ISLA MUJERES - August 13-27, 2016

(Click here to see some pictures from this trip plus links to the SmugMug slideshow.)

As I've said many times, the ultimate assessment of a dive location is: Would you go back again? And since this was our third year going to Isla Mujeres to dive with Whale Sharks and more, the answer is a resounding yes. We first went in 2013, returned in 2014 but took last year off, so we were very excited that there was enough interest to do a double-week this year.

This trip is logistically complicated to begin with. We are doing something different every day and it usually involves moving the group from one location to another, sometimes using multiple sources of transport. For instance, on dive days, we could either walk or take a taxi ($3, including the tip) to the dock. On Whale Shark snorkel days, the same. But on the cenotes day, we needed a taxi, a ferry, and a van to get where we were going.

This trip also marked a new venture for Reef Seekers in that while we've done back-to-back trips before - like Yap followed immediately by Palau in March of this year - we've never done two back-to-back trips to the same location with two different groups. So that posed some hurdles for us as well in terms of getting people to and from the Cancun Airport. Normally, as trip leader, I like to fly in and out with our groups. But that was impossible this time since I flew in with Group 1, then escorted them to the airport a week later and waited for Group 2 to arrive, and then flew back with Group 2 a week after that. So it was adapting to little changes like that on my end.

Let's introduce you to the players.

In Week 1 we had Hartley & Deb Wess, David & Terry Eisenbart, Don & Melinda Dietrich, Marilyn Lawrence, Patti Wey, Pat O'Brien, the entire Irawan clan consisting of Chairul, Isabel, Claire, & Shirley (Parry), and me (Ken Kurtis).

In Week 2 we had Geoffrey & Kathleen Silver, Tom & Kristi Duncan, Larry & Mo Fakinos, Sharon Depriester, Renee Periera, Louis Weisberg, John Morgan, and me (again).

Because this trip has so many moving parts, I think the easiest way to deal with it is to break things down into the general components as I have with this in the past.

I think I'd call this a Bucket List Dive Trip. In other words, there are things that should be on your wanna-see-diving-bucket-list that this trip can fulfill. Want to see underwater artwork and statues? Check. Want to dive cenotes? Check. Want to get a small wreck dive in? Check. Want to dive with Whale Sharks? Check.

Is it a trip you'd do multiple times? Probably not. For some of these things, once you've done it, you’ve done it. I've said repeatedly that there's only so many angles and ways to shoot a Whale Shark and diving with them three times or three hundred times doesn't change that. By the same token, there are a lot of other things to do (Mayan ruins at Chitzen-Itza, other cenotes between Playa del Carmen and Tulum, other things to experience on Isla Mujeres) that we don't have time for in a single week. So that might be motivation to come back.

We had people coming on various flights and not all from LAX. How tough could it be? You fly into Cancun, meet up in baggage claim and off you go. Except they've added a third terminal since we last visited two years ago and one of the flights landed at T2 while the other landed at T3 and never the twain shall meet. When the main group (with me) landed at T3 two hours later, we saw Marilyn, who was supposed to hook up with the T2 people, and heard her sad tale. Oops.

A week later, when I escorted the Week 1 group back, we sent the first half of them to T3, I went with the second half to T2, and then had the van driver drop me at T3, because that's where all of the Week 2 people were flying into. But little did I know that the area in T3 just outside of Customs, where I'd planned to meet them, was actually INSIDE a secure area. So I had to talk my way past a security checkpoint and then waited for another guy to turn his back at a second checkpoint so I could get inside to where group 2 would be looking for me. Oops again.

Tom & Kristi had the unfortunate experience of having their in-bound flight canceled, and then their re-booked flight canceled, so they missed the first day of diving but arrived only a day late, none the worse for wear. And luckily we could push their pickup van back a day so that all worked out.

Of course, the biggest trial was to come at the end of the trip when we arrived back at the airport only to discover that the United Cancun computers were down, which meant all passengers had to be checked in by hand and bags hand-checked as well, which meant all the flights were leaving at least two hours late. Add to that a total lack of organization non United's part in handling people arriving for their flights and you had waits in line that were anywhere from two to five hours. Not a fun way to end the trip.

