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

Isla Mujeres is a small – and I do mean small – island in Mexico that north of Cancun and Cozumel. We first discovered this place ten years ago when we started reading about an annual congregation of Whale Sharks in the area, thought to be the largest gathering of them in the world with an estimated 400-800 spending May through September in the area eachyear, feasting on plankton and clear fish eggs. This, we said to ourselves, was something that we had to see.

And so we did. Each year in 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016, we’d spend a week in August (peak Whale Shark time) doing a combination of diving and snorkeling with the Whale Sharks. (Scuba diving with the Whale Sharks is prohibited and, since they feed at the surface in water 200-300 feet deep, unnecessary.) So once on Isla, the overall pattern was to alternate a diving day with a Whale Shark snorkeling day which meant three dive days and three Whale Shark days.

The other nice thing about that pattern is that the dive days are 2-tank days so we were generally done in the early afternoon. And for the Whale Sharks days the rules – more on that below – require boats to limit the Whale Shark interactions so you’re generally back in the early afternoon on those days as well.

This all means that there’s a lot of down/non-dive time on this trip, unlike most Reef Seekers trips. But that actually makes the whole thing rather relaxing because now there’s time for lunch, to explore the island, swim in the pool, hang at the beach, take a nap, or just chill. It’s a very unique pace – and I mean that in a good way - compared to other trips that we do.

Our group totaled nine this year, six divers and three snorkelers. (This is also a great trip for a non-diver because they can get the same Whale Shark experience as a diver does.) Joining us were Walt & Susan Crandall, Megan Shie & Rob Kunc, David Mischel & Ana Bertero, Tamar Toister, and Brian Koester. The trip was led, as usual, by me, Ken Kurtis (Reef Seekers owner in case you didn’t know.)

I told Walt & Susan that they were the reason this trip happened this year. They’ve been wanting to do this trip for years. And every January, Walt would send me an e-mail saying, “We’re ready to book if you’re going.” And each year I’d eventually send him a note back saying that we couldn’t go for one reason or another. So this year, the guilt of turning him down so often overcame me to the point where I decided that this trip was happening even if it was just Walt, Susan, and me. Fortunately, others wanted to join us as well.

But we also had a cap on this trip of 10 people total. That’s because that’s the maximum number of people for both the dive boats and Whale Shark boats that we use. Even when we’ve had less than 10 going, I always book the entire boat because that guarantees that it will be only our group on the boat. So with 6 divers and 3 snorkelers (Susan, Megan, and Ana), this worked out perfectly as on the dive days we only had 6 on the boat and on the Whale Shark we had 9. And in both scenarios we were all together.

Isla’s not hard to get to but there are some logistics involved. You start by flying to Cancun. That part’s easy as United, American, Delta, and other all have non-stops. It’s about a 5-hour flight.

Next you need a van to get to the Isla ferry terminal. I’ve always used USA Transfers who have been terrific. They have a couple of sizes of vans and I book a 10-person van but we don’t put more than five people with luggage in it. So for this trip, as I have in the past, we got two vans. This means we don’t jam a bunch of people and dive gear into the van for the 30-minute drive to the ferry terminal.

The ferries from the Puerto Juarez terminal run every 30 minutes like clockwork. These ferries are similar in size to the Catalina Express boats and take 150-250 people per boat. This year, we were able to buy the tickets ahead of time on-line. The tickets are good for 6 months for any trip, so you don’t have to lock yourself into a specific date/time.

The ride across to Isla Mujeres takes 20 minutes but once you’re there you’re not done. Now you have to get to the hotel and for that we use the local taxis which are quite abundant. We carry our bags off the ferry, walk about 100 yards to the taxi terminal, and then it’s two-to-a-cab for the 5-minute ride to the Nautibeach resort, our home away from home on the north end of Isla. Whew!!! Check in to the rooms – we had two 2-bedroom condos two 1-bedroom ones – and then it was time to relax and grab some dinner.

But one thing that’s changed in the seven years since we were last there is how crowded and even more touristy Isla has become. There are tchotcke shops, restaurants, pharmacies, and golf cart rental places everywhere. When we arrived on Saturday, and it seemed this way on Sunday as well, the place was packed. The streets were crowded with taxis, scooters, and golf carts, and the sidewalks were crowded with people. It’s almost as if Isla has decided to become a mini-Cancun, where the party never stops. In fact, on our first night there, there WAS a party somewhere nearby where the loud techno-music blared literally non-stop until 5am, making it hard to sleep, even within our rooms in the hotel.

