Snorkeling

You don’t have to leave the planet to experience an alien world. Nature is always full of strange, otherworldly creatures and places that just exceed all imagination, and inspire mythes and legends all around the world.

I first experienced something so alien when I was in elementary school. My parents were fortunate enough to afford a trip to the Caribbean and they wanted to take me snorkeling.

I’ve always been told that when I first experienced the ocean as a toddler that I wanted nothing to do with the water. My dad always had to put me on his shoulders before I could get close to the ocean. Apparently, I had decided that my mom wasn’t tall enough to protect me from the waves. So it was a bit of a surprise to my parents when I took to the ocean so well.

It was a magical experience because the reef was so healthy and colorful. There were fish of all shapes and sizes. Everything caught my attention and I never stayed in one spot for too long, which might’ve exhausted my parents a bit trying to keep up with me.

It was this experience that made me want to learn more about the ocean. It was so weird, so alien! I could see out into the open ocean for miles. There were strange sounds, little clicks, pops, and crunches that followed me everywhere. Why were the rocks so brightly colored? Why did they look so funny? What were all these fish?

My curiosity exploded and I needed to know everything I could about the ocean.

Snorkeling is an amazing experience for anyone willing to give it a shot. Not every reef can be viewed by snorkeling, but there are plenty of options off the coast, especially in the tropics.

I highly recommend it for anyone wanting to experience the ocean, but isn’t quite ready for scuba diving. Snorkeling can be very relaxing. Some places allow you to do it by yourself or you can go with a group.

Always do some research before you go snorkeling. Some places provide gear, others don’t. There also may be special rules and regulations that you should follow to keep the reef clean and healthy, like some places require a special kind of sunscreen that is less harmful to coral. Later, I’ll follow up with a post on the behaviors that all snorkelers should follow to help keep the reef and themselves safe, while still having a good time!

The next time you visit a coastal destination, see what kind of ocean opportunities are available. If there’s snorkeling in the area, give it a go and see what you can find! You can find cool shells, shark teeth, or items swept away by storms like glass bottles. Not to mention all the local fish, some may seem normal while others are out of this world!s

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Reusable Bags

Plastic bags can be extremely convenient, but they are also very harmful to the environment.

Plastic bags are easy to get and are often times free. You can use them for lots of things, like for storage and transportation. Going to the beach and want to bring lunch? Throw it in a plastic bag from your last trip to the grocery store. Donating some clothes or unwanted items? Throw them in a plastic bag and let the donation place get rid of it.

I get it; plastic bags are readily available and low maintenance. But in the long run, they have more cons than pros.

I hated how much they broke on me, the bags could be carrying a single item and the handle would snap in my hands. The plastic in plastic bags is often so cheaply made that it becomes thin and flimsy. I often see people double bag their groceries, even single item purchases, because the handles would break. The worst is when the bag would tear in the bottom and spill stuff everywhere!

Not only are they poorly made and really meant for single use, but they are horrible for the environment. A plastic bag in the ocean often looks like a jellyfish to many sea creatures, including sea turtles! Plastic doesn’t digest, not in humans and definitely not in sea creatures. Often times when scientists biopsy a whale they find several pounds of plastic bags in its stomach alone. Sea turtles have starved to death because their stomachs are full of plastic bags and they don’t have room for actual food.

But we can recycle plastic bags, right? There are still places that take plastic bags to be recycled, but that may no longer be an option in the coming future. In my area, you can no longer recycle plastic bags with the local government—they will refuse to take your recycling if they see a single plastic bag in the bin. To get around that, our local grocery stores have offered to recycle the bags for us, but even that might not last. In an effort to be more green, our local government is trying to pass laws that ban plastic bags all together, so any store that offers them will get a hefty fine.

The new laws and regulations don’t really bother me; I think a ban on plastic bags wouldn’t be a terrible thing. However, I know how hard it can be for people to transition to new things.

