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Beachcombing for Yucatan's treasures.

The undersea world that attracts divers to the waters off Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula also yields plentiful discoveries for beachcombers. Corals, shells, and other water-borne creatures wash ashore in such abundance that beach walks turn into biology lessons. Also, whereas divers and snorkelers shouldn't disturb anything on living reefs, beachcombers can freely scavenge on beaches outside protected preserves.

Last September, Hurricane Gilbert hit hard, arousing concern for Yucatan reefs and sea life. But Dr. Douglas Fenner, a Seattle marine biologist flown in for poststorm research, reports much less damage than expected. You may, however, see more of the fragile branch corals, lacy sea fans, and sponges than usual, and coastal vegetation still looks battered.

Although the period after storms offers the best foraging, Yucatan beachcombing is good at any time. Based on tips from locals and our own explorationslast year, we suggest some diverse areas worth a drive from hotel centers. You can rent cars from $45 in Merida, in Cancun, and on Cozumel. On Cozumel, motorbikes are another option at about $20 per day.

To help you identify your treasures, carry along two plastic-coated picture cards Shells and Marine Invertebrates-available for around $10 at many dive and beach gear shops.

Don't collect any shells that seem to have creatures inside, or you might end up with a stinking mess in your suitcase. Before heading home, let your collection sit in the sun on your hotel balcony, or on your bathroom vanity. If hidden occupants reveal themselves, leave shells behind.

Celestun-fast pickings underfoot, flamingos overhead

A little over an hour's drive west of Mderida, the fishing village of Celestun sits on a spit separating the Gulf of Mexico from the Rio Esperanza estuary (part of the National Park of the Mexican Flamingos). Stretching along the gulf north of town, these white sand beaches hold the greatest variety and quantity of discoveries we found: scallop-edged yellow cockles, wing-shaped zebra arks, nearly translucent fig shells, fighting conches, stubby branched sponge's, sea stars, stiff pen shells, pear whelks, lightning whelks, and the papery spirals of their egg cases.

Where you cross the estuary on the road into town, fishermen usually wait with their wooden fishing boats-called pangas-to show you flamingos. Expect to pay about $27 for two people for an hour or so. Bring binoculars for close looks. Babies are very pate pink, adults salmon to flame red with black wing tips. You'll also see cormorants perched watchfully on spindly sticks that mark crab traps beneath the surface, and egrets, herons, and brown pelicans.

Visit the beach in the morning; afternoon winds can whip up sand. To drive the 93 kilometers (56 miles) west from Merida, head southwest on Mexico Highway 180 to Uman, then follow signs west to Samahil, Kinchil, and Celestun (the road is Mexico 281 after Kinchil).

Paamul and Xcacel-on the peninsula in the lee of Cozumel

You can reach both these coastal spots on Mexico 307 south of Cancun. Paamul, about 90 kilometers (55 miles) south of Cancun, has a tiny beachfront motel and a campground; park here. Walk south along a very narrow beach backed by waving coconut palms. Sandy coves with piles of white coral rocks alternate with stony outcrops. The outcrops' crevices and water-filled hollows harbor such treasures as broken staghorn and ivory tube corals, a variety of shells, and sea fans. On the stony parts, you'll appreciate canvas shoes that you don't mind getting wet.

Xcacel (say shah-sel), about 115 kilometers (70 miles) south of Cancun, has another palm grove campground. Park here and walk over the steep sand dune to the water, then go south toward the wreck of the Dublin Dan. White coral rocks poke out of sand at the surf line. Past the shipwreck and around a point, sand gives way to rocky shallows best trod in rubber-soled shoes, not flip-flops. Along the next bay, look southward for sea urchin shells, keyhole limpets, and corals.

Much of the way, you can wade calf-deep on a rock shelf. If you'd like to try casting for reef fish, this is a perfect place we were tempted by two barracuda and two schools of bonefish. At the southern point of this bay, you need your shoes to explore a long stretch of purplish gray limestone; you'll find similarly grayed corals--- from golfball to boulder size. Pearly pockets in the gray rock glisten with the irideseence of broken shells.

Cozumel's sandy windward shore and rocky southern tip

From the square opposite the ferry dock, head east out of town on Avenida Benito Juarez (Cross Island Road on English maps). In about 12 kilometers (7 miles), where the road hits the coast, you'll see beachfront parking and a palapa (an umbrella-shaped, palm-roofed building) that houses a refreshment stand. Our walk north and south from here before the fall storms yielded a wealth of delicately colored urchin shells. Post-storm piles included broken branches of sea fan and mounds of tube-, trumpet-, and antlershaped sponges.

Drive south on Coastal Road (named only on English maps); where it cuts west to recross the island, continue south 4 kilometers (about 2 miles) on an unpaved road to the lighthouse at Punta Celarain, where a few soldiers stand guard. Park by the lighthouse.

To the right (west), the dark limestone shore a coral reef that was underwater before the last lee Age is sharp and rocky, with both sandy and tide-filled hollows. Wear sturdy rubber-soled shoes. You'll find corals and lots of sea fans the more vivid their purple color, the more recent their exit from the sea. Look for the ancient reef's fossil shell formations. To explore the wide sand beach, walk in the other direction from the lighthouse (up the windward coast), or stop at turnouts as you drive back up the unpaved road. As if by Neptune's whim, one stretch will be rich in urchins, measled cowries, sunrise tellins, conches, and an occasional bleeding tooth; the next, empty except for a branch of sea fan.
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Title Annotation:Mexico
Date:Mar 1, 1989
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