Trip report: Wetpixel Whale Sharks 2017

So Team Wetpixel met a nasty tropical storm called Franklin, and I think it is true to say that the storm won. The port on Isla Mujeres was closed by the Mexican naval authorities to all small boat traffic on Sunday night as the storm approached. We expect start the storm will clear by Wednesday, but will await the authorities go ahead when they re-open the port. I have been on the island during July and August for whale sharks 6 times over the last 7 years and this is the first time we have ever had any days lost due to bad weather.

Being enterprising underwater photographers, we got some washing done:

Had a lengthy breakfast:

And then set out to brave the winds down at Punta Sur. They had really picked up, making for some incredible scenes as the swells crash up onto the point

Being photographers meant that we….took pictures:

And generally larked about:

Before heading back along the east coast road.

The port remained closed on Tuesday, so part of the group returned to the Mexican mainland to so some cenote diving. These are created when the caves that riddle the Yucatan peninsula collapse, exposing them to the surface.

We arranged the excursion with Lus Maria Guzman of Buceo Xtabay, who took us to a private cenote called Maravillas.

As we approached, the storm really hit with torrential rain and lots of flooding along the road. The cenote is around 45 minutes from Cancun.

After descending through a fairly narrow entry, the cenotes opens up into a big bell shaped chamber. There is a hydrogen sulphide layer at around 30 m (120 ft) although the cave carries on to 84 m (276 ft).

The storm meant that there was very little light entering the cave, and as we were mostly equipped for whale sharks, we had limited lighting options.

The cave is pretty large:

Due the amount of rain, we had a brief surface interval and then set out for another shallower dive.

There were lots of fossils in the cave’s walls around 20 m (60 ft).

The entry provided some interesting opportunities for silhouettes too.

Thanks to Lus Maria and her team for entertaining us and showing us this very special place. It looks like the port will remain closed until Thursday, so we may return for more cenote diving tomorrow.

Day 10

On the final day of the Wetpixel Whale Sharks trip, the Mexican naval authorities, despite a good forecast, kept the port closed. Sadly, therefore whale sharks were not on the menu. The weather was sunny and warm, so we decided to head for the cenotes again. We once again hooked up with Lus Maria Guzman of Buceo Xtabay, who was able to organise at very short notice for us to get to Tajma Ha cenote, south of Playa del Carmen.

Lus Maria at the head of Tajma Ha cenote

We got an early ferry over to Cancun and headed down to the cenote in Lus Maria’s minibus. The majority of the cenotes are privately owned and many of them restrict access for photographers. Fortunately Tajma Ha is both very beautiful and allows photography.

After around 2 hours, we pulled into the car parking area. Like most cenotes, the access is not exactly prepossessing.

A narrow cleft under an overhang shows a stretch of gin clear water to get fins on and set off. It also has some freshwater tropical fish: guppies and catfish.

The cavern portion of the cenote follows a permanent guideline, and this never really leaves the light zone.

Pretty quickly, the amazing lighting provided by the bright sun and jungle topside was obvious.

The light provides an amazing “laser show” as beams dance down from the surface in curtains. This is helped by the amazing clarity of the water…it is like diving in air!

The cavern tour took us through some amazing rock and speleothem formations:

Photographing in the darkness of the cave was challenging, needing very high ISO and slow shutter speeds. We took it in turns to act as models:

The underwater scenery of the Yucatan is absolutely as amazing as that of tiger surface and whilst challenging, is an amazing place to create stunning, memorable imagery.

The 2017 Wetpixel Whale Sharks has the singular distinction of being the first time in my six visits to have had weather that has forced us off the water. Whether this is a symptom of climate change remains to be seen, but the “discovery” of the cenotes as a bad weather alternative has been a worthwhile one.

Many thanks to all the trip participants, most of whom are either already home and back at work or travelling as I write. Looking forward to 2018…

Day 1.
Day 2.
Day 3.
Day 4.
Day 5.
Day 6.
Day 7.
Days 8/9/10.