3 Nov 2016
Just 30 kms offshore from Xcalak, the southernmost town in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, lays the largest coral atoll in the northern hemisphere: The elusive Banco Chinchorro. A common question among divers who frequent the Caribbean coast of Mexico is, “Have you ever been to Chinchorro?” And a common answer would be, “No, but a friend of a friend dove there last year and found a sunken German U boat.” It is extremely rare to meet a real live diver who’s actually made the trip yet everybody has heard the stories.
Why are the Chinchorro Banks so elusive?
Just ask the diver who’s been coming to Xcalak for 20 years trying to get out there, and still hasn’t made the trip. Just ask the Xcalak homeowner who tried several times a year for 8 years before he finally got out there. Just ask the Mahahual realtor who tried to dive Chinchorro Banks with local fishermen in an unauthorized skiff—and got turned back by biosphere rangers. In 1996, Banco Chinchorro was named a Biosphere Reserve, the highest level of ecological protection offered by the Mexican government. It is next to impossible for a dive operator to acquire a permit to take divers to Chinchorro. On top of that there are no permanent settlements on the atoll, which covers 800 sq kms but less than 1% of that area is above sea level. The lack of accommodations for tourists on the atoll means that the only way to get to Chinchorro is to take a day trip with a mainland based dive operator who has permission to conduct diving on the atoll. Due to the high overhead, most dive operators require a minimum number of divers to conduct a trip; and all dive operators require good weather to travel to the atoll. In the past, getting the right combination of divers and weather wasn’t always easy; but due to the increase of tourism on the Costa Maya, it’s now fairly easy to get together with a group of divers for a day trip.
How’s the boat ride to Chinchorro Banks?
Let’s say you’ve arrived on the Costa Maya with the perfect combination of divers and weather. Ask Mike from Detroit; he’s been fortunate enough to make the trip to Chinchorro 3 times, twice with really good weather and once on the trip from hell. On that particular trip, they ran into unexpectedly large waves and strong current out of sight of land. Captain Tito Salazar wanted to turn back. When Tito asked the divers what they wanted to do, they decided to go for it. This ended up being a record trip for long and rough; it took the divers 4 hours in 8-foot seas to reach the calm waters of the atoll. They were only able to complete 2 dives instead of the usual 3. Was it worth it? They all said they’d do it again in a heartbeat, and actually several of those divers made another (faster) trip later that same week. Travel time from Xcalak to Banco Chinchorro is just over an hour in perfect weather with the boat traveling fast over long rolling swells. On rough days the first hour can be a bouncy ride through 4 to 6 foot seas but during the 2nd hour of the ride the seas will calm to long rollers and small chop as the boat enters the lee of Chinchorro. The average travel time to Chinchorro is 1½ hours and the return trip with following seas is almost always faster by 15 to 25 mins.
What’s it like when you get there?
Ask a NOAA employee who made a trip last June. After logging 1200 dives in 3 years monitoring coral in the Caribbean for NOAA, this woman said, “That’s the way it’s supposed to look!” Many divers have the misconception that Banco Chinchorro is a wreck diver’s haven. While it is true that Chinchorro has been many captains’ worst nightmare, and that Chinchorro is a graveyard of wrecks from all ages, these are real shipwrecks, not boats that were sunk intentionally for the pleasure of divers. These are vessels that for the most part have run aground on the treacherous fringing reef on the windward (eastern) side of the atoll. The majority of these wrecks are in 15 ft of water or less, and most wrecks are also in the wave break zone. The wrecks are fantastic to see in aerial photos but not necessarily good wreck diving sites. Due to the dangers of diving these wrecks, and due to the vandalism of the few wrecks in areas that are safe to dive, the regulations of the Chinchorro Biosphere specifically prohibit wreck diving.
Isn’t there any chance to see a wreck?
