Katrina was one of the most devastating hurricanes in the history of the United States which also effected the Yucatan Peninsula and Cancun, Mexico. It is the deadliest hurricane to strike the United States since the Palm Beach-Lake Okeechobee hurricane of September 1928. It produced catastrophic damage – estimated at $75 billion in the New Orleans area and along the Mississippi coast – and is the costliest U. S. hurricane on record.
This horrific tropical cyclone formed from the combination of a tropical wave, an upper-level trough, and the mid-level remnants of Tropical Depression Ten. A tropical depression formed on August 23 about 200 miles southeast of Nassau in the Bahamas. Moving northwestward, it became Tropical Storm Katrina during the following day about 75 miles east-southeast of Nassau. The hurricane moved southwestward across southern Florida into the eastern Gulf of Mexico on August 26. Katrina then strengthened significantly, reaching Category 5 intensity on August 28.
One sector that suffered significant casualties was the coral reefs in the Yucatan Peninsula including the areas around Cancun, Mexico. With surprisingly quick and effective collaboration of oceanographers, elected officials and the artistic community, a proposed solution was born.
In 2009 a monumental underwater contemporary museum of art called MUSA (Museo Subacuático de Arte) was formed in the waters surrounding Cancun, Isla Mujeres and Punta Nizuc. This project was founded by Roberto Díaz Abraham, former President of the Cancun Nautical Association and Jaime González Cano, Director of the National Marine Park. To begin with this unique museum, they hired English sculptor Jason deCaires Taylor.
Today, MUSA consists of over 500 permanent life-sized and monumental sculptures and is one of the largest and most ambitious underwater artificial art attractions in the world. The Museum aims to demonstrate the interaction between art and environmental science and form part of a complex reef structure for marine life to colonize and inhabit whilst increasing biomass on a grand scale. All of the sculptures are fixed to the seabed and made from specialized materials used to promote coral life. The total installations occupy an area of over 420sq meters of barren substrate and weighing in at over 200 tons.
This particular storyline was the basis for my interest to visit Cancun. I wanted to see for myself first-hand this success story and take a first stab at doing some underwater photography. This particular Mexican National park has two different “galleries”; one can be seen by snorkel or glass-bottom boat, and the other requires scuba gear.
As my dates for travel got closer, of the many reviews and blogs I read online, it actually seemed beneficial to pre-pay for some activities ahead of time and I came up with a basic itinerary as follows:
- Friday, June 30th – Take my 1st scuba lesson and view Salon Manchones, the deeper of the two underwater museums.
- Saturday, July 1st – Do a guided snorkeling trip to the underwater museums.
- Sunday, July 2nd – Travel south via various public transportation to Akumal Beach, the nesting ground for the sea tortoise.
- Monday, July 3rd – Leave open (after my 1st dive lesson, I quickly committed to a whale shark snorkeling tour)
Join me as a relive this wonderful four days of adventure travel….
Friday morning I needed to be up and rolling by 5am from my hotel room at the Malecon Suites and head down to the Puerto Juarez ferry landing for a 30 minute ride to Isla Mujares. I hose my room and board in downtown Cancun and coincidently the property adjoins the largest shopping mall for the local population thus the ration of tourists to locals was very small. I like it that way. The staff at the Suites were great in everyway but the only comments I would say good luck with a hot water shower (no biggie because you are so hot and sweaty from the humidity that a cold shower feels better) and for a guy who waits until the last minute to pee, I have several mishaps as the toilet lid will not stay up. But, if that is all I have to complain about compared to the cost savings of not being located in the “hotel zone”, I am good with it.
Arriving at sunrise at the Puerto Juarez ferry landing, I was encouraged to see 100+ locals using the same method of transpo over to Isla Mujeres to begin their day. The thirty minute commute was relaxing and everyone respectful of the peace and quite that morning should be. After a quick breakfast of a ham and cheese omelet (standard bfast meal for me in Cancun), I was ready to grab my first scuba lesson with the great guys over at the Caseo del Buceo Dive Shop. Enrique and ultimately Roberto was my in-water diving instructor. The shop was very well organized, the staff was very friendly, and, after I had completed the lesson, I enthusiastically signed up to do a whale shark snorkel tour with them on Monday.
