ISLA MUJERES - AUGUST 17-24, 2013
We do a lot of interesting trips at Reef Seekers but this one was certainly unique because it was almost like three different trips in one: Whale Sharks (snorkeling only), cenotes (caves), and regular old reef scuba diving.
The Whale Sharks were the impetus for this trip. I had seen what great experiences a group from Wetpixel had last year and decided we should give this a go. By the same token, I thought five days in a row of Whale Sharks would get to be a bit much and wanted to add in some scuba dives and a trip to the cenotes. So rather than our usual trip report format which is more or less a chronological report of what happened and our impressions thereof, I'm going to do this by segment so you have a clearer picture of what each element offered. (And I'll be saving the best for last.)
Once in Cancun, we had two pre-arranged private vans from USA Transfers take us from the airport to the Ultramar ferry terminal in Gran Puerto. There you buy your round-trip ferry ticket to Isla Mujeres ($14US) for the 20-minute ride over to the island. Ferries leave every half hour most of the day and each ferry (similar design to the Catalina Express) holds about 250 people.
Once on Isla, there are plenty of taxis at the ferry terminal for the short ride of the hotel. The taxis are relatively cheap (40 pesos) but you may have to negotiate with the drivers over what the exchange rate is. The official rate when we were there was 12.90 pesos per US dollar but the taxi rate (and this applies to some of the restaurants and shops too) was anywhere from 10-11 pesos/dollar and one driver tried to tell me it was 8. So at the official rate a ride is $3 but at the gouging rate it's a $5 ride. No big deal but the point is to be aware of this ahead of time. A few times I simply said, "The official rate is 13," handed them $4, and walked away.
There's a nice restaurant on the property, the Sunset Grill. It's separate from the hotel so while you can bill things to your room, you need to run a separate tab with them that you settle at the end of the week. The food there was pretty good overall (they made excellent fresh bread each day) and some of their tables are out on the beach which was nice, although your chair starts to settle into the sand and if you're not careful, the table will eventually be at the level of your armpits. So you just need to pull your chair up every now and then.
Nautibeach also has a large pool, a nice beach with chairs, and other amenities you'd expect. It's a 5-minute walk to the docks, the dive shop, restaurants & shopping, and really any part of the downtown area, including the supermarket, where we stocked up and various goodies for the week. As you leave the property, there's a guard gate and if you don't want to walk, he'll hail a taxi for you.
John & Jan stayed at a time-share resort at the southern end of the island which was a bit more secluded and made them rely on taxis to get around. They're plentiful so it's not a problem, and relatively cheap (I think the fare was $7 from their hotel to downtown) but it was still nice for us to be able to walk from Nautibeach to wherever we wanted to go.
This time of the year, it's definitely hot. Temperatures were generally in the mid-80s with humidity to match. So you sweat. A lot. that's why it's imperative to drink plenty of water and watch the color of your urine for signs of dehydration. (It should be relatively clear. Dark yellow means you're starting to dehydrate.) So a lot of times when you're walking around, you quickly learn to find the shady side of the street.
THE DIVE OPERATION
I found Aqua Adventures through an Internet search, along with some other operators. Jim responded to my initial e-mail quickly (some of the Isla-based operators never replied at all) and one thing that I really liked was that I was able to use him sort of as a consolidator in that he arranged for the hotel, whale shark days, and cenotes, as well as the diving we did with them. I wrote a check to Aqua Adventures and they took care of paying everyone else. When you're doing a group of 11 as I did, or whether there's just a few of you, that can be a big advantage.
Now before I go further, I want to emphasize that there's a good chance we'll go back to Isla again next year and I will use Jim and Aqua Adventures again. Everything I'm about to go through I discussed at length with Jim & Daisy in person before I left Isla and I've also given Jima chance to review this section of my report before publication. And some of this may be growing pains as Jim's owned the operation for a bit less than a year (he bought from someone one who had let it languish). So I think what I'm about to say is a fair assessment of our experience and, should you choose to go there and dive with Jim, things you need to be aware of but not necessarily issues you will face.
Also bear in mind that on many of the trips we do at Reef Seekers, we are dealing with either larger organizations (like Aggressor Fleet) or dive operations (Buddy Dive, Manta Ray Bay Resort, Murex) with whom I have a long-standing relationship and who know me well. Many times there can things that are simply taken care of or which aren’t issues because we all have developed styles that work. So with a brand new relationship, as in the case of Aqua Adventures, it's not surprising that there are hiccups the first time out. And Jim has already told me they're taking my comments in a positive fashion and are making changes to smooth things out.
