It’s been nearly a month since I returned to the Mexican Caribbean coast, and I still haven´t gone in the water. Not into the sea, nor into any cenote. It´s funny how something that used to seem so pressing no longer interests me. Especially since it was the waters that made me fall in love with Quintana Roo 10 years ago. Because just below the surface I discovered wildlife that thrived with a richness and diversity I had never imagined.
A snorkel mask was enough to meet thousands of fishes in dozens of varieties, all of them colorful or interesting in their own way. Each one special- from the fearsome but harmless barracudas and morays, to those absurd Damselfish, so ferocious and aggressive but equally harmless because they´re so tiny. Parrotfish, Surgeonfish and Porkfish were all abundant and seemed to exist for the sole purpose of inspiring awe. I swam with turtles and rays every morning before going to work. I lived the dream.
It was the love for these creatures that changed the course of my life. My parents bought me an underwater camera so they could see the wonders I kept telling them about, and so I began to document them all.
But the years passed and the wildlife began to vanish. Those crystal clear waters became turbid with algae. And even the Sergeant Majors, those ubiquitous little fish which were like pigeons of the sea, became rare. Schools that used to number in the hundreds, or thousands, were reduced to a few individuals. Rarely did I see more than 20, and most days I counted less than 10.
And so when I left this coast 11 months ago, it was not hard. What I had once loved had died, or was moribund. And worst of all, it was all still so beautiful that those who did not know it earlier don´t even realize the reef is suffocating. As long as the waters remain that impossible turquoise blue, the tragedy below the surface will go unnoticed- at least by most people.
I think that is why I haven´t been in the water; because of the great sadness I felt the last few times I tried it. When something which one caused us joy becomes painful, its easy to quit. A month ago, just before returning to Quintana Roo, my parents offered to buy me another waterproof camera. I turned it down. “I don´t do that anymore,” I said.
Instead of checking in on the reef, this time I have discovered the jungle.
The jungle isn´t as easy as the reef was. Walking along trails I am aware of animals that surround me, but I cannot see. As much as I focus on the footsteps, flapping of wings and even songs, that massive wall of vegetation keeps me from spotting my spotters. Instead of soothing my skin with water´s caresses, I dive into a sea of relentless mosquitos undeterred by layers of repellent and long sleeves. Instead of exiting the water refreshed, I come out of the jungle exhausted.
And yet, it is because of these same difficulties that I enjoy even more each treasure discovered between branches- the eyes of a bird watching me in silence, the ephemeral flower that is a resting butterfly, the defiant burst of color of a tiny mushroom bursting erect from the rotting floor.
Frankly, I prefer the simplicity of floating over clear waters. However, making ones way between thorns, spider webs and mosquitos is not without rewards.
And finding a wild orchid in bloom moves me in the same way as coming face to face with a sea turtle.
The heart jumps and time stands still.
Everything else fades and the senses converge and focus with the only purpose of enjoying a moment of communion with this other strange and beautiful being.
The emotions are the same.
The difference is in the process. There are things we enjoy because of the ease and abundance with which they are made available to us: the air we breathe, a full moon. Others we treasure for opposite reasons: a diploma, a partner. Both are important. Both nourish and transform us.
A few years ago when my father came to visit me on this coast, I thought it odd that it took him several days to get into the water, and then only did so briefly. And yet I know he enjoyed that trip and remembers it fondly. I now realize that what he enjoyed was something much deeper than what I tried to show him.
Its been 10 years since I arrived on these shores for the first time. And I´m still discovering new wonders every day.
David Nuñez is a biologist, photographer and author of several books on the Wildlife of the Mexican Caribbean, as well as a founding member of Mexiconservación.