Well, yes, actually there is. If conditions and time permit, the captain can take you to see a sunken galleon. Tourists are allowed to snorkel at the 40 Cannons wreck site. You can see the huge anchor that this Dutch galleon used over 250 years ago to try to keep off the reef. While snorkeling here, you can see 16 of the original 40 cannons (24 have been stolen by vandals, hence the no diving regulation). You can see ballast stones everywhere on the bottom. The entire debris field of this wreck is in 10 to 15 feet of water. If you’re determined to dive a wreck, the Copper is located at about 60 ft within the diving permitted zone of Banco Chinchorro. However, it is so encrusted with coral that you may not even recognize that it’s a wreck. And it takes a very experienced divemaster to even find it.
So what’s all the fuss about?
As the woman from NOAA observed, it’s the coral!!! Dozens of biologists study the coral formations in Chinchorro every year, and each one comes away spellbound by the fantastic, healthy coral formations. There are barrel sponges the size of Jacuzzis; there is black coral as shallow as 30 ft; there are brain coral colonies the size of VW bugs. Most dive sites in Chinchorro are along sloping or terraced walls and there are fantastic formations waiting to be discovered at any depth. Divers are encouraged to do long “swimming safety stops” because there is so much to be seen even at 15 ft. The diving is easy for even the most inexperienced diver; you just slide off the boat and cruise through the blue wonderland. Between dives, you can enjoy snorkeling along the edge of the fringing reef. Coral formations rise from depths of 10 to 30 feet to within inches of the surface along the edge of the atoll.
Sea life flourishes on the Chinchorro Banks
All the fantastic and unusual inhabitants of the Caribbean coral reef community. Dolphins are frequently seen cruising the edge of the atoll, and pilot whales have been spotted during the deep water crossing from the mainland a few times every year. Divers often encounter spotted eagle rays, stingrays, a variety of sharks, and many species of sea turtles. At many sites divers have spotted the entire contents of the Odd Shaped Swimmers chapter of Paul Humann’s Caribbean fish ID book.
Can you visit the islands?
No, tourists are not allowed onto the 3 small islands without permission of the director of the reserve. You will be on the boat or in the water during the entire trip. If weather and time permits, the captain may cruise by the fishermen’s stilt houses on the edge of Cayo Centro, the largest of the 3 islands. And if there is a lobster or conch quota in progress, you can purchase legally captured fresh seafood at rock bottom prices from the fishing co-operatives’ boats.
Is Chinchorro Banks just a dive destination or can snorkelers go too?
Most dive operators welcome snorkelers as well as divers. During the dives the boat will be anchored in 10 to 30 feet of water along the edge of the atoll. The fringing reef will be an easy swim from the boat. However, you will always be in water too deep to stand. For this reason, biosphere regulations require that all snorkelers use a flotation device. This will allow you to rest comfortably on the surface without standing on the coral. Most divers will spend half of their time in Chinchorro snorkeling between dives.
The best way to ensure that you get to Chinchorro Banks?
Plan an extended stay on the Costa Maya. The more days you have in the area, the better your chances of having good weather and the minimum number of divers to conduct a trip. The calmest months are August through October, however this is also hurricane season. It’s also a good idea to check with an authorized Chinchorro dive operator and see if they have other divers on the calendar for that time period. Local diving along the Costa Maya is also very exciting with lots of variety and most dive operators don’t have a minimum requirement for local diving.
How can you sign up?
You’ve come to the right place, just ask the staff at Locogringo how you can get started in planning your next dive vacation to the Costa Maya.
Our thanks to: Captain Tito Salazar and Divemaster Alejandro Batun for getting us there and keeping us safe, and Steve Dramstad manager of XTC for setting us up for the day and showing us his amazing photos (see link below). And a special thanks to Suzanne and Eric Adamson -owners of the XTC Dive Center. Everything was super smooth, safe and professional. The Tizimin-Ha is a real pleasure to dive from. And finally a big thank you to our neighbors and owners of Sacbe, Dani and Scott, who are great traveling companions and contributed so many excellent photos to this article. We all look forward to returning and doing some diving on Xcalak’s incredible local dive sites in the near future.