In a move many are lauding as finally catching up to the sentiment on the issue, the US House of Representatives voted yesterday (11/20/19) 310 v 107 to ban the trade of shark fins!
This will ban all commercial trade including import, export, trades, distribution, and possessing shark fins. Considering that the majority of Americans solidly oppose the issue, it’s nice to finally see some official progress being made. Currently 13 states ban or limit the trade and the US prohibits finning in our waters, the infamous shark fin soup still makes it rounds in quite a few areas.
These apex animals are being killed 30 percent faster than they can reproduce. Sharks are economically valuable to the tune of $630 million and there is likely to be some pushback but this commerce is unsustainable, and some shark populations have declined by as much as 90% in recent decades, threatening many with potential extinction The balance of ocean ecosystems that these predators are part of is in dire straights
Next Stop, The Senate
The action will move to the senate for consideration next. Let your senators know your thoughts and how you want them to vote! Track the bill and its progression HERE.
Midway through our trip we got the opportunity to schedule a Cenote dive trip.
What are Cenotes?
A cenote is a natural pit, or sinkhole, resulting from the collapse of limestone bedrock that exposes groundwater underneath. Especially associated with the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico, and probably the most extensive cave system in the world.
Cenotes were the main source of fresh water for Mayans and had a great significance in their religious beliefs. The Cenotes were associated with the Maya Underworld due to being underground. They were also connected to the goddess Ixchel and the moon.
Diving the Mexican Cenotes
The day started SUPER early–it ends up being a couple hour drive from the dive shop to get down south to Tulum–but thankfully the shop Solo Buceo pretty much had everything sorted out for us. We’d already left our gear there, so all we needed to grab were some wetsuits (you’ll want one; the water is about 75 degrees year round. Not bad to start, but you’ll get chilly by the end of it, especially with no sunlight). They loaded all our gear, had a van ready, and packed us all lunch. Pretty solid all-inclusive day trip!
After the nap-inducing drive (it’s great jungle scenery, but it was way too early and just long enough to make me sleepy) we arrived!
The dives on the itinerary were The Pit and Dos Ojos. Both pretty popular among dive sites for cenotes, so I was very pleased to see them as our targets that day.
Cenote El Pit
El Pit is one of the deepest cenotes in the area – it’s the deepest part of the huge Sistema Dos Ojos, And that’s the third largest underwater cave system in the world, in fact! Shaped something like a giant hourglass, the first cave drops to around 120 feet in depth (we hit just over a 100 feet). The most notable thing about this particular cenote though is the cloud layer in it.
Around 40-60 feet down in the first chamber is the halocline, the line where the fresh water and salt water meet. Here your view gets very interesting. You see a shimmering and it looks as if the world around you become blurry until you pass fully through it.
Below the halocline, around 100 feet or so, is a cloud. It looks as if a fog has settled. It’s actually a cloud of hydrogen sulphur. This makes for a murky, eerie sight as you pass through it, even more so by the floating debris like branches and fallen rocks which can loom out of the gloom. A small distance after the cloud is the bottom of the first cavern.
Cenote Dos Ojos
Part of the largest underwater cave network in the world this sinkhole is called Dos Ojos (two eyes in Spanish) because it’s actually two different cenotes that are connected by a 400 meter long underwater passageway. It’s definitely a top notch cenote to dive!
There are 2 primary dive lines set up for this centoe, the Barbie Line (you’ll see why) and the Batcave. Both make for a gorgeous dive. Obviously if you’re cave certified there are a ton of locations in the cave you can lay line and explore, but there are only 2 pre-set dive paths for you, and you are required to have a special cave and cenote-certified guide with you.
You can pretty easily make a 40-60 min dive out of either line, assuming you’re going leisurely along. But bear in mind this is a super popular cenote to dive, and so the earlier you start your dive the better. We got there early enough, but it certainly was VERY crowded when we left. Along the dive groups hopped around each other and it can become confusing in the water if you’re not paying attention to your dive group.
You are effectively in a cave or cavern environment at every point while diving, so make sure you are following ALL safety guidelines and listening to your guide. You can not immediately ascend is most cases, so air monitoring is critical. And it should go without saying, but never stray from the line!
