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The Underwater World of the Riviera Maya

2 Jul 2010

The Mexican Caribbean is much more than a paradise of warm, crystal-clear waters and white sands, it is a window on a strange and colorful world: the coral reef kingdom. Known as the Mesoamerican Reef, the world’s second longest barrier reef system hugs the Quintana Roo coast, stretching for over 600 miles from Contoy Island south to Belize – where it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site – and the Gulf of Honduras.


The Mesoamerican Reef comprises barrier and fringing reefs, spur and groove formations, caves, canyons, walls and drop offs, scattered coral heads and atolls – all of them beautiful beyond compare and home to an endless variety of colorful creatures.


Coral reefs are the richest ecosystems on the planet, rivaled only by the rain forest, and 500 species of fish and 70 species of coral have been recorded in on the Mesoamerican Reef. Shoals of jacks, grunts, porkfish and fingerlings dart to and fro above the coral. Look closer and you’ll see tiny but territorial reef dwellers such as the damselfish, sergeant major and squirrelfish. Parrotfish graze on the coral and jewel-colored angelfish and blue tangs sail regally by. Algae, sea fans, sponges, Christmas tree worms, anemones and the psychedelic invertebrates called nudibranches add dashes of color to the reef garden. Sightings of turtles, groupers, moray eels and rays are frequent. Whether it is your first time in the water or your fiftieth, there’s always something incredible to see.

Diving in the Mexican Caribbean, An Overview

Around Contoy

The reef system begins just to the south of the island of Contoy in the northern reaches of the Mexican Caribbean. The waters between Contoy, Cabo Catoche and the island of Holbox are rich in nutrients borne by oceanic currents and the upwelling of colder water from the depths. Plankton and other microscopic organisms at the bottom of the food chain flourish, attracting a wealth of other species, including some ocean-going giants. The largest living fish, the whale sharks, gather here to feed during the summer; manta rays, sea turtles and dolphins can often be spotted and sailfish hunt schools of sardines in the spring. Every year, thousands of lobsters can also be seen walking across the seabed on their annual migration to the breeding area.

Cancun-Isla Mujeres Area
Protected by a marine reserve, the chain of shallow water reefs in the bay between Isla Mujeres and Cancún and south to Punta Nizuc, is an excellent place to start exploring the Mesoamerican Reef. The reefs are so accessible that divers can literally board the boat at 10 o’clock in the morning for the trip out to the site and still be back in time for lunch after having done a two-tank dive. Marine life ranges from elk horn and brain coral and gardens of sea fans to sergeant majors, jacks and other fish, rays, sea turtles and moray eels.
In the deeper waters to the east of Isla Mujeres are a series of much more challenging reefs famous for the huge shoals of fish that hover over truly spectacular coral formations and the Cave of the Sleeping Sharks. Discovered by a local fisherman and filmed by Ramón Bravo, the Mexican Jacques Cousteau, the cave is a spot where sharks literally “sleep” for hours in a fast-flowing current, lulled by the oxygen in the bubbles.

Puerto Morelos


Next stop is Puerto Morelos where a stretch of barrier reef hugs the shoreline. Protected by another national park, the reef is a popular dive site and local fishermen and scuba centers also offer snorkeling trips to the shallower areas.
The reef is impressive: huge coral heads and buttresses are covered with sea fans and algae and are pitted with caves where lobsters and moray eels lurk. Schools of yellowtail snapper, Atlantic spadefish and French grunts swim over the crest of the reef and fairy basslets and spotted drum dart among the corals, ready to slip into a crevice when danger threatens.

Playa del Carmen area
Most divers embarking from Playa del Carmen make straight for the deeper reefs at a depth of between 80 and 100 feet. Turtles can be seen all year round and in January huge tarpon congregate at one of the local reefs. Yet divers on the mainland are also drawn to Cozumel, an island girdled by breathtaking reefs that were made famous by Jacques Cousteau.

Cozumel
A short boat ride from Playa del Carmen in the Riviera Maya, lies the island of Cozumel, one of the world’s leading dive destinations. Cozumel owes its fame to the clarity of the water – visibility can be up to 200 feet –, the mighty Palancar reef and the drop offs or walls that tumble down into the impenetrable dark of an ocean trench thousands of feet deep. However, there are 25 different reefs with names such as Paraíso, Santa Rosa, Colombia, Punta Sur and Maracaibo scattered along the west coast of the island, some with drop offs, caves and coral buttresses two stories high. Marine life is abundant, ranging from sponges, sea fans and black coral in deeper waters to schools of blue chromis, regal angelfish and lone gigantic groupers. An additional attraction in spring is the presence of thousands of eagle rays, which migrate to Punta Norte to breed.
The current is so strong in the Cozumel Channel that drift diving is the order of the day. Divers do not have to swim, they let the current take them and literally “glide” along the reefs.