Paper bags are still an option for many grocery stores and they are a bit sturdier than plastic bags. If I forget my reusable bags, I go for the paper bags because they are still recyclable and easier to use. Paper bags can also be used more than once, as long as you don’t get them wet, so you can get a few uses out of them before recycling them.

Reusable bags are the best alternatives. They are pretty sturdy and can hold more items than plastic bags. They are easy to store and they come in all shapes, designs, and sizes!

Personally, I’m a very forgetful person, so there are times when I leave the house without my reusable bags. What do you do then?

You can store some in your car to keep at all times. This is great especially if you make an unplanned trip to the store. BOOM! You have bags right there!

Some stores even offer them for free if you reach a certain price point when shopping. Or they are often available at check-out lanes if you don’t mind spending an extra few dollars.

You can also get them from donation-based organizations for helping out or donating. One year, my local aquarium offered them to anyone who volunteered for the day doing local clean-up and tree planting events. My grandfather used to get reusable bags in the mail when he donated to local organizations.

You can even make your own bags out of old linens and clothes. I’ve seen many old pairs of jeans get turned into fabric bags.

A few quick tips for reusable bags:
1. Keep a couple in your car.
2. Wash them every so often, especially if you use them at the grocery store.

If you can’t give up plastic bags just yet, that’s okay, just be extra vigilant about recycling them and keeping them from getting away. Plastic bags can travel far on a windy day, and if they don’t end up in the ocean then they end up as trash for someone else deal with.

Links:

https://www.wikihow.com/Make-Reusable-Grocery-Bags-from-T-Shirts

Manchones Reef

Isla Mujeres is more than just a beautiful island where you can snorkel to see whale sharks. Around the island are a few reefs, including the largest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere—but I’ll get to that later.

Today, I’m going to talk about Manchones Reef and its underwater art gallery!

From either Cancun or Isla Mujeres you can hop on a boat that will take you to Manchones Reef, a popular local dive site. It’s considered an easy dive for beginners and open dive certified divers, but it’s also a neat place for more experienced divers. The site contains more than 800 linear meters of reef and 500 underwater sculptures.

Prominent corals on the reef include elkhorn coral, staghorn coral, and brain coral, and several other reef building and soft corals. The local reef-dwelling fish provide a wide variety of color. Some of the more abundant fish include blue tangs, wrasse, grunts, and snappers—a beautiful site full of life for any diver to enjoy!

The El Museo Subacuático de Arte, or MUSA, is the underwater art gallery with 500 sculptures, including the “The Man on Fire” and the “The Ernest Hemingway Desk.” I’ve seen tons of photos of human-like sculptures and even the sculpture of a car! The sculptures were created by Jason deCaires Taylor, an environmentalist and photographer.

One of the issues when rebuilding reefs is that sometimes the substrate is destroyed or unavailable for coral to attach to. In the past, many companies have tried creating artificial reefs using old ships, train cars, automobiles, and tanks. Other companies have created concrete blocks and unique structures to promote coral growth.

I really enjoy the idea of a sculpture gallery also being a coral garden, so to speak. Not only does it create an interesting dive site that can alleviate some of the stress from the reef sites around it, but it also combines art and conservation, something I believe will attract the attention of a lot of people. Hopefully, in the decades to come, this sculpture garden will be home to a beautiful and healthy human-made coral reef!

Isla Mujeres is definitely on my list of places to go. I want to snorkel with the whale sharks, and I would love to dive at the local reefs, including Manchones Reef and MUSA. As a conservationist, I love the idea of MUSA, and I would love to see the Cruz de la Bahia (Cross of the Bay), which is dedicated to every person lost at sea. I can’t wait to see it and tell all my art friends about it!

