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/

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

Gulf of Guinea

Let’s travel to the eastern side of the Atlantic Ocean, right off the coast of Africa. Between Cape López, near the Equator, and Cape Palmas lies a body of water known as the Gulf of Guinea.

The Volta River and the third largest river in Africa, the Niger River, are the major rivers that feed into the Gulf of Guinea. Because of the runoff from these two rivers, and the high amounts of rain along West Africa, the gulf’s water is lower in salinity than other parts of the ocean. This warm water is separated from deeper, colder, saltier water by a shallow thermocline.

A thermocline is a thin, distinct layer in a body of water that marks when the temperature of the water rapidly changes with depth. In the ocean, it separates the upper mixed layer near the surface and the deep, calm water below. Thermoclines exist in the atmosphere as well.

Off the coast of Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire, a seasonal coastal upwelling forms in the gulf. An upwelling occurs when cold, nutrient-rich water from the deep is brought up to the surface water. This nutrient-rich water creates a boom of activity that attracts organisms from every level of the food chain, including fish, birds, and mammals. When the nutrients are depleted, the organisms move on.

The Gulf of Guinea has been nominated as a Hope Spot. The beaches around the gulf contain prime nesting sites for leatherback sea turtles, which are a threatened species. Sea turtles grow for many years before they reach sexual maturity, and the process of reproduction can be fatal to females. Newly hatched sea turtles have a high mortality rate because of predation before they reach the ocean and from human activity. It’s extremely important to protect these nesting sites.

Within the Gulf of Guinea lies the island nation of São Tomé and Príncipe, which contains vital habitat for humpback whales, African manatees, dolphins, and soft corals. Humpback whales are considered endangered by the IUCN Red List their populations are threatened by whalers and by getting struck by cruise liners and cargo ships. African manatees are classified as vulnerable.

The Niger River is being explored for oil and gas mining, which could have a serious impact on the Gulf of Guinea. Luckily, non-government organizations (NGOs) have been working hard with both government and international partners to develop green practices to extract those natural resources. The NGOs have also been developing full-scale wildlife law enforcement programs to protect the gulf and its wildlife.

This is definitely a cool Hope Spot and I wish them the best of luck. If you travel to any of the beaches containing turtle nesting sites, see if there are any volunteer programs you can join. I know in the US there are volunteer programs that help get the baby sea turtles into the water. May not be the ideal vacation plan, but it’ll be something memorable to share with your friends and family!

Sources:
https://mission-blue.org/hope-spots/
https://www.britannica.com/place/Gulf-of-Guinea

Rehoboth Beach, Delaware

Today I’m going to talk to you about a beach community that I love: Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, USA.

My husband and his family have been visiting this beach for decades; so, naturally, it’s one that I have frequented myself over the past few years. It’s a wonderful beach community that is a popular tourist location without being super built up. There aren’t dozens of mini-golf places and hotels to clog up the beach front. In fact, you can walk to the beach from almost anywhere within the town proper.

All of the more common tourist attractions like chain restaurants, outlet malls, mini-golf, and amusement parks are built away from the town, to help keep the beach area less cluttered. The local businesses and family restaurants are located within the town. I really enjoy this set up because you can easily pick a place to stay within the town, rent a house or condo or a hotel room, and you don’t have to use your car for the entire visit. You can walk anywhere within the town, which has 99% of what you may need during your visit.

Now that I’m done advertising the town, let me talk about the beach!

Rehoboth Beach is a strip of sand that stretches for about a mile, its waters coming from the Atlantic Ocean. Spanning the backside of the beach, toward the town, are fenced-off areas called dunes. A dune is a stretch of land where sand or sediment accumulates and is held in place by vegetation, like dune grass. Not every beach has dunes, and they can be delicate habitats that are important to various species. The dunes on Rehoboth Beach are fenced off to keep people from disturbing them.

There’s nothing particularly unique about the beach itself. The beach isn’t full of broken species of coral or tiny sea shells that have replaced the sand. It’s not a special breeding ground for any particular species. In fact, Delaware Bay gets a lot of horseshoe crabs during May and June for massive breeding parties, but Rehoboth Beach isn’t part of that action.

However, it’s still a great beach to visit with a wonderful community attached to it. It’s a very clean beach, and the locals are trying to keep it safe for native species and visitors alike.

