloured life vests, knocking elbows and getting smacked with fins. He was there, alone, terrified as morbidly obese Americans hovered over him and screamed and stared and pointed. In a moment, he shot out from under us, and he was gone.

Disappointed, I swore I would never go back; never contribute to that horrible scene again. I’ve seen what happens to delicate ecology like that when it turns into a tourist trap. Hanauma Bay in Hawaii, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. Both nearly destroyed because we seem to think the world belongs to us, and forget that we share it with millions of other species. I won’t go back to Akumal for the sake of the beautiful creatures there, and the home they deserve to keep.

Consider donating to Centro Ecológico Akumal to protect my sea turtles. Click here.

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