Early January, 2012 – The holiday throngs in Huatulco’s towns and beaches disappeared abruptly on the Monday after New Year’s, and instantly the intimate and dreamy charm of the Bays of Huatulco returned. We were back to our very quiet and peaceful days of milling around the bay under the tropical sun.
Below the surface of the water, however, newcomers were showing up all the time — or at least they were newcomers to us.
We had been doing lots of snorkeling throughout our stay in Huatulco, and we’d checked out the underwater landscapes in several bays. Our new waterproof Olympus Digital Camera TG-820 was a real joy, and we loved playing with it in the water.
Groovy always has a complete ecosystem living on the undersides of the hull, rudder and keel, including stuff that looks like lettuce, gelatinous creatures that look like a thin film of clear jello, tiny crabs and adorable minuscule striped fish. Below them a crowd of larger fish circles eternally, and we hear strange crunching noises all night long. Even when we go out sailing, our little fan club of fish regathers under the hull when we return, grateful for our shade and our smorgasbord of goodies growing on the bottom.
Besides watching our own resident fish, the best place we’ve found for snorkeling in all of the Bays of Huatulco is Playa la Entrega. This fabulous beach is in the main bay of Santa Cruz and seems an unlikely place for such phenomenal snorkeling, given how close it is to the village and harbor.
Its huge coral reef is roped off to boat traffic and is filled with canyons and caverns and very tame fish. Crowds of eager snorkelers arrive by tour boat everyday and more crowds come on foot, by taxi or by car from town.
So these fish are quite accustomed to flailing fins and bright orange life jackets and kids paddling their arms frantically at the surface. They just move out of the way and keep doing what they do.
Polka dotted puffer fish are very common, but they are usually deflated to just their normal size. What a surprise it was when another snorkeler held out an inflated puffer fish for everyone around to see. It was like a little football in her hands.
We got a huge kick out of trying to learn to photograph fish underwater. Problem is, they dart around so fast. We have gazillions of photos of swishing fish tails disappearing into the distance.
But occasionally we’d get lucky. The king angel fish are gloriously colored, with a dark body that is trimmed in an iridescent outline of blue that you can see only when the sun hits it just right.
Other fish are trimmed with glitter all over too. Brilliant, flashing bits of blue, like blue sequins, seem to be a very popular fashion in this underwater world.
Many of the reef fish are just the size of a fingernail, and they move like lightning!
Other very large creatures play in the depths in Huatulco too. Every so often, while snorkeling along, we’d look up and see the fins and tanks of other people in the water — or we’d suddenly see each other after going in different directions. But being with other people in this amazing pool of aquatic life never marred the experience.
Sometimes it was more fun to have other people around to share a little in the excitement. We definitely felt like Jacques Cousteau’s explorers from his boat Calypso!
One of the amazing things to me was that many fish seem to prefer to stick together in tight groups. I’d be swimming along, and suddenly a fleet of identical fish would sail by — quietly making their presence known in the ‘hood — kind of like a street gang.
Sometimes I’d be staring at a few solitary fish swimming around a coral head, watching them pecking at whatever yummy morsels they could find, and then there they’d be: The Gang. They’d saunter by like they owned the place.
I noticed the gangs would never intermingle. Each gang would go its own way around each other, and the individual fish never got confused or got caught up with the wrong group.
One day while snorkeling near the boat, a school of fish came zooming by us like their tails were on fire. What the heck?! Something was after them! Not too many minutes later we saw an enormous spotted eagle ray soaring along the bottom.
This unusual creature was like a bird flying low along the bottom of the sea, sweeping its wings in a gentle but powerful motion. Then I saw a second one.
They flew along together for a while and then parted again. I was so grateful to have the waterproof camera with me!
So it was particularly frustrating a few days later when I jumped in the water and discovered the camera had locked up. None of the buttons would work. Mark couldn’t come snorkeling because he had cut his knee badly when he was re-routing some wires in the boat earlier and had inadvertently taken a step back and fallen into an open bilge compartment, skinning his knee terribly in the process. Ouch. I wince now ever thinking about it.
So he took the camera to see what he could do with it. “This will be the day you see something really awesome!” He chuckled at me as I swam off. I was really bummed not to have him with me and not to have the camera, but the wonderful steep rocks at the end of the point beckoned me, and I hoped I’d have a story or two to share with him later. There was lots of wave action out at that point that and tons of tour boats were circling as well. I was excited but a little unnerved as I snorkeled beyond familiar territory.
Then, rounding the last corner, I suddenly found myself nose to nose with a sea turtle. Holy cow! I spluttered and backed up as fast as I could. And so did he! He turned and started to swim out to sea. I couldn’t resist following him a ways. The spray from the breakers made the water foamy white all around me, but every so often I could see his head peaking out of the spray as he swam off.
Unfortunately he wanted to go into the middle of the bay, so I turned back, only to see another turtle, right at my side! Holy mackerel! I followed him for a while, thinking, “Isn’t this just the way. Alone, no camera, and two turtle sightings! Wait til I tell Mark!” The turtle swam at leisure, turning his head to look up at me every so often. Then he dove down — to join another turtle that was below him nibbling on the anchor chain of our friend’s boat! This was too much!!
I watched them swim with each other for a while and then made a beeline back to our boat, only to bump into a fourth turtle which turned out to be my best turtle sighting yet. This one soared over the coral studded bottom in very shallow water as the sun’s rays played all around him. I could make out the beautiful pattern on his shell and could have easily reached out and touched him. On his back a school of bright yellow fish with tiger stripes nibbled at his shell, catching a ride and a meal to go. We swam together for a glorious five minutes or so, and he never showed any concern about me, the fish on his back or anything else. Just happy to be alive.
When I got back to the boat I was beside myself telling Mark my story, wishing he had been there, wishing the camera hadn’t broken, and just talking and talking and bursting with my thrilling news. When I finally quieted down for a minute he said, “Well, you’ll be glad to know I fixed the camera!!” What??!!!! “I got it working just a few minutes after you left. I tried to call you back, but you were too far away….” Ohhhh oh oh oh oh!!!
He handed the camera back to me and I rushed off again, wanting to know how he fixed it but wanting to find my turtles again too. They were still out there — sightings 5 and 6 for the day — and I got a few photos to share with Mark that evening. But the image that will forever stay in my mind is that one of the turtle floating along over the colorful coral heads with the vibrant yellow fish hovering above him and nibbling goodies from his shell…
I found out that night that even though we had rinsed the camera thoroughly after each underwater use, the zoom button had gotten gummed up from a buildup of salt. The camera was stuck in “zoom” mode and was too busy zooming to respond to any other buttons. Mark sprayed the zoom button with “Salt Terminator,” a product we use to flush the salt out of our outboard engine before storing it. Experimenting over the next few days, we found that the zoom felt a little sticky if we only rinsed it with fresh water, but if we used the Salt Terminator or even a little dishwashing soap, it came out sparkling clean and the zoom button retracted smoothly, as it was supposed to.
The underwater world of Huatulco has been such a thrill for us this season. Fortunately, Mark’s knee has healed up nicely now, so with any luck we’ll spot a turtle or two together next time…