I really enjoy this beach because of all the cool critters that I have found here. This beach has semi-diurnal tides, meaning that it has two equal high tides and two equal low tides every lunar day, or 24 hours and 50 minutes. After high tide, I enjoy going onto the beach to see what the water has washed up.

I’ve seen blue swimmer crabs trying to make it back to the water. I’ve seen deflated jellyfish that died after it had been beached. I’ve found broken pieces of horseshoe crabs and entire whelk egg cases, which look like alien spinal cords. And I’ve found sea glass on occasion, not to mention the countless number of shells that were mostly intact.

Rehoboth Beach may not be a place to put on your bucket list, but it’s a cool place to visit at least once. If you go, I recommend walking along the beach just after high tide—that’s the best time to see what the waves have left behind! Just please be careful as you walk the beach; some of the critters may still be alive.

Chesapeake Bay, United States

So far, I have talked about places that I want to see for myself in the future, and I’ve yet to talk about anything that is a bit closer to home for me. It’s not that I don’t like the places closer to home, but I think sometimes I forget that what is normal for me may considered extraordinary to other people. Today, we will be talking about the Chesapeake Bay, which plays a role in my life every day.

The Chesapeake Bay is the largest estuary in the United States and is the third largest in the world. A quick-and-dirty definition of an estuary is it’s an aquatic area in which rivers meet the sea, where freshwater and saltwater mix.

Now, the Chesapeake Bay is fed by over 150 rivers and streams, but its main source comes from the Susquehanna River. The total area of the bay is about 3200 square miles. For those that need help visualizing how big the bay is, it’s about three times as large as Rhode Island, and it is also bigger than the state of Delaware—that’s a lot of area! And it’s not just water; this even covers all the various salt marshes and sub-estuaries around it as well.

Surrounding the bay are coastlines that belong to both Maryland and Eastern Virginia, but the watershed that it belongs to includes four other states! Even though the productivity of the bay has decreased drastically over the years, it still provides more fish and shellfish than any other estuary in the United States and provides over 500 million pounds of seafood a year, so if you like eating oysters or crabs, they probably came from the Chesapeake Bay.

The bay is very important because it supports more than 3600 plant and animal species; it also supports more than 17 million people who live, work, and play in and around the bay. If you’ve never visited the area, I highly recommend spending time somewhere along the bay. There are many beautiful camp grounds you can stay at. There are boating and fishing opportunities, and all sorts of trails and parks around the bay that will give you a beautiful scenic, and informative look at the life of an estuary and its salt marshes.

There are even places where you can sign up to help clean up the trash and pollution from surrounding areas that get washed up. It’ll definitely take more than a single trip to see even half of what there is to offer, but visiting the Chesapeake Bay will be totally worth it in the end—especially if you have great weather to experience it in!

The Chesapeake Bay is very important to me because I have always been one of those 17 million people that it has helped to support. I have been to camp grounds around the bay and have sailed it a few times. It is a beautiful place to lose and find yourself, and I believe it is an environment worth saving and preserving for many generations to come!

So, please, if you have the time, come and see this place for yourself; it truly is a national treasure! And who knows, you may see dolphins or a humpback whale or two.

Sources and cool links:
Ocean: The Definitive Visual Guide made by the American Museum of Natural History
https://www.cbf.org/about-the-bay/chesapeake-bay-watershed-geography-and-facts.html
https://www.nps.gov/chba/learn/nature/national-treasure.htm

Shark Bay, Australia

All right, ladies and gents, last week we chatted about Shell Beach in Australia. For this week’s adventure, we’re going to pack up our fins and snorkels and head to Shark Bay again, but this time we’ll focus on the area as a whole. And remember, please keep your hands to yourself and watch where you put your feet; we are guests in their environment, and we don’t want to accidentally poke a shark!

Shark Bay is located on the most westerly point of the Australian continent and has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1991. The protected area covers about 2.2 million hectares. That’s a lot of area, but how do you visualize that?

Well, Shark Bay is about the size of 2.2 million rugby fields, or baseball fields, smashed together in one giant area. If you’re not a sports fan, then visualize Shark Bay as being about the size of New Jersey and roughly half the size of Switzerland. Anyways, that’s a lot of protected area, and 70% of it includes the surrounding marine waters.

Many aspects make this area unique.

It has one of the largest, most diverse seagrass beds in the world with at least 16 different species of seagrass. It’s one of three places in the world where you can look at stromatolites, which I’ll talk about later; for now, I’ll just tell you they are one of the oldest forms of life on Earth—they’re like living fossils!

