Akumal guides tagged posts

WARNING: Swimming with Turtles in Akumal Bay

A joint warning from the Tulum Hotel Association, Riviera Maya Hotel Association and the Hotel Association of Cancun and Puerto Morelos was issued and published in Novedades and PorEsto! newspapers today, June 2, 2017.

The following is a translation of the warning message.

 

Warning: Swimming with Turtles in Akumal Bay

The General Directorate of Wildlife (Dirección General de Vida Silvestre), a unit of the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT), authorized various individuals and cooperatives to conduct guided swimming tours with turtles. The permits were granted without verifying or requiring that the service providers and their tour guides had proper instruction or training, such as swimming abilities and water rescue procedures. It was not verified that these individuals had the necessary infrastructure to properly and safely provide this service,  nor was it confirmed if they had insurance coverage in case of accident and/or damage. Neither did they verify if these individuals have criminal records. These omissions have resulted in fatal accidents!

The Tulum Hotel Association encourages visitors, national and international, to verify that the service providers of their choice comply with the following minimum conditions to ensure their safety and promote the sustainable development of the Bay of Akumal:

  1. Tour guides accredited by Secretariat of Federal Tourism as “Tour guides for the interpretation of nature, specialized in swimming with turtles, under NOM-TUR-009-2002”.
  2. Liability and medical insurance in the event of an accident.
  3. Showers so that clients can rinse off before entering the water, since  sunscreens and other chemicals have been proven to damage marine species.
  4. First aid equipment, and trained and certified personnel.
  5. Municipal Operating Licences.

Help us promote safety and sustainability in Bahia de Akumal / Akumal Bay

A Poor Example of Protection Efforts in Akumal Bay

A few weeks ago, the “snorkel with turtles” suspension in Akumal Bay was lifted after only 51 days and SEMARNAT reissued permits to commercial operators.

Much like before, only those with a permit can conduct tours in the bay, and each permit holder is expected to follow certain limitations and restrictions to conduct their business in a sustainable and prescribed way within a specific protected area within the bay. Some of those limitations include:

  • Snorkel activities can only be carried out between the hours of 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.
  • No more than 6 people/group plus a guide.
  • The minimum distance between groups is 10 meters.

A full list of rules for tourist service providers can be found on CONANP’s Facebook page.

Yet in the past few weeks, since the permits were issued, several rules are being ignored. Case in point, the following irregularities and violations have been witnessed:

  • Snorkel tours are being conducted before the hours of 9 a.m.
  • Snorkel tours are being conducted after 5 p.m.
  • Commercial tour providers rumoured to not having a permit are conducting tours and operating in Akumal Bay.
  • Snorkel groups are exceeding the limit of 6 people per group
  • Snorkel groups are not keeping a 10m distance

Why are the rules being broken?

There are several forces at work, as was the case before the suspension. First and foremost, it comes down to the lack of respect for the rules.

For years, many of these commercial operators have been conducting their business in whatever manner they see fit, focusing on profits first and ecological impact last. Also, history has proven that their conduct of operation comes from a different “playbook”—a playbook that condones setting up shop on private property, conducting business illegally, torching police stations and vehicles, vandalizing and theft as well as acts of physical assault against their fellow citizens and tourists… all actions that have come with minimal or no legal consequences.

So how can it be feasible to go from renegade and rebellious self-serving attitudes to having to follow the rules? Even the former permits which clearly stated a maximum of 12 people per day per tour operator were never followed along with other directives, so what possible incentive or motivation would make them follow the rules now?

Secondly, and perhaps the biggest reason as to why the rules cannot be followed falls onto the responsibility of the authorities with their lack of organization and ineffective enforcement and execution of any sort of overall management.

The most recent permits were reissued before the authorities bothered to conduct any scientific studies to establish the capacity limits for the bay or organize a cohesive management plan or even implement protocols or procedures to oversee or enforce the rules, effectively creating a “cart-before-the-horse” scenario.

Authorities are on the beach, but without a monitored, centralized entrance or organized procedures in place for both in water and on the beach activities, there is no way for the authorities to know the following:

  • which groups are entering—permitted or not,
  • which groups are entering with authorized guide,
  • how many people each group is entering with,
  • which circuit each which group is using,
  • are the groups following the timeline for each circuit, or
  • how many total snorkelers or beach goers have entered the beach that hour or day.

If the authorities can’t effectively monitor the activities, how are they expected to enforce the permit rules?

The simple answer right now is that they can’t. Without structure in place and only two PROFEPA staff to monitor all the activities and actions for over 30 permitted groups (alongside the unpermitted groups) in and out of the water, it is just not viable.

As a result of these serious and definite gaps, many of the tour operators are capitalizing on the situation. Tour groups are entering the bay before 9 a.m. and after 5 p.m. with more than six individuals because there are no authorities on the beach at these times. And even when there are authorities on the beach between 9 and 5, they simply don’t have the capacity to fully monitor or enforce those entering without a permit or those entering at a different access with more than six people.

Is protection a priority? 

So, it begs the question, is protection of Akumal Bay really a priority?

If protection of Akumal Bay were a priority, then each and every tour operator would be making a conscious effort to respect the rules and demand the same from each permit-holding colleague.

If protection of Akumal Bay were a priority for the authorities, and not just the façade of back patting and congratulatory credit in decreeing a protected area, a cohesive management plan (including capacity limits based on local scientific studies) with various approaches to administer that plan would have been developed and implemented even before the consideration of re-issuing permits to legitimate commercial tour operators with business permits and a business address.

If protection of Akumal Bay were a priority, an effective and comprehensive plan would take into account more than just the guided tours of the bay—it would consider the rental of snorkel equipment (a great contributor to the overuse of the bay), education and information for all users of the bay, and training and education to ensure all guides are qualified, insured, first-aid certified and all operating in a sustainable, standardized and legal manner.

