A trip report on shoreline shell collecting near Cancun, Mexico
By John Caldeira and Judy Lewis
The Caribbean currents flow northward between the Mexico coast and Cuba, then swirl into the Gulf of Mexico over a relatively shallow bottom, providing a rich environment for sea life. These currents make the north eastern edge of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula uniquely situated for excellent beach collecting. The sandy beaches of Isla Holbox are speckled with good specimen shells. This is our trip report from a visit to Isla Holbox in February, 2000.
We arrived at Cancun late in the evening. The next morning, we hired a taxi for the 2 ½ hour, $50 drive west and then north to the town of Chiquila. At Chiquila we chose not to wait for the ferry that would arrive about one hour later. Instead, we hired a boat for $15 to take us immediately across the lagoon to Holbox. It is a 15 minute boat trip.
Holbox is a fishing village of about 2 thousand inhabitants (our rough estimate). Dozens of fishing boat are typically parked on the beach, and the fishing cooperatives’ fish packing boats can usually be seen offshore.
Holbox is undergoing rapid change, as tourists increasingly discover it as a relaxing and relatively inexpensive alternative to the more developed destinations of Cancun, Cozumel and Playa Del Carmen.
Our $15 room on the village square was clean, secure, had a ceiling fan, screens and a private bath, and suited our simple needs. More upscale accommodations are becoming available, mostly along the beach. The several restaurants in town and along the beach serve wonderful seafood and cheap beer.
Holbox retains much of its cultural charm despite the growth of tourism, which also means the fussy or complaint-prone traveler may find the restaurant service and other tourist amenities severely lacking. For instance, hiring a boat for a day trip of snorkeling and shelling requires asking the fishermen, since there are no businesses identified for these purposes. Restaurant service can be painfully slow. Nevertheless, the town's appearance is one of a well-managed and clean community.
The waters near Holbox lack the clarity of most Caribbean locations, with visibility of about 15 feet, at best. We hired a boat for snorkeling one day and enjoyed watching the fish. Our captain let Judy use his hookah for diving. Snorkeling was not very productive in terms of shell collecting for us, although we found several nice chank shells snorkeling here during a visit to Holbox several years ago.
A few miles east of Holbox is a point of land named Punta Mosquito, its name giving adequate warning to the traveler! The place would be more aptly named Punta Mosque, since we were continually harassed by biting flies more than mosquitoes. Our boat dropped us off at Punta Mosquito on two days, where we did our best shell collecting.
Punta Mosquito is one of those rare places on earth where the ocean currents, winds and sea floor geography combine to produce excellent shoreline specimen collecting. The tide lines were littered with dead and dying shells.
I’ve rambled on long enough. Here is Judy’s shelling diary:
Collecting Trip – January 30-February 4, 2000
Saturday January 30th, 2000. Arrived in Holbox around noon from Cancun. Beachcombed near town, near where the fishermen keep their boats. Heavy seaweed washed up on shore. Lots of dead sea urchin. A fisherman informed us that a red tide had caused some die-off. The water was also murkier than usual due to the tide. Found some bivalves and small things.
Sunday. Hiked to the western most tip of the island, about 1 and a half miles. The beach directly in front of town is washing away and about 10 concrete jetties are being built in an attempt to stop the problem. It’s interesting how the currents make collecting between each of the barriers different from each other, with different size and type shells in the tide lines. Found a very nice, different species of marginella against one of the barriers. On the westward walk it was very low tide so we waded way out past the end of the jetties in ankle high water. Found a large live Melongena melongena crawling along in the shallow water. Past the jetties we hit the beach area and picked up various beach shells. A very shallow bay was completely out of the water at low tide (it’s easy to see where the sand from town has gone!). I found one more melongena walking across this bay as well as numerous paired valves of both pink and white tellins. Hundreds of pairs waiting to be picked up. With all the predation in the area there are probably many buried shells, but nothing to really give a hint of where they are. Horseshoe crab trails all over the sand and mud.
As we reach the end of the island there are mangroves, and these extend along most of the protected southern length of the island. There is a tiny island just off the tip with shallow water and sand/mud flat. Didn’t find anything significant on that mud flat, except a couple of dead shells which were subsequently discarded when better, live, specimen were found elsewhere. The mangroves extend around the tip and there isn’t really a beach any longer. Hundreds of paired tellins washed up near the tip. Obviously they are a food of choice in the area.
