Swimming with Dinosaurs in Mexico

A different kind of diving experience in Mexico
By Dan McGanty and Helen Brierley

You’ve done it all and seen it all underwater, right?  Challenge!  How about 12’ crocs up close and personal?  If you are struggling with ‘just another pretty reef’ diving – and are willing to suffer a bit of rough and ready – then a trip to Chinchorro Bank has to be the remedy for you.  The bank is a shallow expanse of reefs, mangroves and a bit of dry land, 30 miles off the southernmost Caribbean coast of Mexico, just north of the border with Belize.

The ‘getting there’ is not too bad – a flight to Cancun and a five-hour drive to Xcalak (which if you have heard of, you are the only one).  The way to do this trip is with a day or so in Xcalak at the beginning and end, with a few days in between out at Chinchorro Bank, with the crocs.  The diving from Xcalak is fairly run of the mill Caribbean diving, other than the chance of seeing a manatee (we did) and the virtual certainty of seeing a massive school of tarpon – numbering in the hundreds and with some fish over two meters in size.

 

 

The reason for this trip, however, is not Xcalak itself but rather the time out at the bank.  The crossing is the usual – a pleasant hour and-a-half or an unpleasant two and-a-half (it’s called ‘weather’).  One arrives at the bank in a relatively sheltered area, with about a dozen stilted fishermen’s huts.  To call these ‘basic’ would quite frankly be kind.  If you need five-star, wi-fi, TV, thrice-daily showers, a bed, etc – then this is not the trip for you.  Life is very communal in the small hut, with hammocks strung pretty much wherever one can string a hammock.  Food is fine – it comes when it comes, but there is no pretending this is a culinary tour.

 

 

So why do it?  There are about five-hundred reasons – and they live in the murky water in the middle of the mangroves.  No one knows exactly how American crocodiles first got to Chinchorro, but it is quite unlikely they are leaving anytime soon.  The fishermen’s huts are in the clear, open-water on the leeward side of the island.  When the fishermen come in from their daily excursions, they clean their catch and give the scraps to the crocs.  This long-standing routine has made the crocs rather reliable in coming out of the swampy back-water (not all of them, but at least a few), from late-morning through the end of the day.

One scuba dives on the healthy nearby reefs in the morning – to see the reefs, but more importantly to spear the lionfish which are used to wrangle the crocs in for a closer look.  The whole area is a marine park, so it is only the invasive lionfish that visitors are allowed to take (while the fishermen have broader, grand-fathered fishing rights).  It is then back to the ‘chalet’ for an afternoon of croc encounters.  This is done in the chest-deep water just next to the hut, because that is where they expect to be fed as usual.

 

 

Seeing a croc from in the water for the first time is a heart racing experience.  Over a few days, one gets more comfortable at enjoying and filming these incredible creatures in what feels like a very natural setting.  It would be tough to say that one ever feels completely safe, but the in-water guide makes it feel manageable as time goes on.  If you are the type of person who listens to the instructions of experienced guides, you should be alright – if not, you might want to practice writing with your other hand before you go.

 

 

The bottom line is that this is an incredible experience that few will ever see – so a ‘must do’ for anyone who can cope with a bit of inconvenience for a truly unique interaction with these awesome, evolution-be-damned creatures.

 

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

With a life-long passion for anything water-related, Helen and Dan take every opportunity to race sailboats in Southern California and scuba dive anywhere in the world.  Both Helen and Dan learned to scuba dive in the early 80’s, Helen in the UK and Dan in New York, and they currently call Los Angeles home.  Helen also serves as Board Chair for Reef Check, the global marine conservation foundation.

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