Swimming with turtles

We join a group of 13: two couples, a family of three and another of five. We’re staying in an adult-only resort (next to a nudist resort, though I never see any errant nudes along the stretches of sand), where the only crying comes from the Americans who spent their first 4 hours in the resort lying in the midday sun, and have blisters on their backs like panacotta, and so I’ve forgotten that there are children in Mexico, in the other resorts, and now in our mini-bus, on our tour.

We are going to swim with turtles. Akumal, the turtle sanctuary, is closed to visitors, which probably means we should not be swimming with turtles, but they cannot close all the coastlines. I am wearing sunscreen, thick brown-tinted Elizabeth Arden stuff that costs £80 a bottle and which I did not pay for, and for the first time in my life this is not a good idea: we are supposed to be using biodegradable sunscreen, because of the film the chemicals create on the water; because of 10,000 turtles surfacing to breathe and coating their insides with £80 sunscreen. But I applied it in the morning, before I left the hotel, because I burn in minutes, because I’m still burnt from an hour in the sun in London the previous week. I cannot bring myself to scrape it off. I cannot bring myself to burn. I leave it on. I am a turtle killer.

It is 30 degrees and sunny but before we see the turtles, we swim in the dark.

Riviera Maya is home to upwards of 15,000 cenotes, caves filled with water, 15,000 that they know of, which, if you apply the same logic as I use for stars, means there are more than that, hidden and undiscovered. I think about it as I walk along the hot gravel pathway, dodging swarms of somethings that are only partially dissuaded by my chemical coating. A few feet of rock and then endless holes, into the centre of the earth. Logically, I know, they don’t go on forever, that there is more space above than below, and that that should comfort me but: once in the caves our guide points out a tightly-tied string that divers will follow down into the dark, and it makes me clutch for the edges, even though I am a good swimmer, in a wetsuit and a life jacket, with very little to fear from a cenote. The small British girl to my right asks how big the fish get down there, and our guide, Beatrice, says “not very”, soothingly, but I’m not sure it’s comforting to be so close to somewhere where not even a medium-sized fish wants to live. Beatrice has been diving the cenotes her whole life. I ask her if she’s been in all of them. Beatrice shakes her head. Beatrice thinks I am a moron.

There are piles of stones high on the ledges of the caves, stacked by Mayans some centuries ago, offerings to the gods as permission to enter the Underworld. Later I confess that I weed in the water, as I snorkelled above a cave that dropped too dark to see. My boyfriend thinks it’s sacrilegious. I agree, and I’m ashamed, and I want to make a  joke about a libation; and I think that at least five of the 13, and thousands before, maybe even the Mayans, must have done the same.

We didn’t know we were seeing caves, going under. The tour is a turtle tour, so I pictured us on the surface, in the sun, while turtles circled below. I hadn’t pictured the wetsuits and the darkness and the stacks of stones. There is something new about a beach and something old about a cave. If I were the family of 5, burnt and British and with at least 2 kids under 4, I would be mad, because the children are scared, and out of their depth, under the earth. It is nothing at all like Finding Nemo.  They refuse to enter the last of the caves and remain in the sun, feeding empanadas to the dogs. If I were two years old clad only in a pink swimsuit because there is no wetsuit in the world small enough for me, or mother to a three year old, I would not be clambering down the slippery stone-hewn stairs either.

At the beach, the boats are small. I had pictured wading out into the water and floating on calm seas, flicking my fins like the fishes, but that is not how sea life works: we motor out to the break, where the waves are metres high and white, where the reef is and where the turtles are. If I were the family of five, burnt and British and with at least two kids under 4, I wouldn’t be happy here either, because the sand is at least two metres below, and the sea is full of thrashing swimmers and turtles, surfacing for bits of fish flung down by the Mexican guides. The children that do make it into the water reach out for the turtles, because how can you not? But you are not allowed to touch the turtles.

A single ray, a large one, scuds across the sand, deeper than the turtles, but rearing up for the fish. This is a better way to clear the water than weeing, or by conjuring two-metre waves. We are here for the turtles, nor for something that looks like it might want to kill you, though my brain tells me that a turtle, with its little nippy beak, could hurt me more, more quickly. The guide has told me to remove my jewellery for this exact reason, but one, made of two snakes curled over and about, remains on my middle finger where it has been since I was 13. I could not blame the turtles for going for it. It is probably my most delicious finger.  The ray stays at the bottom.

20 minutes, and we’re out, and done. £70 does not buy you more time than that with a turtle, not when you’ve have two caves and a bottle of water and an empanada to boot. 20 minutes, and I’m tugged back on to the boat to join the father with his two under four, who has not even touched the water, because who in his right mind pitches his two youngest off a boat in an old lifejacket, when there are waves and rays about? £70, plus whatever it costs to take two children to cry in two caves and get burnt on a boat.

2 minutes back shore, a vault over a bank of sun-hot seaweed, and then 20 minutes in the line for the toilet, with a woman from Vermont who does not want to be the line for the toilet. She asks Beatrice, “Are there any more toilets?” She is exasperated. She should have weed with the gods, in the dark, above the tunnels.

Beatrice says,”No. So much of the coast is built up. Here is a reserve. Here, they keep natural. Like it should be.” Beatrice is brown and strong and wearing earring she will try to sell me later. Beatrice is wearing biodegradable sunscreen. Beatrice would trade me in for a turtle in a heartbeat.

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