Mermaids, whale sharks and sandy beaches? Count me in.
Way Beyond Productions, a photo studio and dive shop out of North Carolina, put together a mermaid portfolio dive trip at Isla Mujeres, off the coast of Cancun in Mexico. The trip was absolutely magical. As I write this a week later, I'm still full of love and light and mermaid magic.
Our crew consisted of 4 mermaids, 3 professional underwater photographers, and 3 friends. The ratio was just perfect - there were just enough people to pose, shoot, and assist at all times.
Monday, our first day on the island, was pleasantly spent scouting for potential shooting locations and getting acclimated to the place. We did some test-shooting in the ocean right by our hotel, and I discovered that my new mermaid tail is approximately as buoyant as a hot-air balloon. This made swimming down to pose for photos rather problematic. Curse you, brand-new 3mm neoprene! So we took advantage of the calm water and did some shallow water shooting, playing with reflections and poses, and called it a day.
Tuesday the weather and the water turned dark. The gray skies and windy seas made for a really challenging shooting environment, but we were undaunted. A picturesque bridge with rotting pylons, shallow tide pools and sandy beaches provided our photographers with inspiration as the mermaids fought the current and the wind and posed for artistic closeups.
Wednesday dawned bright and clear as the glorious sunrise found us boarding our boat to swim with the whale sharks. The whale shark migration at this time of year off the Cancun coast is a huge tourist draw (and rightfully so) and we wanted to get there early while there was still a good chance of getting shots without snorkel-bombers in the background.
I still haven't quite absorbed the awe, scale and majesty of these creatures. Whale sharks are the largest fish in the ocean. They're filter feeders with big open mouths, big spotted fins and giant sweeping tails, and this particular location had hundreds of sharks circling and feeding for the entire 3 hours we were there.
Raul, our sexy latino dive master, called out "Who's first?" and I more or less jumped up and hurled myself overboard without even stopping to wiggle into my mermaid tail. Raul splashed over to me, grabbed my hand and began towing me toward an oncoming shark. He pulled me sharply as the whale began to turn in front of me shouting, "DIVE NOW!" I dove.
There's a spot just behind the enormous gills where the shark's forward motion creates a pocket of moving water, and a well-placed swimmer can "draft" along in their wake. I headed for this sweet spot and found myself surfing on this enormous creature's power, being pulled along effortlessly as my heart beat frantically and I grinned from ear to ear. The sheer scale and power of a whale shark is at first terrifying, then exhilarating. Their giant mouths seem to be capable of swallowing a swimmer in one go, but they only have eyes for the krill and plankton surrounding them along their migration route. After my initial surge of fear, I smiled, relaxed and simply fell in love with these gentle giant teddy-bears of the sea.
After the first encounter in my mask and fins, I launched myself back out of the water and mermaid-tailed up. I jumped in again, this time with a couple of amazing photographers, and made a nuisance of myself to as many whale sharks as possible.
Underwater modeling is tricky: with no mask it's hard to see where anything is, and staying aware of facial expressions, body shape and breath control (we can't have bubbles in the shot!) is quite a feat. This is where my fellow mermaids really started to shine. Malena has been free diving for eight years and can hold her breath for over two minutes as she dives and rolls and swims around and below the sharks. Luma had been practicing diving and breath holds for this trip for months, and Sydney.. well, I just don't think that girl's quite human.
The photographers were equally astounding, maneuvering quickly to get the shots they wanted and easily outlasting most of the mermaid breath holds. And our guide Raul was amazing - towing mermaids, assisting photographers, taking video, and generally making everyone else tired with his boundless energy.
My main accomplishment was that I resolutely did not get seasick.
After several 15-20 minute dives apiece, giant manta ray sightings, and lots and lots of shark encounters, we climbed back aboard our boat and headed for land, tired, happy, and quietly marveling at the wonder just below the surface of the waves.
Thursday the storm hit in force. The sky raged and the rain poured and soaked everything on the island. There was thunder and lightning. It was warm and exquisite. We did not let the rain stop us - we shot for a couple hours in the ocean and in the pool between lightning strikes and felt pretty bad-ass.
After a collective nap and half a bottle of rum, someone produced a bag of long animal-twisting balloons and I proceeded to entertain our company by twisting personalized mermaid balloons, whale shark balloons, manta ray balloons and just about anything else we could dream up. I am a little fuzzy on the details, but I seem to remember that we re-enacted the entire trip using our balloons as puppets. Somewhere, I believe there is video. I hope it finds its way to me.
For dinner, we found a bar downtown that boasted live music and, delight of delights, a pole-dancer pole rising from the bar, with a mermaid banner at the top. It didn't take much to convince Sydney that she ought to get up there on that pole. Sydney's only concern was that she wasn't dressed to pole dance. "What the hell," she grinned, and dropped her sarong seductively to the floor as she climbed and twirled and vamped, totally starkers, for the disbelieving bar patrons.
It was a tough act to follow, but I'm not one to let a good pole go to waste. By the end of the night, three more of us got up there and shook our stuff (none of us stripped, but then, none of us were super hot 22 year old models). We threw back our celebratory tequila shots and danced the rest of the night away.
Friday was our last day on the island, and we woke up hoping and praying for clear weather. We didn't get clear, but we got "clear enough" and so we climbed onto our boat and headed out for the MUSA Underwater Museum. The museum consists of over 300 sunken life-sized human statues, created with an aim toward conservation. With too much snorkeling and diving on Cancun's lovely coast, the reefs are suffering. The artist, Jason Decaires Taylor, created the statues as a draw to bring people away from the reef and give it a chance to recover. Ultimately what has happened is that the statues themselves are slowly creating a new reef as sea life discovers them and moves in. It's amazing.
It's also 30 feet down.
I did my best. The storm returned in force, the swells reached five feet high and at times I couldn't see any other mermaids or human beings around me. I waited, breathing, and when I heard someone yell "GO" I took the deepest breath of my life, turned tail and swam as hard as I could for the statues on the sea floor. I made it maybe halfway when my lungs and my eardrums took over and demanded I swim for the surface again. I resisted, fighting my tail's buoyancy, fighting my lungs and eardrums, and all the while relaxing every facial muscle, keeping any bubbles out of the shot, smiling beatifically in the general direction of the blur that I hoped was the camera, and trying to make pretty shapes with my arms. (The other mermaids just made it look so easy! I definitely need some free diving lessons.)
I donned a mask and watched Sydney dive. She floated effortlessly down 30 feet and high-fived one of the statues. Then she turned and spotted a camera, spread her arms wide and radiated mermaid joy, emotion, and pure being with her whole body. She absolutely glistened in her shining white tail against the dark, mysterious statues. Beauty.
Later, I bobbed on the surface with Luma and Sydney. We floated in place, breathing. At the word GO, we took deep breaths and shot down together, surfing with one another's motion as we'd done with the whale sharks. I pulled up a little before the other two and watched from above as they continued down together, muscles rippling and tails glistening in the light. The moment seemed to last forever as I watched them touch hands and reach for the statues, and then head back for the surface with me.
Our connection remained until all our heads broke the surface, coughing up water and gasping for air. We touched eyes and exchanged delighted smiles, feeling our mermaid sisterhood in that moment.
Buoyed by this feeling, we flopped and coughed our way back to the boat for a rocky ride home, chased by the storm. Even the pouring rain and nauseating waves couldn't dampen my spirits.
The magic of the Isla Mujeres Mermaids is crystalizing into a beautiful memory that I will cherish for the rest of my life.