Sunday, August 14, 2011

Whale Shark Video

Well, the swimming with the whale sharks was awesome, so here is some video that gives a little taste of how cool it was.

Biosfera Sian Ka'an!

After leaving Isla Holbox, we drove south to a biosphere just south of Tulum (the southernmost point on the Riviera Maya) called Sian Ka'an (Maya for "where the sky is born"). The biosphere is one of the largest and most diverse in Mexico. We stayed at the Ecological Center in a "deluxe cabin" with a screened tent and a queen-sized bed. It was about as far away from civilization as we've been since we came to Mexico, and we loved it.

Looking southeast from our hotel's main building. Our cabin is the first in the foreground.

Our home sweet home, cabin 3. It is a porch with a roof, and under the roof is a giant army-style tent with screened windows. There is no electricity and the bathrooms and showers are shared. We heard nothing in our cabin except the noise of the ocean and the wind. The sun rising over the ocean woke us every morning. It was heavenly.

Looking southwest from our hotel. The lagoon boat trip took us back into the areas on the right side of the photo and up the shore on the left side of photo. The lagoon is a lovely greenish color and very different from the intense turquoise-and-teal of the ocean.

Looking northwest (more or less) from the hotel's main building. You can see small hummocks of ground that are rare oases of solid ground in the lagoon and in the mangrove swamp.

This is our hotel's main building as seen from the lagoon side.

The lagoon is filled with wildlife. During winter migration about 20 million birds cross the peninsula, and about 1 million stay. The guide says there are 373 species of birds in the area. This is an osprey - a sea eagle.

We took a boat tour of canals and rivers across the lagoon from our hotel. The lagoon and the first stage of the mangrove is brackish water (high salt). It changes to a much lower degree of saltiness about 1/3 of the way up the short "river," and becomes more or less freshwater at the head of the river. The vegetation changes pretty dramatically at each transition: the saltwater mangrove is mostly the stunted trees, the mixed water mangrove is odd-looking mangrove trees with grass growing between them, and the freshwater mangrove is a treacherous swamp made mostly of sawgrass that won't support the weight of a person. There are pools of quicksand scattered throughout, and occasional hummocks (like in the Everglades) with solid land and palm trees. Mangroves are cool anywhere, and these were no exception.

Saline mangrove.

Self-portrait with spouse and gear.

Go go Gadget camera! Ian likes funky cameras now!

It was beautiful. The water really is that color, and so fresh and cool it was hard to believe. This is looking upstream and away from the family of six teenagers who spent the entire drift shrieking and squealing about things touching them. Ian suggested at one point that he might start yelling about something getting him to see what they'd do, but cooler heads prevailed.

The mangrove is thick with orchids like this one and bromeliads. The bromeliads are not as photogenic as the orchids, but the guide was very excited about them and spent quite a bit of time explaining them and their adaptations to us.

This is Boca Paila - the spot where our lagoon system meets the Caribbean.

We saw a pelican who didn't care at all about our motorboat. There are lots of pelicans in the Yucatan.

And another pelican!

And a cool speckled bird that really wanted its photo taken!

And a crocodile!

At slightly more than half done with the holiday, Ian was refreshed and happy.

At slightly more than half done with the holiday, I was tired and happy.


The Yucatan Peninsula is made of limestone and is basically flat. There are no above-ground rivers through most of it because water seeps through the limestone and finds the ocean through underground rivers. In places the water forces its way to the surface in fresh-water pools called "cenotes" (say-NO-tays). We visited one called Dos Ojos (Two Eyes) and had a dip. After the warm ocean, the water was very, um, refreshing. Some cenotes are in caves, some are partially covered (like these), and others are open. The water is fresh and can be drunk after purification.

Water-baby Ian is not worried about the water and went with the guide into a closed, back cavern. I elected to stay where there's plenty to breathe and provided the mosquitoes with a light snack before joining Ian again for a less threatening part of the tour.

"Dian" and "Moniki" in a couples picture. Our names cause Spanish speakers trouble at the best of times, and our guide was a Spanish-as-a-second-language speaker. He is Maya, and he speaks Maya, and "Ian" and "Moli" was just too much for him.

Look, ma! I've got my face in the water! I've also got a kickin' new snorkel shirt that inflates on the front. It's like lying on a short air mattress, and it's a vast improvement over the lifejacket I used previously.

An artist's rendition of what Tulum must have looked like - at least partially - back in the day.

El mundo maya and the important cities and routes.

Tulum was a major port and had an important lighthouse to help the Maya get across the Yucatan Peninsula's barrier reef.

Looking in at what was the city. It's hard to imagine it all paved and painted and crowded with businesses!

The "descending god" (sunset) was worshiped at Tulum. You can see his feet in the upper corners of this carving.

Tulum is not fully excavated and trees are still growing through the walls. I love that.

Can you spot the iguana? Hint: it's only a tail....

Sunset over the lagoon. The sun sets around 7.25 in the Yucatan right now, and at about 7.31, hordes of vicious mosquitoes who don't care at all about bug spray - biodegradable or otherwise - attack anyone who's not sitting in a stiff wind. After the first night, we took the precaution of informing the waiter that we would take drinks on the sunset side and take dinner on the ocean side where there was a strong and steady wind!

