Thursday, August 29, 2013

Snorkeling with whale sharks

Moses looking like Superman on the bow of Lizardo, with Miguel at the wheel
Whale shark tours have become a huge business in Isla Mujeres in the last five or so years. It used to be that tourists cleared out in May when the rainy season started, but then someone noticed that whale sharks were migrating north through the Yucatan Channel during the summer months. Now there is no noticeable decline in tourism until the whale sharks move on near the end of August, before what the local people call “septihambre” (hungry September).

Nan and Kim at the bow of Lizardo as we pass Playa Norte
Longtime friends of ours on the island have taken advantage of this new opportunity. Ariel, who has been conducting snorkeling and fishing trips for many years, now does mostly whale shark tours from June through August. Wbeymar (pronounced “Way-mer”), who owns Brisas Grill, where our good friend Juan Gomez works, now has a fleet of two whale shark tour boats, with plans to add another one next season. Both have been asking us during summer visits to go on their tours with them, but we never have, up until last week Wednesday, that is.

What a whale shark looks like from above water. Note the huge head!
We were hearing reports from guests at El Milagro Marina that the number of whale sharks out in the viewing area, which is treated as a national park by Mexico, was diminishing, so we decided we had better go before it was too late. Wbeymar had told us he would give us a no-commission deal of 850 pesos ($70) each, which was better than Ariel’s offer, even with his promise to limit the number of people to just four in order to increase in-water time, so we went with Wbeymar.

Nan and I showed up at Brisas Grill at 7:30 that morning, thinking the tour would be leaving at 8:00 and that we would have time to get some coffee and breakfast. Juan and his co-worker Victor were just setting up tables and chairs. After a half-hour, Nan gave up waiting for coffee and went to the Oxxo (Mexico’s version of 7-Eleven) across the street for a cup. I toyed with the underwater camera our friend Scott from El Milagro Marina had lent me. Soon, Wbeymar’s first tour boat, Lizardo, arrived at the pier behind the restaurant. Wbeymar himself showed up a little while later and told us the tours leave at 8:30, not 8:00. Juan served us coffee, orange juice and slices of a breakfast cake. Other groups started to filter in. We counted about twenty by 8:30. We hoped we wouldn’t all be packed into a single boat, but then Ana Carina, Wbeymar’s second tour boat, arrived at the pier. Moses, the tour leader, broke us up into two groups of ten each and led us to the boats. I urged Nan to take a seat near the bow of our designated boat, Lizardo, to minimize the spray that would result from blasting through the waves at high speed.

Up close and personal with a feeding whale shark. Note the tiny eye and ear.
The combination of the north-flowing current and the easterly winds made for a very rough one-hour ride out to where the whale sharks were feeding, about twenty miles northeast of Isla Mujeres. People near the back of the boat were drenched by the time we spotted the cluster of at least fifty other boats bobbing around a large school of whale sharks and slowed to join them. In between the boats were groups of snorkelers and some really large dorsal and tail fins. A whale shark coasted under the bow of our boat, just below the surface, its head at least three feet across. Nan and I looked at each other and mouthed, “Wow!” I couldn’t wait to jump in and see one up close. Nan was not so sure.

Moses explained that park rules required us to wear standard orange life preservers and to let only two people into the water at a time, plus a guide. He went over the side in his mask, snorkel, and fins, and beckoned the first two people, a couple, to join him. The boyfriend went in first and then the girlfriend jumped in practically on top of a passing whale shark. Those of us watching from the boat were alarmed for her safety, but we could hear her laughing through her snorkel. Brave girl!

A whale shark glides past. Watch out for that tail!
Nan decided to sit out the first round, so I was paired up with Kim, a pediatrician and part-time Isla Mujeres resident. When it was our turn, we paddled around with Moses for a while without seeing anything, until shouts of excitement nearby alerted us. I put my head underwater and looked in the direction of the shouts. A huge open mouth was coming right at me. I didn't have time to raise the camera before swimming out of the way, but I was able to keep up with the whale shark, as it glided slowly along straining the water for plankton, and take a few photos before I tired out. We had been told not to touch the whale sharks, but it took an effort to stay out of their way and not get whacked by their enormous tails as they glided past, seemingly oblivious to the many people swimming in their presence.