Overall, things were fine but I think the best way to describe the issues we had would be organization. "Lack of organization" is probably too strong but "execution of the plan" might be a better way to describe things. For instance, we arrived Saturday night on Isla so I scheduled us to have Sunday morning free with the first dive set for their posted afternoon 2-tank departure time of 1:30PM. I asked Jim by e-mail Friday before leaving the US what time he wanted us all at the shop. He said Noon. I thought that was a bit early for a 1:30PM dive but if that's what he wanted, that's what we'd do.
On Sunday morning, I was walking around Isla and was near the shop so stopped in to say hello and introduce myself to Jim & Daisy. As we were talking I asked if he still wanted us to assemble at Noon. "That's too early," he said. I pointed out that's what HE had told me and Jim said they had a morning boat out, it wouldn't be back until around 1:30, and we should meet at the store at 3PM. I suggested that might make things a bit tight given that his waivers needed to be filled out, they wanted to check c-cards, some people needed to rent gear, and we wanted to do two dives before sundown. So Jim suggested 2PM. Not the end of the world, but why wasn't this told to me on Friday so people would know they had more time?
On the day we did the cenotes (Tuesday), my understanding was that Jim was taking care of everything: ferry tickets to Cancun, van pick-up in Cancun for transport down to the cenotes dive shop (one of Jim's partner companies), the diving with them, and then back up to Isla. On Monday when I asked Jim about the ferry tickets he said they normally provide that but could I but the tickets and he'd deduct that from what I owed him for the cenotes portion? Again, no biggee but this could have been handled ahead of time and Jim forgot to mention that when you buy the ferry tickets on Isla, they don't take credit cards. Maybe not an issue for one person but with a group, it can be a problem since you buy the tickets right before you board the ferry. Luckily, I had enough cash on me.
I asked about leaving our gear at the shop each night and Jim mentioned Aqua Adventure’s "Gear Valet Service" where they'd take gear to and from the boat and store it overnight for $5/person/day. Fine by me as it beats schlepping everything back to the hotel each day (and I'm used to places like Buddy's/MRB/Murex where gear storage is part of the package). But when we were leaving the boat after the Sunday dives, Jim asked if we could take gear bags back with us and he'd keep only BCs/regs. I said I thought he was keeping everything. He said, OK, but that means we’ll have to wash everything. I said, no, don't wash anything in the bags, just leave it all packed. He said, no, we have to wash everything. I said, then just dunk the bags but don't pull anything out of the bags. I thought that's the way we left it and this may be my failing for not either following them back to the shop or being more insistent.
When we all showed up at the shop Monday to grab our gear for our first Whale Shark day, we were rather dismayed to see gear laid out in neat little piles all over the floor of the store. Since they didn't know whose gear was whose, there was a stack of booties here, fins there, etc. Everything had been removed from the bags, which were in another pile. Again, no biggee if you're one or two people but a pain in the butt when there's 11 of you.
But the biggest issue arose during our first dive Thursday morning. We were diving as a loose large group, DM1 in the lead, DM2 bringing up the rear, in about 30 feet of water. I spotted a Hogfish and was getting ready to line up a shot. About the same time, one of the crew members from the boat free-dove down in front of me with a pole spear and tried to stab the fish. He missed and handed off the spear to DM1 who also tried to stab and missed. I gave a hand signal not to do that again. Not cool on many levels.
At the end of the dive, I pulled DM2 aside (he was in charge) and explained in no uncertain terms that this was NOT even remotely acceptable. He replied that he was sorry and that " . . . we should have told you ahead of time we were doing this. " I said, no, you shouldn’t be "telling" me this and, in fact, you shouldn't be doing it at all when you're guiding guests. I discussed this with Jim & Daisy in our post-mortem and they were appropriately appalled, said that the spear lives in the shop and can only be taken out on trips with their permission which they hadn't given nor had they even been asked, their guys should know better, etc. I pointed out that having working guides attempting to spear fish in the midst of guided guests raises numerous liability and safety issues but the bottom line is that if you've got "Eco Diving" in your name, perhaps a pole spear doesn't fit that image.
As I mentioned, I'm being a bit picky. These instances aren't in and of themselves all that critical (expect for the spear incident) but it highlights areas of their operation they need to do improve. Overall, they did a good job on the boat and the dives. One of the dive guides, Wilbert, was very good at pointing out critters to people and their boat crew was pretty good at handling gear and changing out tanks and the like. (Their end-of-dive MO is back to the boat, weight belt off, take off your tank in the water and hand it off, fins off, and then come up their ladder.) Most of the dive sites are pretty close to Isla so the runs are relatively short (30 minutes tops). The boat has shade and they provide bottled water on all the trips. There's no head but I didn't feel that was a big deal given the length of time onboard.
