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September 2009    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 35, No. 9   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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The Sailfish of Isla Mujeres

from the September, 2009 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

One unique underwater event that doesnít get much publicity is the winter schooling of sailfish off Cancun. John Kontnik (Lakewood, CO) and his wife dived there in February and reports:

It was the real deal but one of the roughest trips we have done. There are lots of sailfish but getting into the water with them is the trick. We spent seven days on a 33-foot boat in big seas with 10- to 12-foot waves, looking for the schooling sailfish. You leave the dock at 6 a.m. and return about 4 p.m.; a long day on a small boat. No bathroom -- all your business is done off the back of the boat. Poor food -- I hope I never see a ham and cheese sandwich on white bread again, as we had them for breakfast and lunch. There is a great deal of competition between the two snorkel boats and the 50-plus fishing boats in the same waters. We are all looking for the same thing -- flocks of birds near the surface.

Once you spot the birds, everyone rushes to the site. If you get there late, youíre out of luck. Because the snorkelers are getting in the water, you can only hope the bait ball is slow-moving. If it isnít, you canít get in the water. You can go days without getting wet. However, if you get lucky with a calm day and not much competition, itís spectacular. We had one such day. We jumped in the water and when the bubbles settled, there had to be 20 sailfish herding a small bait ball. The sardines approach you looking for shelter and the sailfish follow. I found myself 18 inches from the sailfish but they didnít seem to be upset by my presence at all. This went on for 30-plus minutes, then for several more times that day.

Other encounters on other days would last from less than a minute to several minutes. Most action was on or near the surface, because the sailfish herded the bait fish there, so tanks werenít really necessary; we snorkeled and free dived. There seemed to be a protocol between the fishing boats and snorkel boats: 10 to 15 minutes, then get out of the way.

We were fortunate to have had that one special day. Other people we met had made the commitment of four weeks-plus on the boat because of the random nature of the encounters. Both of us came home with bangs and bruises from the rough seas but you play, you pay. Go with full knowledge that you may strike out but if you hit a home run, itís out of the ballpark.

Amos Nachoum arranges trips ( but we thought the whopping $7,900 per person for nine days too expensive, so we did it for half as much. We stayed at Hotel Playa la Media Luna (a little outdated but convenient to the dock and downtown), which cost around $1,100, double occupancy, for eight nights. Four of us chartered the boat for $10,950, or $3,550 each. We used Keen M Sports Fishing for the boat (; only a couple of boats do the sailfish snorkel thing. We rented a golf cart for $65 a day to carry gear. Yes, it was pricey, but I was able to put together a 15-minute video with some great stills my wife shot. When we watch it, we still get chills.

P.S.: Isla Mujeres itself is fun and funky. We were lucky to be there during their Carnival, and lots was going on in town. Not that we stayed out late: I was so tired that the bed looked good at 9:30.

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