We once again used Jim Silver at Aqua Adventures Eco Diving o Isla Mujeres as both our dive operator and consolidator. I arrange everything through Jim and he's usually pretty responsive through e-mail both in the pre-trip planning stage and while on the island itself. The scuba dives we do at Isla we do directly with Jim and his boat/crew but he also sets up the Whale Sharks dives, the cenotes, and the even the hotel for us.

As far as the dives with him go, he uses his own boat (Amalia) which is nothing fancy but is adequate for the local diving. It's definitely a little snug, especially when you're doing two dives and have the boat full with 10 divers. It’s also bare-bones with a jug of water provided and that's it for amenities. No head and no snacks, so if you want something to eat or have a non-water drink between dives, bring it yourself. He's got a captain (Wilbert) and deckhand (Fernando) both of whom I like a lot, and this year his two DMs were Coleman and Daniel.

The crew assembles your gear and, once at the dive site, they help you into it and you enter one-by-one (backroll) and then the DMs lead the dive with one in front and one in back. I've already talked to Jim about this but I would have liked a bit better briefing (one time on the second dive the briefing consisted of "Let's go") and I'd like some more critter-finding by the DMs during the dive itself. But we always ended up back at the boat (which sometimes just drifted above us). Re-boarding involved removing your weightbelt in the water, then your tank (which Fernando grabbed), remove your fins, and come up the ladder.

A lot of our people asked me how I ended up with Aqua Adventures and Jim and the answer is simple: When I put together the first trip in 2013, I e-mailed all of the dive shops on Isla (4 or 5 at the time) and Jim was the only one who bothered to reply. So it's a relationship that's worked for me over the years.

As I said previously, although we've done back-to-back trips to different locations, we've never done two weeks in one spot with two different groups. So it was interesting for me to see what the differences were between Week 1 and Week 2. From a group standpoint, no real differences as we had 13 lovely people in the first week and 10 different lovely people in the second week.

Conditions-wise, things were definitely different with the second week being the better of the two. The first week, we arrived on Isla Mujeres in a drizzle that became a downpour and that forced us to cancel our Sunday dives and reschedule our Monday and Tuesday dives because of weather issues. In the long run, we only ended up losing the morning wreck/reef dive we'd planned but it was a bit stressful since we were at the mercy of the weather.

Week 2 had better weather but the diving conditions weren't as good. Visibility around Isla Mujeres was lower Week 2 than it was Week 1, and on one of our three Whale Shark days in Week 2, the wind had picked up overnight and we got our butts kicked on the way out to the Whale Shark area and, to add insult to injury, there were only a few Whale Sharks around (and I mean like less than 10 whereas normally there are hundreds) and a hundred boats trying to interact with them.

The point is that it's always a crapshoot and no matter when you choose you're going to have some good days and some bad days and you simply make the best of the hand you're dealt.

Once again, we stayed at Nautibeach Condos where each unit is supposedly privately-owned and rented out when the owners aren't there. But it's basically like a hotel with daily maid service, a pool, beach, and restaurant all on the premises. It's also within walking distance of all the places we needed to go or you could take one of the dozens and dozens of red taxis that are always running around the island.

The condos are mostly 2-bedroom units with usually a double (or king or queen) bed in one bedroom and two twin beds in the other. Although they price them for 2 people to a condo, for an up-charge you can put three or even four people in a single unit.

And because they're condos, they come with a living room, balcony, full kitchen, refrigerator, microwave, and all the facilities you'd expect. There's also a 5-gallon jug of filtered water in each unit so drinking and cooking. So many days, our group could have breakfast or even lunch in the condo and then we'd head on our merry way.

One other thing we liked was that there's a security guard at the front of the property so, on days when we needed taxis for the group (generally 2-4 to a cab depending on how much gear we were taking), he would call the taxis for us and within minutes, they'd all arrive and whisk us off to wherever we needed to go (average fare $3-$5 - average travel time 2-5 minutes).