Akumal
Further south in the Riviera Maya, Akumal has breathtaking fringing reefs and underwater canyons. Forty-seven species of hard and soft corals have been identified in the area and marine life is abundant. Turtles are the most famous reef inhabitants and give Akumal its name, in Maya Akumal means “place of the turtles.” Look closely at the corals and you’ll see an endless parade of reef dwellers such as butterfly fish, tangs and parrotfish in vibrant shades of yellow, blue, purple, orange and green. Spotted eagle and bat rays, peacock flounders and trigger fish can also be seen.

Sian Ka’an Reefs
The Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve extends to a system of fringing reefs that stretches for 68 miles along the shoreline. Star, brain and lettuce corals are common, along with giant sponges and 150 different species of fish have been identified in the reserve. Sea turtles, manatees, whale sharks, manta rays, reef, lemon and nurse sharks can also be observed.
Sian Ka’an is an important area for lobster and conch fishing and biologists believe that it may be a breeding zone for other species such as Caribbean grouper and snapper since hundreds of these fish gather at several sites in the reserve ten days before full moon during the winter months. This in turn attracts other species that feed on the fish spawn.

Banco Chinchorro
A two-hour boat ride from Majahual and Xcalak on the Costa Maya in southern Quintana Roo, lies a huge atoll that every experienced diver dreams of exploring, Chinchorro. Apart from its spectacular reefs, a crystalline lagoon dotted with brain corals and tiny cays, huge sponges and wealth of marine life, Chinchorro jealously guards another secret.
Its jagged corals have been the downfall of many a ship through the centuries. Mayan merchant canoes, Spanish galleons, British schooners and even modern-day cargo ships have all foundered in this ships’ graveyard. A local legend even rumors that a German submarine sank here during World War II although no traces have ever been found of it. Diving Chinchorro’s wrecks is an unforgettable experience.

Where to go Snorkeling
If you can swim you can snorkel and after a practice session in the pool you’ll be raring to go. Many of the area’s reefs lie in shallow sheltered waters where you can don your snorkel mask and flippers and jump right in. If you have never snorkeled before why not try it? It is a fun activity for the whole family and it will open a window to the underwater world so that you can see life on the reef.
Several of the reefs in the Cancún-Isla Mujeres Marine Park are suitable for snorkeling and include El Farito and Garrafon off the coast of Isla, and the coral formations in front of Punta Nizuc, Cancun’s southern headland. You can also charter a boat and escape fellow swimmers on your own snorkeling adventure.
Ask local people about their favorite snorkeling spots near Cancún and many of them will give their vote to Puerto Morelos National Marine Park. Combine a morning on the barrier reef with time on the beach followed by a leisurely lunch in one of this filling village’s waterfront restaurants.
Further south, the Riviera Maya has several spots for snorkeling adventures. Start with a trip to Maroma or Paamul. Next stop is Akumal, a classic dive destination where the reefs come close to shore. You’ll see sergeant majors, French grunts, parrotfish and even turtles in the shallows. These peaceful creatures gather here to graze on the beds of sea grass. In Half Moon Bay you can actually see them popping their heads out of the water.
Head north along the coast road from Akumal and you’ll reach Yalkú, a turquoise-colored caleta or inlet of crystalline waters fed by cenotes and underground rivers. Yalkú is a good place to spot angelfish, surgeonfish, blue tangs and butterfly fish.
Recently voted one of Mexico’s top ten natural wonders, the chain of turquoise inlets, lagoons and cenotes at Xel-Há is a huge natural aquarium. Fish of all shapes and sizes from the nearby reefs seek food and shade among the rocks. You’ll find yourself surrounded by schools of fish that are just as curious about you as you are about them. Spend a day here with your family. Apart from snorkeling, you can float down the waterways in oversized inner tubes, swim with dolphins (additional charge), leap into a pool from a cliff and swim in a cenote.

Save the Reefs
You can help preserve the fragile coral reef ecosystem, here’s how:
* Do not touch anything! Even the lightest touch can cause damage that will take the reef hundreds of years to recover from.
* Do not take shells, sea fans, coral, fish or any other creature living or dead from the reef.
* Keep your distance from the reef and avoid kicking or stirring up the sand. Sand can clog up the coral polyps and block life-giving sunlight.
* Use a t-shirt for sun protection instead of suntan creams and oils which kill coral and marine life.

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