If you don’t know, the whale shark is a slow-moving, filter-feeding carpet shark and the largest known fish species out there. The largest confirmed individual had a length of 18.8 m (about 62 ft). They may be called “sharks” but they’re not like any shark you’ve seen. Their lives are spent travelling to filter feed, and they don’t give a crap about you. I’m not actually really sure that they can see that well–they’ve got pretty tiny eyes, to be fair. Most divers have travel to their migration areas to have a chance to see them, and off the coast of Cancun is an area where they’re generally found!
One of the last days of our trip was slated for Whale Shark snorkeling. We’d been trying all week to get that in, but the weather had not be cooperating by any means. There were a few days when the ports were fully closed due to the storms and wind in the area. While not unexpected, it did suck. That time of year (August/September) is Caribbean hurricane/storm season, but that is also why the city probably wasn’t quite as crazy crowded as it could have been.
When we finally got put on a boat going out towards the end of the trip, we were stoked to see it confirmed that we’d be out with some amazing whale sharks. And it’s honestly fine that it was towards the end, we needed to off-gas anyway.
The boat ride out is a long one, be prepared to chill out for an hour or so to even get there, plus a bit of running around to find them. But once you’re on them you’re good to go! As with anything, the earlier you go the better–once one boat finds them the rest tend to follow and it’ll become crowded by the end of the morning/afternoon. Thankfully we left pretty much at dawn, so we didn’t have too much crowding to deal with until towards the afternoon.
They are really such majestic animals!
Once we were on them, we got to hop in the water! Seeing them from a distance is beautiful, but being in the water with them? So much more! I’ve seen whale sharks in the wild once previously, but seeing them again was just as magical as the first time. They are curious, inquisitive, and gorgeous. These one we found that day were likely juveniles, and only around 10-15 ft or so. We were also graced with a couple mantas doing a drive by too! Pelagic life encounters are off the charts in this off shore area. Sadly I wasn’t able to get photos of them, as they didn’t hang around long.
Weather in the Caribbean is about what you’d expect–hot and tropical, and subject to temper tantrums. It is pretty similar to Florida (which should make sense) and so during August-October or so things tend to get pretty windy and hurricanes can roll through.
Take the timing into consideration. You can get some good rates for “off season” diving and travelling, but bear in mind that weather can be temperamental. We went late August and got pretty lucky. Blown out a few days but all in all pretty decent weather.
The last stop on our exploration at the end of the week was the island Isla Mujeres, which is a small island off the coast from Cancún. It’s a vacation destination known for beaches such as northern Playa Norte (pretty but probably overrated), resort hotels and for snorkeling and scuba diving on the surrounding coral reefs. At Punta Sur, the southern tip, there’s a lighthouse, the remains of a Mayan temple and a sanctuary for sea turtles.
We hit the majority of those top-recommended places, and while a few were kind of overrated they are still worth visiting.
Getting to Isla Mujeres
The easiest way to get over there is a general ferry; it’ll run you about $20 or so, depending where you buy the ticket. Pretty much any little activity stand you walk by can get you set up, makes it easy. Once you board, after roughly a 20 ride, you’re there and the fun can being!
It may be different based on which ferry you take, but when we were on they offered a discount on renting a golf cart to drive around the island if we booked it right there on the ferry. And honestly that’s your best bet. The line to get set up for the golf carts can be crazy, but you’ll save a few bucks by doing it on the ferry. What better way to tour the island is there?!
Exploring Isla Mujeres
There’s a few different points of interest to take a look at. At the Southern Tip of the island is a small lighthouse and ruins from ancient Mayan temples that are pretty neat to take a look at. During the time we were there they were renovating and it was free to enter, but that will likely change. The view from there is spectacular, out into the open ocean.
Isla Mujeres Turtle Sanctuary
On the island is also a small turtle conservancy that is worth taking a look at. It cost us about $5 per person to enter, and they had a ton of turtles being cared for. Green, loggerhead, hawksbills–babies and adults alike. There were no leatherbacks at the moment (which are pretty rare anyway).
They also had some relocated nests there too! Staked and fenced in to prevent anyone disturbing them.
