First Crossing Attempt from Banco Chinchorro to Costa Maya

First Crossing Attempt from Banco Chinchorro to Costa Maya

Guest Post Courtesy of René “Sugar Baby” Martínez

October 16/17, 2021

The adventure into the unknown nurtures the soul. As open water swimmers, we fully understand the concept of “exit your comfort zone.” We do not only pursue it; we also promote it. Moreover, the unfamiliar is always more exciting than what we already know.

But even as adventurers in search for adaptability—given the adversities of the open ocean and varying weather conditions—sometimes we like swimming on routes that have been swam before. We trust old sea lions called captains or pilots to guide us from shore to shore, considering that they know the routes and have all the necessary equipment and knowledge to undertake an open water swimming expedition.

This time we decided to go back to our adventurous spirits and embarked on a channel swimming expedition that has never officially been done before: Chinchorro.

To achieve this, we scouted the site and decided to attempt the crossing on a relay swim. I aimed as high as I could and convinced International Marathon Swimming Hall of Famers Nora Toledano and Antonio Argüelles, as well as exceptional marathon swimmer and multi-record holder Jaime Lomelín, to undertake this adventure with me. Later, we also invited Ximena Argüelles (Antonio’s daughter) to join the team as a first timer. With great enthusiasm and without hesitating, she jumped in.

Nora Toledano, Marieluise “Lulu” von Rheinbaben, Jaime Lomelín, Antonio “Siete Mares” Argüelles, Ximena Argüelles, René “Sugar Baby” Martínez, Josune Mondragón, and Jacinta Martínez

Banco Chinchorro is an atoll reef, a protected nature reserve. Located on the southeast corner of Mexico, right in front of the Río Huach beaches in Xcalak and Mahahual, it is the largest of its kind in Mexico and the second largest on the planet. Banco Chinchorro is known for its rich biodiversity, being an unbeatable attraction for reef and wreck diving and one of the only two spots in the world where you may be able to swim with American crocodiles (Crocodylus acutus) in a perfectly safe and controlled environment. However, it is also one of the most regulated spots in the country. To get there, you must process government permits and find a certified operator to take you. The reef emerges above sea level in two areas, forming small islands: Cayo Norte and Cayo Centro.

Xcalak, our southern base camp, is also a state-protected natural area, one of the few undisturbed corners of the Mexican Caribbean. It is located in the southern end of the Costa Maya, 74 km away from Chinchorro.

The objective was to swim from Chinchorro’s beach to the mainland. After analyzing the route, we concluded that we needed to clear the reef brake, located 12 km from Chinchorro, during daylight. However, we also needed to start the crossing late enough for us to be able to swim all night in the open ocean and reach mainland during daylight the following morning, as the reef brake is also part of the Costa Maya shoreline. Thus, we scheduled our swim to start at 4:00 pm and expected to reach the coast at sunrise, close to Mahahual (the nearest point to Chinchorro on the mainland), after no less than 45 km and 14 hours.

THE SWIM

We left Xcalak at 11:00 am. It took us one hour 40 minutes to get to Chinchorro. As we got there, we were all amazed by the color of the water. It suddenly went from Pacific blue to turquoise, and then became totally transparent. We could see the coral reef from the deck of our boat.

The only signs of civilization on the island are a small fishing co-op, which operates from simple, tiny cabins built on the water next to the mangrove, and a military base on the west side of the island.

Beforehand, we had arranged for one of the local fishermen (the legendary Titi, aka Matraca) to host us in his small cabin, or “palafito,” so that we could feed, rest, and digest the beauty of this virgin island prior to the swim.

A palafito consists of a 2×2-meter deck, a main room—which may fit four people on hammocks—and a “toilet private room.” There are no services of any kind (although if someone tried connecting to Wi-Fi via satellite with a specific mid-tech tool, maybe they would be able to find satellite reception).

