Beneath the Surface in Cancun

The waters off the coast of Cancun are teeming with aquatic treasures, from art to majestic whale sharks By: Maribeth Mellin
BOB tours allow clients to explore the sea without scuba certification. // © 2011 Cancun Convention and Visitor Bureau/BOB Cancun
BOB tours allow clients to explore the sea without scuba certification. // © 2011 Cancun Convention and Visitor Bureau/BOB Cancun

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Captain Hook


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Solo Buceo
The word is out: Cancun is once again a magnet for travelers seeking one-of-a-kind underwater adventurers. Here, off Mexicoís Yucatan Peninsula, clients can swim with some of the worldís largest mammals, snorkel above an underwater art museum and dive with sailfish. The snorkeling and diving sites located on the Great Mesoamerican Reef, just south of Cancun near Puerto Morelos, are simply incredible, and beneath the sea's aquamarine surface, critters, coral and art are just waiting to be discovered.

Waterborne Art
British artist Jason deCaires Taylor chose an unusual setting for his "Silent Evolution" installation. His 400 natural clay sculptures, depicting real people from Cancun and Puerto Morelos, sit on the sea's sandy floor in Cancun's National Marine Park. Together, the sculptures are creating an artificial reef where coral will bloom and sea life will congregate in clear, warm water near Manchones reef, a popular site for snorkelers and divers. Clients can tour the art installation while swimming with sergeant majors and parrotfish on tours with Aquaworld, which offers snorkeling and diving tours as well as dive classes amid the sculptures.

The Sailfish Dance

Sleek, mighty sailfish migrate to the waters off Cancun from January to June, congregating in an ecological reserve just south of Isla Mujeres. Fishermen have long followed the migration, hoping to hook a six-foot-long fish. Divers now have a chance to watch sailfish herd sardines into a massive bait ball during a feeding frenzy. When lucky, the divers are able to see groups of sailfish feeding and leaping into the air, flashing their wing-like dorsal fins and long, sharp bills. Mexican diver Alberto Friscione discovered the sailfish hot spot and encourages divers to witness this amazing spectacle. Dive trips are available with Solo Buceo.

Bubble Heads
Clients don't have to be certified scuba divers to explore Cancun's underwater world. They just have to be willing to put a huge "breathing bubble," known as a BOB, or breathing observation bubble, on their heads while riding a mini-submarine scooter equipped with oxygen tanks. BOB underwater excursions with Captain Hook depart from El Embarcadero and include a catamaran ride to the dive site where passengers board their BOBs and gradually submerse themselves
under the watery depths of the ocean. Certified divers accompany the tours, guiding clients on their aquatic journey.

Coral Gems

The Great Mesoamerican Reef, the second-longest barrier reef on the planet, begins just south of Cancun near Puerto Morelos.

Despite its proximity to Cancun, Puerto Morelos remains, to this day, a small seaside town where fishermen and dive masters await clients at its downtown pier. Shallow reefs, located just a 10-minute boat ride from the dock, extend for miles. The water is so clear and calm that snorkelers and divers want to linger for hours. Experienced divers head farther out to explore steep underwater walls with coral overhangs while novices and snorkelers drift past tropical fish dodging around giant brain coral and vivid yellow sponges. Hawksbill turtles, eagle rays and barracuda appear in the distant underwater panorama. Shipwrecks litter parts of the reef. Tiny family-run hotels and exclusive resorts offer reef tours, as do several dive operators.

The Biggest and The Best
Swimming with whale sharks near Isla Holbox, located north of Cancun, is the hottest underwater adventure these days. The waters off the 26-mile-long island where the Caribbean Sea meets the Gulf of Mexico are protected as part of the Whale Shark Biosphere Reserve. Thousands of eager snorkelers and swimmers descend upon the island as the sharks migrate offshore between May and September. The phenomenon has become so popular that Aug. 30 has been declared Whale Shark Day in Mexico.

While diving with the whale sharks is prohibited, swimming and snorkeling with them is no problem, especially since the 40-foot-long sea creatures float just below the surface. There's no way a human can keep up with a whale shark; the best you can do is swim toward one and float beside its gills as it gushes water while filtering plankton for nutrients.

Sometimes, dozens of the polka-dotted fish, called ballenas dominos (domino whales) by locals, congregate in one area. On those lucky days, clients just might have the opportunity to swim with several docile sharks on a single tour. Other times, the whale sharks are less accommodating.

Clients determined to hang out with these creatures are best off spending a night or two on Isla Holbox. Dozens of small hotels line the island's pristine beaches, and its sandy streets lead to cafes that serve up sea-inspired dishes such as lobster pizza. To arrange day trips, agents should contact Ecocolors and, for hotel stays, consider Mexico Boutique Hotels.
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