Look at all the baby turtles ❤
I would definitely recommend visiting the turtle sanctuary. It’s not large, but it’s certainly an organization worth supporting by the small entry fee. There’s always souvenirs if you’re into that as well, but unless you buy them from the actual organization, they’re just street vendors and the proceeds don’t support the sanctuary.
Playa Norte Beach
The last stop was a bit of beach time at Playa Norte. Famous for the soft white sand with fantastic views. While I do say it’s worth dropping by if you have the time, I personally found it to be overrated. The beach, while beautiful, was CROWDED. Tiki bars and restaurants abound, so it’s a plenty nice place to chill out if you’re in the mood for some beach time. Just don’t expect a private beach. Many boats from small cruisers to large yachts were anchored near the beach as well, so you’re dealing with more than just foot traffic on the beach. All in all worth the visit, but I wouldn’t call it a priority must-see.
The Trip Home
Our last night there was spent with (way too much) drinking at Fat Tuesday. Super touristy, I know, but it’s always been a fun place for us, and we try to stop by them whenever we’re at a place that has one. I wish I had photos of our good time, but honestly there was way too much liquor and none of us have a great recollection of that night. Which means it was a pretty good one. In retrospect though, getting blitzed the night before we left may have made for a pretty crappy flight back. Though there was some tasty hangover food to eat in the airport!
After an action-packed 10 days or so, it was finally time to head home. Being able to visit Mexico (even with as touristy as Cancun is) lent a new light to a country that is a bit maligned in the media. There’s a charm to it, and a lot of fun culture and activities to delve into.
Along the Florida coast a variety of turtles are known to nest and frequent the area along the coast, so you can definitely expect to see them when diving! During the summer is their huge boost in nesting, and there have been dives where I saw so many turtles–mostly loggerheads–that I stopped counting at 22! It seems to peak roughly around June/July, but they are often spotted year round. Check out the common species you might see below.
LOGGERHEAD (Caretta caretta)
The most common sea turtle in Florida, the loggerhead is named for its massive, block-like head. Loggerheads are among the larger sea turtles. They can weigh around 275 pounds and have a shell length of about 3 feet or more. Its carapace, which is a ruddy brown on top and creamy yellow underneath, is very broad near the front of the turtle and tapers toward the rear. Each of its flippers has two claws. As is true for all sea turtles, the adult male has a long tail, whereas the female’s tail is short; however, a juvenile’s cannot be determined externally.
The powerful jaws of the loggerhead allow it to easily crush the clams, crabs, and other armored animals it eats. A slow swimmer compared to other sea turtles, the loggerhead occasionally falls prey to sharks, and individuals missing flippers or chunks of their shell are not an uncommon sight. However, the loggerhead compensates for its lack of speed with stamina; for example, a loggerhead that had been tagged at Melbourne Beach was captured off the coast of Cuba 11 days later.
GREEN TURTLE (Chelonia mydas)
Green turtles, named for their green body fat, were valued by European settlers in the New World for their meat, hide, eggs, and “calipee” (the fat attached to the lower shell that formed the basis of the popular green turtle soup). Merchants learned that the turtles could be kept alive by turning them on their backs in a shaded area. This discovery made it possible to ship fresh turtles to overseas markets. By 1878, 15,000 green turtles a year were shipped from Florida and the Caribbean to England. At one time, Key West was a major processing center for the trade. The turtles were kept in water-filled pens known as “kraals,” or corrals. These corrals now serve a more benign role as a tourist attraction.
A more streamlined-looking turtle than the bulky loggerhead, the green turtle weighs an average of 350 pounds and has a small head for its body size. Its oval-shaped upper shell averages 3.3 feet in length and is olive-brown with darker streaks running through it; its lower shell, or plastron, is yellow. Generally the coloring on a green turtle is more vibrant than a loggerhead, and commonly they are spotted to be smaller than the loggerheads in the area. Given that the gulfstream comes very close to the Southern Florida coast, the possibility of large pelagic turtles is always possible though.
