To get to the Gulf of Mexico from South Africa is a very long haul flight that takes almost thirty hours. However, if you really hunt for good airplane tickets, then you can get there with Lufthansa and only one stop in Frankfurt before heading to Cancun.
We arrived around 9pm in Cancun and had to make our way to the little Island of Isla Mujeres (which is Spanish for Female). The ferry ride took less than an hour, and there were a lot of eagerly awaiting Mexicans with their bicycles to assist with our luggage to our hotel. As Colin and I are both divers and photographers, our luggage was not the lightest and we were incredibly grateful when there was someone friendly and helpful to assist us with all our gear!
By the time we arrived at the accommodation, it was after 10pm and we were absolutely exhausted from the flight. All we wanted to do was get to bed and spend the next day getting our camera gear together. The owner of the boat company was also the owner of the hotel, and when he heard that we had arrived, he contacted us immediately and told us to get our gear ready because the next day was going to be an epic day at sea. His enthusiasm on the phone motivated us to gather the last bit of energy we had left and put everything together for our 6am departure the next morning.
We were greeted the next morning by a very excited American, who we found out was the owner of Keen M International – Blue Water Encounters, and we knew that it must have been a great day to look for Sailfish because he was going to take us out personally! The harbour was just around the corner from the hotel and it was already bustling with excitement and anticipation for what lay ahead for everyone that day. Our boat was a really comfortable 36ft Express boat called Lilly M that we later discovered was named after the owner’s daughter.
We had to go a fair distance out to sea before we saw any activity, and we managed to jump in with our first bait ball around 9am. The Frigate birds were circling around and one could see some sardine activity in the water. Still jet lagged, but using our skills from swimming with Blue whales, we swam right into a bait ball with feeding Sailfish. It felt like I had been dropped into the middle of a documentary! My camera was used as a shield to protect myself from a Sailfish bill that sometimes came in a little too close for comfort, especially when the sardines were seeking shelter right next to me! Sailfish are the fastest swimming fish in the ocean, and can obtain speeds of up to112km/hr.
As they swam past, the iridescent colours on their body changed from blue to violet. Apparently this is a form of communication that Sailfish use to signal to each other. The Sailfish would swim through the bait ball and split up the group, making it easier to stun the fish with its bill and then catch and swallow its prey. Both the bait ball and school of Sailfish would disappear into the depths below and we would have to get back on the boat and chase down another bait ball. Luckily the skipper, Anthony, had many years’ experience looking for Sailfish and he knew exactly what size bait ball was needed for a good encounter. Once this was established, he strategically placed us near the activity and we had to slowly get in the water and swim up to where the birds where flying overhead. We had at least 5 great encounters that day and got some amazing shots and videos of Sailfish in action.
Up close and personal with a Sailfish
A baitball of sardines
We were not the only ones that had great encounters that day, but other Keen M clients that were out game fishing also caught some fish. We were invited back to the harbour that night for a barbeque and to sample some of the game fish that was caught. I must admit that I do not eat much fish, but even I enjoyed the taste of freshly caught oceanic triggerfish!
We had to book the boat from South Africa for at least five days to ensure that we managed to get our encounter with some Sailfish. Hitting the jackpot on the first day made the rest of the days seem fairly mediocre. We did, however, manage to get in the water with Atlantic spotted dolphins on one of the days later that week. I noticed that they were hanging around the boat as we were trawling looking for Sailfish, so I decided to don my fins and see if I could get some underwater shots. This was yet another truly amazing experience because there were six in total and they were very curious and interested in me once I jumped in. I thought I had scared them away when I first entered the water, but they had just regrouped in front of me, and as I started snorkelling away from the boat I saw a wall of dolphin faces staring right at me. They all then swam past me, and carried on coming around and swimming past again and again. The interaction lasted for several minutes. Colin, who saw all the fun I was having, decided to jump in the water and join me. Even though he was right next to me, his experience was very different to mine, and he did not get much interaction with the dolphins. This could have been attributed to the colour of my Ikelite camera housing that I was holding. It was clear in colour and possibly resembled that of a jelly fish.
After a good 20 minutes in the water, the dolphins bid us farewell and disappeared into the open ocean. The ocean presents itself in truly magical ways! Unfortunately it was out of season, but snorkelling with Whale sharks and cage diving with Makos can also be done. On occasion Manta Rays can be seen, and although we didn’t manage to snorkel with any, we did see one leap out of the water.
The streets of Isla Mujeres are vibey, the Mexican food is tasty, and when the wildlife show up for some encounters, it makes for an incredible vacation never to be forgotten!!