Sources and links:
100 Dives of a Lifetime by Carrie Miller
https://mexicodivers.com/manchones-reef/
https://squaloadventures.com/tours/isla-mujeres-scuba-diving/2-tank-dive-musa-manchones-reef/

Portuguese man-o-war

A Portuguese man-of-war (Physalia physalis) washed up on a beach. Photo by Dr. Alex Mustard, more can be found at www.amustard.com

Domain: Eukarya
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Cnidaria
Class: Hydrozoa
Order: Siphonophorae
Family: Physaliidae
Genus: Physalia
Species: Physalia physalis

It’s summer time, the time of year I get to listen to the “jellyfish invasion.” Now, don’t get me wrong; jellies are increasing in number, and there are concerns about their large populations. However, Portuguese man-o-wars are not jellyfish—they’re siphonophores!

Siphonophores are the misunderstood cousins to jellyfish, especially Physalia physalis. Jellyfish are typically a single individual with a polyp stage. Siphonophores are a colony of individual organisms called polyps, and each group of individuals does a specific job for the colony.

Portuguese man-o-wars are made up of four separate polyps: the sails, the tentacles, the digestive organs, and reproductive system. Imagine that you and three of your clones, called zooids, live in an RV together. You are in charge of driving the RV, one clone is in charge of gathering food to feed everyone, one is the cook, and the other is responsible for replacing damaged or missing zooids. Without one of your clones, everyone in the RV would die, and RV would eventually stop moving. Same can be said about siphonophores and P. physalis.

The pneumatophore is the gas-filled bladder at the top; it’s the purple-bluish structure you can see floating on top of the water. This zooid is responsible for the colony’s movement. However, the gas-filled bladder works more like a sail; the wind and surface currents do the actual moving of the colony. This is how they got their name, because the gas-filled bladder resembled the sails of man-o-wars, a type of naval ship.

The tentacles are another organism, or zooid, of P. physalis. On average, the tentacles can extend 30 feet below water, but a single colony was recorded with tentacles as long as 165 feet! The tentacles contain venom-filled nematocysts, which they use to paralyze and capture prey. Portuguese man-o-wars feed on fish, shrimp, and other small creatures.

Gastrozooids are the polys in charge of digesting the prey and distributing the nutrients to the other polyps in the colony. Essentially, they are the digestive system of the colony. Unlike the sail and the tentacles, they have no distinctive “structure” on the colony, so they can’t be identified in a photograph.

The last type of zooid is responsible for reproduction. These polyps create other polyps for each of the groups, replacing those that have died or have been damaged. They are also responsible for exchanging genetic material with other Portuguese man-o-wars.

Portuguese man-o-wars are found in tropical and subtropical waters, and they can be found floating in large numbers—even in the thousands. I know in the US every summer, media warns the East Coast about these siphonophores washing up on public beaches.

P. phyaslis can be harmful to humans. I’d hate to be out swimming and get stung by the long tentacles! While live man-o-wars can be harmful to swimmers, dead ones are also a concern. While the venom is rarely fatal, it hurts worse than an army of wasp stings, and the nematocysts can still sting humans after death. So if you seem a dead one wash up on the beach—DON’T TOUCH IT!

If you notice Portuguese man-o-wars in the water or washed up, notify the lifeguards and everyone around you immediately. If you’ve been stung, do not use urine or vinegar on the inflamed area.

Dive manuals suggest that you carefully remove any remaining tentacles and flush the area with sea water, never fresh water. As soon as possible, immerse the affected area in hot water of at least 112°F for twenty minutes. This will denature the toxin and break up the chemicals.

I have never seen a Portuguese man-o-war in person despite living on the eastern coast of the United States and frequenting beaches in the summer. However, I don’t think I’m terribly upset with the idea, because with my luck, I’d get stung! Siphonophores are pretty interesting, though, and I can’t wait to share more with you!

Links and sources:
Reef Creature Identification Florida Caribbean Bahamas 3rd edition by Paul Humann, Ned DeLoach, and Les Wilk ⇐had the info on how to treat the sting
https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/invertebrates/p/portuguese-man-of-war/ ⇐in-depth look into the sections of the man-o-wars
https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/portuguese-man-o-war.html ⇐simplified info
https://www.britannica.com/animal/Portuguese-man-of-war

Mushroom Coral

Domain: Eukarya
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Cnidaria
Class: Anthozoa
Order: Scleractinia
Family: Fungiidae
Genus: Fungia
Species: Fungia scruposa

Do you know what gets my attention? An old article about a species of coral that was documented eating jellyfish. But I’ll get to that later; first, I want to introduce you to Fungia scruposa, or the mushroom coral!