The official name in Spanish is "Museo Subacuatico de Artes" (MUSA for short) but is also known as the Cancun Underwater Museum. It consists of 500 sculptures, mostly by artist Jason deCaires Taylor, that are in various groupings. Overall, it's also known as "Silent Evolution" because the statues, which are composed of pH-neutral cement, will eventually evolve fully into a living reef. The project started in 2009 and was completed in 2013, although they have permits to add more statues if they get funding.

The statues have been placed in sandy areas and over the last few years, they definitely have gotten coral growth and have attracted fish, so they've served that purpose well. It's also interesting to take a good look because of the statutes are of people, and Jason (whom I know and have even been diving with) modeled them after people in Cancun that he knew. So, if you pay close attention, you will see some repetition. There's a guy carrying what looks like an axe, a pregnant woman, a little boy, a woman with her hands over her head, and others that you'll start to recognize.

My favorite, which we dove the second week but not the first, is "The Dream Collector" and is actually modeled after Jason’s father. It shows a man in his study, leaning up against a bookcase with a dog asleep at his feet. The man collects dreams from around the world and some of them are actually written on notes that have been tucked inside the bottles - which are real - that are in the bookcase.

The other one I like a lot is called "The Bankers" and features five bankers with attaché cases and their heads buried in the sand, said to symbolize the bankers' greed for making money during Mexico's financial crisis instead of trying to implement policies for the good of everyone.

MUSA makes for a great first/checkout dive as it's generally 25-30 feet deep all around. Water temps were around 82º on my gauge and viz was probably 50 feet the first week but down to 35 or so the second week. I wore my 1mm jumpsuit with a 1mm hood and that was dandy.

There's also a small wreck which used to be a US minesweeper that we dove the second week (it was a weather casualty the first week) which is a pleasant, though not spectacular, dive. One thing is that it's located in a channel between Isla and Cancun on the mainland so there's almost always a current there, and sometimes a stiff one. We were fortunate this time in that we tied up to the permanent mooring for the descent and came up the same line at the end of the dive.

The wreck itself, with a max depth of 80 feet, is nothing on the order of the wrecks in Truk, but is pleasant enough. And it's also open enough that you can safely "penetrate" it and cruise through the corridors. In the aft end, there's usually a large school of grunts and snappers that make for nice photos set against the blue open-water background. We also found a few lionfish under the bow (north end) of the wreck.

Water temp was around 80º and visibility a good 80 feet or so, which was pretty much the length of the wreck.

Reef-wise, we mainly dove around Manchones 1 & 2. The reefs of Isla are pleasant but not spectacular. Even though it's only 60 miles away, this is not Cozumel-quality diving. But you will notice and be impressed by the very large schools of yellow snappers and grunts that populate all of the reef areas. Each of the small schools will have hundreds and hundreds of fish clustered together. We also saw some turtles (both Green and Hawksbill, and I saw a Loggerhead two years ago) and there were plenty of Angelfish (French, Gray, Blue, and Queen), lots of damsels and other small fish, and the requisite parrotfish. There's also some very nice Elkhorn coral in the shallower areas of the reefs.

I start with my usual disclaimer: I don't get the allure of the cenotes. To me, they're just rocks. And, to me, once you've done them, you've done them. The rocks won't change between now and the next time. But I fully acknowledge that for others, it's a mystical and even magical experience.

We ended up a Chac Mool, which is just south of Playa del Carmen. To get there, we had to take the 7AM ferry over from Isla, met our dive guide Rafa at 7:30, hopped in a van and picked up tanks in Playa (about an hour south), and then drove another 30 minutes to get to the cenote. You dive two cenotes there, one known as Kukulcan and the other as Little Brother.

And the there was definitely a difference between the cenotes experience of Week 1 and Week 2. On Week 1, we went after the rainstorms (and it actually rained while we were wrapping up) which meant that freshwater runoff drained into the cenotes, making the surface areas a bit murky in one and downright muddy - literally not being able to see your hand in front of your face for the first ten feet of depth - in the other. But by Week 2, that had all cleared out and everything was crystal clear. Water temp both weeks was 77º on my gauge. I wore a 3mm jumpsuit with a 5mm hood and that was perfect.