Bottom line is: Would I use Aqua Adventures Eco Diving again? Absolutely. But I'll micro-manage from my standpoint a bit more next time and not take for granted that things will always be done the way I think they should be done.
On to the meat of this report . . .
I've been to Cozumel three times but have never dove Cancun or Playa del Carmen (across from Cozumel). My understanding from people who have been diving the latter two is that there's a world of difference between them and Cozumel. I think the same thing would apply to the diving around Isla Mujeres. It's much more like Cancun and Playa del Carmen than it is like Cozumel.
Bear in mind that we only dove two days and five sites. For all I know, we hit the five crappiest sites they have. Or maybe we dove the five best sites they have. I truly don't know where the sites we dove rank in terms of the overall possibilities of Isla.
And while the dives were . . . OK . . . overall they were sort of ho-hum. The sites were usually scattered corals over a sandy-ish bottom and relatively shallow. The deepest I ever got over the course of the five dives (two on Sunday and three on Thursday) was 42 feet. Water temp was around 81º and viz was 50-60 feet.
The first spot we dove Sunday, at my request, was the Underwater Museum. It's not a real fishy area but what they've done is sunk hundreds of cement statues in various groupings with the hopes that it will become an artificial reef. I'm not generally a big art buff or museum guy but the whole concept sounded interesting and it was a great spot for a first check-out type dive. They have various groups of statues, a house, a small building, a car, a pregnant lady, and - my favorite - a guy in his study standing by bookcases with a dog at his feet. This one is "El Coleccionista de Suenos" or "The Collector of Dreams."
Our second Sunday spot was Manchones 2 (which is actually where the Dream Collector lives), which was much fishier. There were nice schools of grunts and snappers, Spanish Hogfish, a lot of Stoplight Parrotfish, numerous Porkfish, and a lot of really healthy purple sea fans. Most times when you see fans in various parts of the Caribbean, they're rather tattered. But these were all pretty intact and swaying in the gentle surge.
One of my favorite things on this dive was when I was surrounded by angels . . . angelfish, that is. I had a Blue Angel (the fish, not the fliers), two Queen Angels, a French Angel, a juvy Gray Angel, and an adult Gray Angel. I don't think I've ever seen that variety of Angelfish at one time in one spot before.
On Thursday we were scheduled for two morning dives and a single-tank afternoon dive. Although we were supposed to dive a nearby wreck, the AAED dive staff decided they weren’t "comfortable" doing it so opted instead to take us a place called "Bridges & Tunnels" and a second spot that we termed "Bridges & Tunnels Adjacent" since it was about 50 yards away. We weren't too impressed with either, plus this is where the aforementioned spearing incident occurred. It's one thing not to go to the wreck but I would hope a better substitute could have been chosen.
The afternoon dive at La Banderas was a different story. This site is maybe 2/3 of the way towards Cancun in the middle of the shallow channel that separates Isla and Cancun. That meant there was a current running the entire time. But what a fishy dive!!! (And the current probably had a lot to do with this.) Big schools of Snappers and Grunts all around, a nice school of big Barracuda, more Angelfish, good sea fans again, a nice rock crab, some Trumpetfish, more Stoplight Parrotfish, a big Pufferfish, and a nice Spotted Trunkfish. Definitely a very good dive and one I'll look forward to doing again.
As I said, the diving wasn't the main reasons we were there but even so, it was generally pleasant but not the type of dive where you come back and go "Wow!!!" And a couple of the spots you came back and went "Why?"
Now I have to reveal at the outset that my prejudice is that I don't get what the excitement is about diving these. They're interesting once or twice (IMHO) but I simply don't understand the allure of diving a rock formation that basically is the same the 100th time you dove it as the first time. Then throw in the fact you're in an overheard environment where immediate access to the surface is usually impossible. I freely admit to be a Fish Guy and would much rather be out on the reef. But there are definitely plenty of folks who love diving the cenotes over and over again and even for me, it's interesting once in a while.
From Isla, the cenotes are a full-day outing. So Tuesday we took the 8:30AM ferry back over to Cancun where a van was supposed to pick us up for the 90-minute drive down to Tulum and Motmot Diving who were to be our guides. The journey became a lot longer when our van wasn't there to pick us up. Although Motmot usually does the pickup themselves, because we were 10 strong (more than their van can handle), they arranged with a transport company (not USA Transfer) and the transport company screwed things up royally. The short version is that the driver WAS there but had no clue as to who he was picking up (his sign said "Not Jin 10" - it was supposed to have been “Motmot Jim 10”), didn't know where he was going in Tulum, and told me each of the four times I asked him if he was our driver that he was not. 90 minutes later, it turns out he was, and off we went. Funny now, aggravating then.
