By Patricia Peña
North to south, east to west, all paths lead to the ocean. Like the song of the mermaid, Mexico’s crystal clear waters have enamoured many a soul with their enigmatic beauty.
The dolphin noticed the diver and started swimming in circles. But before he could react and take a photo of the 300-kilo animal, it swam off, flashing its white belly and gray tail. The diver followed it, waving his right hand to attract the attention of the group he was with. To his surprise, it came back, this time accompanied by another six of its species, which dipped under the water when their leader shimmied up to the diver.
Diver and dolphin stared each other in the eye with an inexplicable mutual curiosity in the placid waters of the Maya Riviera. It is a moment that Arturo Ramírez Martell, a Mexican who has spent 30 of his 48 years as a Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) Instructor Development Course (IDC) Staff Instructor for the Mexican Diving Federation, will never forget.
Arturo knows how lucky he is to be able to explore the depths of Mexico’s seas, rated among the most beautiful in the world by colleagues as prestigious as the father of modern day diving, Jacques Cousteau, after whom an island in the Sea of Cortés in Baja California Sur was named. The Frenchman was a regular visitor to these waters, which he dubbed the “world’s aquarium”.
Like Cousteau, for many diving is a lifestyle, an adrenalin-packed passion born of an ethereal connection with nature. But it doesn’t take great physical strength and you certainly don’t have to sign up for a daunting ocean expedition to experience the thrill of coming face to face with the monsters of the deep or discovering the microscopic organisms that bring life and color to this fascinating underworld. Mexico has an abundance of seas and oceans brimming with unique flora and fauna, not to mention specialized instructors and world famous dive sites like the Sea of Cortés, the Revillagigedo Islands and the Maya Riviera, whose best known spots include Cancún, Playa del Carmen and Cozumel-Isla Mujeres.
Ideally located on the Mexican Caribbean in the southern Mexican state of Quintana Roo, it is no coincidence that at least one of the Maya Rivera’s 26-plus dive sites appears on every list of the best diving spots in the world.
Solitary reefs, cenotes (underwater sinkholes), islands, shipwrecks, walls and underground river systems have earned the Riviera a reputation as the best cave diving destination in the world. Plus tourists can dive with sharks, turtles and dolphins, snails, sea urchins, starfish and lobster. Then there is Xel-Há, an eco-park where you can dive or snorkel in the lagoon or explore the caves of its underground river. The Tres Ríos eco-park has eight cenotes, while budding underwater archaeologists can visit the remains of ancient Maya civilizations at Xcaret, which features 600 meters of caves, tunnels, natural pools and underground rivers swarming with tropical fish. Playa del Carmen, host to the Great Maya Reef, has coral reefs and underground rivers that connect with the cenotes Chac Mool, La Ponderosa, Dos Ojos, Nohoch-Na-Chich, El Gran Cenote, Car Wash, Chikin Ha, Taj Majal and Angelita.
Also in the Maya Riviera is Majahual, whose coral reefs provide a refuge for starfish, seahorses, dolphins, turtles and sponges. Isla Mujeres has virgin areas and quiet beaches like El GarDepending on the depth and time of year, visibility averages 20 meters, increasing to 40 meters in summer and fall.
Some of the region’s more famous dive sites are Aktun Chen, a natural park with a 12-meter-deep cenote, and Xpu-Há, an ecopark with a route that takes in 61 cenotes, including one called Manatí, which boasts an enormous lagoon. In the same area is the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, whose 47.5-kilometer strip of coastline is home to the second largest barrier reef in the world, populated by tropical fish, sponges, pink rafón, El Farito and Manchones, whose crystal clear waters are perfect for snorkeling. Finally, there is the island of Cozumel on the Yucatán Peninsula, a diver’s paradise famous for its coral formations, shallow walls and mysterious freshwater cenotes, with packages to accommodate all levels of expertise and every budget.
Winding along Mexico’s Pacific coast, the Riviera Nayarit has a great selection of diving programs for both amateurs and experts with “magical” spots like the Marieta Islands Marine Reserve, part of an underwater mountain whose peak emerges above the surface, marking the entrance to Banderas Bay. Made famous by Jacques Cousteau’s underwater expeditions of the 1970s, the reserve is ideal for beginners, with depths of 7.5 to 23 meters and average visibility of 12 meters.
On the shores of Banderas Bay, some 10 kilometers west of the Marieta Islands, is El Morro, whose rocky pinnacles conceal tunnels and caves. This site is suitable for small groups of certified divers, with depths of 45 meters below sea level.
Another option for certified deep-sea divers is Los Anegados off Banderas Bay, halfway between the Marieta Islands and El Morro. Just 10 meters below the surface are caves and rock formations that beg to be explored. Here, you’ll see giant manta rays, sharks, eels and tuna. Depths go from nine to 25 meters, with visibility ranging from nine to 28 meters.
Some five kilometers away is La Corbeteña, recommended for experienced divers only due to its strong currents flush with marine life and depths of 40 to 60 meters. In the same area, opposite to Rincón de Guayabitos, are the islands of El Cangrejo and El Coral, whose coral reefs are rife with manta rays, turtles, starfish and rainbow colored fish. Isabel Island is another popular destination in the Riviera Nayarit for a diving holiday and a mandatory point of call for migratory birds and humpback whales as they make their way south to reproduce. On the beaches of Monas and El Cantil del Faro and the walls of El Cerro Pelón, you can spot the world’s largest fish, the whale shark.
The Sea of Cortés is a watery Pacific paradise in North Mexico. Declared a World Heritage Site, this natural aquarium never ceases to amaze with its colourful marine vegetation, shoals of tropical fish, sea lions, giant manta rays, whales and hammerhead sharks. Jacques Cousteau was so fond of diving at Cerralvo Island that it was renamed after him in 2009. Measuring 29 kilometers long and seven wide, it lies just 65 kilometers from La Paz, Baja California.
Also in Baja California, some 400 kilometers south of Cabo San Lucas, is the Revillagigedo Archipelago, formed by four islands –San Benedicto, Socorro, Roca Partida and Clarión– that are sometimes referred to as the Galapagos of Mexico. Experts say this is the best place to dive with large species like the giant manta ray of the Pacific, which can measure up to seven meters from fin to fin.
Sharks are a major attraction and, if you’re lucky, on one single expedition you’ll get to see the hammerhead, whitetip, silvertip, silky, gray, Galapagos and tiger varieties. And if you’re even luckier, the whale shark, especially if you visit in November, December, April or May.
Pods of dolphins invade the beaches between January and March, when humpback whales come to the islands to mate and give birth.
THE VERACRUZ REEF SYSTEM
Comprised of 17 coral reefs and 350 shipwrecks concentrated in an area near the port of Veracruz, this is a favourite spot for adventure seekers, with flora and fauna you’d be hard pressed to see anywhere else in the world, like green moray eels, whiprays, silky sharks and whale sharks. According to the experts, the best time of year to dive in the Gulf of Mexico is between May and September, when visibility is on a par with that of the Caribbean Sea.
Veracruz has programs and expeditions for divers of every level, from beginners to the more experienced. Other good dive sites in South Mexico include the Montebello Lakes, a national park in the state of Chiapas, and the Pacific waters that lap the coast of the state of Oaxaca.
Originally published in Negocios ProMéxico