Mayan Riviera holidays are typically peppered with giggles and gasps, but there will be no such nonsense on this day: Silence is mandatory.
We are crouched low on the bow of a bird-spotting lancha. Photographer Steve Winter, revered as a legend at National Geographic, purrs in his Southern drawl, "Where there's birds, there's prey. Follow the food and you'll find the flock." This is a man who, over solitary months working in the bush, spends more time with lions, tigers and bears than people.
North of Playa del Carmen, Mayakoba is a destination made up of four ecosystems: mangroves, coastal dunes, navigable water canals and the Mesoamerican reef. An A-list favourite (recent guests include Sofia Vergara, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Hudson and Leonardo DiCaprio), the ecoresort is also hailed by both the United Nations World Tourism Organization and the Rainforest Alliance as a world leader in sustainable tourism. Ten kilometres of freshwater canals connect three upscale hotels: Fairmont, Banyan Tree and Rosewood.
In a savvy move toward learning holidays, Mayakoba pairs its acclaimed biodiversity with respected wildlife photojournalists – Winter, Tim Laman and Brian Skerry. Recently announced October dates for the popular Wildlife Photo Masterclass will allow guests to learn from the best in an immersive three-day course. A beach holiday with a learning curve – the perfect mix of sanguine languor and lively stimulation.
Our nimble electric craft swans silently past a kaleidoscopic wheel of every conceivable green – chartreuse to emerald to lime, in volume so lush that it nearly obscures the canal. With a smart cap of 10 participants per session, Winter easily engages with each of us one on one, giving frame-changing guidance.
A leggy limpkin makes quick work of an endless buffet of golf-ball-sized snails. "That's what we call behaviour, people," Winter twangs, "Birds doing bird things!" triggering a wave of shutter clicks. He makes a point of telling us how "chill" the birds are, not a skittish one in sight. A tribute to how softly development evolved here, with the impact on wildlife front of mind.
When Mayakoba vice-president of operations James Batt first moved here, he caught the birding bug immediately. He set course on capturing images of more than 200 species of birds and native wildlife on the property. "This workshop is the first of its kind in a resort context," he beams. "This is where luxury travel is heading – once-in-a-lifetime experiential learning."
Staying at the five-star Fairmont Mayakoba, masterclass guests attend dinners, lectures and excursions, gaining tips from the industry elite.
Whether kicking your shutter career in a wild direction or simply sexing up your Instagram feed, under Winter's tutelage, you quickly pick up key skills. With enthusiastic species call-outs by comedian Nick Ruggia, the photographer's stepson, you start to differentiate roseate spoonbills from boat-billed herons. Ruggia's steady stream of sightings is impressive, like an auctioneer taking inventory of an Audubon lot.
Over nightly downtime, I kick back with Winter and his intrepid partner in life and publishing, Sharon Guynup; we dive deep into the complexities of habitat protection.
Guynup's perspective on conservation gives group dinners much-needed gravitas in the wake of Cecil the lion. The couple's most recent book, Tigers Forever (National Geographic/Random House), raises money for Panthera, a renowned big cat conservation organization.
The next Mayakoba Wildlife Photo Masterclass Weekends run Oct. 23-26 and Dec. 11-14 with Steve Winter; additional dates for 2016 to be announced. Packages start at $432 a room a night, with a minimum stay of three nights. Rate based on double occupancy plus applicable taxes.
The writer was a guest of Mayakoba. The resort did not review or approve this article.