Once we got into Tulum, the Motmot folks were lovely. Nice dive shop and they also own the small pastry/cafe next door so the first thing they do is feed you some fresh pastries and coffee or tea. While that's going on, they'll fit people for gear. You can show up there with just your mask and bathing suit as they'll provide everything else (and I suspect they would wrangle a mask for you as well) but many of us chose to bring our own wetsuits, booties, and fins. Once we were all outfitted, we loaded up into vehicles for the short drive to the Dos Ojos cenote.
Dos Ojos, which means "Two Eyes" in Spanish because of two large openings into the cenote, is the third-longest underwater cave system in the world with some 51 miles already surveyed. There are only two areas that are used for the guided tours, one known as "The Barbie Line” and the second one called "The Bat Cave." Water temp is a uniform 77º, max depth is maybe 40 feet, visibility is generally 100+ feet minus whatever silt is kicked up by the visiting divers. Since you're going with a trained cave-certified guide (DM or Instructor), only an Open-Water certification is required to do these dives.
A nice touch was that we were divided into three groups, each with a guide. When I dove Dos Ojos in 2005 (with a different company), we did it as a single group of 10. This was better on a number of levels. Each guide gave his/her group a thorough briefing on what to expect in the cave system, how to follow the line (stay three feet above it), admonitions about silting, and pointing out that even though we 're in a cave system, there were areas of open water that were accessible from most parts of the dive.
Each of the two dives takes about 35-45 minutes depending on how fast the group is moving (as well as the group ahead of you). But you won't have the place to yourself. In many ways, it's like going to Catalina and diving the Underwater Park. There are plenty of instructors taking people around. Plus, some areas are available to self-guided snorkellers so you spot them at various times throughout the dives as well.
The first dive we did was the Barbie Line, so named because of the Barbie doll halfway through that's stuck in the head of a plastic alligator. This transit features more open-water areas and on a sunny day, there are really interesting shafts of light that you can see (crepuscular rays - look it up). During our dives, it was rather overcast so that was missing. But we saw lots of rocks, stalactites & stalagmites, some rocks, more stalactites, and more rocks. This is truly a dives that rocks. (There are actually some scattered small silver fish as well.)
After about a 40-minute surface interval (during which the dive guides lit up cigarettes - I just still don't get people who dive and smoke), we hit the second trail, the Bat Cave. This one is so-named because a little over halfway through the dive you surface in a large indoor cavern that has numerous bats residing along the top. (They used to even have a bat researcher who parked himself on a small platform.) On this dive, John Lumb & I spotted three blind shrimp that live in the recesses of the system. So that was sort of cool. And there were lots of rocks, stalactites & stalagmites, some rocks, more stalactites, and more rocks.
Once we were all done it was back to Motmot for unpacking and this time, they decided they would personally drive us back up to the ferry terminal in Cancun. Unfortunately, we just missed the 8PM ferry so had to wait for the 8:30, which meant we got back to Nautibeach around 9PM, much later than we'd originally anticipated. But the cenotes are a relatively unique experience and our group was fascinated by the dives so I'd certainly recommend you try it and, van fiasco notwithstanding, give Motmot a try as well.
There’s an area about 10 miles north of Isla Mujeres has become the Whale Shark Capital of the World, at least from mid-May to mid-September, where an estimated 400-800 Whale Sharks gather and feed. They are feeding on plankton and clear eggs that float near the surface (which brings the Whale Sharks - from here on out referred to as WS - right to the top of the water). This all makes for ideal interactions with The Largest Fish in the World.
The WS have probably been doing this for years and years, although taking tourists out to see them is a fairly recent phenomenon, in the last six years. Our boat captain, Beto, when I asked him how they discovered this congregation, told me that the fishermen knew about it for years but didn't think much of it. However, it's become a huge boon to the Isla tourist industry.
Each day, there are literally dozens and dozens and dozens of boats that go out to the WS area. Because of this, the Mexican government has imposed some strict rules that the tour operators must adhere to:
• No more
than 10 people per boat
It's about an hour-ish run to get out to the WS area. Boats start leaving early in the morning but no one seems to stay the entire day. We opted to leave around 9AM in hopes that other boats who got their earlier would be leaving before we did, the light would be better (more overhead), and that with fewer boats, there would be more WS accessible to us.
