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Where are the whale sharks?
Iguana at tulum
I had a few days off work this summer and planned to go down to the channel islands or something else nearby but then priceline gave me a fantastic deal on airfare and hotel for a weeks stay in Playa Del Carmen! How could I pass this up?
This area of Mexico known as the Mayan riviera had long been on my list of places to visit due to the geography of the region. The whole peninsula is made up of limestone! this means there are loads of caves almost everywhere you go. Now, because the area is mostly flat and barely above sea level most of these are filled with water but that just adds to the fun. In Mexico the openings to these water filled caves are refered to as Cenotes derived from the Mayan word dzonot for well or sink hole. That was another reason to visit this area- lots of history especially with some very interesting Mayan ruins to see. Now August may not be the ideal time to head to Mexico, it's a little warm for starters and the chances of a tropical storm or hurricane are definitely higher this time of year but there's advantages as well. First was the already mentioned low cost of my trip, I'm sure due to booking during the "off season", the other reason? Whale Sharks. These huge critters congregate near isla Holbox from late July through September so I'd have an excellent chance of seeing them.
First up was a simple cavern dive at Chac Mool cenote, since I'd need a guide and equipment I booked this through Manta divers in Cancun. They sent Lief to meet me and 3 other divers. On the way to the cenote he briefed us on what to expect.
Chac Mool Cenote
Conditions at the cenote were as promised- beautiful clear water. The water is fresh though an interesting phenomenon occurs where at a certain depth you cross into salt water. The interface between these two layers is referred to as the halocline and makes for some very interesting diving. The difference between the layers causes a haze similar to hot air rising off a road on a summers day. We also got to experience changes in buoyancy which really requires the diver to pay attention.
Entrance of Chac mool cenote
entering the halocline
We passed through uneventfully though and I thoroughly enjoyed our swim through the cenote, there were even some nice formations in the cave and a very small boat resting peacefully on the bottom.
After lunch at the cenote it was time to head back to my hotel and enjoy a nice cold cerveza as I watched the waves roll in. I was supposed to head out early the next morning in search of whale sharks but tropical storm Isaac had other ideas and the port was closed due to storm warnings.
Looking around for other things to do I found a listing for Mayan ruins and an aviary in nearby Playacar. I did some sight seeing along the way as I walked to Playacar. The aviary is a small park filled with birds and wild life including a small enclosure that ensures you can get a close up view of some pretty interesting birds. Great for photography. A little on the expensive side considering they've raised the price from 150 pesos to 300 but since I didn't have anything else to do I was happy for the opportunity to check out the birds.
Keel-billed Toucan (Ramphastos sulfuratus)
The next day was a chance to visit some more cenotes this time though we had something extra special to check out. We headed out to Angelita. This Cenote is mostly a very deep pit. Here the accumulation of leaves and organic matter that has fallen into the pit produces hydrogen sulphide gas. At around 110 feet of depth this gas forms a layer floating on top of the saltwater below. So when diving it appears like this is the bottom of the pit. After penetrating this cloudy layer though you emerge in the clear salt water below. As we were getting ready to dive we spotted a tarantula walking by.
Entering the hydrogen sulphide layer
While this was a very interesting dive there are not a lot of formations to see in a pit so for our next dive Lief suggested we head over to a popular favourite Gran Cenote where there were lots of beautiful formations to check out. He even located a couple bats near the entrance for me.
After our dives Lief and Alex to us out for some wonderful tacos and cerveza, we had to order some more beer since the video Alex was editing wasn't done but I don't think anyone minded.
Then it was time to head back to Playa Del Carmen to watch the tide come in again.
Playa del Carmen
Since the tropical storm still had the port closed I spent the next day wandering about town and decided that for dinner I'd investigate a cave I'd heard of right in town!
The restaurant 'Alux' in Playa del Carmen is built inside an actual cave. Since the location is dictated by the location of the cave its not near the other tourist restaurants but isn't all that far either.
restaurant in a cave
It makes for a scenic location but the extreme humidity and heat made it a bit hard to enjoy dinner.
