Kinga Philipps takes a solo adventure off the coast of Cancun to Isla Mujures and finds unspoiled beaches, transparent water and epic dives surrounded by whale sharks and manta rays.
What better place for a solo sojourn than the turquoise waters of the Caribbean and a place called Isla Mujeres, the Island of Women. It was my eat, pray, love of sorts. Except, instead of pasta, I indulged in tacos. Instead of an ashram, I found my peace beneath the waves. Instead of Javier Bardem, I met a weathered fisherman named Ramon…and his whale sharks.
Isla Mujeres is a 20-minute ferry ride from the mainland and can actually be seen from Cancun’s hotel zone. Hidden in plain sight. To paint a vivid picture, the place looks like the set of a beer commercial. Transparent water, white sand that puts freshly fallen snow to shame, perfectly coifed palm trees and ridiculous sunsets. It’s a slice of still-unspoiled paradise. No one could fault you for a day spent lounging in a hammock with a cold one in hand.
But I’m not much of a lounger. I came to see the whale sharks that migrate here each June to September. The largest gathering ever recorded, 420 strong, happened right in these waters.
I was to check in with my outfitter, Searious Divers, at an internet café in the town square. There I met Ramon. If I was looking for my version of The Old Man and the Sea, I found him. Hemingway would approve. Two hours later, we had discussed everything from the migration habits of whale sharks, his long-standing conservation efforts to protect them to — randomly — the medicinal uses of various jungle plants. Ramon was one of the original fishermen in the area to encounter the whale shark gatherings. It wasn’t until 2006 that the information was released to the scientific community. With research came the tourists and those wanting to capitalize on them. Ramon has been instrumental in orchestrating protective measures and continues to fight to protect the sharks.
After all that, however, we checked the weather and Ramon informed me that whale sharks don’t like rain and disappear into the depths so tomorrow’s trip would be postponed.
I, on the other hand, like rain. I rented a bike and cruised the five-mile-long island, only slightly blinded by a mild tropical downpour. I explored every stretch of beach, gorgeous old cemeteries, visited Punta Sur where the sun first touches Mexican soil each morning, ate my fill of roadside tacos and made friends with several members of the islands well-groomed population of stray cats. My bike, nicknamed tetanus with wheels, proved itself to be a valuable off-road option and a considerable amount of exercise…which balanced the foodie in me.
On day three, I made it to the sharks. One hour by boat over choppy seas and we arrived at the feeding grounds. Whale sharks are filter feeders eating mostly plankton but show up to these waters to dine on tuna eggs…and this was an all you can eat buffet.
Massive speckled beasts surrounded us like animatronic Disney creatures on rails. Giant mouths skimmed the surface. Huge fins cut through the water. If they had been anything but gentle giants this would be a nightmare. The Eiffel Tower, the pyramids and zip lock sandwich bags are all ridiculously cool, but nature trumps us every time.
I jumped in, camera in hand, and choked on my snorkel in amazement. Thirty-foot behemoths moved toward me with mouths agape until the very last second before impact when they would gracefully divert course and glide beneath like a semi-truck with the delicate nature of a ballerina. If that’s not on your bucket list, write it in immediately.
Among the sharks were hundreds of manta rays spinning underwater and occasionally leaping out of it in alien displays of mastery over air and water. In a fortunate twist of events my camera equipment failed. Fortunate because it forced me to be present. I was no longer there to get the perfect shot. I was just there. As if on cue, a whale shark pulled up beside me and let me pace it. On my other side another joined us and I, sandwiched between two monster fish, swam watching mantas float past wishing to be nowhere else on earth in that moment but there.
Other than the whale sharks, the area offers excellent diving. I made contact with a small dive shop, Scuba Garrido, which turned out to be an excellent choice for quality of dive options as well as the people who worked there. We did two dives exploring local reefs and the well-known underwater museum where various statues, including a VW Beatle, have been erected to serve as a reconstructed reef.
On the morning of my departure I swam with the whale sharks again. Then with salt in my hair, sand still stuck to my feet and one last taco in hand, I flew home.