But… when governments are financially encouraged to put the cart first, the priority for the horse is secondary at best—disregarding the vital planning, implementation, enforcement and management steps—thus resulting in Akumal Bay being a poor example of ecological protection designed by all levels of government involved.

DEFYING THE SUSPENSION ORDER; CHALLENGING THE AUTHORITY

Earlier today several local cooperatives took guided snorkeling tours in Akumal Bay, despite the ongoing temporary suspension and the suspension notice  clearly visible on the beach.

Guide from local cooperative walks his “snorkel with turtle” tour guests past military patrol, PROFEPA and suspension notice sign

The authorities were apparently  taken off guard and started documenting evidence. They were unable to stop this activity although they followed them into the water. Some tense interactions on the beach with the rest of the guides had the military standing by.

Profepa officials were seen on the phone, but they did not get the guides to desist, although they eventually stopped on their own. This seems to be a brazen act of rebellion and lack of respect for the authority, unless something else is happening here.

In addition, cooperatives have been taking tours in after Profepa staff leave at 5pm, and as of yesterday, the Profepa staff were doing overtime and left at 7pm. We hope to get some clarity about this situation soon.

Swim with turtles tours still quietly going on despite suspension

March 10, 2017
It has been almost three weeks since PROFEPA suspended the swimming with turtles activities for commercial operators in Akumal Bay. From the suspension, it seems many operators/snorkel guides have begun to diversify their businesses. Instead of heading to Akumal Bay, they now make their way further down the road to Yalku Lagoon. Some tours are also being diverted to Half Moon Bay—an area with abundant reef located in shallow waters; an area that is not suitable for beginner snorkelers who will struggle with their equipment and buoyancy to the detriment of the fragile corals below with a kick, swipe or touch.

 

Then there is the type of business diversity that use covert operations to push the legal boundaries. Yet, if you watch closely, it isn’t all that covert.

 

Just the other day, reports an eye witness, we watched a guide talk to a group of 5 visitors. He walked the group back to the main road and they all reappeared several minutes later on the beach with snorkel and masks in hand. They gathered around the palm trees and listened to the guide who then motioned to the water and pointed somewhere along the horizon as he gave instructions. Immediately after, the guide ran into the water, dove under and swam out to the buoys where he waited for the group to join.

 

It was perfectly disguised as a group of friends going snorkeling together without a guide from the beach, shares the eye witness. But it was so obvious what was going on. As soon as the people got into the water, the guide met them and helped with their equipment, then started to lead them on a snorkeling tour of the bay.

 

The guide not only broke the suspension order by providing service, but clearly shows no environmental concern to the reasons indicated by PROFEPA for the closure for groups in the first place–the protection of the turtles, seagrass, corals. To make matters worse, the guide and the five individuals went into the water on a Red Flag day–a day where waves, current, and visibility are far from ideal–and the same day that the Harbour Captain suspended all nautical activities.

 

However, PROFEPA seems to be onto these underground, covert operatives conducting tours in plain day under their noses.

 

On Wednesday, a guide who was hawking tours and seen with two female tourists, was questioned by PROFEPA regarding his activities.

 

Apparently nothing came of the matter as he explained that the women he approached were “friends” and that he wasn’t selling or conducting tours.

 

Tourists who cover up for their guides , during a government decreed suspension or hire a guide in this clandestine manner are going against a government order.

Action Taken by Authorities in Akumal

February 15, 2017

What started as regular day, quickly turned into an unusual one with the arrival and presence of authorities taking swift action.

Authorities from PROFEPA accompanied by the Marines arrived in Akumal this morning informing the snorkel tour operators in the bay that they were required to leave and that the bay was now temporarily closed to all commercial activity.

Marines arrive with authorities to suspend snorkel with turtle activities

While many of the cooperatives seemed to be taken by surprise, it shouldn’t have been a surprise since all commercial tour operator permits expired on December 31, 2016.

Since January 1, any commercial group that was operating tours in Akumal was doing so without a permit. Akumal-based cooperatives continued to enter the bay and conduct tours without permits, as well as outside groups (both commercial and freelance) began their operations again—increasing the numbers of snorkellers on a daily basis.

Authorities have done little or nothing for the past 10 months, since the declaration of the Refuge for Protected Species in April of last year. Despite outside or unpermitted companies entering the bay or local cooperatives exceeding their daily quota of guests (12/day), there were no consequences or enforcement—the authorities simply turned a blind eye or their backs.

Today, however, was different. Action was taken.

Authorities say that this is a temporary suspension of all swim with turtles activity until permits are obtained.

From a purely environmental perspective, it’s a win. However, there are other components that need to be considered for a long-term sustainable solution and future for Akumal. There needs to be a win-win situation that balances economic, social and environmental needs.

But until that time, there are immediate pressing questions. In fact it seems there are more questions than answers or information available at this time. On our list of questions:

Permits

  • Who will get permits?
  • How many cooperatives or companies will get the permits?
  • How many guests will be allowed per day?
  • Who will oversee and ensure authorized entry of groups and that limits are not exceeded?

Zoning

  • Is there a specific zone for swimming only? For snorkelling only?

Beach Goers / Snorkellers

  • Can they rent snorkel equipment? From where? Or they expected to bring their own? Do the same recommendations regarding the use of lifejackets apply?
  • What if someone offers them a tour (since this is illegal until permits are issued)? Where do they report and to whom?
  • Who will be providing beach goers with information/education on best practices or details if the recommendations change?

Fingers crossed that in due time the authorities will be releasing more details and answering some of these immediate questions while taking steps towards long-term sustainable planning and implementation.

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