So IMHO, this change in Isla, which was formerly sort of a sleepy little island with a similar feel as going to Avalon, Catalina, is not good and may affect our decision to return in the future.

I like Nautibeach for a number of reasons. The place is upscale but not fancy/schmancy. Each condo also has a full kitchen so eating in the room is an option. There’s a nice pool on-site and they’re on a great stretch of beach. They’ve also got a decent restaurant – The Mayan – on-site, although since we were there last, the menu has changed and is much more limited now. It was decent, but not memorable.

But overall, Nautibeach has worked well for us, especially from an organizational standpoint since they charge a flat rate for each room regardless of the number of people you put in. So the 2-bedrooms can have 2 people, or 3 or 4. From a trip organizer standpoint, this makes deciding who rooms with whom a lot easier.

We added a new wrinkle this year and that was renting two golf carts that anyone of our group could use. That proved to be a great decision.

In the past, we’ve always walked wherever we needed to go. The dive shop is only a few blocks away as are the docks where we get the boats. Nothing’s more than half a mile away. And there are dozens of good restaurants within walking distance as well.

But it also meant schlepping gear with you. And for me personally, especially with my camera rig on a hot and muggy day, that was burdensome. So we arranged through the hotel to rent two carts for the week and – even though I think they gouged me on the rate – we loved the freedom the carts gave us.

We were able to drive everyone each day to the dive shop and then to the docks, we were able to do some exploration of the island that we haven’t done before, and we could make food runs to Chedraui, the local whatever-you-need-they’ve-got-it place. The biggest problem is finding a place to legally park the carts while we were out on the boats because parking can be scarce. But since we started most days around 8AM, before things really get hopping in the town, it wasn’t a huge problem. Plus Nautibeach has a small parking lot so we were able to keep the carts there when we weren’t using them. Overall, the golf carts were a hit with our group.

Two things to get used to on Isla, and it seems Mexico in general, is that everyone is always selling and everyone expects a tip for whatever they do. Walk by a vendor and they’ll go “T-shirt today mister?” The guard that opens the gate for you each day? Give him a little something at the end of the week. I admire the tenacity and the optimism of those trying to sell and I’ve come to accept the frequent tipping as simply a way of doing business in Mexico as a tourist, let alone leading a group of tourists.

Isla has an amazing number of good-to-excellent restaurants. We enjoyed meals at the aforementioned Mayan, Punta Blanca (next to Nautibeach), Asia-Caribe, Lola Valentina, and we really liked Abuelos, a little hole-in-the-wall we discovered only a couple of blocks from our hotel. You won’t go hungry on Isla.

We dove with Aqua Adventures Eco Diving. This is the same outfit that we dove with in the past, but it’s under new ownership now as previous owner Jim Silver decided to sell the business and retire. It’s a good operation. Owner Sharon Teter was away while we were there but shop manager Jason Ball keeps things on track and makes sure it all runs as smoothly as possible.

Each day, whether we were diving or Whale Sharking, we’d meet at the shop, which is one block off of the main drag. This allowed us to make sure we had all the gear we needed and then it was off to the dock. On dive days, they load up two large pushcarts at the shop with tanks, weights, and gear. Then their DMs roll them to the dock and load up the boat while you wait. At the end of the day, they not only do that in reverse, but they’re happy to take your gear with them, rinse it for you at the shop, and store it there overnight. (No extra charge but this is also where it’s nice to give them an end-of-the-trip tip for the service). So we’d leave our BCs and regs with them at the end of the dive day, take back with us mask/snorkel/fins/booties/wetsuits so we’d have them for the next Whale Sharking day, and that all worked out nicely.

We also want to sing the praises of our two DMs, Gustavo and Ema (sort for Emanuel). Not only did they do all the gear-hauling and gear-rinsing each day, but they also did nice briefings on the dives, always had it organized so that one of them was in the lead and one brought up the rear, pointed out cool stuff (it was Gustavo who showed me the Batfish that’s in the SmugMug slide show as well as on our FaceBook page), and generally made sure that we not only saw what there was to see, but stayed safe in doing so. At the end of each dive – we always stayed together as a group – they’d shoot a surface marker buoy when we hit the safety stop and that meant the boat was always there to pick us up. Speaking of which . . .

Their normal boat, which they inherited from Jim Silver, is the Amelia. I’ve never been a fan of the vessel. My recollection of it is that it’s a little cramped, sits low to the water (which makes gearing up a tad difficult), and is adequate but not all that comfortable. So I wasn’t too upset when they told me the very first dive day that Amelia had mechanical problems and we’d be using a different boat, the Cevcihe II.

