Maya Palms House ReefThe Maya Palms House Reef is a great macro night dive right off the Maya Palms Resort. Watch for arrow crabs and moray eels out on night patrol in the reef's narrow canyons.
It's 1 a.m. I've been driving through a lightless world, one of the few remaining black spots on satellite photos of the planet. My exit off 307, the main road that leads from Riviera Maya to Costa Maya and south, flies past in a 120-kilometer-per-hour blur. I turn around and almost miss it again.
Now I'm on the road to Mahahual, a small seaside village where you could disappear and no one would ever question it. It's also the primary launch point to dive the fabled Chinchorro Banks, a mythic dive oasis well offshore of the Yucatán.
The night gets even darker a shooting star lights up the sky like a flare. I make a wish, for flat water and a calm sea. And a little sleep would be nice. Up in the distance, I see what I think is a mirage: a few lights dancing on a dark skein. Or floating. I can't tell. I soon thump across a rope tope, or speed bump, then another. The lights are oil lights in the road, attended in the inky darkness by the military. It's a checkpoint.
"Abra el maletero," I'm told.
I turn off the car, get out and open the trunk.
"¿Lo que esta en el equipaje negro?"
He wants to know what I have in my black hard case.
"Equipo de camara para el buceo," I reply.
He laughs. "¿Es verdad? Abrir."
I open it. No drugs. Nothing illicit. Just a plain old camera housing. I tell him I look shady because I'm tired. Muy cansado. He laughs again and waves me on.
"CHANGE IS A GOLDEN TREASURE" I'm up before the sun. Deep into the night I had prepped my gear for an exploratory adventure on the wrecks of the Chinchorro Banks, wrecks that had been closed to the public until about two years ago. But this morning the palms that line the beach at the Maya Palms Resort bend to the north wind. Whitecaps line the horizon, and a fine mist of salt spray wraps around me. On the beach, I squint into the rising sun and seas as the wind presses my shirt against me. Chinchorro is 28 miles off the coast: I wouldn't see it today.
But as the sun pushes back the dark veil of night, I hear the voice of a friend reminding me: Change is a golden treasure.
I congregate with Maya Palms Resort owners Doug and Catherine Goergens and PADI dive shop manager Ken Wilson to figure out a new game plan. We sit over coffee, Mexican eggs and fresh fruit by the pool, the palms shaking and groaning around us. The resort is modeled after the Maya step pyramids that fill the jungles of the Yucatán, but with an on-site dive shop, turndown service and no blood sacrifices. They tell me about the south and a stretch of undived, unexplored reef. Rumor, really, at this point just fishermen's tales.
Despite the wind-driven waves, we decide to make footprints in the sea. That's the beauty of diving: There are still places to discover. So we board the boat in search of a myth. And just like that, we're off to find golden treasure.
THE OLD MAN AND THE REEF An old fisherman named Ba'Lux lives in a faded-red tin-roof shack in the shade of a copse of palm about 45 minutes south of Maya Palms. Ba'Lux has been living on the beach for decades. Sometimes people don't see him for days; no one on the boat seems to know if he's even still alive. But he chose this site for a reason, and we're about to discover why. The captain tells us this part of the reef is famous for fishing. We can see the bottom, about 80 feet down, parallel reefs with flickers of movement. I'm ripped with excitement. I don't care about the waves, the wind, the change of plans. I'm about to dive a site that has never been visited by man.
At times like this it's good to trust your fellow divers. There could be strong currents, hazards who knows what to expect? I'd never dived with any of my hosts. This would be our come-to-blue-Jesus, a full-on exploratory dive. With only Wilson's years of experience in the region and no knowledge of this site except what we could see from the boat, there wasn't a need for a dive brief save for Wilson's laconic "Please, whatever you do, come back to the boat alive."
And with that, we back-roll into the unfamiliar.
Finger reefs reach out toward the deep water. At 90 feet, a gentle current cradles us and we slowly drift. Between two coral ridges, a green sea turtle settles in. Clearly not used to the strange presence of divers in its secret enclave, the turtle fidgets and lifts up to swim away. But something makes it turn back for a closer look, circling a couple of times before heading to the surface for air. We pass over thickets of gorgonians surrounding brown sponges with halos of bicolor anthias and chromis. Each stretch of reef seems to have a resident gray angelfish pair; in the sand between, garden eels and jawfish rise up to watch us pass. Since we're diving new sites, we ascend just before we go into deco and drift at 15 feet a full three minutes longer than normal.
