Also known as the Great Maya Reef, the Mesoamerican Reef is the world’s second largest reef system next to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and lies just offshore from Cancun and the Riviera Maya in Mexico, stretching more than 600 miles south along the coast. This complex ecosystem is a marvel to behold, with Mother Nature and Father Time working hand in hand to create the stunning coral structures.
“Dazzling arrays of different types of coral form this underwater wilderness, and provides homes and food to hundreds of fish species, marine turtles and sharks,” writes the World Wildlife Fund. “Along the shores, mangroves provide habitat for fish and shorebirds.”
While the scenic beauty of the Riviera Maya’s coastal towns and villages make this region one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations, the underwater realm inhabited by the Mesoamerican Reef is one of the world’s most fantastic places to snorkel or scuba dive.
“Adjust your mask, take a breath and roll overboard,” writes National Geographic. “The reef is a teeming city of hard corals, soft corals, fire corals, lace corals, brain corals, staghorn corals, sea whips, sea fans, sea grapes, coralline algae and sponges.”
The concentration of life is astonishing and the spectrum of colors easily surpasses anything we experience on land. Almost luminescent, many of the creatures seem otherworldly as they take refuge in the alleyways and tunnels of this massive coral city, which is one of the largest structures on earth to be built by living things. In addition, scientists identify hundreds of new species that make the reef their home every year, creating an ongoing sense of mystery. Other creatures commonly seen either perched atop or in holes along the reef’s surface while diving in Mexico’s Riviera Maya include clams, crabs, shrimp, sea cucumbers and sea worms of stunning diversity, while schooling fish in an extravagant array of electric hues swim merrily above.
Click here to read more about world-class scuba diving along the Great Maya reef near Isla Mujeres in Mexico’s Riviera Maya!
Although the reef is threatened– like all reefs in the world - by ocean acidification and climate change, during the summer of 2014 the International League of Conservation Photographers partnered with Mexico’s own Comunidad y Biodiversidad (COBI) to promote sustainable practices in the region, including the establishment of no-take fish refuges to allow depleted populations the necessary time to recover, along with teaching eco-conscious fishing practices in other areas.
For example, throughout the Riviera Maya visitors and locals alike are always ready to enjoy a fancy dinner of the delectable Caribbean Spiny Lobster, but the popularity of consuming these local sea creatures has caused alarm among marine biologists, who hope to preserve the species for future generations. This is especially a concern during the off-season, when fishing for the Caribbean Spiny Lobster is not recommended. As a result, tourists are encouraged to ask restaurants for sustainable lobster when ordering, and many local fishermen have been making strides toward sustainability.
“South of Cancun in the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, the Punta Herrero commercial fishing cooperative consists almost entirely of men fishing for the Caribbean Spiny Lobster,” writes the BBC. “The fishermen free-dive for lobsters, using small concrete hutches to attract and shelter the lobsters so they can be harvested by hand. This method decreases the amount of by-catch and reduces the impact to the reef.”
The bottom line? No visit to Cancun, Playa del Carmen or Tulum is complete without an excursion out to sea that allows you to experience the Great Maya Reef. Other popular towns and villages along this amazing stretch of coastline in the Mexican Caribbean include Puerto Morelos, Cozumel and Puerto Aventuras, but no matter where you go after landing at the Cancun International Airport, the scenery, flavors and historic beauty of Mexico’s Riviera Maya is sure to bring you back again and again.