Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve

Flying into the Storm with IPI

Jabiru Storks 

This flock of storks lifted off from the lagoon adjacent to the inlet we were traversing by boat, and partially silhouetted themselves against the approaching storm clouds.  I was trying to capture the vastness of the reserve, so I had my Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM zoom lens on my camera which only allowed for a distant shot—but I like that it gave environmental context to the image.  You don’t always have to be up close & personal with a long lens to create an interesting shot.  My guide was ecstatic with the sighting, the first of the season.

IMG_1290The 1.3 million acre Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve is located near Tulum in Quintana Roo, MX on the Caribbean side of the Yucatan peninsula.  It’s a huge area of protected wilderness (the peninsula’s largest) and is comprised of thousands of inlets, waterways, lagoons, mangrove swamps and small islands.  Someone inexperienced could easily get lost, and that’s why a guide is always required to enter the reserve. Boats and Kayaks are the mode of transportation within the reserve, and they are strictly regulated for minimum environmental impact.

IMG_5384 BW

Jorge Machado Castro

Guide, Naturalist and Photographer

My expert guide for the day was Jorge Machado Castro.  Jorge is an indigenous indian originally from Chiapas, but has been leading small groups into the reserve for the past seven years.  Jorge is university educated, speaks fluent English and is an accomplished photographer, using much of the same Canon equipment that I use.  He also clings strongly to his indian roots, and displays many traditional tattoos and piercings on his body along with his long hair braids and bird feathers.  Joel is preparing an article about Jorge for The Yucatan Times, and I will post a preview of it here on the blog in the next few days.

IMG_5379 Sepia

Jorge Machado Castro

Pre-launch Briefing

I was picked up at my hostel (El Lobo Inn Hostal) at 8:40 a.m. by a company minivan and Jorge, and we then proceeded south down the peninsula past Tulum proper and Zona de Hoteles.  After a short briefing on the day’s activities, and a quick check of our equipment, we hiked a short distance through the mangroves to the boat dock and boarded our transportation.

Boat Dock Sian Ka'an

Boat Dock at Sian Ka’an

Donning our floatation gear we took our seats as our boat headed out into the vastness that is the Sian Ka’an Biosphere [Wilderness] Reserve.  First stop was a small island owned & operated by a large female Osprey with young chicks still in the nest.  Our captain cut his motor and we glided silently closer to get a better look at the nesting site.  I am familiar with Osprey’s since they made their return to San Diego and its lakes after a long absence of many years.  They are beautiful raptors, and I could watch them hunt for fish for hours on end (and have done so back in the States).

Osprey on Nest

Large Female Osprey with Nest & Chicks

Leaving the Osprey behind we ventured further into the reserve.  Unfortunately, the boat’s captain often sped through the inland waterways and channels too fast for good wildlife photography.  Moving slow, cutting the engine and coasting up to roosting birds would have been preferable, but this wasn’t a birdwatching/photography expedition per se.  Jorge did his best to curb the captain’s enthusiasm with his outboard motor, but to little avail.  They do offer a much quieter and slower birdwatching kayak trip that sounds interesting, and if I make it back to the reserve before leaving Mexico I think I will book a spot.


Jorge – Preparing for Float Trip

After some further distance we entered yet another shallow channel amongst the mangroves and pulled alongside a makeshift dock in the middle of nowhere.  Stripping off our clothes, to our swimsuits underneath, we entered the water and swift moving current.  The boat departed to our rendezvous point, and using our floatation equipment we began a slow drift down the channel marveling at the lush scenery—the water was crystal-clear and you could see the white limestone bedrock that supports the entire Yucatan peninsula.  And the whole-while the storm clouds overhead continued to gather and gain strength.

We continued our drift for thirty to forty minutes, and rounding the final bend in the channel spotted our boat in the distance.  Pulling ourselves out of the water and climbing aboard using a makeshift ladder we once again squared away our gear and motored up for the rest of the trip.  A heavy rain soon began to pelt our bodies, and our clothes became as wet our as suits beneath, but it was all good.  The reserve typically experiences 44 to 48 inches of rain per year, so it is a very wet environment.

Crocodile II

Crocodile Sighting

We were safely back in the boat when we started spotting our first Crocodiles, four in all. These were fairly large in size, especially at close range, and I would estimate their length at between 2 to 3-meters.  It also begged the question: Were these critters in the channel with us during our float trip?  Jorge was not concerned, and was somewhat bemused by our concern I thought.  Let me be clear:  I do not relish the thought of being eaten alive by a critter:  Shark, Bear, Lion, Tiger—or Crocodile.  It’s a personal thing I guess.  I don’t mind taking calculated risks, but I don’t consider myself a stupid man.  And Jorge never adequately explained why he was not overly concerned—maybe they just don’t like Gringo-meat.

Continuing with our day we spotted a lot of birds, but it was difficult to get close enough with the powerboat running at full tilt.  Again, I think the kayak trip would be much more suitable to my needs as a photographer.  But Herons, Egrets, Storks, Pelicans and sundry other bird species abound in the reserve.  In fact, within the boundaries of the reserve’s 1.3 million acres, 103 mammal species and 336 bird species live, propagate and thrive in the pristine environment.

Blue Heron in Flight

Blue Heron in Flight (backdropped with the abundant mangroves)

Crocodile I

Crocodile Sighting #2 of 4

Yellow-throated Tiger Heron

Yellow-throated Tiger Heron


Large Iguana

As the expedition to God’s country neared its conclusion, the boat turned  around in a large lazy arc and headed back towards the dock and civilization.  For me, the experience could have lasted forever, and I would have been happy.  The personal interaction with our guide Jorge, the magnificence of the reserve itself, the dramatic weather and abundant wildlife will all remain in my memory like exceptional gallery photos.  Whether one believes in a personal God or not, its days like this that convince me that something big and wonderful is going on in our universe.  To top off an already perfect day we were treated to an amazing lunch of Pescado de Fria and Pollo y Veggies before being dropped off back at our hostel.  I think this reserve demands a revisit from me—but the next time I’ll try the quieter kayak.  Maybe I won’t be able to cover as much distance, but the photo ops might be better.  Wildlife photography is all about stealth and patience.

Tulum-Sian Ka'an copy

Tulum – Sian Ka’an

Quintana Roo, Mexico (on the Yucatan peninsula)

8 responses to “Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve

  1. Hi Stephen, I like the image of the Storks, something about it just says wild and free to me. Also if I were you I would get a shot of that boat dock with know one on it.
    Keep shooting, Tim

  2. This sounds like such a special trip…I would have LOVED this…I have always wanted to visit the Reserve but have never made it there.

  3. Hey there!
    Several years ago I nearly made it till punta allen, but the car was not prepared for the route. This year I am planning to go all the way to sian ka’an, and since alamar was such an inspiring movie, I would like to somehow book Jorge Machado for a guided tour. Do you have any information on how/where to do that? I am glad for any clues,
    Greetings, Viktor

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