ISLA MUJERES - AUGUST 16-23, 2014

(Click here to see the pictures from this trip.)

One thing I’ve always told people that I enjoy about what I do is that it affords me the chance to have some really unique experiences. And swimming with Whale Sharks at Isla Mujeres (an island 10 miles NE of Cancun) is certainly towards the top of that list.

In case you’re not familiar with Whale Sharks, they’re the largest fish in the world (up to 40 feet long) and are generally solitary creatures who are on just about everyone’s wanna-see list. Don’t let the word “shark” spook you: They're plankton-eaters. They live in tropical and temperate waters all around the world but not a lot is known about them because they’re not regularly encountered. So when you see one, it’s a treasured experience.

Some years ago, probably not more than ten, it became known that an area off of the NE corner of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico north of Cozumel was teeming with Whale Sharks during the summer. In fact, it has since become known as the largest congregation of Whale Sharks in the world, with estimates ranging up to 800 individuals in the area. The official season is June 1 to September 15. According to a research paper on Plos One, individual animals come and go and stay in the area for about 30 days and then leave. But, even though they’ve been tagging them, they don’t really know where they come from or where they go to once they leave the Yucatan. (You can read the research paper here:
http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0071883.)

So the allure of Isla Mujeres, other than its inherent charm, is an opportunity to swim with these gentle giants and get an almost-guaranteed encounter not just with one Whale Shark, but with multiple Whale Sharks over an extended period of time. Plus there are other things to do in the area like explore the cenotes on the Yucatan and dive some of the sites around Isla Mujeres and Cancun.

And that’s what we did again this year. So let me walk you through it all.

THE PLAYERS
Our group this year was seven strong: Ron Roth, Joe Towers & Mary Jane Perna, Tony Crocker & Liz O’Mara, and Steve Bein. Mary Jane is a snorkeler and this trip is perfect for someone who doesn’t dive because interaction with the Whale Sharks is limited to snorkeling so it’s a great trip for a diver to share a special experience with a non-diving significant-other.

THE JOURNEY
Getting to Isla is fairly easy as you fly into Cancun. Ron/Joe/Mary Jane left out of San Francisco (Virgin America) and Steve & I left out of LAX (Delta & United). There are plenty of ways to get down here and multiple airlines to transport you. And we were able to time it so we all arrived within a few minutes of each other and hooked up in baggage claim. (Liz and Tony spent a few days in Cozumel prior to this trip so met us at the ferry.)

Once in Cancun, you run a gauntlet of taxi guys, tour operators, and more. Everybody wants to help you. We had pre-arranged a private van from USA Transfers to take us from the airport to the Ultramar ferry terminal in Puerto Juarez, about a 25-minute ride away. We liked USA Transfers a lot. Very efficient, reasonably priced, and very nice. Once at the ferry terminal, you buy your round-trip ticket to Isla Mujeres ($14US) for the 20-minute ride. Ferries leave every half hour most of the day and each ferry (similar design to the Catalina Express) holds about 250 people.

Arriving on Isla, there are plenty of taxis at the ferry terminal for the short ride to 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 13.20 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.

THE HOTEL
We stayed again this year at Nautibeach Condos which we loved (www.nautibeach.com). The hotel is on Playa Norte which is at the NW corner of Isla and offers a pretty good view of the sunset each evening. We had three 2-bedroom condos (everything's got really good A/C) which come complete with a living room, full kitchen, and a balcony. There are also a couple of 1-bedroom and studio units as well.

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 on various goodies for the week. As you leave the property, there's a gate with a guard and if you don't want to walk, he'll call a taxi for you. There’s also a restaurant (Sunset Grill) on the property which is pretty good.

THE ISLAND
There's no questions that Isla Mujeres (which means "Island of Women" - there are numerous stories as to why it's called that) relies on tourism. But it doesn't really have the "touristy" feel that I get from Cancun or Cozumel (or Cabo for that matter). The entire island is only about five miles long and half a mile wide and we confined ourselves mainly to the northwestern end of the island as that's the main hub, including the downtown area.

