Manchones National Park - Isla Mujeres
Updated: Aug 13
If you are looking for a relaxed Caribbean Sea experience, with crystal clear turquoise waters, very little current, amazing visibility, lots of colourful fish, turtles, rays, and much more this is the right place for you!
Conditions are perfect here for a dive learning environment or certified dive, snorkel tour, or a romantic sunset cruise.
From the outset of tourist development, the natural marvels of the Quintana Roo region have been protected and managed. The Marine and Fauna Refugee zone was established in 1973, being one of the world’s first protected areas. Later, in 1996 the area was decreed a National Marine Park and became a National Park in 2000.
All these measures have helped protect these areas largely from overfishing and tourist development and have helped preserve so much of the natural beauty to be enjoyed today.
The Marine Park is divided into three poligonias (Manchones, Punta Nizuc, and Punta Cancun), covers 8673 hectares of marine area, and is near the starting point for the Mesoamerican reef system; the second largest barrier reef in the world, stretching nearly 1126km (700 miles).
The Mesoamerican reef system is commonly known as the Great Mayan Reef because of its location. It extends along 4 countries' coasts, starting at Isla Contoy in Mexico, down through Guatemala, and Belize and stretches to the Bay Islands of Honduras. The reef system includes many important protected areas, national parks, and reserves. UNESCO declared this Mesoamerican reef system a World Heritage for Mankind.
The protection that this reef gives to the coastal communities in hurricane season is invaluable.
Manchones National Park, located just off Isla Mujeres, has an average depth of around 10 meters (30ft) which is ideal for coral growth. The colours are magnificent, ideal conditions for diving, photography, and snorkeling.
The national park boasts an abundance of marine life with more than 65 species of stony corals, 350 species of mollusk, and more than 500 species of fish, such as barracudas, angel fish, and snappers to mention just a few. A great way to see what fish are common and reported in this area is to go to reef.org and check out the reports of each dive site. You can click here to see what has been surveyed on Manchones Reef.
Loggerhead turtles are also common during their mating season here and are a protected species along with the Green and Hawksbill turtles.
The coarse, sandy bottom and reef formations provide excellent habitat for nurse sharks, sting rays, lobster, and crabs. Parrot fish are in abundance and are of incredible importance to the Caribbean which we will discuss below.
There are over 800 meters of reefs within the Manchones National Park. The predominant coral is elkhorn and stag horn. This coral was devastated by hurricane Wilma in 2005 which lead to the construction of MUSA, to help alleviate diver damage and stress to the already damaged reef.
Elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata) is a fast-growing coral and an important reef-building coral in the Caribbean. The structure resembles that of elk antlers, hence the name. The branching structure of the coral creates habitat and shelter for many reef species. While this coral was dominant in the early 80s, the population has declined by nearly 97% since then. This is due to many factors such as disease, algae growth, climate change, ocean acidification, human activity, and, in the case of Manchones Reef, hurricane damage. Both Elkhorn coral and staghorn coral (Acropora cervicornis) have been placed on the Endangered Species Act as of 2006.
Much is now being done to conserve these species such as coral farming. Fragments of the coral are collected from the reef, raised in farms in clonal propagation until mature, and then installed at a restoration site. It is not uncommon to come across new coral plantations within the reef.
Caribbean corals have declined by 50% since the 50s and within the next 20 years may disappear completely as a direct result of the loss of sea urchin and parrot fish. Not because of climate change as is widely believed. The healthiest reefs in the Caribbean, like those in our National Parks, are those that have restricted or banned fishing practices that harm parrotfish. Please, while on holiday, or anywhere for that matter, DO NOT EAT PARROT FISH OR SEA URCHIN. Be responsible for your choices.
The Parrot fish that live in large numbers in the National park is so interesting and important that much of the information will be left to another blog. But in brief, parrot fish are grazers and spend up to 90% of the day cleaning the reef of algae. This helps the reef grow and thrive. You can hear their crunching while you are diving. They also contribute to that beautiful sand that everybody admires in the Caribbean. Yes, it's parrot fish poop that makes it so. The hard parts of the coral become a white sandy material in their stomachs that they leave behind on the reef. Hence our beautiful beaches and our turquoise waters. Thank you parrot fish.
Semarnat and Conanp are also doing much to protect the marine diversity and ensure a future for the National Park. Great efforts are being made to farm coral fragmentations and replant in the reef; eliminate fishing practices within the National Parks and protect, both above the ground and beneath the water, within its marine and fauna refugee zone, all its inhabitants.
Because of all these measures, Manchones Reef is one of the best sites in Isla Mujeres. Manchones Reef is so named because when you look at the reef from the sky, there appear to be great “manchas” (which means stains in English), in the water.
It is great for new divers, it is beautiful, thriving, and protected. Worth a dive to see what eco-tourism can do to help an environment rather than devastate it. The unique conditions of the dive are what make it perfect for training new divers. Great visibility, course sand, no current, shallow depths, and the ability to train entry-level divers first upon an artificial reef such as MUSA before permitting them to dive on the reef.
The proximity of MUSA has alleviated much of the diver stress to the reef. Being able to take new divers to train at MUSA means that important skills like buoyancy control and spatial awareness can be taught to divers before allowing them to dive on the fragile reef. A new diver's inadvertent brush with a coral can both harm the diver and cause irreparable damage to that coral. The importance of good training and environmental consciousness is paramount in new (and all) divers.
While other coastal communities and dive operations are suffering greatly from the unprecedented amounts of sargassum, Isla Mujeres remains largely sargassum free. Many dive operations in Quintana Roo have been drawn to a halt but thanks to the proximity of Isla Mujeres to Cancun, a current runs through the deeper areas and helps maintain the coast sargassum free. Some sargassum still makes it to the beaches on the Northern and Eastern sides but it is quickly and easily controlled as the situation has not reached the epic portions that the Southern areas of Quintana Roo suffer. Not enough to restrict diving practices or close beaches and fishing. We are extremely fortunate and grateful to not be suffering this fate and hope that a solution for everyone that is affected by this, is quickly found. We also thank the many many volunteers and workers that work hard to clear any sargassum that does make its way to our coast, quickly and efficiently. They do an amazing job.
There is an entry fee that all divers and snorkelers pay, in the form of a bracelet, that contributes to the protection of these areas. This is generally included in the cost of your tour. Only legal guides with National Park certifications may guide you in the area. This allows Semarnat to train guides to lead tours in a form that leaves a minimal impact, while also increasing the knowledge and safety of those guiding. It also allows Semarnat to control the area from unauthorized dive vessels and fishermen. If you are going on a tour to this area, ensure you are going with a sanctioned, legal company.
There are also other reefs within the park such as Cross of the Bay, Atlantis, Jardines, Casitas, MUSA, Banderas, and the spectacular Punta Sur.
Just outside of the Manchones Reef, located in Punta Cancun, we have the pleasure of some great advanced wreck dives and drift dives.
All of which are discussed in other blogs.
It is a pleasure to dive on Manchones Reef which boasts all of the above features and dive knowing that you are diving in an area protected. Thanks to the efforts of so many in preserving this amazing reef. In showing that environmental tourism can work to help improve our environment, you know that you are visiting a reef that should be there for future generations.
Well worth the visit.
Manchones National Park