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Friday, July 2, 2010

Cayo Largo, Part II: Beach Critters

In Cayo Largo Part I I talked about many of the exciting critters that Sarah and I discovered on the resort grounds. Of course, going to a tropical ocean paradise means some ocean exploration is in order, and so we bought ourselves a pair of snorkel sets before we left. The beach in front of our resort, adequately described by the resort name of Playa Blanca, was a beautiful strip of dazzling white sand. While providing lovely scenery and an excellent place to relax or take a casual ocean dip, the pristine water and sand didn't leave much to see through the goggles.

The beach at the Playa Blanca resort (click for larger size).

Our first attempt to find some interesting snorkeling was a trip north along the beach towards a strip of rocks. We decided to go north because we figured the rocks might provide a better sea creature habitat than the plain sand. It turned out, however, that the life supported by the rocks was mainly an extremely slippery gooey green covering. Combined with a strong surf, we ended up getting knocked around and dunked a few times but never did find anything worth putting on the goggles and flippers. Our trip up and back down the beach also involved far more middle-aged man-parts than either of us would have liked, as we discovered that the stretch of beach just beyond the resort was the designated nude beach. I don't know why, but by and large all nude beaches I have seen seem to be nearly exclusively occupied by middle-aged (and older) men. Perhaps the breeze is nice, but I would worry about the possibility of a very painful sunburn.

After our disappointing opening-day trek up the beach, the same helpful couple who told us about the iguana pointed out a few possible places for us to explore: the eastern side of the peninsula that formed the south-western-most beach of Playa Sirena and a small coral reef at the next resort to the south of ours (we had clearly picked the wrong direction to travel on the beach).

Armed with new knowledge of where to go and the promise of seeing giant starfish, we set off the next morning to Playa Sirena. Looking at a map of Cayo Largo you can see in the southwest a pair of beaches called Playa Sirena and Playa Paraiso. These two beaches are common beaches for all visitors to the island - there are no resorts on the beaches, and 'trains' are provided to transport visitors from the resorts to the beaches. I put train in quotations because it is in fact a little car designed to look like a train engine that pulls a set of passenger cars. There were two main trains: one had cars that had rickety roofs while the second pulled a set of uncovered cars. Although the roofs were nice for keeping the hot sun off, they also creaked, squealed, and swayed disconcertingly like they were about to give up and collapse. By far the oddest thing about the trains, though, was that we took them four times in total (out and back once to each beach), and never once did we complete the trip on the train we initially boarded (often we would even have to transfer between the trains multiple times). One of our transfers had a clear and legitimate reason, as the brake line between the second and third car burst, which meant the last two cars no longer had brakes. However, the other three times seemed to be completely random - we would would be riding along when we would suddenly pull over, wait a few minutes in the blistering sun, and then the other train would pull up. Our driver would leap out and gesture wildly at us, and everyone would disembark and transfer trains. Still, the trains were a free service, so one shouldn't complain too much about operating mysteries.

Train car providing transportation to Playa Sirena and Playa Paraiso (click for larger size).

Once we arrived at Playa Sirena we spotted what I felt to be the most upsetting institution on Cayo Largo: swim with the dolphins. I recognize the thrill of interacting with dolphins (one of my favourite memories from my childhood was of swimming with dolphins in the ocean off of New Zealand), but the health of the dolphins needs to factor into any setup. These dolphins were held in a fairly small pen along a stretch of shore, and a significant portion of the pen looked like it was only about knee-deep.

Dolphins performing in their much too small looking pen (click for larger size).

Walking past the dolphins, however, we got to the undeveloped side of the Playa Sirena peninsula. The flora and fauna started off fairly gooey, from tiny underwater forests of algae to small pulsating lumps of jelly on the sand, with the most colourful collection clustered on the rotting stumps of an ancient dock that jutted from the ankle-deep water.

Assorted underwater growth on an old dock pylon (click for larger size).

Although gooey tropical marine life is certainly more exciting than the algae we find in Canada, the conch that Sarah pulled out of the water shortly thereafter was far more exciting. It was also the feistiest conch I've ever seen, wildly flailing about with its foot.

Not long after we put the conch back in the water we reached the tip of the peninsula. We spotted a number of other people in the water snorkeling, so figured there must be something to see. The shore on this part of the peninsula was quite different from the main beaches since the depth dropped quite quickly after only a brief stretch of shallow water, which was fairly convenient for snorkeling. Although the sea floor wasn't covered with bright coral, sporadic vegetation shared the sand with some impressively large starfish and an immense conch. A number of different fish were also swimming about, although they were all a translucent milky white colour that made them quite difficult to pick out. However, when I ended up in the middle of a small school I finally had a chance to catch a few pictures of fish.

White fish off the coast of the Playa Sirena peninsula. If anyone can identify the species, it would be much appreciated (click for larger size).

Continue reading: Part III: More Beach Critters