Of pirates and shallow reefs

There are strange places in the middle of the sea that lurk in front of the sailor like trapdoors in front of the wanderer. The Abrolohos Reef in Australia, the Goodwin Sands off England, the Skerki Banks off Tunis, the Bassa do Indias near Mozambique and Chinchorro Banks off Yucatan are just a few of such legendary places where, in ancient times, ships got crushed by the hundreds.

The stories of the sinking of the unfortunate are often bloodthirsty and merciless. One of the worst is probably the story of the massacre that the passengers of the Batavia caused among themselves when they stranded on the sandy atolls of the Abrolhos Reefs.

The Chinchorro Bank, the largest coral atoll of Mexico, has a similar story. It is a ring-shaped coral reef about 35 km to the east off the coast of Mahahual.

The reef is home to at least nine shipwrecks, including two Spanish Galleons. There is also a large ferry from Cozumel that washed up on Chinchorro during a Hurricane.

The reason for this assemblage of wrecks is easily to be noticed: The Banks are surrounded by a large coral barrier 20 meters thick, which remains totally submerged, although a finger breadth under the surface: only 60 centimeters between it and the coral layer of this belt. Behind it, a kind of shallow pool is formed which’s bottom is largely sandy. Along the barrier there are some entrance points, where boats used to seek refuge in strong storms.

Stilt houses off the southwestern end of Cayo Centro, Banco Chinchorro, Mexico. The water is shallow. (c) Burdulis

It is sure that some ships sank in hitting inadvertently the reef, many, however, were assisted in their fate. Only two parts of the atoll protrude to form small islands – North Key and Centre Key. On the first there is a lighthouse that was built towards the end of the 19th century to guide ships and avoid collisions with the coral. Knowing that the captains of merchant ships were guided by the lighthouse to lead their ships between Chinchorro and the coast, pirates who prowled the area, used to head towards the island to extinguish the lighthouse and replace it with a lantern mounted on a raft or barrel placed much further west than the lighthouse. The ships thus miscalculated the distances and ran aground. Then they would be boarded and plundered.

Today divers can see the magnificent wreck sites … and remember the dangerous adventure that seafaring used to be.

U.C. Ringuer

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