I decide to head to go to Akumal to snorkel today. I rent some snorkel gear and board a north-bound collectivo. I find myself on the beach after a 1 km walk. The sargassum is not nearly as noticeable here, though it appears that it is a growing problem all along the Atlantic Coast. I can only imagine the fuss raised by rich suburban gringo tourists trying to sunbathe in Cancun. Unlike those hellholes further north, Akumal seems to be frequented by European, American, and Mexican tourists. Although there are a fair number of tourists, the beach is far from crowded.
I hop into the bathtub warm water and swim out to the reef. If I had this experience earlier, I may very well have become a marine biologist. I am immersed in a world of bright neon colors. An impossibly purple sea fan coral waves listlessly with the current, like a tree in a strong breeze. Towering sea plumes and sturdy brain corals shelter a multitude of fish, including petite needlefish; gorgeous species with beguiling names like French angels, sergeant majors, and four-eye butterflies; and stoplight parrotfish which eat the coral, grinding it into sand. A lionfish guards his lair beneath the coral atoll. I back away given that its flowing fins contain venom that can be extremely painful. The lionfish is native to the Indian and Pacific oceans, but were released from aquariums into the Carribean in the 1990s. They are now an invasive pest that poses a major threat to coral reef ecosystems, as it is a voracious predator that consume juvenile reef fish and can reproduce at incredible rates. A single adult female can lay some 30,000 eggs and can mate every 55 days. Large-eye bream stare back stupidly as I descend to the coral. It is a silent alien world beneath the waves. The quiet is only interrupted occasionally by the crunch of parrotfish chewing on coral and the faint ripple of the waves above. An hourglass or Argus moray eel grins at me from its rocky crevice. A huge bumphead parrotfish, probably 2 feet tall by three feet long swam away from me with surprising haste given its heft. The highlight of the trip was swimming with green marine turtles. I met my first of these beautiful creatures eating sea grass on a sandy patch of the reef. I could hear it ripping at the grass as I hovered over it as I ate. I tried to keep my distance so as not to disturb them, but they seemed completely oblivious to snorkelers. After a few minutes of feeding, it swam upwards, inches away from me and took two gulps of air at the surface before descending to eat again. One feels a special sort of connection to these gentle giants when you look them in the eye, soft and black like a fawn’s. I saw a total of three turtles during my time floating gently out on the reef and enjoyed every second. It is beyond my comprehension how they could be so violently and aggressively hunted to the point that their populations require strict protection. I spent about 4 hours exploring the reef before retiring to the shade of the palms on the white sand beach to rest.
Unfortunately, despite my best efforts, I was terribly sunburned on my dorsal side. My back and the backs of my legs were red and tender despite regular applications of sunscreen. The night was difficult. Every move radiated a pulse of pain throughout my body. My back baked as though it was being held over a spit while my front was chilled. My head ached and I could hear my heart beating in my temples. I started sweating uncontrollably after a cold shower. My vision dimmed and my ears began to ring. I grasped the back of a chair before almost collapsing. I curled up in my bed and tried to wait out the worst of the pain, which was probably exacerbated by dehydration. I guzzled water to try to alleviate some of the symptoms, but the pain continued long into the night. I only had moments of fitful sleep, punctuated by torturous electrical agony.