Trip Report: 2018 Mayan Summer Expedition to Dive with Crocodiles, Whale Sharks, & Cenotes
On August 10th, 2018 Dive Ninjas adventured to find the lesser seen side of the Riviera Maya and dive with living dinosaurs – the American Saltwater Crocodile. Here’s Jay Clue’s trip report from an amazing week in the jungle!
Diving with crocodiles has been a dream of mine for years now. There is just something alluring about them. A species so perfect at doing it’s job that it hasn’t had to change very much in the last few million years. We are talking living dinosaurs. Reaching lengths of 6.1 m (20 ft), weighing up to 907 kg (2,000 lb), and able to reach speeds of up to 32 kmh (20mph). They hold the record for one of the strongest jaws on earth, with the ability to inflict over 3000 pounds of pressure per square inch with their powerful bite. But when you look beyond these figures you begin to see a very misunderstood creature. One that reminds me of how the public feared sharks as cold blooded killers when I was younger.
Here is an animal that has inhabited earth for over 240 million years. They are more closely related to dinosaurs than they are to their own modern reptile brethren. An animal with one of the most sophisticated hearts in the animal kingdom, an immune system so strong it makes ours look like childs-play, and a brain to match (did you know some crocs actually use tools to hunt?). One of our guests on the trip remarked that they are what became of ancient dragons, and I couldn’t of said it better myself. Standing face to face with them in the water gives you the feeling that these are creatures with ancient wisdom. Their ancestry has seen the rise and fall of so many civilizations before us and will probably be here long after we are gone.
Our trip began in Playa del Carmen, Mexico – a bustling tourist town located in the heart of the Riviera Maya. For this expedition we had a very small group joining us due to the logistics, because we would need to travel by both land and boat throughout the 9 days. We were joined by Ninja Family members: Jessica, Sze Wei, David, Brien, and our close friend Sarah, founder of Girls That Scuba. We all met in the evening for a welcome to town sushi dinner followed by some delicious gelato. Then it was off to bed so we could be up early for our 4.5 hours drive to Xcalak.
Diving in Xcalak, Mexico
The next day would be spent mostly covering the long drive to XTC Dive Center in Xcalak, located at the bottom of Mexico near the Belize border. Going from Playa del Carmen to Xcalak is like jumping in Doc’s DeLorean and shooting back to the way the Riviera Maya was 20 years ago. No giant resorts, no fast food chains, no tourist packed beaches, not even cell phone service. It is one of the last few true paradises left in the Caribbean. After getting settled in the group decided we couldn’t wait any longer before hitting the water. The excitement was too high, so we convinced the shop to take us for a little spur of the moment night dive (to be fair, there was no convincing at all, we asked and they said hell yeah!). The next morning we would go for 4 dives in the Xcalak Marine Park. We had heard rumors of manatees being spotted in the area the last weeks and asked if we could check out the spots where they had been seen. Our (awesome) guide, Auden, was happy to take us searching for them. I’ve personally never seen a manatee so I had my fingers and toes crossed for a glimpse of one. We get to the dive site and within the first 60 seconds of the dive, what is floating there midwater like a giant underwater teddy bear? A manatee! I could hear everyone screaming through their regs in excitement. She only stayed around for a fleeting moment, but my day was made. As we descended further into La Poza we were greeted by the massive schools of huge tarpon that the area is known for. An amazing spectacle to witness these huge 1.5-2+ meter long fish schooled together in the canyon.
Our next dive we set off to the nearby La Pozeta to play in the canyons and swim throughs. As we entered the water Leo, pointed out to me that my camera dome had completely fogged over. I took it with me thinking the cooler water may help it clear up, but no luck. And what do we see? Another manatee within the first 5 minutes of the dive. This one turns and slowly approaches me underwater as if he was curious to what this bubble blowing ninja was. Then at the end of the dive, a family of 7 manatees swims past us on the wall. As you’d expect, in pure Murphy’s law fashion, my dome was still glazed with white fog making it impossible to capture any of these amazing experiences. But Xcalak would smile on me later in the week. Auden and Captain Gallo took us on some great dives that day and they definitely deserve a big shout out.
