Contoy Island in Mexico Is Place for Bird Lovers

Times Staff Writer

And the creation of all the four-footed animals and the birds being finished, they were told by the Creator and the Maker and the Forefathers: 'Speak, cry, warble, call, speak each one according to your variety, each according to your kind.' Popol Vuh, Mayan Council Book

"Unspoiled" is not a term normally associated with the tourist-thick Yucatan coast between Cancun and Cozumel. But 18 miles north of that Miami Beach-in-the-making, about 40 miles from where the muddy Gulf of Mexico meets the azure Caribbean, is the island of Contoy, which clearly merits the adjective.

The four mile-long, -mile-wide national park and wildlife sanctuary is something of an anomaly for the area. There is no record of Spanish explorers or English pirates landing here, nor have any significant Mayan or colonial ruins been uncovered. Until very recently, Contoy has been strictly for the birds.

Many Bird Species

But what birds!Resident and migratory species in large numbers include ibises, herons, flamingos, cormorants, pelicans, frigates, boobies and loons, to name a few.

Contoy is one of the more important bird colonies in the Caribbean, according to Alexander Sprunt, vice president and director of research for the National Audubon Society, after a recent aerial survey of the island. "It used to be a very isolated place."

According to Christophe Joannides, who takes groups out to the island twice a week from Cancun, then-Mexican President Jose Lopez Portillo saw the island while on an aerial tour in the late 1970s, and asked the pilot of his seaplane to set down.

Lopez Portillo was so taken with Contoy that he decided to preserve it for the nation and to build a $1-million marine and aviary museum--complete with observation tower--on the leeward side of the island, as well as a biological research center.

The open-air complex was dedicated in 1981, and, apart from the small museum staff and researchers, the only permanent human residents of Contoy are four Mexican sailors who operate the lighthouse on the island's northern tip. Mexican university students make periodic field trips to study marine life.

We made a day trip to Contoy aboard the "Columbus," a sleek, 47-ton, 62-foot motor sailboat custom built for the coastal run. The mahogany and cedar craft accommodates 60 passengers and a crew of five, but draws only 3 1/2 feet of water, allowing it to navigate the shallow coastal waters and avoid the many reefs. Its one engine enables the boat to cruise at 12 knots, and both masts collapse when necessary.

Visitation Restricted

Joannides, 33, was born in Egypt of Greek parents and lived in France and Canada before coming to Mexico five years ago. After working as a bartender in a youth hostel and at Cancun's Club Med, Joannides and a partner went into the excursion business. The Columbus is the only large, motorized boat permitted by the government to land at Contoy, according to Joannides. "The Mexican tourist authority likes the image of this boat--it's ecological," he said.

On our day to go the weather was perfect, and the boat--built for $250,000 in the coastal Yucatan town of Progreso--proved to be a work of art, with much hand-detailed woodwork. The only reservation I heard about the accommodations came from my wife who, at 5-feet-11, said that the "Mayan bathrooms" seemed designed for people shorter than 5 feet.

Snorkeling Off Reef

But what made the trip so delightful was the way "little details" were worked out. For example, the Columbus left the pier of our Cancun hotel early enough to arrive at El Garafon, a popular snorkeling cove across the strait on Isla Mujeres, well before the large excursion boats arrived and the snorkelers would outnumber the colorful reef fish.

While we were swimming and riding sea turtles, a motorized dinghy went straight from Cancun to Contoy to catch fresh fish and prepare a barbecue lunch, timed exactly to our arrival.

From El Garafon to Contoy is a 90-minute cruise, inside the reef and never out of sight of the coast. Our trip was smooth, and not very windy, but Joannides warned that it can be very rough on the run, which he has been making for several months.

Informal shipboard food service (soft drinks, including the Classic Coke, and beer are available throughout the voyage)begins around 11 a.m. with ceviche. Joannides called the shrimp-and-fish cocktail, served on ice in a foam cup, "Yucatan sushi." Later we had sliced fresh melon and pineapple.

We could smell lunch--grilled fresh grouper in a red, spicy sauce flavored with the spice axiote --before we got off the pier at Contoy. The meal was served inside the airy museum at a makeshift buffet, with people sitting on folding chairs among the well-mounted exhibits.

Afterward we were free to climb the observation tower, snorkel from the beach or take a short walk across the island's spine to the rocky, seaward side of the island. Contoy forms the northern end of the world's second-longest offshore coral reef (next to Australia's Great Barrier Reef), stretching south to Belize.

From time to time, Joannides' passengers to Contoy include a U.S.-born resident and self-taught bird authority, Barbara MacKinnon de Montes. After becoming interested in bird life in Yucatan, Montes said she signed up for a correspondence course in bird biology with Cornell University. Now she does research and compiles data for field guides and the Audubon Society. Sprunt said that he has found Montes well-versed in the field.

Montes was also a great source of Contoy lore, confiding for example that to build the museum's observation tower, a pelican nesting area had to be cleared. "I cried when they put it up," she said.

In the waters surrounding the island, she said, are green sea turtles, and the spiny lobster migrates along the northern end of the island. At one time, fishermen told her, the waters would be black with lobsters from the bottom to the surface.

After lunch, Montes served as guide as the dinghy took groups of 18 to 20 on a bird tour of Contoy's large lagoon. Sitting in the bow of the launch, she cautioned that "You have to be very fast to be a good bird watcher." On Contoy, she said, there are a limited number of species--about 75--but in greater numbers. At its peak, the bird population swells to 6,500.

The island "is a very important site as far as the brown pelican is concerned," said David Blankinship, an Audubon Society research biologist who has made three trips to Contoy to band the young birds for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Exploring the Lagoon

For us, there was only time--30 minutes--to explore a small portion of the lagoon. Nonetheless, we were able to see the tricolor heron (formerly the Louisiana heron), great blue heron, brown pelican, double-breasted cormorants, magnificent frigates, white-crowned doves, brown boobies, reddish egrets, roseate spoonbills, turkey buzzards and white ibis.

A few of the birds were in flight, but in the heat of the day, most were roosting in trees overhanging the water's edge;others dotted the green banks like bleachers bums.

Even a near-sighted neophyte like myself could enjoy the spectacle, and at the same time imagine an ideal trip to Contoy for the serious bird watcher, a two- or three-day camping trip to the island in March or April, when the migration is greatest:Paddle or drift the lagoon at sunrise and sunset;snorkel the leeward cove or sleep at midday.

To make such an excursion, it is necessary to arrange permission from national park officials at Cancun, which is still not too difficult. You'd need to take all your camping equipment, including food and fresh water and fine netting to protect you from sand flies and, depending on the rain, mosquitoes. Also an inflatable dinghy.

According to Blankinship, medium-size boa constrictors on the island feed on iguanas, small birds and eggs. You'd also need to arrange with a fisherman on Isla Mujeres to drop you off and pick you up.

For the less serious, the Columbus makes day trips on Tuesdays and Wednesdays from Club International and Club Med, respectively. The cost is about $32, depending on the peso, and includes food and drinks. Joannides said he is willing to allow a few people who have permits to go out on Tuesday and return on Wednesday for the same price. "It's a rough two days," he said, "but it's worth it."

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