I like to have a day off on my birthday.
Being at work kind of spoils the celebration of still being alive because you have to behave professionally, not drink and there is a total ban on swimming cozzies and jumping in the deep end.
A week is way preferable to one measly day, but when I was proposing a week’s cycling tour of France or Italy (either would be good) absolutely no-one was interested in coming with me!
Back to the drawing board of the internet, I buried the massive disappointment of not having a holiday with my bike by researching and booking a hol to a place where I could be with the next best thing – turtles.
Ok there are turtles in the Mediterranean but not many and they are often pursued by boats full of tourists. I didn’t want to be one of those. I wanted to swim with turtles on my own. This might be possible in Mexico.
And so it came to pass that at 6,45am on Akumal Beach on the 2nd August, I slipped a T shirt over my cozzie, got my surf shoes, mask and snorkel on and swam out into Akumal Bay.
The Caribbean was calm, the sun rising over the outcrop of rocks at the mouth of the bay but the water was cloudy in the shallows. It just started to clear when a shadow cruised into view, circled and descended in front of me to the sparse sea grass below.
Out of the gloom I realise that one green turtle had swum in to land next to another green turtle, which it greeted with with a friendly head-bump.
Here, I realised, be turtles!
They are benign, handsome creatures with rounded off square heads, big dark kind eyes and shells which varied from beautiful patterns in shades of tan and caramel to big battered algae-covered dustbin lids with associated hangers-on.
Unlike hammerhead and hawkbill turtles, green turtles are vegetarian.They spend all day grazing on tasty tender sea grass.. But in the early morning and late evening, they become more active, swimming around, hanging out with mates and generally turtling around.
I was in a very soggy version of Cloud Nine. Turtling expeditions – maybe 4 – 5 hours a day every day were a joy. I got to know individuals.
There were differences in their shells, in their head markings and the largest and oldest turtle that I saw always had three long green torpedo-shaped remoras on board. The other name for remonas is shark suckers. They enjoy a symbiotic relationship with other creatures because they are full-time cleaners.
Other turtles were accompanied on their day-long buffet by small silver fish that flashed about in front of their faces, hoping to snaffle any tasty morsels that the turtles disturbed as they were eating.
Some turtles had a habit of using both front flippers to excavate the seagrass, sending up clouds of sand and sending the hangers-on fish into ecstasies of excitement.
I’m not a diver so watching turtles was perfect as every two or three minutes – depending on the size of turtle – they would glide up to the surface beside me – take a gulp or two of air – and then descend to continue feeding.
The early mornings, when it was just me and the turtles, were magical. Turtles would be swimming through the water parallel with me at about the same speed before a few breaths or circling around to visit other turtles.
They knew where other turtles were located, no doubt about that. The touch-noses greeting didn’t always work. One such encounter I watched, the turtle missed the nose and buried his into a shoulder whereupon the other turtle turned away in a huff. It was exactly like the moment when a mwah-mwah embrace goes horribly wrong among the middle-classes when someone goes for a three instead of a two.
It’s a great life being a turtle. OK you come in for your fair share of attention from the buoyancy-jacketed tourists who’ve bought a Turtle-watching Trip but you really don’t care. You can always swim away. If fish annoy you, you can slap them out of the way with a flipper.
The remoras are well behaved. As the turtle rises throught he water to take air, they reposition themselves under the shell so that they don’t break the surface. As the turtle descends again, they return to their stations on the top of the shell.
They know their places.
The turtles were the main focus for me but only a tiny fraction of the whole of Caribbean reef life. The acquatic community is fascinating; a whole society of creatures with vastly different characters. There are the territorial fish, the curious fish, the sneaky dangerous fish. Barracuda, for instance are the fishy equivalent of finding Christopher Lee in your wardrobe.
I was happily filming a couple of turtles on the sea bed when I turned towards a shadow in my peripheral vision. The shadow was the dark thick rust-coloured rope joining up a series of buoys but in the shadow, there was the long pewter shape – five feet long to be precise – of a resting barracuda. His flat silver unemotional eye was upon me and his mouth was opening and closing slightly showing needle-sharp teeth.
I could see him very clearly because those teeth were only two feet away from my face. I’d seen barracuda before, a group of half a dozen glittering four-footers, streaking fast just beneath the silvered underbelly of water. They can swim at speeds up to 25mph when they are chasing prey before tearing it to bits.
The barracuda didn’t move but I was far too close for comfort! I withdrew gracefully, rather like I did when I was swimming over a four foot wide Caribbean whiptail stingray.
Respect is the key when you’re the alien swimming with the locals.
Just realise I haven’t mentioned my communing with a cuttlefish. That’ll have to be a whole other blog. Oh and there were the giant rainbow parrot fish..