One nice thing was that from where we were based, we could walk everywhere in the 10-square block downtown area. The streets are narrow, giving it a very local feel. And everything is locally-owned. You won't find any chains (McDonald's, Burger King, Applebee's, etc.) here. One street down the middle - Hildago - is a pedestrian-only street filled with restaurants and vendor storefronts selling every kitchschy tchotke you can imagine (and some you have to see to believe).

This time of the year, it's definitely hot. Temperatures were generally in the mid-90s and we had one day over 100. Humidity is also high. Plan on sweating a lot (which also means plan on drinking plenty of water to stay hydrated).

THE RESTAURANTS
You’ve got to eat, right? On Isla, you’ll eat well. There are plenty of restaurants to choose from ranging from very informal to very classy. Our favorite was Barlito, south of the main part of town in the Marina Pariso. I’m not a fish guy but I had the Grouper Roll which was absolutely fabulous. It’s got grouper, bacon, cream cheese all rolled up, coated in some type of breading and then fried and it was simply sumptuous. The Chicken Relleno was also quite good. Put this on your list if you go without me.

Also good were Olivia’s, Lola Valentino, and the aforementioned Sunset Grill. I’m sure there are others we’ve missed but we’ll get them next time. It was all pretty reasonable too with dinners and drinks averaging $15-20.

THE DIVE OPERATION
There are a number of operators on the island and we dove with Aqua Adventures Eco Diving (www.diveislamujeres.com) which is owned by Jim Silver, an American ex-pat who used to work at Sport Chalet in Las Vegas. We dove with them last year as well. Jim runs the place along with his wife Daisy, and they refer to their operation as a “boutique” dive shop, which I think is an apt and good description. Physically, it's a small storefront - perhaps 300 square feet but they’re prepping a new slightly larger location a few doors down - one block off of the main drag and a block-and-a-half from the departure dock. They've got their own boat for local dives and use “partners” (their term - other operators they work with regularly so there's an on-going relationship) for things like the hotel, whale shark trips, and cenotes dives.

We had some issues last year but they were non-existent this year due to a combination of their operation running a bit better, Jim and I knowing each other better so we know what to expect from each other, and me being a bit better dialed in as to what to watch out for and what was doable and what was not.

One big improvement was actually the lack of one of their employees from last year who simply wasn’t what I’d expect in a resort-based dive guide. He’s no longer with them and the new guy, Jaim (pronounced JAY-m) is really nice. He’s an American from Idaho, seems to know his stuff, was very pleasant to deal with, and did a good job guiding underwater. Same with Wilbert (who dove with us last year), who’s Mexican, speaks pretty good English, and is wonderful at finding critters underwater.

So overall, it was a very good experience with Aqua Adventures this year. Tony rented a BC and reg from them that was in nice shape and which they brought to the boat each day for him. If you’re coming down here, they’re good people to go to and we’ll use them again next time down (most likely next year).

THE DIVING ACTIVITIES
One thing I really like about this trip is the variety because we really do three very different things: snorkeling with the Whale Sharks, diving the cenotes, and some reef dives off of Isla. I’ll deal with each one separately.

SCUBA DIVING AT ISLA MUJERES
Last year, I wasn’t too impressed. This year it was a different story.

We dove on Sunday afternoon and Thursday. Sunday we started out at the Cancun Underwater Museum. Although the site itself isn’t much (sandy bottom, some scattered coral heads) what makes it so special is that sculptor Jason deCaires Taylor (who I met and dove with a few months ago) has created over 500 statutes out of a marine cement and placed them in “galleries” so you tour around underwater going from gallery to gallery. (Plus there’s coral growth and fish life around each gallery.)

This year we made it The Bankers, which is Jason’s take on what’s wrong with the Mexican economy as it features five bakers with their briefcases and they’ve all got their heads buried in the sand.

After that we moved over to Manchones 2 which is just a really good fishy dive with lot of schools of grunts and snappers hanging out plus we saw a Loggerhead Turtle which was a rare treat. He was enormous. His head was easily the size of an adult human head and the body was in that proportion as well. Really cool to see and he had a little Green Turtle tagging along after him.