Shortly after our arrival, we spotted 3 American crocodiles approaching the deck, as well as uncountable tarpon and bonefish. Legend says that crocodiles got there floating on logs that drifted from the mainland because of hurricanes; then they reproduced and found a home in the mangroves. The crocodile population is estimated at around 300 specimens. They have learned to live among the fishermen’s palafitos and local crocodile attacks on humans have never been recorded.

Antonio Argüelles on left and Jaime Lomelin on right

Antonio and Jaime rested on the hammocks, Ximena delighted us with motivational reflections, and Nora and Lulú (Jaime’s wife, who luckily provided us with support during the swim) couldn’t take their eyes off the place and its biodiversity. I was only enjoying the moment and thinking a lot about my wife Josune and my daughter Jacinta, who stayed on the mainland, waiting for our eventual successful landing.

At 3:30 pm sharp, we started prepping for our swim. Jaime got covered in sunblock and put on a traditional swimsuit, a pair of goggles, and a swim cap. The boat captain took us to the closest beach, which was 1.5 km away from the palafito, and we started the swim at around 3:55 pm, just in time.

Starting the swim at this time of the day was the wisest choice in the entire planning process. Another good decision was the order in which the members of our team would participate. It helped starting with our strongest swimmer, Jaime, who powered through the water at an outstanding pace to exit the island. After 30 minutes (our fixed swim shift interval), Nora followed Jaime. Then came Antonio, Ximena, and finally me. We barely exited the shallow reef brake with Jaime’s second sprint turn as it was starting to get dark at 7:00 pm (as I mentioned, we couldn’t start earlier because we would have reached the mainland at night and most likely hit the landing shallow reef with no daylight).

Antonio Argüelles
Ximena Argüelles

Our main concern was being forced to abort the swim because of our inability to see the reef break, which delimits the exit to the open ocean. A lack of vision would have put both the boat and the swimmer at risk of collision with the shallow reef. On the other hand, with sunlight, we could well locate a deep exit.

After exiting the inshore reef waters, we all relaxed and enjoyed the magnificent sunset. The night welcomed us with a first quarter moon, which lit up the entire Caribbean Sea. The following five hours, until midnight, were fantastic. The sea treated us with great conditions, the weather was superb, and we were heading in a straight line towards the coast of Mahahual, our closest landing spot.

However, at around 1:00 am, a light north wind started blowing, pushing us south. This meant that we would have to swim longer than expected. Moreover, we didn’t know—and didn’t have the tools to find out—how far we were form the coast or to what degree we were drifting south. We had no cell phone reception, no GPS, no satellite phone. But still, we were enjoying our swim. Lulú was helping us out with practically everything and we were all in cheering mode, focused only on our swims. We were also being extremely careful with regards to channel swimming rules and regulations. If we succeeded, we wanted to make sure we would be able to register our swim.

As the moon began to hide, the stars lit up. I believe I had never seen anything like this before; it looked like a tapestry of lights. Shooting stars traveled through the ceiling and Nora recited every single constellation. It really was a magical moment. But as we looked ahead, we could clearly see an electric storm in the direction in which we were heading.

When my next turn arrived, I decided to swim without a cap. The water temperature was as warm as 30°C (86°F) and it was great to feel the water since I usually wear one. With every stroke, the water exploded with bioluminescence. I thought of my wife Josune and my daughter Jacinta, as I did during all my quiet swims. On this occasion, I thought about their safety on land, especially with the electric storm that we saw not too far away.

Suddenly, I heard dolphins nearby. I stopped and quickly told the team, so that everybody looked around to spot them, but they were already watching them on the bow. As I kept swimming, their sound became louder and louder and, out of the blue, I saw a quick torpedo lighted in bioluminescence right underneath me. It got so close to me that I even felt the strong current produced by its flapping close to my chest. It was so overwhelming that I shouted underwater and then on the surface: “¡Ay, cabrón!”