Also bear in mind that the WS area is in about 120' or so of water, out of sight of land, and with nothing else around. There's really nothing else to look at if they're not there. This is a Whale-Shark-Or-Bust kind of adventure. And that all being said . . .
This is a phenomenally unique experience that will live in your mind forever and which you MUST put on your list of things to do, either with us or on your own. I can't say it will change your life, but it will definitely be something you'll never forget.
We made three forays out to the WS area, on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Monday was absolutely the best of the three days and is probably almost as good as it can possibly get. Wednesday was the least successful of the three (but we still saw a dozen WS - where else in the world can you see a dozen WS and complain that it wasn’t enough????), and Friday was a mixed bag with the addition of Manta Rays.
Monday was simply surreal. There were WS everywhere. At one point, I think I counted 15 visible on the surface in every direction within 50 feet of our boat. You are definitely "sharing" the WS with other people (sometimes a LOT of other people) but there were times, especially on Monday when you had a WS or two to yourself.
Generally the way it works is the boat spots the WS, maneuvers on an intercept path in front of it, and then drops two of you and the guide into the water. At that point you kick to follow the WS and if he outpaces you, you then look around to see if you can spot other WS dorsal/tail fins nearby and position yourself accordingly. Eventually (10 minutes or so but it will definitely vary boat-to-boat), the captain calls you back, the next two jump in, and the cycle starts again.
Although a number of boats plan their WS day as two or three jumps and then a snorkel at a shallow reef just off of Isla, I told our guys that I'd rather blow off the snorkel and stay out so our plan was for four jumps for each group of two each day. That meant we'd generally get 40 minutes of WS opportunities each day or 2 hours per person over the course of the week.
It was also nice to come back on the boat and take a break, rest up (constantly kicking after a moving fish WILL tire you out), grab a soda or water (provided by the boat as part of the overall deal - and they had tasty chicken sandwiches for the ride back), review what you'd shot if you had a camera, make whatever changes you deemed necessary, and observe from the surface where you could also take pictures if you have a surface camera. So the time on the boat certainly wasn't "down" time and after a while, everyone gets caught up in shouting to those in the water "To your left" or "Behind you" or whatever to try to direct them to a nearby WS.
But Monday was simply surreal. Fairly calm seas, decent (but not spectacular) visibility running around 50 feet or so, and you could literally just stay in one spot in the water and there would be a WS passing by you within 30 seconds. You really didn’t have to move very far or fast. And when you realize that some people go their entire diving career without ever seeing ONE of these magnificent creatures, it's even more amazing when you realize you're seeing two or three or four of them all at the same time.
Wednesday was less successful because it had rained Tuesday evening. The seas were up, there were fewer boats out at the WS area, and the WS sightings were few and far between. However, as we pulled into place, Captain Beto pointed out a Manta Ray that was gliding under the bow of the boat. It's not unusual to see mantas in the WS area since they feed on the same plankton and eggs. What WAS unusual on this morning was that right after the manta cleared our bow, he suddenly rocketed upward, breached out of the water, did a 90º backflip, and landed with a loud splash on his back with his white belly gleaming to the sky, and this all took place no more than 10 feet away from our boat. Pretty spectacular. (Of course, my surface camera was safely in my bag.)
Wednesday was also the day when I couldn't get out of the water because of the WS sightings. I was coming back to the boat and had already handed up my big camera when they said, "There's one coming behind you" and they handed me back my camera and I went off to shoot. Finished up, kicked back to the boat, handed up my camera, and another one came into view. They handed my camera back down, I went and shot, came back to the boat, handed up my camera . . . and yet another one was making a beeline for me. It was almost as if the WS just wouldn't let me go.
Friday was better than Wednesday (but not as good as Monday) and we had a bonus: Manta Rays everywhere. In fact the joke was that we couldn't see the Whale Sharks because the Manta Rays kept getting in the way. The animals were packed much tighter together however, and that meant the boats were packed tighter together as well. Once again, there were about 50 boats in the area, so that's upward of 500 people itching to jump in and snorkel. It was easy to lose your group too. Our guide Jair (son of Beto) wore webbed gloves that were lime green so he was always easy to spot. But we occasionally got someone who had lost their group so we had to direct tem back to their home boat.
We also had a bit of a weather issue on Friday as there was a storm system moving past Isla late morning and the harbormaster radioed all the boats out in the WS area and ordered them back to port, lest they all get caught in bad seas. So we wrapped things up a bit early and then slogged home. But not before we got some more really great WS interactions and memories that are etched in our minds forever.