Ceviche was, IMHO, much better suited for diving. It has a roomy cockpit area which easily held our assembled gear, cameras, and us. The freeboard’s a little high but not horribly so, and the ladder for re-boarding – your choice of tank off in the water or climb up with gear on – required you to step carefully so as not to slip. But it all worked out fine. And Captain Jesus was always helpful grabbing fins and cameras when we were getting back on.

We ended up diving from Ceviche II all three dive days which also meant we never really left on time because each day they thought Amelia would be working and each day it wasn’t. So they had to bring Ceviche II around. But we never were delayed more than about 45 minutes, got in the planned dives, and as long as you develop an “island time” mentality, it’s not like we had a meeting scheduled for the afternoon that we had to be back for.

The diving around Isla can be hit or miss – I don’t consider that significant since the main reason we’re going is for the Whale Sharks – but I thought this was one of our better trips relative to the diving portion.

Overall, water temps were generally around 85º, although when we did the wreck of the C55, it dropped to 79º. Brrrrrrr (relatively speaking). Visibility averaged 50-60 feet but we had one dive – the Ultrafreeze wreck – where it was a clear 70-90 feet – and one dive (Palais) where it was a hazy 20 feet with a lot of surge. (But that’s also where we had the Batfish.)

We started off Sunday at the Cancun Underwater Museum, aka MUSA, and did two dives there. It’s a great first/checkout dive because the bottom is about 40 feet deep so you’ve got good light and it also gives people a chance to see if they’ve got the right weight on and fine-tune their buoyancy.

MUSA is a series of underwater sculptures by artist Jason deCaires Taylor and you move from one sculpture area to the next, also taking in the flora and fauna along the way. The sculptures all have a message behind them, like the bankers with their heads in the sand representing how the international banking world ignores the plight of people and instead searches for profit. And there’s another section of maybe 100 individual people standing together and each face is based on an actual resident of Cancun.

But I had forgotten how many fish there were. On the sites we dove, there were always large schools of Bluestriped Grunts, Porkfish, and French Grunts. Gray, Queen, and Blue angelfish darted about plus we saw various species of Parrotfish and other wrasses along with some lobsters.

Our second dive was at Manchones One which is also where you find the statue called “The Dream Catcher.” It’s a man standing in his library making notes in a book with a dog at his feet. But the real “secret” of this piece is that the man is actually sculptor Jason’s father. It’s one of my personal favorites.

Tuesday was our second dive day and we went to visit the C55 wreck which is about an hour run from Isla and a mile or so off of Cancun proper. There are two wrecks in this area, with the C58 being the second and one we dove before. C55 was new for us and is comprised of three sections, fairly low-profile to the seafloor (70-80 feet deep), and a little spread out. This worked in our favor as there were two other groups diving this at the same time as us so everyone could explore part of the wreck without impinging on the other groups.

Fish life here was similar to MUSA but we started off with an enormous school – maybe a thousand fish – of the Bluestriped Grunts. We also had numerous Goatfish, Spanish Hogfish, and Blue Tangs, as well as a large school of Black Grunts hanging together in one part of the wreck. Our second Tuesday dive was a spot called Grampin, which is a series of channels and overhangs that we explored as the mild current pushed us along.

Current, from mild to strong, is something you can expect on many of the dives around Isla. The general plan for all of these dives was that we’d all backroll in at the same time and descend together. Captain Jesus would drop us up-current of wherever were going, and then the current would take us into the start of the dive. For something like a wreck, this meant you had to hit it correctly because if you missed, you probably couldn’t get the entire group on-site against the current. For the other reef sites, starting at a specific spot wasn’t as critical.

Thursday was our third and final diving day and was my favorite. We started at what they called the “deep wreck” which is more properly known as Ultrafreeze, also known as El Frio, a 200-foot long cargo ship deliberately sunk as an artificial reef. It’s about five miles north of Isla and lies in 100 feet of water. The vessel is relatively low-profile, rising maybe no more than 20 feet off the sandy bottom. But because it’s the only structure in the area, it attracts an amazing array of fish.

As we drifted into it – again, we were dropped up-current – the first thing we came across were 20 or so HUUUUGE Crevalle Jacks. The wreck had plenty of Angelfish on it, a Southern Stingray, a large Nurse Shark tucked into the bow, a Lionfish, a bunch of Atlantic Spadefish (which I’d never seen before), a dozen or so Porcupinefish, and two large Rainbow Parrotfish. I thought it was a fantastic dive, especially from a photo perspective as it was a target-rich environment and you’ll see shots of most of these animals in the SmugMug slideshow.