Found in the tropical waters of the Red Sea, Indian Ocean, and western Pacific Ocean, mushroom coral are unique for a few reasons. Unlike other hard corals, F. scruposa lives as a single individual instead of as a colony, much like the Atlantic mushroom coral of the family Mussidae. Don’t let their similar common names fool you, though. These two corals are not closely related to each other.

Juvenile mushroom coral start out as raised disks that attach to dead coral or rock. When they grow to about an inch in diameter, they detach themselves from their substrate. However, this does not mean that they’re super mobile. Instead, mushroom coral typically stay in the same area and inhabit the sediment or rubble.

But what happens if a strong wave comes through and turns them over? Fungia scruposa use their tentacles to right themselves when knocked over by waves or by another animal.

Mushroom coral get their name from their appearance. They have an irregular disk shape that is about 1 inch in diameter, sometimes a little larger. At the center of the disk is a raised mound with a deep-looking cut, which is the polyp’s mouth. The coral’s hard exoskeleton has several thin ridges that spread out from the center, making it look like the underside of some mushrooms.

Fun fact: did you know that the ridges on the undersides of mushrooms are called gills?

I’ve yet to see this coral while diving, but I absolutely cannot wait! Mushroom coral are unique for their class, because they live as solitary polyps and spend their adult lives not attached to anything. But on top of all that, they were also recorded eating whole jellyfish in the late 2000s—something that was completely unheard of!

There are some species of sea anemones—distant cousins to coral—that are known to eat jellyfish. However, these are the first hard corals that scientists have seen eating jellies. Unfortunately, the divers were only able to see the jellies disappear into the mouths of several mushroom coral, but they could never see how the mushroom coral captured the moon jellies. Still, it’s absolutely fascinating and may prove how resilient hard coral can be in a changing ocean environment.

And maybe you can be the researcher that discovers how they do it! Maybe you can discover more species of coral that will dine on jellyfish when the opportunity presents itself.

Sources and links:
Ocean The Definitive Visual Guide made by American Museum of Natural History
http://www.coralsoftheworld.org/species_factsheets/species_factsheet_summary/fungia-scruposa/
http://news.bbc.co.uk/earth/hi/earth_news/newsid_8350000/8350972.stm ⇐an article about mushroom coral eating jellies
https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00338-009-0507-7 ⇐another article about them eating jellies but with more detail

Upwelling

When I talked about the Gulf of Guinea, I mentioned that it was a site of coastal upwelling. There are different kinds of upwelling, depending on how the process occurs. Upwelling can occur off the coast or in the open ocean. Today, I’m going to give a general overview of upwelling.

Upwelling is a process in which deep, cold water is brought to the surface of the ocean. Upwelling occurs when wind pushes the surface water away, allowing the deeper water to rise to the surface. This cold water is typically full of nutrients that are vital for seaweed and plankton growth, creating areas of high productivity.

In this nutrient-rich water, seaweed and plankton population increases drastically, which sets off a chain reaction. The large amount of seaweed attracts herbivorous fish, and the large amount of plankton attracts filter feeders and small fish. Larger fish are attracted by all the small fish. Sharks, dolphins, and even sea birds are attracted by the large amounts of fish in the area.

Areas of upwelling are very important to both the ocean and to humans.

Upwelling provides food for all kind of fish, marine mammals, and sea birds. Think of the open ocean as a desert. It’s so vast and deep that it could be days before a dolphin or a shark can find their next meal. Areas of upwelling in the open ocean are like an oasis, especially for migratory animals who might not encounter a lot of food on their long journeys.