Isla Holbox - Whale Sharks and Flamingos!

Ian and I visited Isla Holbox (HOL-bosch) in Quintana Roo state. It's north-northeast of Cancun - not far as the crow flies - but getting there is a bit involved. We rented a car, dealt with invisible and vicious speedbumps on the "libre" highway, and arrived at paradise with very few delays! Isla Holbox (supposedly Maya for "black hole" in reference to a lagoon on the island) is a great jumping-off point for snorkel tours with whale sharks. Whale sharks are the world's biggest fish (not mammals like real whales), and they manage to live on plankton and fish eggs. They're harmless to people: claims that no one has ever been killed by a whale shark, and apparently my fear of a vortex created by a shark's sudden dive is not one that anybody else has come up with. As it turned out, we had a great time, and the sharks deserve their reputation as gentle giants.

We have a new toy, the GoPro camera, that takes high-def video footage, and Ian has mastered the DVD-making software. Here is our whale shark montage!​Q?hd=1

Isla Holbox: Treasure of Humanity!

Ahhh.... And there were two lovely men who brought drinks regularly.

Looking down the beach from our hotel. You can't see them in the picture, but in addition to the lounge chairs, they had those curtained beach beds on hammock-ropes. There were always children playing on them so I didn't get a chance, but they looked awesome.

Unlike the rest of Mexico, Isla Holbox was filled with Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata paraphernalia. We never figured out if it was for a particular reason, i.e., Zapata slept here!, or if locals figured US and EU tourists would recognize the names.

This creepy little gecko was on the inside of the curtain (between the curtain and the glass) in the first restaurant we ate at in town. It didn't stay long. I should explain that I developed a strong dislike of geckos in Gracias, Honduras, when several came into my hotel room one night and chirped all night long. Geckos are harmless, but I can't stand them.

In addition to cheeky, chirpy geckos, there was a shy crab. I left it in peace after the photo.

You can spot the whale sharks by the herds of tourist boats on the ocean.... The good citizens of Isla Holbox apparently decided some years ago that there was more money and more sustainability in developing whale shark tourism than in fishing their waters empty, so there are a lot of tours that leave from there. You can also head out from Cancun and Isla Mujeres.

And here's the whale shark! It's feeding by pulling in gallons of water and plankton. This is only one shark, and you can see its head, dorsal fin, and tail in this shot. They are the world's biggest fish, growing up to 60 feet. Nobody really knows much about their habits and migration, but a group of them comes to the waters of the Gulf of Mexico/ Caribbean between June and September every year to feed on the plankton-rich water. This is the only place in the world that we know of where people can snorkel (instead of scuba) with the whale sharks. Our guide was very good and prioritized good behavior with the sharks and safety. He also knew how to help clueless tourists (me!) deal with being in the ocean with sharks (!) and get the most out of it.

Feeding! This is prime jumping-in time: the shark is coming straight towards you and feeding. It takes some getting used to, but really they're not interested in people. The water was thick with plankton, the sharks' preferred food.

Big head!

Here the shark is opening its mouth to begin the scooping process. Can't believe I got this picture!

The shark's gills, slightly less than fully extended. They closed with a kind of ripple action.


That's Ian next to the whale shark, second from the top/ right. It gives a sense of the size of an average one: gigantic.

Ian and his fancy red snorkel mask!

Love that water!

If nobody looks good in a wetsuit, nobody looks bad either, right? Note to the fashion police: pigtails are a necessity right now because of the length of my hair. This is not, I repeat not, a fashion statement.

Happy boy with his lucky wildlife attraction shirt and photos and video of real, live whale sharks!

Post-whale shark recovery: a michelada and a margarita. Note that Ian had removed his lucky wildlife attraction shirt by this point.

I discovered that the sand in front of our hotel had a very cool pattern. It was consistent the length of the beach that I checked and recovered quickly if anybody (like me) put their foot on it to test it.



Big lizard! I like these better than geckos, and it's a good thing - they were everywhere!

The beach just down from our hotel was almost entirely made of shells. It reminded me of collecting shells with my niece on the Oregon Coast just a year ago.

Ian and I walked about 30 minutes from our hotel to see flamingos! They're a beautiful color, but they're very shy (normal, I guess). On Holbox they can be seen on a sandbar just off the coast. We splashed out to the sandbar, and these ones objected. Here they are flying away!

Almost there, their feet are still splashing....

And finally airborne!

Yes - I thought about croquet. It's only normal!

We weren't really that far from civilization, but it felt pretty removed. You could not see the flamingos from the hotels, so those visitors unwilling to slog for 30 minutes along the seashore missed out. Suckers!

Hangers-on and wanna-bes. They're not as pretty as the flamingos, but I'm willing to bet they make a prettier sound. Flamingos squawk, no other word for it.

A flamingo poses with the ocean - the colors were really extraordinary.

We saw kites in the muddy bottom on our way to and from the flamingo sandbar, but thanks to Ian's good eyes and solid marine-life knowledge, we slid our feet and managed to not step on any!

The horizon - turquoise and teal as far as the eye could see. I didn't really believe in this until my first time to Cancun last year, and I manage to forget it every time I leave. It's a welcome surprise every time we go!