After such an exhilarating DAY ONE, I was trying to keep my expectations for DAY TWO low. Today, I am scheduled to do a snorkeling tour with AquaWorld; probably the largest water tour provider in Cancun. I had seen several trimarans the day before with hundreds of snorkers and I did not really look forward to being “one of them”. It was a 300 peso cab ride to the middle of the Hotel Zone and the Aquaworld piers. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that our particular group consisted of about 15 people and we were on a fast, modern boat that had a glass-bottom on it as well. I must really applaud Aquaworld for the training they must provide to their staff because EVERYONE of the staff was friendly, helpful and seemingly passionate about providing a high quality water experience. And, I can affirm that I did have the highest quality water tour with our Captain and crew.
My third day promised just as much adventure, albeit a different kind. At some point when you travel in foreign countries, you really need to get out of the taxi-comfort-zone and learn how to use the local and much less expensive public transportation. I did catch a cab to the local bus station and caught an ADO bus to Playa del Carmen which is about an hour south of Cancun. I probably could have ridden the bus a bit farther south to save money but opted for the recommendation that several locals told me was to just catch a bus with ADO and then another 100 peso for a taxi to Akumal.
Akumal in the Mayan language means “Land of turtles” and it is still one of the favorite places for these marine animals to spawn. However, what makes Akumal charming and fascinating for tourists from around the world, is its spectacular bay with clear waters and underground rivers. Akumal is one of the most peaceful places in the Riviera Maya: one protected shallow bay with a secluded beach and a nearby reef. Unfortunately, I did not allow myself enough time to explore any of the cenotes or cave diving.
The Bay of Akumal is an area currently managed by CONANP, and in collaboration with PROFEPA and the Secretariat of Marine Affairs (Secretaría de Marina, SEMAR, in Spanish), these authorities realize permanent surveillance operations that will ensure full compliance with the new authorizations. It is expected the permits will only allow the entry of 12 tourists for each service provider. Unfortunately, there are really no apparent on-site government officials which has lead to too many handfuls of “hustlers” trying to sell you a tour, gear, etc. I just kept my head down, kept saying “no gracias” and headed towards a resort that seemed to have a private beach access. I knew to get there early in the morning so no one was really around and I paid the Beach Valet 50 pesos to let me just stage my gear. I had brought short fins with me and so I just blended in and I was good to go.
Are you enjoying my trip to Cancun thus far?
Hang on….the best is yet to come.
Monday, and my last day in Cancun I was slated to head back over to Isla Mujeres for the whale shark tour. I had previewed gillions of whale shark photos on Google and I had so many compositions in my mind. Especially, I had spoken to some other tourists and they shared their excitement of their recent whale shark tour. I sort of had the idea we might see one or two but it was probably an over-marketed “product” and I will just enjoy it as much as I can.
I was going to be joining two other groups of people; four peeps from the Los Angeles area and a guy and two chicas from the Miami area. I quickly learned all of these folks had a pretty extensive water wildlife experience resumes which was very encouraging to me as a rookie and especially since I was the only one that had any experience (a positive one) with this particular tour operator with my first scuba lesson.
It turns out the day before the pods of whale sharks were popping so our morning was severely delayed as the two primary marine gas stations were out of gas from the day before. I had left my hotel once again at 5am to arrive at the required 7am timeframe and I don’t think we got underway until 9am. Oh well, stuff happens. We ended up riding about 40 miles out (one hour) and there was a certain anxiousness was some boats were passing us even though our bow was bouncing off the 5 foot breakers and doing some decent re-alignments of our vertebrae. LOL
All of sudden we saw about 40 fishing boats stopped and the party was on! Myself and another photographer were allow to drop in first for a 10-15 minute session. To minimize stress on the whale sharks and also to manage who is swimming in the water, each boat would only have 2-3 plus a guide in the water at any given time. It turns out this was perfect because after 15 minutes with the adrenalin and trying to position yourself for a great photo, I was tired. I was able to do four whale shark swims and I was totally stoked.
I thought the tour was over and maybe the rest of the afternoon was a concession for our late departure, but on our way back we stopped by a shallow reef to take some random pics, and then we pulled into a sand bar for some fresh ceviche and I had the best tasting Coca-Cola ever. After snapping a few pics of the touristy areas of Isla Mujeres, I grabbed the next ferry back to Cancun with a screaming sunburn and huge smile!