Nature’s simmering anger

The famous arch at Cabo

There had been reports in Cabo San Lucas, on the Western peninsula of Mexico, that a hurricane known as ‘Odile’ was approaching. On a Sunday morning, having had three days of beautiful weather and relaxation, we awoke to an unusual sight from the balcony window – there was no ‘loose’ item in view. Every sunlounger, table and umbrella had been taken away. The storm was coming, at this time category 3, and strong winds were expected.

However, given recent reports that the hurricane would pass by at a distance, the effect anticipated was one of inconvenience and light damage. The sky looked cloudy, but not unusually so (to a British man…) and the sea, whilst whipped into a foam of waves and surge, was not threatening to breach further inland. The morning passed without incident.

It was around 1pm, sat in the garden area of the local spa, that the World began to change. One drop of rain was followed by three, and then without a seconds warning a tumult of water began to pour from an instantly blackened sky. The wind, previously no more than a breeze, rapidly gained tempo and within seconds chaos ensued. Such was the power of the storm that the rain was not actually able to hit the ground, but rather was whipped vertically back up into the air by the wind, thrown horizontally and swirled like a vortex. Within two minutes of the rain and the wind, all power went down and we were plunged into an unseasonal darkness. It was time to flee.

Taking shelter in a large auditorium only provided temporary reprieve – the ceiling began to collapse piece by piece as the winds began to reach their 135mph, now category 4, speed. Water began to pour with a disconcerting consistency through the now exposed holes in the roof, and with that we fled down into the staff kitchens below the resort. It was here that, with the howling sounds of destruction all around us, we waited out the storm, water dripping through the floors of the rooms above into the underground staff complex below. People were panicked, people were scared, and perhaps most terrifyingly people had no control over what was happening anymore.

Emerging 24 hours later was akin to the opening scenes of the movie ‘28 Days Later’ – an eerie stillness and quiet belied the sight of roof tiles strewn across the ground, uprooted trees, broken windows and scattered possessions. The Sea of Cortez, well known for its clarity by scuba divers, was entirely brown to the horizon. There was no power, no communications, no roads to transport supplies or messages. After five days of sitting and waiting, the Mexican military began to evacuate individuals to anywhere they could possibly find them space, looting and rioting inevitably following the storm with food and water in short supply. Fires burned in previously populated areas. Life will return to normal in Cabo, but not for many months, possibly years.

Travellers see many incredible sights, and often find themselves awestruck at what nature has crafted. Let us not forget, however, that nature’s palate often includes the deep red colour of raw power and destruction, and She is still perfectly capable of using it.

The destriction wrought by Odile

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They’re closer than you think…

diving in

It had been a week in December quite unlike any other, mainly due to the fact that this week in December 2013 was being spent in the sunny climes of eastern Mexico and not the dreary bleakness of Nottingham, England.  A week in a top-end all-inclusive had led to itchy feet, feet which hadn’t felt the awkward rubber of fins for a few months, and it proved to be too much – I had to get wet (without involving alcohol).

There is a well reputed, albeit predominantly French, dive operation on the Mexican coast called Phocea and being impulsive I decided without too much research that they were the ones to look after us.  Having been used to diving in Egypt for the past few years, it was with great pleasure that this turned out to be a more Fijian experience with the divers cramming into a small, informal vessel and back-rolling in to the water (thereby avoiding the potentially groin-crushed ‘giant stride’ method pictured above (Marsa Alam, Egypt, 2013) and feeling a little more James Bond).  The two dives turned out to be real unexpected gems, with bountiful coral, turtles aplenty, American rays (new to us, having never dived in this continent) and some great macro life.  It was the third dive, however, that was the game changer.

Sharks prefer to hang below and behind...

Sharks prefer to hang below and behind…

We arrived back at the bustling “Playa del Carmen” beach, heaving with sun-seeking, volleyball playing tourists and locals alike.  The dive boat had to navigate around frolicking holidaymakers in the shallows.  A number of the divers jumped out, but some stayed behind.  “Is it pretty much guaranteed?,” I asked the divemaster incredulously.  “Let’s just say, yesterday, we saw 8” he replied in Frenglish.  I’d heard that sort of thing before.  “Where are we going?” I asked.  “About 400 metres out from the beach,” he gestured, vaguely waving his arm out to sea.  I went along with it.

We zipped out for only a couple of minutes, the beach very much in sight, still within swimming distance, and descended.  We dropped to 20 metres, and waited.  We didn’t wait long.

The unmistakable, barrel-torpedo silhouette began to emerge from the edge of the visibility, winding through the kicked-up sand slowly and purposefully.  There were, perhaps, 10 of us but only two, including myself, were looking in the right direction.  A three metre apex predator, a bull shark, wound to within feet of us before turning away and losing itself in the murky distance.  Soon after, another appeared from another direction, and then another, and for twenty minutes there was rarely a point where at least one bull shark was not on the groups radar.  Bulky, blunt-nosed and narrow-eyed, a tarnished silver colour occasionally tinted with black, more and more of these stunning creatures began to swim amongst us.  At the point of ascent, no less than 7 sharks were around us in all directions, never threatening, but ever curious, as highly aware of us as we were of them.  Once surfaced, with some of the less shark-familiar divers in more of a rush to get off the surface than others, I glanced back down into the blue but I had lost them.

Every year, from November to February, bull sharks amass in this same spot off the coast of one of Mexico’s busiest tourist spots.  Every year, hundreds of humans splash around in the shallows less than half a kilometer from dozens of bull sharks.  They have absolutely no idea what is out there, but the proof is in the fact that there are never incidents of attack despite the close proximity and the feckless antics of the watersporting tourists.  To surface from sharing an experience with these stunning animals is an incredibly cathartic experience – we can share our world provided we offer the same respect to the sharks that they offer to us in leaving us alone year after year, despite our intrusion into their territory.

I would encourage anyone to visit the Project Aware website to learn more about shark conservation and protection.

VIDEO of the dive with a Bull Shark – Bull Shark, Mexico 2013

Bull shark