Monday. We hiked to the east until we reached a mangrove area where the bay cuts across the island to the Gulf. There is a bridge … sorta…. More on that later. In the area where the bay cuts through it is very shallow, with areas rising above water at low tide. In the shallow ankle deep area we collected four live tulips. They were basically just crawling along on the surface of the sand. We also walked up into the mangroves and found in a tidal pool a population of battilaria and one juvenile Melongina bispinosa. I was hoping to find them as this is their habitat and the Vokes book on the Yucatan has a picture from Holbox with an entire drift line full of them. But so far just a few dead ones mixed in the beach drift. Other than reaching a mangrove area right before the cut through it is sandy beach the entire way with sand bars off shore. Beach drift is better in some areas than others. Some areas with large piles of bivalve halves remind me of Sanibel.
Tuesday. Hiked back to the western tip of the island. Picked up very little, but did find a small Cymatium femorale very near the tip, washed up on shore. In the afternoon went swimming and filled one ziplock bag with grunge containing abundant micro-shells, just east of the boats.
Wednesday. Hired a boat to take us snorkeling. We asked for a place with good visibility, but that turned out to be only about 15 feet. Since the depth was about 12 feet, specimens could only be found while diving. Found a live columbella mercatoria under a dead shell. Also found a nice marginella while snorkeling. The bottom was branch coral and sand -- no reef. This was off Punta Mosquito. We asked the boat captain for a good place to go ashore to pick up seashells on the beach and he took us to Punta Mosquito. He told us to keep our wetsuits on to protect us and he was right = biting flies, similar to horseflies, by the hundreds all looking to bite us. But it was the jackpot for collecting as the currents drop the good stuff near the point! The boat captain found a lions paw, both halves and gave it to me. It was half buried just out in the middle of the exposed sand areas at the point. Lots of paired cockles, some paired Morton’s cockles. A live Astraea pheobia was washed up and a couple of Melongina melongena, which I ended up throwing back because although they had opercs were already smelly. Good beach stuff!
In the afternoon I did some major grunge collecting in the drift lines with a spoon. There were basically two grunge lines. The one higher up had olivellas, marginellas, etc. The lower, smaller, grunge line had the true micro stuff. Glad we brought the ziplock bags!
Thursday. Hired a boat to take us back to Punta Mosquito and drop us off. We walked further east this time but the best collecting again was back at the point, which we scoured this time for goodies. We found several nice cymatiums, another paired lions paw (small purple in high tide line). I found several good shells in the high tides line - Cymatium caribbaeum (still with periostracum) and more cockels. In the low wash line also found a huge tellin, both valves. We filled up an entire gallon bucket with shells from this section. Some were discarded upon the return to the hotel but there were plenty there.
On the walk back towards town I cut across the beach area and arrived at a lagoon which I started wading across to get back to the beach. I found the habitat for the Melongena bispinosa. They were all over the bottom in shallow water, which must experience extreme salinity changes depending on tides and rains. Some were mating and laying eggs. I avoided those, and collected 14 fairly random specimen. Some had stripes, others were solid off-white. The area in front of the lagoon had a sand bar but we had to wade across the mouth to return to the beach. Large mangrove area on this side of the bridge and we walked on a path for about ½ mile, as there was no beach to speak off.
Glad to leave the biting flies behind.
Oh yeah, more about the bridge - it's only about three quarters of what's needed. It started on one shore just fine, but we had to wade and climb up on the first cross bar. I took it one home made plank at a time just waiting to fall through. I wonder if its coincidental that John let me go first. I don't think the water was very deep but I didn't want to test it personally.
Once over the bridge I started beachcombing again and found some cones and pairs of bivalves I did not have before.
Friday. I bought a triton trumpet in town for 20 pesos ($2.20) at one of the small shops. The shopkeeper informed me that fishermen use compressors to dive for lobsters and they sometimes pick up Cypraea and other shells. They dive at 9 to 10 brazos (?) which I interpret to be about 20 or 30 feet – just a guess. We leave for Valladolid today.
Our essential take-alongs for Holbox shelling included plenty of sun protection (broad-brimmed hat, long-sleeved shirt and pants, and sun screen), a good book or two (there isn't much live entertainment), and shelling gear, including containers to protect shells.
Holbox has a good telephone system, with phone cards available locally to make long-distance calls. No Internet access when we were there. Good restaurants in town, including the cabana in the square, as long as luxury and good service are not necessities, and good, fresh seafood is the only requirement.
Isla Holbox ranks among our favorite locations for shoreline collecting, due to the unique currents and mixing of aquatic environments. Nearby attractions include snorkeling at a freshwater spring on the mainland, and islands bountiful in nesting seabirds. A relatively inexpensive, relaxing vacation. Next time we'll make it to Cabo Catoche!
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