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Snorkelling the Great Mayan Reef of the Yucatan

Yucatan coral reef snorkeling

The Mayan Reef along the Yucatan Coast is not a continuous wall, but rather runs like an irregularly dotted line parallel to the coast. In one spot, near Xcalak, a sleepy fishing village near the border with Belize, there is a short section of secondary reef, parallel to the main reef, about fifty to a hundred metres further off-shore. A gap in the main reef allows us to swim into the space between these two reef sections, where we can be on the outside of the main reef, and yet are reasonably sheltered from the Caribbean swells that pound the reef day and night.

Today, we are paddling our sea kayaks on a snorkelling day trip from Mahahual. Anchoring behind the reef, we don our snorkel gear and swim through a gap in the reef. This gap is about two metres (6 ft.) deep and the same width, so we go single file. As we cross the reef the bottom drops straight down to a sandy floor at a depth of about 15 m (50 ft.). The wall itself is a jumbled pile of huge and beautiful corals and sponges.

Cruising along the edge of the wall are several spotted eagle rays, whose graceful flight is a joy to watch. As we watch the eagle rays, we notice that there are big schools of fish here. Tarpon mill around near the bottom, their shiny bodies glimmering as they move in circles.

Snorkel to see spotted eagle ray

We spot a school of about a hundred big-eye jacks, hanging out near the surface. And another school of dog snappers hovers in the quiet waters of mid-depth. I don't recall ever seeing such an assortment of truly big fish all in one place. And still the eagle rays glide, back and forth, along the wall and over the bottom.

No aquarium can match such a sight as this.