Diving Banco Chinchorro
The next morning we would wake up super early for a quick breakfast before loading the boat and beginning the 3+ hours crossing to Banco Chinchorro. There was a storm brewing off the coast so it made for a wet and bumpy ride on the crossing. But as we neared Chinchorro the sky began to break, igniting the electric blue waters of this remote reef atoll. The Banco Chinchorro Biosphere was infamous to sailors over the years with some estimates saying it has claimed over 200 ships, but for us it is one of the last remaining untouched reefs in the Caribbean. A place where beautiful giant sponges and coral formations grow, and you will never see another diver underwater besides those in your group. Before heading to our 5 star Chinchorro accommodation (aka the awesome fishing hut built on stilts above the water where we will all be sharing 1 room and sleeping in hammocks), we would do a reef dive to hunt invasive lion fish. I’m not a hunter kind of guy so I left that to the pros, but it did make for some amazing encounters with the local nurse shark population that really wanted a lion fish snack. We spent an entire 60 minute dive with multiple nurse sharks circling around us, bumping into us, rubbing against us, and just following us around as if they wanted to play like excited puppies looking for some lion fish tacos.
After the dive we would head to the fishing hut we would be spending the next 2 days in. Upon our arrival, Gambit – the queen of Chinchorro, a well-known 3.5 meter long female crocodile was already there waiting as if she wanted to welcome us to her island. Our guides, Ernesto & Leo, began quickly setting everything up so that we could get in the water with her. Gambit is a bit of a local superstar, especially with photographers, as she is quite calm & comfortable around humans and makes her presence known by scaring away any other crocs in the area.
The air was filled with excitement as the first 2 got in the water with Gambit for the first time. I will definitely admit I was a little nervous not knowing what to expect getting in the water with a 3.5 meter long dinosaur. But WOW, seeing her come slowly up to us, curious to what we were doing just put me in awe. I’ve been diving with all sorts of apex predators in my career but crocs just have something different about them. They lie motionless staring at you leaving you guessing what they are thinking. At first I thought, maybe she is sizing me up trying to decide whether I was a delicious ninja snack or not. But after a few minutes you could see she was as curious of us as we were of her. She would push forward a little every so often to remind us she was queen of these waters; to a point where my dome was only inches from her pearly white teeth. But all in a completely non aggressive way. It was beautiful, and I was in love. The rest of the day would be spent diving with Gambit and the other crocodiles that came to visit the fishing hut. Affectionately the team has names for almost all of them; scarface, sneaky, niño, killer, and so on… We took turns getting in the water 2 at a time with Ernesto and Leo. Never once feeling the least bit of it being unsafe. It blew my expectations away. After an amazing day with the crocs, the team cooked up a delicious dinner at the fishing hut and we turned on the generator to charge up our cameras for the next day as we got ready to turn in. We spent the night sleeping in hammocks with the ocean breeze blowing through the tiny hut.
The next morning a few of us were up early filled with energy as we watched the sun rise over Cayo Centro igniting the sky in deep purples. We had a quick breakfast and headed off to do an early morning dive at Punta Ernesto, a beautiful site filled with giant sponges. After the dive Ernesto took us to Cayo Centro to see the swamp and mangroves the crocs inhabit on the island as well as a tour of the small fishing houses on land. Afterwards, we jumped back on the boat to head to our humble little hut on the ocean to get ready for more croc action.
As we got ready to get back in the water there were 4 younger crocodiles in the area. They seemed hesitant to approach the waters near the hut worried that Gambit was still in the area. But after a little while 3 of them decide to come in and visit us. These younger crocs were much more excitable and seemed to be constantly moving, only stopping for brief moments to check us out before moving to their next position. It was amazing to see the difference in personality between them and Gambit the day before. Later in the day Gambit would return though scaring them away. It was great to close out the day with her. But there was one moment that really stands out in my mind a brings a smile to my face. At one point Gambit was able to steal a lion fish. She snapped her jaws closed with an echoing slam you could almost feel in the water but then she stood up. Legs fully extended with her chest out and walked away from us. Head held high and tail swinging back and forth just like a happy dog would walk away with his new toy. I hate to use the words cute and silly for a such an amazing animal, but I can think of no other way to describe the behavior of seeing this 3.5 meter long apex predator trot away.