Green turtles are found during the day in shallow flats and seagrass meadows and return every evening to their usual sleeping quarters-scattered rock ledges, oyster bars, and coral reefs. Adult green turtles are unique among sea turtles in that they are largely vegetarians, consuming primarily seagrasses and algae. Approximately 100 to 1,000 green turtles nest on Florida’s beaches each year from June through late September.
LEATHERBACK (Dermochelys coriacea)
The leatherback is a fascinating and unique animal, even among sea turtles. It is larger, dives deeper, travels farther, and tolerates colder waters than any other sea turtle. Most leatherbacks average 6 feet in length and weigh from 500 to 1,500 pounds, but the largest leatherback on record was nearly 10 feet long and weighed more than 2,000 pounds.
Leatherbacks look distinctively different from other sea turtles. Instead of a shell covered with scales or shields, leatherbacks are covered with a firm, leathery skin and have seven ridges running lengthwise down their backs. They are usually black with white, pink, and blue splotches and have no claws on their flippers. Leatherbacks eat soft-bodied animals such as jellyfish, and their throat cavity and scissor-like jaws are lined with stiff spines that aid in swallowing this soft and slippery prey. Young leatherbacks in captivity can consume twice their weight in jellyfish daily.
True denizens of the deep, leatherbacks are capable of descending more than 3,000 feet and of traveling more than 3,000 miles from their nesting beach. They are found throughout the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans, as far north as Alaska and Labrador. Researchers have found that leatherbacks are able to regulate their body temperature so that they can survive in cold waters. The leatherback is found in Florida’s coastal waters, and a small number (from 30 to 60 a year) nest in the state.
KEMP’S RIDLEY (Lepidochelys kempi)
The Kemp’s ridley is the rarest sea turtle in the world and is the most endangered. It has only one major nesting beach, an area called Rancho Nuevo on the Gulf coast of Mexico. The location of this nesting beach was itself a mystery to scientists until the discovery of a film made in 1947 by a Mexican engineer showing 40,000 Kemp’s ridleys crawling ashore in broad daylight to lay eggs. Sadly, an “arribada” (from the Spanish word for arrival) of such awe-inspiring splendor can now be seen only on film. Fewer than 1,000 nesting females remain in the world.
Kemp’s ridleys are small, weighing only 85 to 100 pounds and measuring 2 to 2.5 feet in carapace length, but they are tough and tenacious. Their principal diet is crabs and other crustaceans.
During the 1980s, many eggs were removed from the beach at Rancho Nuevo and incubated in containers. The hatchlings that emerged from these eggs were then raised for almost a year in a National Marine Fisheries Service facility in Galveston, Texas. Upon release, it was hoped that these “headstarted” turtles had a better chance of survival than they would have had as hatchlings. Unfortunately, there were many problems with this program. When it was discovered that the sex of turtle hatchlings was influenced by temperature, project workers realized that the artificial egg incubators were producing only male turtles. They also discovered that many of the “headstarted” turtles did not behave like their wild counterparts after release. Many scientists worried that these “headstarted” turtles would never become reproducing adults. Although two “headstarted” turtles have finally been known to nest, headstarting is generally considered to be an inappropriate conservation technique for marine turtles.
HAWKSBILL (Eretmochelys imbricata)
The hawksbill is a small, agile turtle whose beautiful tortoise-colored shell is its greatest liability. The shell is still used in some European and Asian countries to make jewelry, hair decorations and other ornaments, even though international trade in hawksbill products has been banned in much of the world.
Hawksbills weigh from 100 to 200 pounds as adults and are approximately 30 inches in shell length. Its carapace is shaded with black and brown markings on a background of amber. The shields of this kaleidoscopic armor overlap, and the rear of the carapace is serrated. Its body is oval-shaped, its head is narrow, and its raptor-like jaws give the hawksbill its name. These jaws are perfectly adapted for collecting its preferred food, sponges. Although sponges are composed of tiny glasslike needles, this potentially dangerous diet apparently causes the turtle no harm.
Hawksbills are the most tropical of the sea turtles and are usually found in lagoons, reefs, bays, and estuaries of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans. They are frequently spotted by divers off the Florida Keys, and a few nests are documented annually from the Keys to Canaveral National Seashore.