This has been one of the most intense experiences I have ever felt in the ocean. I have swum tens of times with dolphins, but never at night. I really think that for this to happen, to have this kind of encounter, you need a lot of luck. You must be in the perfect place at the perfect time.

I see dolphins as escorts at sea. It is proven that they have some sort of extraordinary hypersensitivity and I have no doubt that, as they felt us, they did not only come over out of curiosity, but also to guide and protect us.

Soon, we spotted the only visible light on shore, which is Mahahual’s port lighthouse. It looked rather far at the north side of the coastline. This meant that we were being strongly pushed by the northern wind. We had no idea how far we were from the shore since there are no buildings or resorts around this area. The night was so dark that we started to get nervous about hitting the shallow outer reef break of the mainland.

Thirteen hours had elapsed and, up to that point, we had navigated around 45 km from Chinchorro. According to our calculations, this meant we could be getting close. The next hour felt like five and sooner rather than later, the sun began to rise. The light painted the Costa Maya, and we could finally see the shore’s silhouette.

Because the Costa Maya lacks mountains, we were unable to guess how far we were from shore: it could be as close as 700 meters or as far as 4 km, especially because we were still being pushed south. My guess was 800 meters, while Antonio’s was 3 km (his estimate ended up being more accurate). The fact that now we could see was a relief, as we would be able to avoid crashing into the shallow reef break.

In her 30-minute turn, Nora swam like she was being chased. When it was Antonio’s turn, his pace was so consistent that you could tell that he’s the kind of experienced swimmer who can swim forever at the same strong pace. However, we didn’t seem to be getting any closer. As my turn arrived, I started sprinting like crazy (I wanted to land, but soon became exhausted). After 10 minutes without seeing the bottom of the ocean, it suddenly turned as shallow as 2-3 meters. At that point I knew that we had reached the inshore reef break. I also realized that we were on the right path because the boat was able to navigate through these shallow waters.

It was frustrating to see that, despite making my best effort, we couldn’t advance because we were facing a strong head current. I could tell by looking at the bottom underneath. My 30 minutes were over and, following the rules, Jaime jumped in and led us on the final minutes of the swim. After 15 hours 55 minutes 10 seconds and 55,985 meters swum, Jaime successfully landed our team on a beach at Punta Xcayal, which is also part of the Xcalak protected area.

We are all thrilled to be the very first swimmers to conquer the channel separating Chinchorro from the Costa Maya. Also, we have acquired the privilege to be the only relay team to have successfully swum from a state-protected island to a state-protected mainland coast (i.e., from one undeveloped and virgin coast to another).

In retrospect, this experience gave us a lot of satisfaction with regards to our accomplishment, but also because we were able to feel free after nearly two years of confinement, regulations, and restrictions all over the world due to COVID-19. At the same time, this adventure gave us a reality slap. Here’s a handful of lessons:

  • SAFETY FIRST.
  • Planning is vital. You have nothing to lose by planning for the worst-case scenario, however unlikely it might seem (we could have done better in this regard).
  • Occasionally, we need get out of our comfort zones. We also discovered that there is “a comfort zone outside our comfort zones”.
  • We must be very realistic and conscious while defining whether a place is ready to offer an experience to the public. We need to develop a pilot training program in this area—specifically for swimming escorts—to promote the swim. This will also give locals an alternative economic activity during their low diving season.
  • Boat and lodging amenities do not need to be luxurious but they do need to be decorous. Swimmers who attempt a marathon swim need to have a good rest prior to a long swim.
  • Even on land, where conditions are supposed to be the safest, you will always be amazed by the surprises that an adventure of this type may bring. After swimming with crocodiles and a pod of dolphins in the middle of the night, navigating with a compass (no GPS), and having no data on currents or weather, we realized that safety is not necessarily guaranteed in places in which we are supposed to feel safest.
  • When things go wrong, always try to find your peace zone and look at the positive side of the experience. On this occasion, I learned a lot this from this unparalleled team.