The Shangri-La dive site is located a short five-minute boat ride from central Playa del Carmen. The rocky reef runs parallel to the shore and you will swim North or South depends on the current. Of all the dive sites in Playa del Carmen, Shangri-La is noted as having the highest coral coverage.
The word Shangri-la is commonly used to describe a mythical, utopia, or land of permanent happiness, and we can say this site lives up to its name. This dive is covered in impressive Agaricia, lettuce coral bommies, and large schools of fish.
The reef starts like many of the other dive in Playa, along a shallow sandy bottom, with large patches of soft Gorgonian corals. But as you swim further along the reef you will enter the lettuce coral habitat.
This complex habitat attracts a large community of fish, eels, and crustaceans. The Agaricia bommies sit on a rocky outcropping forming a small ledge 1-2 meter deep on either side and eels, crabs, and cleaner shrimps like to hang inside caves and cracks below the ledge.
Aside from the impressive coral bommies, if you look closely between coral colonies you can still find some rare and unusual species. One of the highlights of coral diversity on this dive was a few smaller colonies of brightly colored Porites divaricata.
This thin branching species can be common is some sites, but it is rare to find large patches. The pictures definitely don’t do justice to this coral, as it is the most colorful species of Porites coral in the Caribbean.
This coral can be found in a range of colors from lilac purple to yellow or red. The holy grail is a purple colony with yellow polyps!
Another interesting coral to be on the lookout for is Manicina areolata, also called the rose coral. I was able to spot several colonies tucked under soft corals or half buried in the sand.
The look of Manicina areolata can easily be confused between a few different Caribbean corals, and it takes a keen eye to spot this uncommon species. You could easily mistake this for a juvenile maze coral (Meandrina meandrites), or juvenile boulder brain coral (Colpophyllia natans). But, when identifying this species it’s all in the shape, color, and size
One of the reasons I enjoy looking for coral are dives like this. At first glace, this might just seem like any other dive, but once you look closer you can find a few hidden gems.
If you want to learn more about coral identification make sure to check out my Guide to Caribbean Corals for descriptions of each species! And big thanks to Maria at Bull Sharks Diving Center for taking me diving in Playa del Carmen.