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   Caribbean Reefs - Sampling the Reef System of the Mexican Yucatan
Quintana Roo, Mexico

While Australia's Great Barrier Reef has the world number one reef title, the runner up for distance and size is the string of reefs that begin just north of Cozumel and continue down the Mayan Coast to Belize, encompassing dozens of islands like Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker ending off the coast of Honduras at the Bay Islands. And while Ambergris, Roatan and Cozumel are popular among divers, the hundreds of reefs most accessible to North Americans, as incoherently structured as the hundreds of individual reefs that comprise the Great Barrier Reef, remain essentially unknown and for a large part unexplored by the masses. So unknown, in fact, that the world's second largest reef structure still lacks a consistently applied name for the whole enchilada.

Before touting the joys of experiencing some of these reefs, let us conduct a few comparisons of the Enchilada Reef System and the Great Barrier Reef. Fact: the Great Barrier Reef has four times the number of coral species over the Caribbean (approximately 400 to 100). Fact: the vast majority of divers and snorkelers would be hard pressed to tell Leptoseris mycetoseroides from Sandalolitha robusta. And since even the closest Aussie diver needs to travel 50km offshore, on average, to get to the reef system, one can see how numerous trips like this might put some tension on the family holiday budget. If not, consider that the majority of tourists spend a two-hundred-dollar-day on a 450 person catamaran that shuttles them out to a two storey moored pontoon complex complete with an underwater viewing area and vending machines... and these people now exclaim with that super-duper glow, that they have seen the Great Barrier Reef.

As stunning as the Great Barrier Reef is, it's just not readily accessible from shore. One does not holiday in northern Queensland and frolic in pristine waters full of fish and turtles and corals from the beach for they're 30+ miles out in most cases. In fact, for half the year the presence of box jellyfish or ‘stingers' in the water means no swimming; the sting of one can easily kill. That's not to say that one cannot find places in Australia where all it takes to see some beautiful reef is a little wading in, it's just that those places are few and far between in Australia. This is where the attraction of Caribbean begins. The reefs are accessible, lodging and eating inexpensive in most areas, visibility excellent, life-forms diverse, waters warm and no box jellyfish!

If you are looking for that idyllic snorkeling spot just a few yards from the beach, look no further than what is now being termed the Mayan Rivera. While gringos only started exploring this coast, southward, after the development of Cancun in the 1970s, the region is becoming increasingly developed with 1000+ room hotels popping up like they're going out of style. That shouldn't disturb the tranquility yet to be found, however, for when it comes to getting away from it all the distance between Tulum and Cancun is close to 300km and the developments still number in the dozens. The current string of developments is occurring between Cancun and Playa del Carmen and around minor hubs such as Akumal and Puerto Aventuras. As a good rule of thumb, the more secluded one wants to be, the farther south from Cancun one ought to go. The downside, however, is the more remote one gets, the more infrequent the coastal accesses become. Between Akumal and Puerto Aventuras alone there are several dozen beautiful reefs that are challenging to access in many cases.

Our favourite reefs are found at south Akumal bay and at Tankah. They are both quite sheltered and protected reefs for snorkeling, and in better health than all those found closer to shore at the resorts. Both of these reefs are about 1-2 km out, and the swim usually dissuades visits from those despised poor-swimming-need-to-stand-on-everything-because-my-feet-are-protected-by-fins type of characters. Please don't be one of these people; a single step on a coral head can break or kill several years of growth. If one doesn't feel like swimming out, rent a kayak and anchor from Akumal Dive and spend the extra time swimming at the reef. In Tankah, the Tankah Dive Shop has kayaks and a small pontoon to rest on. Akumal Reef can be reached from Akumal Beach quite easily; on the coastal highway there is a turn off into Akumal (not Pueblo Akumal, that's the local village away from the sea). To reach Tankah, drive south towards Tulum. The road is not the best marked, and if it is, it's likely marked by signs for Casa Cenote, Manatee Cenote, Tankah or any variation thereof. Follow any of those signs as they all go to the same place.

Generally, the inner reef of both bays is ideal for snorkeling as the currents are weaker than where the reef doesn't fully enclose a bay. The depth ranges from the surface to about 3 meters at high tide and one can expect to observe dozens of types of corals, fish, crustaceans, as well as turtles, rays and the odd small shark. With enough time spent there are always surprises. One such surprise was a day out at Akumal; I was swimming around a large reef head and in several places there were openings in the structure that revealed a large cavity on the inside. Passing by several of these openings I would glance into them to see what may lurk beyond the darkness and on this particular pass a massive eyeball peered back. For a second I was shocked at its size, it appeared to be at least a 6" eyeball and thoughts of to whom it belonged raced through my head as I realized I might be blocking the exit route. A shark passed through my thoughts but then I began to recognize it. It was a puffer, an absolutely huge puffer in what seemed an inappropriately sized cave, in an incredibly shallow bit of water. To guess its size would be to tell a fishing tale, but in spite of that, he must have been 6 feet long. We exchanged glances for a while, he swam in and out of view, always mostly obscured by reef rock and darkness. To see this creature out in the open would surely have been fantastic.

Corals of these bays are relatively diverse, most of which cannot be found outside of the Caribbean. The main types to keep an eye out for are the majestic Gorgonians – sea fans and whips that come in a plethora of colours and shapes continuously waving in the currents. Hard and stony corals are abundant, especially the Acropora species. Check under ledges and in crevices for examples of Condylactus anemones and listen for the sounds of rock crunching to observe parrot fish nibbling. The best part of this experience is not having to get on a boat for a 30 mile trip back to shore, and better yet, it need not be a two-hundred-dollar day, and no vending machines... These reefs are some of the most accessible and pristine reefs within swimming distance of shore in the world; and if you don't want to see anyone else there all day, you don't have to.

©2004 Itchyfeet Online Travel