Shark Bay is home to around 200 species of birds, almost 100 species of reptiles, and several marine species, many of which are threatened or endangered. It has a large population of marine life, including dolphins, dugongs, sharks, rays, two species of endangered sea turtles, and two species of whales, not to mention all of the fish and invertebrates drawn to the seagrass beds.

This area is so important to so very many species living on land and in the water, and it gives you an interesting look at biological and geological evolution overtime. This is the perfect place to go to if you love birds, reptiles, plants, or the ocean—I think I could spend a whole week here and still not do everything I’d like to!

There are all sorts of things to do at Shark Bay! You can dive and snorkel in the waters. There’s a marine park, an aquarium, and a national park to explore. There are guided land tours, boat tours, dive tours, and marine safaris! You can see dolphins, whales, sharks, Manta rays, Green turtles, Loggerhead turtles, and dugongs!

You can explore the seagrass bed or the surrounding land area. There’s Shell Beach to relax at and the Hamelin Pool stromatolites to see! There’s so much, and I’m so ready to pack my bags and go myself—if I ever get the money and the time to go. For those of you who can go, please experience this place and maybe share all your cool stories!

Sources and cool links:
https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/578
https://www.sharkbay.org/about/
https://www.australiascoralcoast.com/destination/shark-bay-world-heritage-area
https://oceanpark.com.au/shark-bay/

Shell Beach, Australia

Not every beach is made of sand.

In fact, there are beaches that are made up of volcanic rocks, pebbles, shells, and coral. I’ve been lucky enough to snorkel from a beach that was made up of dead, broken pieces of coral that were piled up from thousands of years of heavy coastal storms. What materials a beach is comprised of can tell you a lot about the area, including how much energy is involved through wind and wave action, what the waves are like, and the history of the beach—but those are topics for another post!

Today we head over to Australia, the continent of many species that could and will kill you. However, the beach that I’ll be talking about is probably one of the safest places to swim, especially for those who aren’t strong swimmers.

Shell Beach, is found within Western Australia’s Shark Bay, making it an embayed beach. This beach is unique for a few reasons.

The first unique feature is that the immediate water has a salinity that is twice that of the ocean! This occurs because the rate of evaporation is greater than the rate that rain falls, so more water is lost due to the heat than is replaced. When the salt water evaporates, the salt stays behind. Add to this the fact that a massive sea grass bed sits at the mouth of the bay, blocking a lot of tidal flow, and this makes for a super salty environment.

But it’s okay, because this leads into the second unique thing about this place. The salty water conditions have created a safe haven for a specific kind of shelled creature, Fragum erugatum, which is a species of cockle. A cockle is a bivalve—its shell is divided into two halves—and it is very similar to oysters and clams.

The f. erugatum cockle can survive the hypersalinity of the waters of Shell Beach, but its natural predators cannot, meaning that this species thrives in this place. In fact, they’ve survived here in L’Haridon Bight for thousands of years with no decline in their population.

How can we tell? When shelled organisms die, their bodies are consumed or they decay, leaving only their shells behind. So when f. erugatum cockles die, their shells remain in the area, and over thousands of years their shells eventually replaced all the sand and other sediments of the beach.

Today, Shell Beach stretches for about 44 miles and is comprised of only cockle shells, and the shells extend about 26−30ft down below the immediate surface. That’s a lot of shells! The shells even make up the sea bed and stretch quite a ways into the bay. On the back part of the beach there are so many shells that they’ve fused together in places to form large hard shapes, which were mined for a while to make decorative blocks until Shark Bay became a protected site.

I think this beach would be a cool place to go because it is so different. Not a lot of creatures can survive the water, so you don’t have to worry so much about potential animal accidents. And the water is easy to float in, much like the Dead Sea in Jordan, so it’s a great place to relax and float in peace. Also, the beach is a pretty snow-white color and was created in such an inspiring way, at least to someone like me!

Sources and cool links:
Ocean: The Definitive Visual Guide made by the American Museum of Natural History
https://www.australiascoralcoast.com/destination/shell-beach
https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/shell-beach
https://parks.dpaw.wa.gov.au/park/shell-beach

Georgia Aquarium

Today I want to tell you about one of the aquariums I’ve visited. When I was in college, my scuba club, the shark club, and the sea turtle club pooled money and sent a bunch of us to the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, Georgia. Yesterday, I mentioned that aquarium while discussing whale sharks and I thought I’d take the time to talk about it some more.