Our final dive was at Palais, which has a reef structure similar to Grampin with lots of channels, swim-throughs, and overhangs. But it also held a great treasure which was a Batfish that Gustavo pointed out. I haven’t nailed down the specific species yet but you can see him in the SmugMug slideshow. These fish are ambush predators and patiently sit on the bottom waiting for prey to come within striking distance. They’re also known as “Handfish” because they can walk on their pectoral and ventral fins, using them like little hands. (Frogfish are in this category too.) So it was a special treat to be able to spend some time photoing this rare gem. (I was going to use the term “rare beauty” but I don’t think anyone going to call this fish beautiful.)

On past trips, we’ve used one dive day to go visit the cenotes in Tulum. This year, we decided not to do that.

Quite frankly, I simply don’t get the allure. There aren’t any fish in the cenotes and everything else is rocks, so it’s not like anything changes. It’s logistically-complicated as you take the ferry from Isla back to the mainland, then a van down to Tulum (90 miles away), hook up with the dive shop there, drive to the cenotes, do two dives of about 40 minutes each, have lunch, back to the dive shop, van back up to the ferry, ferry back to Isla, and then back to the hotel. In p ast years, it’s been a 10-11 hour day. Lots of schlepping for 80 minutes of underwater rocks.

When I initially inquired about it this year. Sharon at Aqua Adventures pitched it enthusiastically and said it was only a 7-hour day. They leave Isla on the 6AM (previously we did the 7:30 ferry), they have you in Tulum by 8:30, the dives would be done by 10:30, back to the ferry shortly after Noon, and back on Isla by 1PM. Aside from a way-too-early start for the ferry (we’d need to be in line no later than 5:45AM), it just all sounded and felt very rushed to me so we passed.

While the diving was enjoyable, the main reason we come to Isla is to snorkel with the Whale Sharks that gather in the waters every year roughly from May through September. We were told that this year seems to be a lean year in terms of numbers.

The Whale Shark excursions are not run directly by Aqua Adventures but through an affiliated company called Isla Mujeres Boats, run by Beto Aguayo and his son Jair. We’ve used them on every trip in the past and were quite happy to go searching for Whale Sharks with them again this year. They’ve got two boats, La Nena and Parjito, both of which can accommodate up to 10 snorkelers. (If you’ve got a choice, Parjito’s a little longer, a little wider, and more comfortable.) We also book the entire boat so we have it to ourselves regardless of the number of people we end up with. The Whale Shark area is about 10 miles north of Isla so it’s about a one-hour ride to get out there. And it’s usually fairly calm so we ride out in civvies and don’t get into wetsuits until we’re on-site.

There are a number of rules set by the Mexican government for swimming with the Whale Sharks:
• If you’re not wearing a wetsuit, you must wear a life jacket in the water
• Stay with your guide
• No more than 2 people per boat with the guide at a time
• No wearing of sunscreen (washes off and affects water quality)
• Don’t touch the Whale Sharks
• No free-diving (so stay on the surface) and no scuba diving
• No flashes on still cameras and no video lights
• Only 2 jumps per team of 2 per boat for the day

Bear in mind that there can be 50 or more boats out in the Whale Shark area. In fact on our first day (Monday), I counted that many in our area alone. And there’s certainly a little bit of bending of the rules here and there. But the thing to remember is that these rules are in place not only for the safety of the Whale Sharks, but of the snorkelers too. I joked with both Beto and Jair that their stress levels must be fairly high each day as they try to maneuver amongst all the boats and the snorkelers in the water. There’s a lot of traffic going on.

The other thing to understand is that this is generally a morning endeavor. We left around 8AM, and it takes about an hour to get out to the general Whale Shark area. The leviathans are usually feeding on the surface so they’re relatively easy to spot but as they gorge themsevles and as the morning wears on, they tend to descend back into the depths. So by Noon, there’s little or no activity and everyone heads for home.

We had three days of Whale Sharking. As trip leader, my goal is to make sure that everyone in our group gets at least one face-to-face encounter with one of these gentle giants. And we got that in spades.

