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ISLA MUJERES – EXPLORING MEXICO’S CARIBBEAN COAST

By Nigel Marsh and Helen Rose

 

Mexico is a country we have always wanted to visit; the history, the food, the culture and of course the diving a big attraction for any traveller. As a diving destination Mexico has got too many choices, as you can dive both the east and west coast, via resorts or liveaboards, and explore reefs, wrecks, caves and much more – way too much to see in one trip. So for our first trip we decided to explore Mexico’s Caribbean coast, with Isla Mujeres our first port of call.

 

Located off Cancun, the famous holiday and party town, Isla Mujeres is a lovely laid back destination with great beaches, a wide range of accommodation and places to eat and just a wonderful place to relax. Most visitors come to the island to enjoy water sports; fishing, sailing, snorkelling and diving, with dozens of dive operators ready to take you to the local reefs and wrecks.

 

We booked five days of diving in January with Casa Del Buceo, one of the smaller boutique dive operators, but with a very professional setup and staff. A PADI facility owned and managed by Pablo Hernandez Cruz, they offer daily boat dives and have a full range of new hire gear.

 

We thought five days would give us plenty of time to sample the best of the local dive sites, but we didn’t factor in three things – wild windy weather, too many dive sites and a nasty case of Montezuma revenge! Windy winter weather restricted where we could dive and even wiped out one day completely, and an untimely tummy bug kept me out of the water one day and lingering close to a toilet. But the biggest surprise was the number of dive sites, it would take over a month to explore them all and we only ended up with three days to sample a few. However, the dive sites we explored were just brilliant and they gave us a wonderful introduction to Caribbean diving.

 

The first dive site we explored was unlike anything we have ever seen before, a site called the Underwater Museum. This site consists of over a thousand concrete sculptures arranged on the bottom in twelve galleries in depths from 7m to 10m. With 20m visibility we had a great time swimming from gallery to gallery, although we did find it very bizarre seeing hundreds of life-sized people standing on the bottom in the main gallery. In other galleries we saw a car, a house and even people praying, well we think they were praying as they were bent over with their heads in the sand.

 

These sculptures have only been underwater since 2010 so are only partly covered in sponges and coral, and home to only small populations of reef fish, but over time this amazing artificial reef will age gracefully and attract more marine life.

 

During our stay we explored a number of local reefs off Isla Mujeres. The reefs here, at least the ones we explored off the western side of the island, are shallow rocky structures with numerous ledges and caves and decorated with soft corals, hard corals, sponges and fans. These Caribbean reefs look nothing like the reefs we are use to diving in the Indo-Pacific region, so it was a great novelty just being in such a completely different environment.

 

At Manchones Reef and Lavandera Reef we encountered turtles, stingrays, moray eels, gropers and barracuda. While there were a few familiar fish species, most were completely new to us and a delight to observe and photograph, especially the hogfish, trunkfish, hamlets and angelfish. But we were most impressed by the thick schools of grunts and porkfish. Four species of grunts, at times all mixed together, engulf these local reefs in staggering numbers, but the black and yellow porkfish were our favourites.

 

Invertebrate species were a bit thin on the ground on these Caribbean reefs; only sea stars, sea urchins, sea cucumbers, shrimps, arrow crabs and crayfish were common, and surprisingly no nudibranchs, but this may have been because it was winter, even though the water temperature was still 26°C. There were a few molluscs around, including the beautiful flamingo tongue, a lovely small shell with a pretty patterned mantle.

 

As wonderful as the reefs were the best dive we did off Isla Mujeres was a wreck dive on the Gunboat C58. Sunk in the 1980s, this former US Navy minesweeper is just one of a dozen ships scuttled around the island for divers to enjoy and now rests in 25m of water. We enjoyed over 30m visibility as we explored this wreck, and also encountered quite a strong current.

 

Upon reaching the bottom we were amazed to see over a dozen spotted eagle rays cruising around the wreck. Our guide Enrique informed us that they are always here when a current is running. While the wreck itself was fun to explore, and quite safe to penetrate, the highlight was all the marine life. Beside the eagle rays we saw schools of trevally, grunts and goatfish, plus angelfish, hogfish, gropers and a huge green moray eel. But the biggest surprise was finding a 2m long nurse shark resting under the stern.

 

Three days was barely enough time to sample the diving at Isla Mujeres, in fact we left the island frustrated that we didn’t have extra time to explore more of its reefs and wrecks. The windy weather meant we didn’t get to explore any of the sites off the eastern side of the island, including one site we dearly wanted to see – the cave of the sleeping shark, where reef and bull sharks sleep in oxygen rich caves. Now you would think that the local reefs and wrecks around Isla Mujeres would be enough to keep any diver happy for weeks, but no this island also has other seasonal attractions that we missed. Over summer hundreds of whale sharks gather north of the island, while the winter months sees an invasion of sailfish hunting offshore bait balls. Can one island have too many dive attractions!

 

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