The Mexican Caribbean plays host to two treasured visitors in the summer, the whale sharks that gather to feed on plankton and the sea turtles that come ashore at night to lay their eggs on area beaches. Welcome back to these beautiful creatures, both true ocean wanderers.
Big and Beautiful
From mid-May to mid-September, whale sharks (Rhincodon typus), gather in the northern waters of the Mexican Caribbean off the island of Holbox and in the ocean deeps to the east of Contoy and Isla Mujeres, referred to by seafarers, divers and fishermen as “blue water.” What draws the world’s largest fish (they can be up to 12 meters or 40 feet long) here? The answer is food! They are filter feeders and cruise through the warm surface waters with their mouths open, rather like vacuum cleaners, sucking up the plankton that is plentiful in the summer. But marine biologists have also discovered that these gentle giants are partial to fish roe, in this case to the eggs of the bonito which spawns during the warmest months of the year. The largest whale shark gathering anywhere in the world was registered here in 2009, a staggering 420 of these huge creatures in one place at one time! Scientists believe that as many as 1,400 of these gentle giants migrate through the area during the summer.
Known as the tiburón ballena in Spanish, local fishermen also refer to the whale shark to the pez domino or domino fish due to its dappled grey or dark blue skin. Biologists working in the Mexican Caribbean use the distinctive markings to compile catalogs of individual fish sightings. When divers encounter a whale shark they take a photo of a patch of skin behind the gills and above the left pectoral fin. The pattern of dots and stripes recorded does not change or fade with age and can be used to identify individual fish, almost like a fingerprint. The location of the fish is recorded with a GPS reading and the findings are used to monitor whale shark movements. Some whale sharks are even being marked with a satellite sensor to study migration patterns.
In recognition of the area’s importance for migrating whale sharks, in 2009, Mexican President Felipe Calderon declared the stretch of ocean off Holbox and Cabo Catoche a biosphere reserve.
Whale Sharks, the gentle giants of the ocean
Whale shark movements are still wrapped in mystery and scientists have much to learn about this enigmatic species. They are known to move from the Gulf of Mexico into the Mexican Caribbean and south to Belize and the Bay Islands in the Gulf of Honduras during the year, and some have even been tracked to Brazil. They also gather around Ningaloo Reef off the coast of Australia and there are other congregation zones in Fiji, the Seychelles and Baja California.
For nature lovers, divers and seafarers, a whale shark sighting is the highlight of a summer vacation in the Mexican Caribbean. You’ll learn a great deal about them from your knowledgeable eco guide and during the boat trip out to the whale shark area you may also spot dolphins, sea turtles, manta rays and a variety of seabirds.
Don’t forget your camera, take water and a hat and wear a t-shirt instead of applying sun lotion, even if it is labeled as biodegradable. You should always rinse lotion off before entering the water. If you are prone to seasickness, Dramamine or ginger tablets are recommended, as there may be a swell especially en route to the “blue water” east of Contoy.
When a whale shark is spotted, only two swimmers per boat enter the water with their guide. They must swim alongside the fish, never in front of it and should keep a distance of five meters. Swimmers should never attempt to touch whale sharks. Other regulations limit the number of boats in the whale shark area, they also must keep their distance and must not pursue or harass the fish.
If you are interested in learning more about whale sharks, the latest research findings and conservation initiatives underway around the world don’t miss the Isla Mujeres Whale Shark Festival, July 21 – 24.
The First Sea Turtle of the Season
May also marks the start of the green and loggerhead turtle nesting season in the Mexican Caribbean and the Healing Gourmet
-paradise/royalresorts-turtle-season-2010/” target=”_blank”>annual campaign to protect these ancient creatures as they lay
their eggs. Royal Resorts has already welcomed its first turtle, a green turtle that laid 107 eggs on the beach at The Royal Mayan!
Royal Resorts Sea Turtle Protection Program
The Quintana Roo coast is one of the world’s most important nesting areas for the green turtle (Chelonia mydas) and also welcomes the loggerhead (Caretta caretta), hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata) and the occasional leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea), the largest and rarest of the world’s eight turtle species.
Biologists, hotel personnel, members of the armed forces and volunteers participate in the statewide conservation campaign. They patrol beaches in Cancun, the Riviera Maya, Cozumel, Isla Mujeres and the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve where turtles come ashore and are on the lookout as they emerge from the sea and struggle up the beach to dig their nests in the sand. Their presence helps deter poachers and keeps predators such as dogs, raccoons, seabirds and crabs away from the nests and eggs.
Royal Resorts is proud to participate in the campaign and has been protecting turtles since 1985. Formal record keeping began in 1998 and to date, Royal Resorts has protected 4,797 turtle nests and released 367,377 hatchlings.2011 was a record-breaking year with a tally of 581 sea turtle nests and 61,499 babies and we hope that 2012 will be equally fruitful.
During the summer nights, security guards at The Royal Sands, The Royal Mayan, The Royal Caribbean and The Royal Islander stand guard over our turtle visitors. When they encounter a female turtle, they watch from a distance as she laboriously digs her nest and then move in to tag and measure her when she begins to lay her eggs. She may lay anything from 80 to 120 eggs and sometimes up to 200!
The clutch of eggs is collected and transferred to an enclosure further up the beach out of harm’s way. Guards must dig a nest that emulates the shape and depth of the original nest and label it with details of the species, the number of eggs, the date and time. They keep watch over the corral and patiently wait for the first baby of the season.
Fences protecting the turtle nests – Royal Resorts Turtle Protection Program
The eggs hatch 45 to 60 days later and resort guests help staff release the baby turtles at dusk. Watching these tiny creatures make that dash down the beach to the waves is always an emotional experience. Hopefully, in 12 to 15 years, some of them will return to the beaches of the Mexican Caribbean to lay their own eggs.
You can Help Protect the Sea Turtles
Royal Resorts Turtle Protection Program - Photo: Christopher O.
Turtles have been swimming the oceans for 100 million years, however centuries of overhunting for their eggs, meat, shell and oil, and modern-day threats such as pollution, climate change and habitat loss has brought them to the brink of extinction. They need our help and deserve our respect. If you are coming down during the summer, join us in protecting these beautiful creatures by following these guidelines.
If you see a turtle on the beach
* Alert the security staff.
* Be very quiet and keep still
* Watch from a distance (five meters) and do not attempt to touch the turtle or crowd her.
* Do not shine a torch in her direction or use your flash when taking pictures.
* If you bring your children to help release the hatchlings, make sure that they follow instructions
* No flash photography.
* No smoking
* Keep the beaches and oceans clean. Plastic bags, beer packaging and fishing lines floating in the water are lethal to turtles and other marine life.
If the turtle is frightened by loud noises, people and bright lights, she will leave the beach without nesting and lay her eggs in the water, thus losing the entire clutch (90 to 110 eggs).
Under Mexican law it is illegal to persecute and hunt sea turtles or steal their eggs. The consumption of eggs or meat and the purchase of products or creams made from tortoiseshell are also prohibited.
Don’t miss our Turtle News
As the nesting season progresses, Royal Resorts will be keeping you updated with turtle news, letting you know how our special maritime Moms are doing when they begin to arrive and when the first babies of the year hatch. Stay posted!