Spending these days in the water with the crocodiles of Chinchorro really opened my eyes to these beautiful animals. It was everything I could of ever wished for and 100 times more. If you ever have the chance to jump on one of these expeditions, go for it. Don’t even hesitate. It will completely change your view of these living dinosaurs. If you want to get out there, give us shout today and we’ll try our best to get you on trip out there next season.
Diving with Manatees
The next day we would do our final 2 dives in Xcalak. Our first dive was at Chimenea, exploring all the gorgeous swim throughs, a massive cathedral, and cracks in the reef. The last dive we decided to go back to look for more Tarpon at La Poza. I spent a good bit of the dive playing with a school of jacks and the big school of tarpon. I was bit bummed out I never got my manatee photos to be honest. And then it happened. I was getting ready to close my strobe arms and start our ascent when I see Ernesto signaling to me about something ahead of us. Could it be that my friendly saltwater bear had returned? I took off swimming to where he as pointing. And there it was. This giant manatee just chilling out, floating near the surface. I slowed my swim to not disturb him and slowly approached. He motioned his front foot, turning slowly towards me as if he wanted to say good bye and thanks for visiting Xcalak. We spent a moment looking at each other eye to eye – me filled with excitement and trying to contain as to not startle this big fluffy water bear and be able to cherish every second of the experience. Then he slowly swam off into the blue. It was the perfect ending to an already amazing few days in Xcalak.
Diving the Dos Ojos Cenote
After our amazing manatee experience we had lunch back at the hotel and then packed up our gear to transfer back to Playa del Carmen. The next day we would head out with Peio and Geraldine to dive cenote Dos Ojos. I spent a good amount of my time living in Playa del Carmen and diving these beautiful and sacred Mayan sinkholes. And Dos Ojos is always a great spot as an introduction to cenote cavern diving. It has some gorgeous light effects, ornate stalactites & formations, and even an open air cave you pop in to see hundreds of bats taking an afternoon nap.
We split into 2 groups and started our first dive on the Barbie line then had a little break for lunch before heading back into the cavern to run the Bat Cave line. Both dives were beautiful to say the least. There’s something so serene and mystical about diving cenotes. The rays of sun light bouncing through the water, the formations of stone built from millennia of slow drops carving through the earths crust, the fragments of ancient civilizations and animals frozen in time – it’s like an underwater looking glass into our distant past.
Snorkeling with Whale Sharks
Our final day of the trip would be spent visiting the gentle giants that congregate off the shores of Isla Contoy every summer. Personally, I have a love hate relationship with this area due to how tourism is handled here. But, I will keep this on a high note and save my gripes for a separate article I am working on. Every summer hundreds of whale sharks visit the waters here following the plankton blooms. It can be a jaw dropping experience. Gigantic whale sharks gliding past you from every direction imaginable while reef mantas dance through the waters around them. We were lucky enough to even catch a few ‘bottle’ feeding – where the whale shark stands vertical in the water, it’s mouth wide open, creating a vortex spinning down from the surface as it pulls the water in. We were even lucky enough to see a very young juvenile cruising by us. It was an incredible end to an amazing week.
Dive Ninja Expeditions and myself would like to thank XTC Dive Center and Yucatan Dive Trek for the great hospitality and amazing week. A massive thank you to Auden for dealing with our nonsense and being an amazing guide. As well as a huge thanks to Ernesto and Leo for the amazing crocodile experiences. If you are ever in Xcalak, I definitely recommend requesting any of those 3 as your guides. Also a big thank you to Peio and Geraldine for the awesome cenote dives. Definitely look them up, they are some of the best in the business. Or give us a shout and we’ll put you in touch with them. Thanks to Javier, Isela, Konrad, Gallo, and the whole crew at XTC for helping organize everything and making us feel at home! I look forward to getting back out there again soon for more up close encounters with these living dinosaurs and all the other great hidden treasures this part of Mexico offers. And last, but no where even near least, a massive thank you to our ninja family that joined us for the week; Jessica (whale shark!), Sze Wei (croc ice!), David (don’t forget to tag me!), Brien (my steak and cake brother!), and Sarah (no, the photos aren’t done yet… haha! #ninjasthattakeforever). You ninjas are amazing and made the trip one I will never forget! We really need a Team Gambit reunion in the near future!
Interested in joining Jay and Dive Ninjas for a future crocodile diving expedition? Shoot us a message or register your interest here and we’ll get you on our waiting list. We’re looking at potentially going back next summer.