Our next day of reef diving was Thursday where we had three dives planned, two in the morning, break for lunch, and one in the afternoon. Our first stop was a wreck that we couldn’t dive last year, known as C-53. It looked to me like it was some sort of a barge, sitting upright in sand about 90 feet deep, and at first glance it doesn’t appear to be much but as you circle around to the square-ish bow and especially the relatively open area inside, you see some huge schools Grunts and Snappers swaying to and fro in the mild surge and moving aside when a diver swims through, then reforming after he’s passed. Very nice. There were also schooling Goatfish, some cleaning stations (mainly for Blue Tangs), and the usual critters.

On our second dive, we intended to go to Manchones 1 but were discouraged by the SIX catamarans that were parked there, each loaded with about 50 snorkelers (and one would presume much free-flowing alcohol) so we decided to dive an adjacent spot, Atlantis. It was a very good choice.

Atlantis is a really pleasant dive. As you moved from coral head to coral head, you notice that each one is covered in schooling Blue-Striped Snappers. Their yellow bodies really look nice framed against the deep blue of the water. Plus we found some lobster, Parrotfish, a Spotted Drum, as well as some Gray, French, Queen, and Blue Angelfish. Everyone commented afterwards how pleasant the dive was. Water temp was around 84 and vis was easily 50-60 feet.

After this we headed back to the dock where we planned to have lunch at the Bally-Hoo Bar & Grill right on the marina pier. But as we were coming in, the boat prop hit something (fortunately only a few feet from the dock), and the engine became disabled. They worked on it while we were eating but couldn’t get it running again in time for our dive.

To their credit, Jim was on top of this and had called me to let me know the afternoon dive was not going to happen and when they couldn’t get through on my cell, walked over to make sure I got the news in person. Stuff like this happens and while we were looking forward to one more dive, it wasn’t going to ruin the trip. Plus they refunded us for the missed dive.

CENOTES
Talk to anyone who comes to this area and they’ll ask if you dove the cenotes, which are the many fresh-water caves and caverns found along the Yucatan Peninsula. These have formed over tens of thousands of years and are geologic formations. They’re just generally not my cup of tea because of the lack of fish. I don’t get the allure. But it’s at least a Bucket List dive so we schedule a day of diving the cenotes.

Last year, that was at Dos Ojos but this year Jim has partnered with a different dive operator, Manta Divers, so we were heading towards Chac Mool, near Tulum, instead. We took the ferry over from Isla, the Manta driver picked us up there and drove us to the shop, where we picked up tanks and our guide, and then headed south for another hour until we reached the Chac Mool grounds entrance.

I ended up liking this one better than Dos Ojos. There was a lot more light coming in which made for interesting photo opportunities, it seemed more open and less “cave-like,” and it was generally easier to move around. We did two dives here, one 30-minutes and one 45, each in different parts of the system, and then had lunch at a small stand they have in the middle of the area.

But be aware it’s cooler water than out on the reefs. Water temp is a constant year-round 75 and visibility is generally pretty good unless someone starts kicking up silt. At least, it’s good until you hit the halocline.

A halocline is an area where fresh and salt water mix and it really looks like oil and water. Think of diving in salad oil and you’ll get the idea. Normally, haloclines are only a foot or two thick and then they’re clear below (salt water) and above (fresh water – the salt water’s heavier so it sinks below the fresh), but this one was many feet thick and it was hard to get below it. It made for a visually intriguing portion of the dive and a lot of people were thinking their masks were fogging.

Overall it was a pleasant but long day as there’s a lot of schlepping due to getting over and back from Isla as well as the drive down to Tulum. But definitely worth doing if you’ve never done it.

THE WHALE SHARKS
This is why we came back. Last year was simply incredible and we hoped to duplicate that experience this year. We did, and in spades.

The Whale Sharks congregate in an area about 10 miles north of Isla Mujeres (it moves a bit each day) to feed on clear fish 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 seven years. It seems that the local fishermen knew about it for years but didn't think much of it. However, it's become a huge boon to the Isla Mujeres and Cancun tourist industry.

Each day, there are literally 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 and this year they also clamped down on the number of boats who have permits. So while last year there were 50-60 boats out each day we were there, this year there were 20-30.