I always love talking to people about aquariums. Aquariums provide a lot of information about species and environments that most of their visitors may never learn in school—often in creatively entertaining ways—and it’s how a lot of people begin to get interested in the ocean.

I highly recommend the Georgia Aquarium if you are looking for something fun to do while in Atlanta. It’s situated amid a variety of restaurants and other museums if you don’t want to spend the whole day in the aquarium—it’s okay, I won’t hold it against you! But I do implore that you spend a decent amount of time there because of all the wonderful animals you can see!

There’s the large tank with the whale sharks and manta rays, including some steps to sit on if you want to lose yourself while watching them. They have beluga whales that were fairly active when I saw them. They also have live coral in some of their exhibits that the aquarium staff grew themselves; they have their own coral growth program that they fund. During my last visit, they were still setting up a sea lion exhibit, which I believe is operational now.

The Georgia Aquarium offers backstage tours where you can learn about the programs that go on behind the scenes and how the aquarium operates. The best sleepover ever is their Sleeping with the Sharks program where they give educational tours and then allow you to sleep under or next to the various shark tanks. Best part: you can pay to snorkel or scuba dive with the whale sharks and manta rays, which I regret missing out on. Note to self: BRING ENOUGH MONEY NEXT TIME!! They also offer a lot of educational programs for kids and adults, so if you want to plan a school event they can totally do it!

The Georgia Aquarium is a great place to go no matter your age, especially when it comes to sleeping with the sharks. Let me tell you, we squealed like five-year-olds when we were told we got to sleep in the room with the whale sharks. This aquarium has diverse exhibits full of creatures that you may not have seen elsewhere. I saw my only flamboyant cuttlefish there which led to a fantastic conversation with a little boy and his sister—and their dad was so relieved that someone could actually answer their questions.

Again, I highly recommend adding this aquarium to your list of places to visit, and please do find the time to make a day of it! They also offer volunteer opportunities that allow you to help out with conservation efforts around the Atlanta area.

Jellyfish Lake

Photo of golden jellyfish in Jellyfish Lake, Palau. Photo taken by Dr. Alex Mustard, and more can be found on his website http://www.amustard.com/

I’m going to take a brief interlude to talk about something different. Don’t worry though I have a reason for this!

Several archipelagos dot the Pacific Ocean, but today I’m going to talk about one in particular. The Republic of Palau is made up of several hundred islands that are populated by a people who have been shaped by the sea and nature. There are so many cool islands to choose from, I bet you could easily spend a few years there and still not see everything. Today, though, we’re going to focus on a unique lake found in the Rock Islands of Palau, Jellyfish Lake.

Jellyfish Lake is a brackish marine lake that is located near the sea. The lake is fed by rainwater, but it isn’t considered a fresh water lake because it’s a bit saltier than freshwater, although it doesn’t match the salinity of the nearby ocean. Jellyfish Lake is also largely isolated from the ocean, so where does the salt water come from?

One of the unique things about this lake is that they’ve found tunnels and fissures in the surrounding limestone that actually connect the lake to the ocean, and that’s where the salt comes from. However, another unique thing about this lake is that unlike other tropical lakes there’s no circulation movement of water.
In other words, the lake has no current and the wind only affects the surface water, so the lake has developed distinct layers making this a meromictic lake. As cool as that sounds, the coolest thing about the lake is how it got its name.

Jellyfish Lake is home to the nonstinging Golden Jellyfish, which can’t be found anywhere else in the world! The main attraction to this place is the sheer number of jellyfish that you can find in the lake–at least over a million of little animals to safely swim with!

The biggest reason I wanted to talk about this lake is because I want to visit it myself. For a while, Palau officials closed the lake to tourism due to a drastic drop in the Golden Jellyfish numbers, so they wanted to run studies and try to help the jellyfish population.

Now, the numbers are back at healthy levels and they have reopened the lake to visitors. So grab your fins, snorkel, and mask and go have a relaxing swim with these harmless jellyfish and experience a world unlike any other—I know I’m going to!

Read more about jellyfish and Jellyfish Lake here:
https://coralreefpalau.org/research/marine-lakes/jellyfish-lake/
https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/jellyfish-lake
https://palaudiveadventures.com/palau-jellyfish-lake/