Every January, along the Silver Bank off the coast of the Dominican Republic, 35-ton Humpback Whales collect to breed and have their young. They slide gracefully through the water by the hundreds. With their long, wing-like pectoral fins and hunched back, these Northern Atlantic Humpbacks are emblematic whales, and lucky swimmers and snorkelers can witness the gentle giants as they migrate to other parts of the world, breaching, lobtailing and fin flapping. These passengers who depart from the small port of Cofresi, near Puerto Plata, experience some of the most thrilling wildlife spectacles anywhere, but the thrills for the naturalist in the Caribbean don’t stop there. The Humpbacks of the Silver Bank are only the tip of the iceberg. The Caribbean Sea, as well as the Mesoamerican Reef alongside the Mexican Riviera, host some of the most biologically diverse habitats in the world, and much of it can be witnessed up close and personal this winter season.
CITIES MADE OF CORAL
At the sea bottom lies one of the most complex biological systems in the world. Coral reefs provide habitats for an astounding number of plant and animal species, all working together in a spectacular show of diversity. In the Caribbean, hundreds of reefs extend from the Bahamas to the north coast of South America, and from the east coast of Mexico to the Lesser and Greater Antilles. And it is here that divers, snorkelers, sailors and swimmers flock to witness the show of colors and baffling animal behaviors. Built on highly complex communities of live organisms called polyps, these soft and calcified reefs and sea sponges in the Caribbean number more than 70 different species, some purple finger-like structures, others bright red bowls or green strings, and still others tall pillars, each completely unique in shape and color and each housing a different multitude of organisms, both giant and microscopic. If you were able to stay long enough, you could see over 700 species of tropical fish. The hotels in Mexico of the Iberostar Hotels & Resorts are located in special areas to provide its guests with the country’s best qualities: they are located only a few yards from the beach, surrounded by nature and near to the most important archaeological sites.
DOLPHINS AND WHALES
Feeding on the myriad fish that swim in the Caribbean Sea are Bottle-nosed Dolphins, only one of 30 species of whales and dolphins that can be spotted in these seas. Traveling in groups of 2 to 120, they are incredibly social and curious, and use echolocation to track down their fast-moving food. They are the most popular and well-known of the dolphins, and they are a year-round delight for scuba divers and lucky snorkelers.
And in addition to the Humpbacks of Silver Bank, other mammals that call the Caribbean Sea and the Mesoamerican Reef home in the winter season include: the playful Spinner Dolphin, the Pilot Whale and even the majestic Orca, spotted by some lucky sailors and divers.
FRIENDLY SEA COWS
A much more tranquil and utterly harmless sea mammal is the manatee. In the Caribbean Sea, the West Indian Manatee can be found throughout the coastal areas of the Dominican Republic and Cuba year-round. A bit up north, in West Palm Beach, Florida, the Manatee Lagoon allows visitors to see wild Florida Manatees up close from November to March. Manatees, often nicknamed sea cows because of their slow and gentle nature, have been the focus of fervent conservation efforts due to their vulnerability to boat propellers and increasing human presence in their habitats.
SANCTUARIES FOR TURTLES
Moving up above the coral biome, many of the most important and endangered species of sea turtle can be found. As 100-million-year-old species, sea turtles are a fundamental link in the life cycle of the tropical seas. Thanks to efforts in sea turtle conservation and education, many crucial beach areas are increasingly protected. The critically endangered Hawksbill Turtle feeds on floating jellyfish and uses the sandy coastal areas to lay its eggs. Loggerheads and Green Sea Turtles use the beaches of Cancun and the Riviera Maya to lay their eggs each year as well, and up to November lucky observers can see hundreds of baby turtles crawl toward the sea; the beginning of an arduous journey ahead. Iberostar hotel staff and volunteers at their Playa Paraíso facilities participate in a conservation program meant to bring awareness of plight of endangered Loggerheads. Each year, the luxury hotel aims to mitigate human impact on the turtles by caring for hundreds of nests, marking them and minimizing noise pollution and removing deck chairs in the vicinity, ensuring that thousands of hatchlings are able to crawl to the sea safely. In places like Playa Bávaro, Dominican Republic, the public can observe and participate in turtle release programs. In places like Akumal (which means “place of the turtle” in the Mayan language) in the Mayan Riviera, Loggerheads and Green Sea turtles swim with snorkelers in a natural sanctuary.