You are restricted to groups of five - a cave-certified dive guide and four divers - and you stay on a guide line that always keeps you in the cavern zone. The difference between "cavern" and "cave" is that in the cavern zone, you can always see natural light and an exit somewhere. In the cave zone, you cannot and are in total darkness save for your light.

There are two interesting features of these dives. One is the halocline, which is the area where fresh water and salt water (from the ocean) mix. It sort of looks like you're swimming in oil & vinegar salad dressing and they warn you ahead of time not to think it’s something wrong with your mask. Because if you didn't know what to expect, you'd either think you were hallucinating or having a stroke.

The other interesting thing was the air dome towards the end of the Little Brother dive (which we always did second). You surface inside a small pocket and there are thousands and thousands of stalactites hanging down from the ceiling, which is only a foot or two above your head. It's actually a very interesting visual and, when you stop to consider that you're looking at geologic functions that literally took thousands of years to form, it's sort of like you've gone back in a time machine and that's somewhat cool.

After the second dive we packed up, had lunch on-site (included), and then headed back up to Playa to drop off tanks, and then to the ferry terminal for the ride back to Isla, and then a taxi to Nautibeach. It's a long day but definitely interesting . . . if you like rocks.

Let's face it, THIS is what the main attraction is. And while we had very good encounters in 2013 and 2014, this year put those to shame. It was astounding. In fact, Jim says 2016 is the best Whale Shark season they’ve had in the five years he’s been on the island.

Of the two weeks, despite the weather issues that forced us to juggle the Whale Shark days, I think Week 1 had the better overall experience with Thursday of the first week (we dove them Wed/Thu/Fri) being absolutely amazingly mind-blowing. The Whale Sharks were EVERYWHERE. Every boat, and there are generally a hundred or more boats out there, had two of three Whale Sharks around it. You almost couldn't jump in the water without landing on one. And while you were in the water, one would pass you, another would come up behind you and pass you, and then there would be another one coming in from the side. And while we had two very good days the second week, Thursday of Week 1 still took home the prize.

The annual Whale Shark congregation around Isla is considered to be the largest in the world. It runs from mid-May to mid-September and estimates are that there are anywhere from 400-800 animals in the area. I'm not sure if that's all at once or over the course of the time period, but there definitely were 200 or more each of our two weeks.

Most of the Whale Sharks are males although there are females too. They've sub-adults and range in size from probably 15-25 feet. (Full-grown adults can be close to 40-50 feet. Think of a city bus that swims.) All they want to do is feed on the clear fish eggs found at the surface so they’re usually skimming, mouths open, right along the top. This is why the restriction of snorkel-only is not an issue at all because they're right there. The government has set up other regulations too and while there was a Park boat out monitoring things with a drone, it seems that the individual operators are pretty good about self-policing as it's in their economic interest to do so.

No one knows how long this congregation has been going on. It's only been a tourist attraction for the last ten years or so and is now heavily regulated and monitored by the Mexican government. And it's one of those things that happen often in diving where this experience that we consider so magical was known for years by the fishermen who considered the Whales Sharks a nuisance as they interfered with their ability to catch fish. But now, the Whale Sharks are a huge boost to the tourism economy of Mexico.

We dove with Ceviche Tours (also arranged through Jim Silver) and we liked them a lot. Now there's a caveat in this because we had two boats, both booked as "private" boats for our group only. If you go on one of the public/open boats, they can take up to 10 people with a guide, and then you're limited to 2 people in the water at a time with the guide. So you rotate people in and out the whole time you're there.

I prefer not only to have a boat to ourselves but I also don't want to book 10 people on the boat. So we reserve two entire boats but only put 5-7 people on each boat. It allows for more space for us on each boat, more water time once we get there, and - as the captains become more familiar with us - there's sometimes a bending of the two-at-a-time rule so we get more water time overall.