Coastal upwelling covers about 1% of the world’s oceans, but it provides about 50% of all our harvested fish. Some of the most successful fishing grounds occur in or around areas of upwelling. And when something happens and the upwelling stops, like in an El Niño weather event, the fishing industry takes a heavy hit, harvesting fewer and smaller fish.

Upwelling is so important that scientists and businesses are joining together to try and figure out how to create artificial upwelling using technology. So if you’re looking for a job in something groundbreaking, look into artificial upwelling! I have a feeling that it’ll be an important endeavor for years to come.

Sources and links:
https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/upwelling.html ⇐ brief look into upwelling
https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/upwelling/ ⇐ more in-depth view of upwelling and coastal upwelling
https://oceanexplorer.noaa.gov/explorations/02quest/background/upwelling/upwelling.html

Little Tunny

Domain: Eukarya
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Osteichthyes
Order: Perciforms
Family: Scombridae
Genus: Euthynnus
Species: Euthynnus alletteratus

My husband loves to eat tuna. If he could have it every day, I think he would! Little tunny, or little tuna, is a common species of tuna found in the tropical and subtropical waters of the Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean Sea, the Gulf of Mexico, the Black Sea, and the Mediterranean Sea.

Euthynnus allettatus can grow up to 48 inches and averages around 20 pounds when fully grown. The fish is has countershading, dark-blue gray coloring on top that fades to a silvery-white toward the belly. It has a torpedo-like shape that cuts down on water resistance, similar to species of sharks and dolphins. The base of the tail is thin, and the tail fin is crescent-shaped, allowing the little tuna bursts of speed to evade predators or to catch its prey.

There are two distinct features that help to identify little tunny. On the dark blue-gray top of the fish are a couple of wavy lines that form unique patterns running from the dorsal fin to the tail fin. The second feature is found underneath the small pectoral fins, five to seven small dots that stand out against the silvery-white.

Little tunny are considered opportunistic feeders, which is just a fancy way of saying that this fish will eat almost anything it can get a hold of. Typically, it will feed on crustaceans, smaller fish, and squid.

There is a wide range of organisms that prey on little tunny, including larger tuna, dolphinfish, swordfish, and various species of sharks.

E. allettatus reproduce between April and November around the Atlantic Ocean. Females will release their eggs into the open water for males to fertilize. Females release their eggs multiple times throughout the reproductive months, and the species can produce almost 2 million eggs per year. Whale sharks have been found in these waters, such as off the coast of Isla Mujeres, looking to gorge themselves on fish eggs.

These fish are very important to the local fisheries, including the West Indies. They’re a good fish to consume; the meat is darker and has a stronger taste than larger commercial tuna, and it can be prepared in a number of ways. Little tunny are also good game fish, because they give fishermen a bit of a challenge.

Their population numbers are good, and the species is considered to be of least concern of extinction by the IUCN Red List. If properly regulated, little tunny would be an excellent species of tuna to introduce to larger markets to ease off the pressure of other, scarcer species of tuna.

Isla Mujeres is on my list of places to go. I’ve already decided that while we’re there we’re going to try locally sourced little tunny, if it’s available. I would love to see if my tuna-loving husband enjoys this species of tuna!

Sources and links:
Reef Fish Identification: Florida Caribbean Bahamas 4th Edition by Paul Humann and Ned Deloach
https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/discover-fish/species-profiles/euthynnus-alletteratus/ ⇐more extensive breakdown of little tunny
https://myfwc.com/wildlifehabitats/profiles/saltwater/tuna/little-tunny/ ⇐ key points
http://species-identification.org/species.php?species_group=fnam&menuentry=soorten&id=1925&tab=classificatie
https://www.fishbase.se/summary/97

Reusable Water Bottles

Reusable water bottles are a growing trend that is getting a lot of attention. Everywhere, companies and organizations are promoting their reusable water bottles, and they are becoming cheaper and easier to find. And with the growing popularity, more and more unique designs are being introduced to make them more versatile.

