DIVE | BANCO CHINCHORRO
Perhaps remarkably, given the quality of the diving and the snorkelling, Banco Chinchorro is little known to many divers and few have visited the area. But, then again, maybe that’s testament to the strong protection and relative difficulty in getting to the site. This is the largest coral atoll in the northern hemisphere and covers some 1,500 sq km (600 square miles). In 1996 the area was given protection as a biosphere reserve and few operators have permission to enter its waters –special permits are required from the Mexican government
There is little in the way of accommodation on the atoll, so visitors have to take a relatively long dayboat trip to reach the diving. Boats to the atoll will only sail in good weather and take approximately 90 minutes from Xcalak (a distance of around 36 nautical miles) and a little faster on the return leg. Liveaboards have been known to visit the area, but Banco Chincorro features on very few itineraries, probably due to a lack of permissions.
Both snorkelling and diving are available at Chinchorro, and you can expect everything from crocodile-filled lagoons to countless wrecks, with some dating back to the 16th century; there are also some interesting iguanas on land. The best time of the year to dive the atoll is in summer when the seas are at their calmest.
At Banco Chinchorro there are three small keys, Cayo Norte, Cayo Centro and Cayo Lobos, with a ranger station on Cayo Centro, but there are no permanent settlements. Inside the lagoon depth is a maximum of 5m, while beyond the outer reef lie there are a number of dive sites from 10m to 40m. The quality of the corals found in the atoll are exceptional, including black coral which is found at unusually shallow depths. The barrel sponges and brain corals are exceptional. Marine life is plentiful with the chance to see larger animals, including manatees, nurse sharks and schools of large tarpon.
Cayo Centro is known for its population of American crocodile (Cocodrylus acutes). Here you’ll be able to snorkel with them in the clear shallow water.
Due to its shallow reef, Banco Chinchorro has many shipwrecks many that are the subject of archaeological investigation. There are nine identified, including two Spanish galleons: SS Caldera, SS Escasell, SS Far Star, SS Ginger Screw, SS Glen View, SS Penelopez, SS San Andreas, and SS Tropic. There is also a large ferry which was grounded during Hurricance Wilma in 2005.