A whale shark in a sea of plankton and bubbles. Note the hitchhiker above the fin.
Nan decided not to let the opportunity pass and joined me for the second dive. We didn't see as many whale sharks as I had seen on the first dive, but she was still impressed. I could tell by how wide her eyes were behind her dive mask. Manta rays, which feed on the same plankton, had been reported in the area, some even leaping high out of the water, but we did not see any that day--our excuse to return someday for a second tour.

The trip back to the island was much smoother, but the spray was more intense. We were all soaking wet, so it didn't matter. Miguel, our boat captain, stopped outside the reef at Anvil Rock to let us snorkel for a while. The water was too rough for Nan but I dove in to see what was there. From twenty feet above, the bottom didn't look like much, just the usual green-tinted rocks and corals, but when I did a surface dive and went to the bottom, everything changed. Colorful fan coral, staghorn coral, and every other coral type covered the rocks, and striped sergeant major fish and lavender-colored angel fish swam in and out of every crevice. Now it was my eyes that were wide. I wished I had remembered the camera. A few more deep surface dives and I was too tired to hold my breath anymore.

A whale shark swimming with a pair of remoras beneath itMiguel pulled the boat around to the shallow, sandy-bottomed waters of Playa Norte and anchored. Many of the other whale shark tour boats were already there, and the party had begun. Loud music, skimpy bikinis, and bottled beer were everywhere. Moses and Miguel served up fresh-made shrimp ceviche and cold beer. Nan ate a plate of ceviche and tortilla chips, and then waded through the water to shore, her pack over her head, for her afternoon Spanish lesson downtown. I stayed with the boat for the ride back to our starting point at Brisas Grill, happy that we had finally taken a whale shark tour.

If you've never done it and you happen to be in the western Caribbean during the summer months, you owe it to yourself to snorkel with these amazing creatures, earth's largest fish, before their migration route changes and you miss the chance.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Sailing to Isla Contoy

Karen and Nan in the cockpit of Ati, an Amel Super Maramu 54-foot ketch
On Saturday morning, our friends Scott and Diane, who own Ati, the Amel Super Maramu 54-foot ketch in the slip next to ours at El Milagro Marina, invited us to go sailing with them. Charlie and Karen, new arrivals who own Leap, a Pearson 386 sloop anchored out in the bay, were also invited. I had been out kayaking in the bay earlier in the day and the wind was blowing hard out of the southeast following a recent tropical storm, so I knew it would be a good day for a sail. But by the time we finally got organized to go, it was 2:00 in the afternoon and the wind had mostly died.

Charlie and Scott at the bow of Ati before the sails were deployed
Nan and I have been sailing a few times in the area between Isla Mujeres and Cancun, and we have sailed around the island once, so we suggested that we all sail to Isla Contoy, located about 15 miles to the north. The island is a national park and bird sanctuary, and Nan and I have been there twice before on organized tours, but it had been at least ten years. We wouldn't be able to make landfall without a permit, which was fine with us because we remember the island as being extremely hot and buggy. It would be enough just to sail in a new direction for a change. It would also be a nice change to be crew on someone else's boat and let them be responsible for everything.

Catching the first wahoo with a pink streamer and hand lineWe slipped the lines and motored out into the bay without a hitch, thanks to the boat's electric bow thruster, which makes tight turns easy. Many other features on the Amel are also electric, like the mainsail mast furling, the anchor windlass, and the sheet winches. Nan and I had to smile as we watched how easily Scott and Diane could deploy their mainsail, simply by turning into the wind and pressing a button, a process that on our boat is almost a three-person job.

Diane at the helm (Note the elaborate whisker pole setup)On an otherwise uneventful seven-hour sail that took us up to a point a few miles east of Isla Contoy and back, there were three incidents of note:

We caught a good-sized wahoo using a hand line. Scott and Charlie had rigged a Rapala-type jointed plug that vibrated the line but didn't catch anything. I took it off and put on a squid-like pink streamer, similar to the yellow one we had had such success with on the passage down from Savannah, and we caught the wahoo less than an hour later. I was ready to put the rig away, but Karen said we should try again. Sure enough, we caught another wahoo a little later, but this poor little fellow was hooked through the top of the head, snagged while checking out the lure from an unsafe distance. It was just a flesh wound, so we released him. When I asked if he would survive, Charlie said, "Hey, sharks need to eat too!"