These are the rules the operators must follow:
          • No more than 10 people per boat
          • No boats over 33 feet allowed in the area
          • No more than 2 people per boat in the water at a time
          • Snorkeling only, no scuba
          • Everyone must wear either a wetsuit or a life vest
          • Everyone must stay with the guide from their boat
          • No touching of the WS
          • Boat captains must be able to see 360º around their boat at all times
          • No strobes on still cameras; no video lights on video cameras
          • No fishing in the area
          • No feeding the WS at any time

I booked three WS days for us last year and did the same this year. This allows for the possibility of people getting seasick and not being able to jump in, or a lack of WS, or weather issues that don’t allow the boats to leave port. Last year we had a phenomenal day on Monday, a so-so day on Wednesday, and an even lesser day (but with Manta Rays) on Friday. This year, we had a good day on Monday and it just got better and better on Wednesday and Friday.

Depending on where the WS area is located on any given day, it was a 60 to 90-minute run to get out there. This is pretty much a morning thing so we left at 8:30AM each day, were on-site just before 10AM, and then headed for home between Noon and 1PM.

Also bear in mind that the WS area is in deep water (100-120'), out of sight of land, and with nothing else around. There's literally nothing else to see 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.

On Monday, the seas were rather choppy so that slowed us down a bit as well as made it difficult once we reached the area. Not too many WS. In those conditions, it’s likely harder for them to feed because the surface water isn’t smooth so they simply stay down. But we could see animals here and there so the trick because to maneuver the boat in the path of an oncoming WS and the guide and two divers would jump and hope to intercept. Then they’d come back and the next group would go. You also learn quickly that the WS can move a lot faster than you and with much less effort so it’s pointless to do much chasing. Either you’re in a good spot or you’re not. Even so, we all had good encounters. They were just fewer and further between. And, because there were relatively few WS around, you always had a gaggle of people with you, all kicking and flailing.

Wednesday was a different story. Fewer boats, calmer seas, and many, many more WS. In fact, when we pulled into the area and settled into a spot, I think I counted about a dozen WS on the surface surrounding just our boat. They were everywhere. And what they’re doing is calmly feeding by opening their huge mouths, skimming the surface or just a few feet under, and gulping seawater. In doing so, they also gulp the clear fish eggs that are present and then they force the water through their gills, the gills trap the fish eggs, and they swallow. Then they repeat this. Over and over again. It's pretty impressive when they're swimming towards and then they open that huge mouth.

The other great thing is the visibility which is usually pretty good. Because the water is deep, it’s generally fairly blue. And because the fish eggs they feast on are clear, that doesn’t muck up the vis either. This is not like feeding on plankton which can generally lower the viz and turn the water somewhat green. So that provides for pretty good viewing opportunities and good photo ops as well.  

And the great thing about Wednesday was that there were so many WS, and not all that many boats, that you could literally be in the water and have one pass by you, and there was another one behind that, and then there’d be another going in the opposite direction twenty feet away, and then you’d see another one heading towards you . . .

It really was an embarrassment of WS riches. It got to the point where you’d start thinking, “I don’t want to kick to keep up with this guy. I’ll wait for the next one.”

On Friday, our third day out in the WS area, we again had great water conditions. The swell had come down even a little more but strangely the viz had dropped a bit as there was a fairly significant amount of particulate in the water. I don’t know what it was or where it came from but it may have been related to the very strong squall that blew through the area Thursday night.

It certainly didn’t hamper us as we eagerly plopped in to go nose-to-nose with Gentle Jaws. The other nice thing was that since this was the third day on the same WS boat, and this was also the company we’d used last year, they were very comfortable with us so we could stay in the water a little longer than usual and they felt comfortable designating me as a guide so we could have more people in at one time.

Although we obviously saw some individuals repeatedly – there’s one guy with prop slices through his dorsal fin that they call Guyo Claudio who we saw repeatedly each day – over the course of three days and about seven hours total out at the WS site, we must have seen hundreds of different animals. And that makes for a pretty special experience.

OVERALL IMPRESSIONS
This was again a wonderful trip. And it’s a destination you absolutely must put on your bucket list. My thought right now is that we will offer this trip again next August, pretty much along the same lines as we did this year, as long as there’s some interest. (We max the group out at 14 but can go with as few as 4.) So give a look at the pictures and ask yourself: Is this something I'd like to do? Because I'm sure the answer will be “Oh yeah” and then all you need to do is get me your name so I know you're interested and we'll go from there.
 


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