Dive Atlas Of The World: An Illustrated Reference To The Best Sites - Jack Jackson (2016)
by Lawson Wood
THE YUCATÁN PENINSULA DIVIDES THE Caribbean Sea from the Gulf of Mexico. The island of Cozumel 1 lies just 30km (19 miles) southeast of Cancún on the peninsula. This small island has the largest concentration of dive centres, which puts an inevitable strain on the environment. Conservation measures are often defeated by the sheer number of divers at these sites all year round. All the sites off this island offer drift diving - not suitable for beginner divers.
Cancún is often overlooked, even though this holiday town is certainly perfect for learning to dive. Cancún is also a perfect base from which to explore the Yucatán. Reef diving is still very popular along the coast, but this exposed shoreline is often too rough to dive (unlike sheltered Cancún and western Cozumel). However, an alternative diving destination has been discovered.
The shores of Cancún have the most northerly coral reefs in the western Caribbean, protected to some extent by the islands of Isla Mujeres and Isla Contoy to the north in the Gulf of Mexico and, a few kilometres to the southeast, Cozumel, regarded as Mexico’s only Caribbean island.
Most divers tend to stay on Cozumel, while Cancún has been largely overlooked due to its shallow, sheltered bay between Cancún and Isla Mujeres. The maximum depth of the seabed in the bay is 9m (30ft) and the outside reefs bottom out at 17m (55ft). Virtually all the diving involves drift diving in a slight current and the dive boat captain will keep station over the divers as they progress along the reef. The reef is in fact old coralline limestone bedrock, testifying to the fact that this area was once dry land. At the northern limit of coral polyp distribution in the western Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, there is little stony coral growth, except for Elkhorn, Staghorn, Star and Brain coral. Gorgonian corals and sea fans predominate. Colourful sponges are evident as are a significant number of species of algae, all of which make an ideal home for parrot fish, wrasse, blennies, gobies, angel and butterfly fish. Some of the most colourful fish in the entire Caribbean can be found around these shallow reefs.
Splendid Toadfish (Sanopus splendidus) is an endemic species to this region.
A typical cavern entrance in Quintana Roo to part of the massive labyrinth of cenotes which honeycomb the region. This fresh water diving is becoming increasingly popular.
This juvenile Caribbean Reef Squid (Sepioteuthis sepioidea) is commonly found around shallow reefs at night where it hunts for shrimps and small pelagic fish. They can be approached easily if you do not shine your dive lights directly at them.
This Green Moray Eel and Banded Coral Shrimp have a symbiotic relationship on the reef, where the shrimp cleans the moray eel of parasites and in return gains protection and can feed on scraps.
Inside the Gran Cenote, the huge cavern’s passageways run for kilometres and are lavishly decorated with different types of formation, which have been sealed in time by the crystal clear fresh water.
At the entrance to Car Wash Cenote there is a pile of debris from fallen trees and leaves which should be avoided, because disturbing the sediment will spoil the otherwise superb visibility.
Much of the diving is done by trainees and first-time visitors to Cancún, who are intent on catching another flavour of the Caribbean. All the diving centres offer beginner’s courses to a very high standard. The largest diving operators and the ones who do the most advertising are not necessarily the best, although these are run very efficiently and will try to give tourists what they are looking for.
Many visitors who first come to Isla Mujeres on a day trip return for a lengthier stay on their next vacation. The island’s people are laid-back and even topless sunbathing is allowed on North Beach. The shallow reefs around Isla Mujeres teem with life and, although much of the reefs are shallow and low lying, this does not seem to deter large numbers of fish. At Manchones 3 4, the snorkelling is particularly popular and there is just sufficient depth to keep hands off the coral. The reefs are quite convoluted with many little gullies and canyons for divers to swim through and fish-watch. It is a popular dive site with operators from both Isla Mujeres and Cancún.
Isla Contoy is on the limit of the northern coral distribution into the Gulf of Mexico. The long shallow reef that stretches north from Isla Mujeres to Isla Contoy is called Ixlache Reef 6 and offers an opportunity to see some massive brain corals. Also on the way is a shallow reef called Los Galeones Hundidas 5 (The Sunken Galleons) in water no deeper than 4½m (15ft) where there is reputed to be the scattered remains of a number of ancient shipwrecks.
All dive centres are PADI certified and they will take care of your every diving need. Although Cancún is generally considered an all-round vacation resort rather than a diving destination, I have never seen so many fish in one place as among the shallow reefs and mini-walls of the sheltered bay between Isla Mujeres and Cancún.
Beneath the apparent solid limestone rock of the Yucatán Peninsula lies a huge network of caves that have been, for the most part, submerged for millennia. With new techniques and diving equipment, penetration of these vast underwater cave systems has opened a new frontier for exploration.
The entire Yucatán Peninsula was underwater more than 65 million years ago. During the last ice age the sea level dropped and left a huge raised plateau of soft porous limestone. The bedrock composition of this plateau is volcanic in origin, but it is only the top layers of ancient coralline limestone that we are able to explore. This huge porous shelf is made up of sedimentary rocks, dead corals, shells and the breakdown of lime left behind by their decomposition. The limestone which makes up the peninsula dates from the Pleistocene and Holocene eras. This limestone bedrock is susceptible to erosion and tropical rainstorms, coupled with acid rain from neighbouring volcanoes over the centuries, have created huge underground caverns and wells.
A cenote is the collapsed ceiling of an underground cave system and can be regarded as a window in the dense jungle floor to the crystal clear underground rivers that honeycomb the entire Yucatán Peninsula. Around 80-90 cenotes have been located in the Yucatán and most have been explored to some degree over the years. The most famous is Nohoch Nah Chich 7, which has been recorded in the Guinness Book of Records since 1992 as the world’s largest underground cave system. Around 50 of the cenotes are found along the Akumal/Tulum Corridor and are now well mapped, but still not completely explored. The name cenote comes from the Mayan word tzonot, which means ‘well’ or ‘sinkhole.’ Cenotes were not only the primary source of fresh water, but were also sacred places where sacrifices and other rituals were performed. At a number of the major sites such as Chichen Itza, the Maya prayed to the Rain God, Chac. Since the early 1980s over 160km (100 miles) of underground passageways have been surveyed.
At Gran Cenote, as in many of the accessible sites, signs warn divers not to proceed without proper training and equipment.
Cochine Grande off the Bay Islands of Honduras, where Manta Rays and other large pelagic fish are seen regularly.
The Bay Islands of Honduras are renowned for its concentration of invertebrate life. Many of the coastal villages are only accessible by boat and are not linked by roads.