Your average name brand case of 24 16.9oz water bottles runs at about 10 dollars, or about 5 dollars if you go with a store brand. You’re looking at spending 5-10 dollars per 3 gallons. It’s suggested that you drink 64oz of water a day, so that’s about 4 bottles of water in a day. At the rate of consumption, your case will last about a week. For a single person, that’s about 20-40 dollars a month. If you can stretch out the case so that you use about one bottle a day, that’s 5-10 dollars in a month.

What if you are a family of 2 or 4? The money starts to add up, and you’re spending a lot of money on water that you can get at home.

In 2018, I put my foot down and stopped buying cases of water. While I personally used a refillable bottle, I was buying water for guests and family. But I got tired of throwing away my money just to see half empty bottles of water lying around with no one remembering who they belonged to. I convinced my household to get refillable water bottles, and since 2018, I believe only one case of water has been purchased, and that was for an emergency.

You never realize how much plastic you’re using until you stop. No more half empty water bottles around the house. We take a lot less recycling to the road now, because there’s less plastic to recycle. And there’s more money in our pockets.

I understand not everyone is in the position to stop buying bottled water. There are places all over the world, even in the United States, that don’t have clean public drinking water, and that’s a problem. So if you can’t ditch the plastic for health reasons, I completely understand!

You can try getting a filter to put on your sink or a filter for a pitcher of water, but those cost money, especially in the up keep. However, there are some organizations that are trying to get their own filters to people who need them.

If you can’t stop buying cases of water, I understand, and please don’t feel guilty. These changes are slow and are hard for everyone to follow right away; it’s up to the rest of us to make it easier for those who can’t at first. If you’re aware of areas in your community that lack clean drinking water, bring it to the attention of your local government. Write letters, shout it from the roof tops, blast it on social media, be loud and obnoxious until you are heard and the problem is solved. Clean drinking water shouldn’t be a privilege; it’s a necessity for life.

For those of us who do have access to clean drinking water—ditch the plastic, please.

Reusable water bottles come in all shapes. My personal bottle has a straw attachment and a clip that allows me to attach it to my belt, pants, or a bag, and it’s perfect for me at work. Reusable bottles range in price; obviously, the ones with more functionality will be more expensive. But a simple, cheap water bottle will work just as well.

Even if you do recycle your bottles, plastic can only be recycled so many times before the material begins to break down and can’t be reshaped anymore and gets thrown away. Every time you refill your water bottle, that’s one less piece of plastic that ends up in the trash or in the stomach of a whale.

Common Names

I’ve mentioned for a while now that I have a love/hate relationship with common names. They’re great to use in conversations with people outside of the science community, and they’re typically a lot easier to say too. Not everyone will know the scientific name of organisms. Honestly, I don’t know all the scientific names of all the organisms that I like.

One of my issues with common names is that they can be misleading.
When I was growing up, we were taught that those star-shaped creatures that stick to rocks were called starfish. When I entered college, everyone was pushing the name sea star. Why the change in common name?

The common name starfish led people to believe that those creatures were a species of fish. Instead, they are from a completely different phylum of organisms called Echinoderms; the two echinoderms and fish have very little in common. Misinformation can be a very dangerous.

When you look up the term dogfish, you get information on several different species of sharks. Dogfish shark is the common name given to the shark family Squalidae. Each species in this family are small, about 4 feet long. They are found in both tropical and temperate waters, along the coasts and in the deep open ocean. Each species can be referred to as a dogfish, which has unfortunately been a disaster for them.

Most species of dogfish are taken heavily by the commercial fishing industries, and a lot of them are threatened or critically endangered. The problem is that commercial fisheries are told they can take x-number of dogfish per season, but the regulations don’t specify what species of dogfish shark can be taken.

Some species of dogfish shark only produce one offspring per year, while others can produce twenty. Some species of this family can live up to a hundred years, so their age of sexual maturity is a lot older than those who have a shorter life span. It’s the species that have an older age of sexual maturity and a low offspring rate that are suffering the most.

