The night watches are peaceful; however, today we saw more boats around us than ever, most of them much bigger than the Ranger. A cruise ship passed close by us at full speed and we could clearly see all the deck lights and its passengers dancing in the disco; it may have benn heading for Fort Lauderdale ( Florida ) just like us.
At dawn we can see in the distance a line that sketches, through the morning fog, Cuba's silhouette. The night has been calm and the morning begins the same. This allows us to observe from the Ranger's deck that between the floating sargassum we can see the small fish that take refuge underneath. Others blend in, like the Sargassum pipefish (Syngnathus pelagicus).
Finally we are able to leave Isla Mujeres. We head to Florida with the hope of stopping along the way at least once to dive.
One of the things that has surprised me the most on this trip is that, contrary to what I had thought, in this area of the planet the ocean is like an enormous blue desert.
On the longest crossings we barely see any birds or fish, only cruise ships and container ships. Probably the great depths in this area, and the oceanographic conditions, do not allow for rich marine life near the surface in the Honduran, Belizean and Mexican Caribbean.
A small tern accompanies us, winging across our wake; little by little it reaches our prow where it pauses for a few minutes to rest. It takes off and disappears into the horizon.
In the afternoon we have the good luck to catch a common bonito (Sarda sarda). We are glad to know that tonight we'll be eating fresh fish. We clean it and prepare it with onions. At this point, we may have filled our large fish quota for the next two weeks. Because of the high levels of mercury in tuna and similar species all over the world, health authorities advise against consuming these fish more than once or twice a month. Oceana has launched a campaign to raise awareness of this problem, to call for mandatory labeling of these fish as dangerous, and to put an end to mercury releases by chlorine plants (details about the campaign are on our website).
Still we cannot leave Isla Mujeres. We use the time to buy groceries and prepare tortillas de patatas (potato quiche). During the meal we laugh, remembering a few choice moments of the days past at Cayos Cochinos. For example, when we had completed the study of salinity, etc., and were returning to the base, all of a sudden David looked back and saw that, while our dingy was happily secured to the Ranger's stern, surprise! - the dingy's motor had decided to do its own dive and was completely submerged, fastened to the boat only by the security cord.
The alarm was given; the captain stopped the motors. We launched Operation-Rescue-Overboard-Motor, this motor having a particular determination to see the bottom of the ocean, for something similar had happened in Panama. Finally, we managed between us to get our little motor floating again: Houssine (our photographer on board) dove in to coax it firmly back to the surface. Over our fright and happy - since the motor, once cleaned with fresh water, had started working again - we caught our breath and continued on our way.
Now that we have time to look back on our expedition we realize how fortunate we are to be part of this extraordinary adventure -- extraordinary not only because of what we are doing but because of the people working so hard each day to make all of it possible. I don't want to try to list names because I'm sure I would forget someone, but I also don't want to end this section of the journal without mentioning the exceptional crew of which I've had the luck to be a part.
We are taking refuge from the storm in Isla Mujeres, Mexico. It is only 10 kilometers from the coast of Cancun. The island is 7.5 kilometers long and 500 meters wide. Yesterday the port was closed to maritime traffic because of the bad weather.
In March of 1517 the Spanish expedition of Francisco de Córdova described the island, which was then a sanctuary for the figure of the goddess Ixchel and her entourage, small figures of women, on the island's beaches. For this reason, the island was known from then on as Isla Mujeres (Island of the Women).
Sadly, we leave the Honduran Keys without having had the chance to visit the local Garifuna communities. The ambitiousness of our work agenda and the bad weather has prevented it.
The Garifuna are descendents of the African slaves who, across the vicissitudes of history, established themselves in this area of Honduras but maintained their ethnic and cultural heritage.
Today we documented a zone of mud and fine sediment situated between the protected area of the Cayos Cochinos archipelago and the Honduran continental coast. This is the site of a good deal of illegal trawling, for many of the shrimping boats do not respect the legal fishing distance from the coast.
These areas are rich in green algae, like those of the genus Caulerpa as well as "chupachups" (Rhipocephalus phoenix) and a few spots of marine sea grass. Afterwards, we returned to Mariposales.
This time we did find crinoids, or feather stars, something which we have been wanting to document since we began the expedition. These echinoderms are spectacular and, inevitably, pull our imagination toward Jurassic times, the era in which they dominated a many marine ecosystems. On this occasion it is a black and white crinoid (Nemaster grandis). A little further, another echinoderm, in this case a cushion sea star (Oreaster reticulatus).
Today seems to be the day of the invertebrates; we've also seen bearded fireworms (Hermodice carunculata), a few anemones that we haven't yet identified, and we paused to film in greater detail a few corals and a giant barrel sponge (Xestospongia muta) - but a small one.