On Monday, our first day out, the seas were a bit high. This complicates things in the Whale Shark area because, with a “lumpy” sea, the animals can’t just cruise right at the surface as they normally do. So on this day, they were a foot or two down and generally moving at a decent clip. What it meant was that whenever a group of ours jumped in, you needed to be on the move almost immediately and you had to keep moving to stay with the fish. And even though it looks like they’re gently lolly-gagging along, they move faster than you’d think. So a lot of times on the first day, you’d only get 30-60 seconds with the animal because you’d be wearing yourself out keeping up. But, I’m pleased to say, every single person in our group got a good look on every single jump as Captain Jair expertly maneuvered Parjito and got us in position.

Our second day out was Wednesday and the weather had turned a bit. On this day, we were on La Nena with Beto and, as we left the dock, I noticed that it seemed like we were the only boat going out. (Normally, there might be a dozen or more boats leaving from the various Isla docks, as well as boats that start out in Cancun and come over.) As we rounded the northern tip of Isla and headed out, it was easy to see why. Monday had a 2-4 foot swell with an occasional 5-footer. Wednesday it seemed like 3-5 feet with an occasional 6-footer. That meant for a bouncy ride with spray coming over the bow to the point that most of us put our wetsuits on since we were going to get drenched. (It also meant a couple of our folks added mal de mar to their Whale Shark experience.) Because of the swell, Beto ran at about half speed so it took us almost two hours to get out to the Whale Shark area.

When we arrived, there were only a couple of other boats in the area. Everyone was looking for Mr. Whale Shark. No one was finding him. Kudos to Beto for his patience and perseverance. We spent almost another hour and a half going at idle speed and looking. (At least it was a sunny day.) And just when we were about to give up and turn for home empty-handed . . . we heard some excited radio chatter. Whale Shark spotted!!!

Now bear in mind that this is really the proverbial needle-in-a-haystack. The general Whale Shark area is a mile or two wide and a mile or two long. So there’s a LOT of ocean to cover. Start with there aren’t many animals in the area. Then throw in the idea that they’re not skimming the surface making them harder to spot. That anyone sees anything is nothing short of a miracle.

But we were quite happy to take advantage of this miracle. It took us another ten minutes to reach the boat that has radioed and we found a single Whale Shark. But there were only two other boats there as well. So we plopped out first two divers in. Beto prides himself in putting you right on the nose of the animal he watches where the animal is heading, maneuvers the boat, and you jump when he says. Then you kick straight ahead and out of the haze emerges this magnificent beast, usually heading right towards you with mouth open. (You’ll see some pictures of this in the SmugMug slide show.) Once again, we were able to get everybody in the water for the Whale Shark experience. We “might” have even lost count as to how many jumps we all got to do so it “might” have exceeded two. But through patience and perseverance, we turned tragedy into triumph. It also made for a long day. Normally we got around 1PM. On Wednesday, we didn’t get back until 3:15PM.

Friday was our final Whale Shark day and we were back on Parjito with Jair. The seas had calmed significantly so the ride out was MUCH more pleasant and when we got to the Whale Shark area, Jair told us there were 15 Whale Sharks feeding. This time, you could easily see their dorsals and their tail fins breaking the surface, surrounded by a gaggle of life-jacketed snorkelers in hot pursuit. On this day, we got in plenty of jumps for everyone, the animals were moving very slowly at the surface so it was easy to keep pace with them, and everyone got really good, long encounters with the animals. If you look at the video that I shot, that video was done on this dive. I think I had close to 10 minutes or more in the water and counted five different Whale Sharks over the course of my immersion. Not a bad way to end the trip.

All in all, it was a really nice trip. This one’s got a lot of moving parts so from a trip leader standpoint it can get complicated but since we use the same folks we’ve dealt with before and know the ins and outs, everything seemed to go fairly smoothly. The one big disappointment was how much more crowded and touristy Isla has become since we were last there in 2016. It certainly didn’t ruin things for us but changes the experience somewhat. By the same token, having the golf carts meant we could get away from the crowds if need be and certainly made things easier at the end of a dive/snorkel day when it was time to go back to the hotel. Much easier to drive through the traffic than it would have been to walk through the crowds.

This is a trip you could probably book on your own. But there’s a definite advantage to doing this as part of a group, not only because someone else (me) handles all the details and logistics, but also because a group has more clout than an individual as to where you go and when you go and who else comes (or doesn’t come) with you. For instance, on the scuba days, it was nice only having six of us on the boat and not having the shop sell the other four spots to strangers to fill things up. (A reminder: This is why we pay for the entire boat.)

So the big question is whether or not we’ll go back again and the answer is . . . probably. I’m not sure that this is an every-year type of trip anymore but it certainly offers a very unique opportunity to get into the water with an animal that’s probably on everyone’s bucket list and for that reason alone is something that we’ll likely offer again.

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