I certainly enjoyed walking around checking out the cave for a bit after I ate though.
Sunrise at Playa Del Carmen
After the wonderful Cenote dives and a restaurant in a cave only one thing could improve this trip and that was seeing whale sharks, but the weather still wasn't co-operating. Since I'd already had a day of sitting around taking it easy I decided to book a little site seeing excursion. One of the big attractions in this part of Mexico is the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza, these are a good 3 to 4 four drive away from Playa del Carmen though and would really require an overnight stay to do them justice. Since I was still hoping for an improvement in the weather that would allow the boats to leave in search of the whale sharks, I decided to head to Tulum instead. this proved to be an excellent choice as the heat of summer was tempered there by a cool ocean breeze as we toured the ruins overlooking the beautiful Caribbean. Tulum from the Mayan for wall or fence is an impressive fortification overlooking the ocean.
Templo Dios del Viento (God of Winds Temple)
I had a very enjoyable time touring the ruins and checking out the numerous iguanas that have set up home in the rubble.
Then it was time to head out for lunch and a little snorkeling at nearby Xel Ha .
This sheltered inlet has been turned into a resort with an all you can eat buffet, and various attractions. I chose to spend my time there checking out the multitude of colorful fish as I swam around.
color fish, Xel Ha
Then it was back to Playa Del Carmen for some good news, the weather looked to be improving, the next morning the boat would head out from Cancun in search of Whale Sharks!
Heading out from Cancun
As the last day of my trip to Mexico approached I got up early and climbed aboard a van heading north to Cancun. We;d gotten word that the weather had cleared up and we'd be heading out to find the whale sharks.
At the port we had a short briefing- no flash photography, don't touch the whale sharks etc. and a quick breakfast. Coffee wasn't done but I managed to snag a cup that had finished brewing right before I headed on board. A veritable fleet of boats was heading out, all seeking the whale sharks. Since there was still a slight swell from the storms that had passed through and we had to haed a fair distance offshore, several people were looking a little green by the time we reached the location of the Whale sharks. Still, everyone was eager to jump in once we got there.
We had been told to be sure and look underwater as soon as we jumped in and this proved sound advice, the glare on the surface gave no hint of this whale shark that became immediately obvious once I submerged.
Whilst they seem to be swimming slowly and relaxed their sheer size means that they swim considerably faster then a person so getting ahead of them for long enough to take pictures and video proved challenging but I thoroughly enjoyed the challenge.
Whale Shark gulping in plankton rich water.
Whale Shark passing beneath me
By the end of it all I was sunburnt, had blisters from finning hard to keep up and incredibly tired but it was oh so worth it.
swimming with these gentle giants was an amazing experience.
I even shot video
We had a short delay while some people were transferred from another boat that had experienced engine trouble on the way out, then it was on to Isla Mujeres for a chance to enjoy the scenery and a delicious lunch of ceviche.
I had one final adventure before heading home though. After getting out of the van at my hotel in Playa del Carmen I discovered my camera was missing! I had taken it out to show people the video of the whale sharks and left it in the van. I was frantic as I could not imagine losing those pictures or video. After a struggle to make a call (the phone at the hotel never seemed to work right) I contacted the tour company and they assured me they'd have it on the van for their first tour leaving Playa del Carmen at 645 in the morning, plenty of time before my afternoon flight. Sure enough after a night of tossing and turning I met the tour guide at Senor Frogs and he'd brought my camera! Then it was time to pack up and head for the airport for a rather lengthy trip home. can't wait to return to the Mexico Riviera.
[ Playa del Carmen, another beautiful sunrise.
One Inspired soul
Amazing experience! great photos
Great stuff! I love whale sharks. Had the great adventure of swimming with them off the coast of Exmouth, Australia many years ago. Thanks for the Journey!
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