ANCIENT PREDATORS OF THE SEA
Off the coast near Bayahibe, Dominican Republic, divers enjoy personal encounters with the top of the food chain. Endangered reef sharks and nurse sharks patrol these waters, gliding above ancient coral structures that look like bright yellow straws and swaying white fans. Throughout the Caribbean, Lemon Sharks and the larger, more intimidating bull sharks are common. The gorgeous Spotted Eagle Ray is also a likely visitor, with its leopard-like skin and eight feet of wingspan. Along the coast of Quintana Roo, the largest fish in the world, the Whale Shark, swims alongside swimmers at certain times of the year, and just south toward the island of Útila, these gentle giants are commonly spotted all year long. The enormous beasts resemble carnivorous sharks only in appearance, as they are harmless to humans are in fact not whales. The Iberostar Hacienda Dominicus Hotel offers 5-star All Inclusive accommodations in Bayahibe, a picturesque village on the Dominican Republic's southeast coast.
OUT OF THE SEA AND ONTO THE LAND
Out of the water, a world of exotic wildlife awaits. Many are surprised to learn that in Cuba alone there are at least 25 species of bat. The endangered Cuban Crocodile has recently enjoyed a resurgence of population after almost being lost to extinction through hunting. In the Yucatán peninsula, Morelet´s Crocodiles slide along the ground and swim through the fresh waters of Lake Coba, Quintana Roo and in the cenotes near Tulum. In the same area, the prehistoric tapirs and armored Nine-banded Armadillos forage under the rainforest canopy. These creatures are a window into the primordial stages of life on earth, as their species have endured for millions of years. Privileged climate, an invaluable contrast between tradition and modernity, a first order cultural and natural heritage, the delicacies of Creole cuisine, the warmth of the Cuban people and their way of understanding life... These are just some of the many reasons to book your hotel in Cuba.
Further up in the trees, stealthy and camouflaged, the large cats live. And thanks to successful conservation efforts, the Yucatán holds one of the largest populations of Jaguars, with approximately 1,800 individuals; so, these kings of the jungle are not as rare and elusive as they used to be. Rarer but just as beautiful are the Ocelots and the Jaguarundis, smaller cats which can sport extravagant and complex markings.
MONKEYS AND THE MONGOOSE
Also on the endangered species list is the Mexican Howler Monkey, and swinging high the trees is the Yucatan Spider Monkey. But that doesn´t mean either one of these is impossible to find. Look for the Howler near Quintana Roo, and in the rainforests of the Sian Ka´an Biosphere. And in the Mayan ruins of Calakmul, and you can spot a Spider Monkey crawling over the ancient monuments. And not exactly a wild habitat, Monkey Jungle in the Dominican Republic provides visitors a rare opportunity to get close to Spider Monkeys and Capuchins. Many wildlife enthusiasts are fascinated by the furry Asian Mongoose, which was originally introduced to Jamaica as a natural control for rats. They have since become an occasional threat to native ground-nesting birds, lizards, even sea turtle eggs, but remain one of the most exotic species for visitors.
UP IN THE AIR
In the sky, the birdwatcher and butterfly chaser will have much to do in the Caribbean, with over 500 species of birds; 170 are found nowhere else in the world. And throughout the region, visitors marvel at over 1,500 species of butterflies and moths that flit through the air, many of which are seen in January and February. Binoculars-wielding birders who take their life lists and journals seriously travel to the Caribbean to search out endangered species that are endemic to the Caribbean and Mayan Riviera, like Jamaican Pauraque, the Crested Caracara, the Cuban Kite and the Cuban Bee Hummingbird, which is the smallest hummingbird in the world at only 5.5 centimeters long. From parrots to parakeets to woodpeckers to 14 types of warbler to astoundingly diverse bat fauna, winged wildlife of the Caribbean abounds. And don’t forget to look up high in the sky, where the unmistakable silhouettes of gallant Frigatebirds circle above.