Crocs by the flocks in Mex­ico

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Afloat - KATE WICK­ERS

We won­der what ev­ery­one is paus­ing to gawp at as they wan­der along a board­walk in Ce­lestun Bio­sphere Re­serve, a vast la­goon and ghostly swath of salt-choked man­grove lo­cated on the north­west coast of Yu­catan state in Mex­ico.

“Maybe it’s a crocodile wait­ing for his lunch,” I joke to my sons (Josh, 14, Ben, 13, and Fred­die, 9) as we glance back to the peo­ple mer­rily jump­ing in and out of the nearby fresh­wa­ter swim­ming hole.

“Oh, my God, it ac­tu­ally is,” shouts Josh, as we reach the point where we are able to gaze into the yel­low eyes of a 1.8m-long Moreleti crocodile, lan­guish­ing on the bank. “I don’t think I’ll go for a swim af­ter all,” says Fred­die.

Vis­i­tors can ex­plore this 60,000ha, UNESCOpro­tected re­serve by mo­tor­boat or ca­noe. We start by hir­ing the for­mer and a skip­per at the of­fi­cial parador tur­is­tico, past the bridge on the main road into the town of Ce­lestun.

Th­ese shal­low-keel boats are the best way to nav­i­gate the low muddy wa­ters of the la­goon where fresh wa­ter from an es­tu­ary mixes with salt wa­ter from the Gulf of Mex­ico. It’s the per­fect habi­tat for birds such as ibises, egrets, blue herons and a vast Amer­i­can flamingo colony, which peaks at 30,000 dur­ing the win­ter sea­son from Novem­ber to May.

From a dis­tance, a flock of flamin­gos is a daz­zling sight, like one huge crim­son un­du­lat­ing beast as the birds shim­mer on the hori­zon. We watch them fly­ing in, their necks and legs equal dis­tance from their wings so at times they ap­pear to be go­ing back­wards. They’re such whim­si­cal crea­tures that they don’t seem real. No won­der Alice used one as cro­quet stick in Won­der­land.

Our skip­per’s 10-year old son, Daniel, is keen to show off to my sons. He leans pre­car­i­ously over the side of the boat to fish out the tiny red brine shrimp the flamin­gos feast on to give them their pink plumage. He flicks them play­fully at Fred­die, who oblig­ingly shrieks.

More than 300 species of bird have been recorded here and we reach for our binoc­u­lars to watch the cor­morants that stand on branches hang­ing their wings out to dry in the sun, and the blue-winged teal, oys­ter catch­ers and shov­ellers wad­ing on the shal­low banks in keen search of crus­taceans.

Our ca­noe trip, with eco­tour group Manglares de Dzini­tun, is a vastly dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ence. You don’t cover much dis­tance by ca­noe, but the lack of en­gine noise makes it eas­ier to spot birds. We pad­dle through fil­tered sun­light and a tun­nel of man­groves, past huge ter­mite mounds tee­ter­ing on branches.

A pere­grine fal­con is keep­ing an eye on our voy­age. We’ve had the “crocodile con­ver­sa­tion” and hope not to see those steely eyes pop up from the murky wa­ter, but it’s not long be­fore we have other things to worry about when Car­los, our guide, points out an enor­mous, curled boa con­stric­tor sleep­ing in a tree.

“Don’t worry, he’s just fed,” he says, point­ing to a bulge in the snake’s stom­ach. But we do worry for the safety of the nearby nest­ing yel­low-crowned night heron and the hand­some pygmy king­fisher that flits by — a flash of bril­liant green and or­ange in a world of ashen shade.

The town of Ce­lestun is a drowsy place with brightly painted casas and a soft pow­der beach, the per­fect spot for lunch and to watch the white and grey pel­i­cans tra­verse the coast­line. Lo­cal chil­dren fly home­made kites and fam­i­lies gather for bar­be­cues, their buck­ets of iced Sol beer buried in the sand. Pala­pas (thatched restau­rants) serve de­li­cious blue crab with tor­tillas and rice.

Stalls sell starfish, conch shells, shark jaws and other cu­riosi­ties that would send a marine con­ser­va­tion­ist reel­ing. A small crocodile, fallen prey to a taxi­der­mist, catches Ben’s eye. Read­ing his mind I tell him firmly, “For­get it! There’s no way we’d get that through cus­toms.” • • vis­it­mex­

A colony of pretty-in-pink flamin­gos, top; a Moreleti crocodile, above; tourists ex­plore the man­grove for­est, be­low

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