The sun sets over Isla Blanca as Ati returns to Isla MujeresWe had run up to Isla Contoy using a series of jibes, and it was going to take a series of tacks to return again with the wind blowing out of the southeast. If we wanted to get home before dark, we were going to need to motor. Diane at the helm fired up the engine and it ran smoothly for about fifteen minutes before the alarm sounded, indicating that it was overheated. When Scott lifted the engine room hatch, which doubles as the cockpit floor, and jumped down onto the rubberized perch on top of the engine, he almost burned his feet, and that was a definite first. He and Charlie ran through a list of what the problem could be and finally deduced that the cold water intake strainer was clogged. Charlie cleaned it, Scott reinstalled it, and we were off and running again.

The sun set while we were still several miles offshore, and it was fully dark and close to 8:30 as we approached Anvil Rock, marking the northeast corner of the island. Fortunately, there was a waxing gibbous moon, and the lights onshore were shining brightly. Diane had never sailed at night before but stayed at the helm as I stood next to her, guiding her past Playa Norte and around the northwest corner to the familiar red buoys that mark the entrance channel. Soon we were tied up at El Milagro again and hungrily heading over to Iguana's at Marina Paraiso for Carlos's barbecued ribs special.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

A night at anchor

Whispering Jesse at anchor (right in the center of the photo)
With Whispering Jesse back in commission, Nan and I recently tried something we have wanted to do since we arrived here in Isla Mujeres, Mexico: spend a night at anchor in the bay. Some of the sailors we have met here live on their anchored boats, and we wanted to see what it would be like to be out there with them.

There are areas of the bay that are too shallow for our boat's six-foot draft, but I had scoped out a good, deep location using one of the El Milagro Marina kayaks. On the appointed day, we waited until late afternoon and then loaded up the cooler with food and drinks, tied the dinghy to the boat, and enlisted Felix to assist with the dock lines and anchoring. We motored out of the marina and made a big, sweeping turn around the shallows and into the planned location. I pointed us into the wind, brought the boat to a stop, and yelled up to Felix at the bow to drop the anchor. He got it stuck under the jib's furling mechanism, and I needed to run forward to help him manhandle it overboard while Nan kept us pointing into the wind. The chain promptly ran all the way out,
Nan paddling laps around anchored Whispering Jessealong with about twenty feet of the line spliced to it. The little yellow tape woven into the line indicated sixty feet, which I figured was about the right scope for our ten-foot depth. As the wind slowly pushed us backwards, Felix cleated off the line and I returned to the helm. When the anchor line tightened, we stopped moving backwards, an indication that the anchor was holding, not dragging through the sand and sea grass on the bottom. I put the engine in reverse and gave it some RPMs to make sure the anchor was set. The line straightened and vibrated, but the anchor held. We visually lined up some objects on shore and watched them for a few minutes, just to be absolutely sure we were not moving.

I pulled the swim ladder out of a lazarette and attached it to the boat's rail, then pulled the dinghy around to it. Felix and I climbed in for his ride back to the marina, leaving Nan alone on the boat. As I dropped Felix off at the pier, he assured me that he would be available the next day to help us pull up the anchor and return to the marina. I thanked him and motored back to the boat.

A test for whether we could be comfortable at anchor in the bay for extended periods was to see if we could pick up the marina's wireless Internet signal from out there. We couldn't. We also wanted to see if it was appreciably cooler out there than in the marina. Even with every hatch and portlight open, it wasn't. The cabin thermometer never went below 84 degrees, so Nan and I decided to sleep out in the cockpit instead of roasting inside. In fact, we spent the rest of the afternoon and evening in the cockpit, sipping wine and watching first the boat traffic and then the sunset. Nan served up a tasty chicken and pasta dinner, and before long it was time for bed.

Sunrise over Isla Mujeres from Whispering Jesse at anchor
The rising moon woke us both at about 1:30. Buzzing mosquitoes kept us awake most of the rest of the night. We were both wide awake and drinking coffee before the sun rose to end our restless night. It soon became uncomfortably hot in the cockpit, and we prepared to leave in the dinghy to go get Felix. Back at the marina, looking across the bay at Whispering Jesse swinging at anchor, I thought she looked really good out there, maybe a little vulnerable, but good.