DIVE | ISLA MUJERES
Isla Mujeres (Island of Women) sits a few kilometres off the tourist metropolis of Cancun, at the tip of the Yucatán peninsula. Once a place of veneration where the Mayans would worship images of goddesses (hence its name), the island now attracts pilgrims in search of something very different – underwater encounters with some of the world’s most impressive creatures. Expect to see pods of dolphin, bait-ball-attacking billfish, and congregations of mighty whale sharks, the biggest fish in the ocean
The summer months of June to September bring large numbers of whale sharks to the island, in search of rich planktonic waters upon which to feed. There are several whale shark tours available which take place in La Reserva de la Biosfera Tiburón Ballena (The Whale Shark Biosphere Reserve) close to Isla Mujeres and nearby Isla Holbox. Scuba diving with the sharks is not allowed but snorkelling is permitted and there is a well-enforced code of conduct in place to protect the animals. The official price set by the official regulating bodies is US$125 minimum per person and only trained and licensed tour operators are allowed to take people out.
For many people an encounter with one whale shark would be a dream come true, but at Isla Mujeres there is often the opportunity to swim with multiple sharks, and at times there are between 20 and 30 whale sharks in the area. At an offshore site outside of the reserve known as the Afuera, aerial surveys have recorded whale sharks in their hundreds.
These filter feeders, which can reach 14m in length and weigh more than 20 tonnes, cruise serenely through the water seeking out phytoplankton and copepods and in deeper offshore waters highly-calorific fish eggs. Although generally, they remain horizontal in the water, at times observers will be treated to a full-length vertical display as a shark sucks in a patch of fish eggs – truly a remarkable sight. The migration to Mexican waters is celebrated in Isla Mujeres with the annual Whale Shark Festival (20-23 July 2017 ), which includes parades, talks and cultural events.
The slow-moving whale sharks might be impressive, but between December and June the action steps up a gear with the arrival of sailfish season, when divers have the chance to see the fastest fish in the ocean in predatory mode. There are a few specialist operators that will take the divers out to the blue water, where packs of up to 40 sailfish will corral schools of sardine into frenzied bait-balls. With their sails flashing iridescent colours that confuse the panicked sardines, the sailfish attack the balls by whipping their heads from side to side. The stunned sardines are then easily picked off.