I understand that it is hard to tell one species from the other, and by the time you decide that you got the wrong dogfish, the creature might already be dead. What I am saying is that lawmakers need to be more specific with their regulations, or else we’ll accidentally cause the extinction of several species because they all have similar names.

This is an extreme case, but it’s still an important one to point out. Common names are great in conversations and educating people in ways that they’ll better understand. However, common names need to stay out of regulations and policies to eliminate any confusion.

Isla Mujeres, Mexico

A silhouette of a snorkeller photographing a whale shark (Rhincodon typus) as it feeds at the surface. Isla Mujeres, Quintana Roo, Yucatan Peninsular, Mexico. Caribbean Sea. Model released. Photo by Dr. Alex Mustard, for more visit http://www.amustard.com

Also known as the Island of Women, Isla Mujeres is a five-mile-long island located off of the Yucatán Peninsula. It was once a fishing village, but now it has a booming tourist economy because of whale sharks.

In the early 2000s, local fishermen reported seeing large congregations of whale sharks in the Afuera, which is how the locals refer to the deeper water off the Yucatán coast. It wasn’t until 2006 that local scientists were able to organize expeditions to investigate the area. Aerial photos showed more than 400 whale sharks gathered in one area. Previously, the recorded gatherings of whale sharks were 15−20 individuals at a time. Since then, Isla Mujeres has converted has their fishing boats to tourist boats.

Every year, in the months of July and August, whale sharks gather in the hundreds to feed. A small species of tuna, little tunny, release millions of eggs into the open water to be fertilized by males of the species. These planktonic eggs cloud the water and attract these gentle giants.

Aggregations of whale sharks and rays were also found off the coast of the northern tip of the Yucatán, between Cabo Catoche and Isla Holbox. This aggregation was discovered a few years earlier, and the tourism and scientific research that spawned in response helped to convince the Mexican government to create the Whale Shark Biosphere Reserve in 2009. Unfortunately, this reserve does not include the aggregation near Isla Mujeres.

If you want to see these whale sharks, you can book a tour from either Cancun or Isla Mujeres. However, it is recommended that you do your research ahead of time. For the best experience, you want to book a private tour that allows you to have extended swimming sessions with the whale sharks. Non-private tours are much shorter and do not offer as rewarding an experience, so to avoid being disappointed, please do some research beforehand!

If you want to see whale sharks and don’t have a dive certification, don’t worry. The area is limited to snorkeling, so it’s a great place for beginners, and you don’t have to worry about the world’s largest fish because they’re more interested in feeding than anything else. Whale sharks are filter feeders and don’t actively hunt prey like other sharks do, so there’s no danger of swimming near them.

If you do snorkel with the whale sharks, please follow all rules and regulations in place. These are wild creatures and they are just trying to survive. So please do not touch or harass them; just because they don’t retaliate or get violent doesn’t mean that it’s okay to bother them. The more we respect whale sharks and show the local government that we care, and are interested in their protection, the easier it will be to convince the Mexican government to widen the Whale Shark Biosphere Reserve to include the aggregation of whale sharks off of Isla Mujeres.

Tourism is a powerful tool for conservation and environmental efforts around the world. If done properly, it can have a positive impact on the ocean and the world—we just have to be smart about it. So do your research and follow the rules. Treat the ocean like you’re a guest in someone else’s home, because that’s what we are, guests.

Isla Mujeres is definitely on my must-travel-list! I wouldn’t mind going back to Cancun, but if I were to return to the Yucatán area, I would want to go to the Island of Women first. I’ve read that the island is more laid back than Cancun is, and there are more dive sites around the island that I would love to see, including an underwater art gallery.

Sources and links:
100 Dives of a Lifetime by Carrie Miller
https://indopacificimages.com/americas/the-whale-sharks-of-isla-mujeres/ ⇐ a more in-depth look into the area and the whale shark tourism