Back on the boat, the captain shows us a video of a whale shark that passed overhead, which we had all missed. After little debate and a lot of cursing the captain, we mark the site with a handheld GPS and name it Ba'Lux, after the fisherman. Then we head farther south.
FOLLOWING THE FISHERMAN For 30 minutes we revel in the exhilaration of the first dive. Then we start to look again. The local Mahahual captain started life as a fisherman; he had been to the place we were passing as a child. "Era lugar secreto de mi padre," he says, his father's secret fishing site.
"Si." He pauses. "Creo que este sería un buen lugar." He thinks it would be a good site to try. He prosaically calls it Punta Piedra ("Rocky Point").
We pull up at a place he vaguely remembers as "wild with life." Descending to about 90 feet, we almost land on top of a giant stingray. Easily 5 feet across, this stealthy creature was hunting in the sand in a narrow coral canyon. I settle just in front of it with my camera, and we have a kind of stare down, neither of us flinching, even after I get so close we're practically touching noses. I let it win, and our group moves on.
Almost as soon as we ascend into the current, we see a hawksbill sea turtle between the next two spur-and-groove coral ridges. As with the stingray, we are objects of curiosity, a benefit of being new to the reef. The locals have no reason to run when they hear our bubbles. A turtle circles for several minutes, approaching each member of our group one by one, assessing our motives as if it were reading our minds. Apparently satisfied, it saunters into the current where we cannot follow.
SECRETS IN THE JUNGLE The wind had picked up through the night. Clouds rush across the sky as if running from a wildfire. Rough seas mean time to find a land adventure. We head for the tangled green jungle to explore Maya ruins just emerging from their forest cover.
An hour south of Mahahual, Dzibanché which means "written in wood" in Mayan was named for a large wooden lintel discovered on-site at the beginning of its excavation. The expanding third-century Maya site is still being explored by archaeologists. Like our dives, each turn of the spade here reveals new ruins at what is evolving into a complex of more than 30 pyramids and buildings, a place made more important with the discovery of a number of royal tombs. Dzibanché has become famous for its Xibalba Plaza, in honor of the god of the underworld, one of only two such examples yet uncovered at Maya sites. We climb the steps of the mostly excavated Temple of the Owls, which affords a view across a vast landscape of green. Who knows how many other temples lie hidden by this green veil? What I like best about the Dzibanché complex are the unimproved buildings, temples where trees still grow from their steps, buildings with several feet of dirt still covering them and only small pieces revealed. As on our exploratory dives, we are the only ones at this complex way off the tourist trail.
On the way back to Mahahual, nagging appetites force another detour.
Over the years, I've developed a stomach of steel and like to stop at holes-in-the-wall for local cooking. With no fast food available, you have to judge the local eateries and take a risk sort of a gastronomic journey of discovery. In the town of Limones, close to the Mahahual exit, we spot a place with several locals. There is no menu.
"¿Qué tienes?" I ask.
"Pollo, arroz, frijol negro y la cerveza."
Simple. We order "pollo entero, asado" an entire roasted chicken. To our surprise, the poor creature is pulled from a pen, slaughtered and cooked right in front of us while we drink our Pacificos. Despite the raw visuals, the chicken, rice and beans are a balm to hungry souls. For four of us, the bill chases only $14 from our wallets.
Next morning, the waves are still there, and the wind too. So we jump in the boat and motor just offshore to a series of spur-and-groove reefs. Piled with macro creatures, this house reef reveals itself in small measures; even after two dives, I've barely explored 30 feet. Each fin kick discloses arrow crabs, shrimp, octopuses and eels. I no sooner focus on one tiny creature than another pops up next to me. I like diving this way settle in a spot and let the reef inhabitants get used to my presence. I'm not burning many calories, but even the tiny gobies and cleaner wrasse take notice and come up to my mask to see if I am interested in their services.
Before the sunset, we are dry again and swapping tales with the same gusto we had a few days before. Like all dives, even the familiar sites continue to reveal themselves, each plunge bringing a new element to the table.
THE ADVENTURE CONTINUES They say there's nothing more to uncover on our planet, that all the great discoveries have been made, the great explorations done. "They" are not divers. Here in the far southern reaches of the Yucatán, where the imprint of man has left a trail that leads back thousands of years, we were able to press our fins into unknown waters. We saw reefs that had never been explored by divers. We were able to leave a legacy in naming a place that previously had no identity. And we knew that, even just an hour flight from most of the southern United States, we could have dived dozens of other such sites, for weeks and months, perhaps years, and still not have discovered all that awaits.
And that is why we dive.