The caveat is that our two boats quickly became known amongst our groups as the fast boat and the slow boat (although I'm sure some people thought of the second boat as the half-fast boat). The Whale Shark area is about 18-20 miles NE of Isla and the fast boat got us out there in a little over an hour. The slow boat took closer to 75 minutes or more. To make matters worse, on Wednesday of the second week - the day we got banged around so much - the slow boat actually broke down and had to return to the dock for engine repairs, then left an hour or so later, making for a REALLY long day.

But diving with the Whale Sharks is a truly magical experience, especially when you can see two, three, or even four or more at a time. It's really amazing how aware they are of your presence (as well as that of the boats), diverting their path slightly to avoid a collision, or diving underneath you or a boat, or simply turning away.

And one thing you learn early on is: Don't chase the Whale Sharks. They can swim a lot faster than you and all you'll do is wear yourself out. In fact, after his first jump as we were getting back on the boat, John Morgan turned to me and said, "This is a lot more work than I thought it would be."

While the boat will try to maneuver and drop you in front of an approaching Whale Shark, the real trick once you're there is to pretty much stay in place and let them come to you. That certainly wasn't a problem on five of our six total days out there. And sometimes you'd get lucky and find one that was almost vertical in the water, with his mouth right at the surface gulping seawater and straining it though his gills. Those animals barely moved so you could get pictures and encounters as much as you wanted.

And sometimes, even though it seemed everyone had a camera of some sort, it's nice to stop shooting and just admire the gracefulness of these huge animals. This is, after all, the largest fish in the world. And there's still a lot we don’t know about them because they're generally solitary and elusive. So this annual congregation is not only a tourism boon, but can also be a boon to researchers trying to discover some of the secrets of the Whale Sharks (like where they go to give birth).

For the most part, we'd spend 90 minutes or so actually in the Whale Shark area and then head back towards Isla. It would have been nice to stay a bit longer perhaps, but the reality is that everyone always got in multiple jumps and had multiple encounters, and as you get later and later in the morning, the Whales Sharks slow their feeding down and many of them simply disappear into the depths. So there isn't necessary a compelling reason to stay out much longer.

And did I mention the Manta Rays????

Since they feed on the same stuff that the Whale Sharks do, it's not a surprise to have them in the area as well. And on Wednesday & Thursday Week 1, we did have them. Dozens of them. Really fun to watch. Interestingly, we didn't get any mantas in Week 2. Go figure. But a nice bonus for the first week folks.

And one nice touch, and their signature move, from Ceviche Tours is that they literally live up to their name in that as you approach Isla, they (along with a hundred other boats) tuck into the protected shallow area off of North Beach - right across from our hotel actually - drop anchor and make fresh ceviche for everyone on board. I'm not a big fish-eater, but it was pretty good and a nice way to end the day. They've also got on-board a cooler of soft drinks and water and they hand out little sandwiches after your final Whale Shark snorkel. All of this is included in the price of the trip so it's a nice touch. And generally we'd stay in the ceviche area for 45-60 minutes and then arrive back at the dock around 1-1:30PM which left the afternoon free for relaxing, exploring, napping, or whatever you chose to do.

We'll also throw in a quick word about the restaurants which are not only plentiful but actually very good. Some of our favorites included the Mayan (on the Nautibeach property), Asian-Caribe, BarLito, and Ballyhoo. Some other folks liked Jax but I wasn’t all that impressed. If you go to Isla on your own, the island seems to thrive on TripAdvisor and you can get ratings and reviews of all the places there.

Despite the various issues each week, we really had two very marvelous weeks on Isla Mujeres. The island, even though it's become a major tourist destination, especially for locals in Cancun who want to get away for a day, still has a great feel to it and, except for the main drag, it's easy to get away from the crowds. You’ve got enough of the modern amenities that you don't feel like you've abandoned civilization, but it's still different enough that you know you're not in Kansas anymore.

Will we go back again? Yup, and most likely in 2017 as long as there's interest. So take a look at the pictures on the SmugMug page, look at your calendar, and give us a call so you can join the club of those who can say they've been eye-to-eye with a Whale Shark. And dove amongst some rocks.

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