Mexico's Cenotes

Dive into the new cenote exhibit at the Vancouver Aquarium.


Spectacular Cenotes

A cenote is a water-filled sinkhole in a limestone platform that forms with the collapse of an underground cave’s roof. Filled with ground water from underground rivers, these cenotes form special habitats for animals and plants. The spectacular cenotes in Central America’s Yucatán Peninsula are home to fascinating aquatic life. The exhibit at the Vancouver Aquarium showcases some of the incredible fishes and aquatic plants living in these cenotes.

Exhibit Inhabitants

Thorichthys meeki

Firemouth cichlid

You can see this cichlid flare its red gill covers to both court and defend territory. Redder fish are more dominant.

Cribroheros robertsoni

False firemouth cichlid

You’ll see this fish sift the sand for food, and see the sand trickle out from its gill flaps.

Rocio octofasciata

Jack Dempsey

It’s named after the 1920s world-champion boxer because it’s supposed to be a fighter, but is it? You can see for yourself.

Poecilia velifera

Sailfin molly

Only males have the huge, sail-like back (dorsal) fins. You can watch them raise this fin to court a female on exhibit.

Gambusia sp.


Related to the guppies and swordtails sold in pet stores. You’ll see it hang out under the lily pads looking for a meal.


Under Threat

The Yucatán's spectacular cenotes are home to well-adapted species popular in home aquariums. These ecosystems are under threat, can they be saved?


Climate Change

The increasing CO2 in our atmosphere affects the speed that the cenotes’ limestone walls form and dissolve, impacting the aquatic life living in them. A warming climate also melts glaciers and raises the sea level, causing sea water to seep into cenotes making it inhabitable to many species, including some fishes. Reduce your carbon footprint: buy, fly and drive a car less to help preserve cenotes.


Groundwater Pollution

Pollution from human activities seeps into the groundwater and harms the aquatic life living in underwater caves and cenotes. Visit the Yucatan Peninsula’s cenotes responsibly and minimize your footprint. Don’t use sunscreen and cosmetic products when swimming and cooling off in cenotes — the chemicals in them hurts cenote animals.


Invasive Species

Non-native fishes, such as tilapias introduced into cenotes for aquaculture, out-compete the natives for food, habitat and spawning sites. Tilapias not only displace them, but also eat their eggs and fry, causing some native species to disappear. This problem is not isolated to cenotes in Mexico. Help protect all aquatic environments — never release a non-native into an ocean, lake, river or stream.

What's in a name?

U yumil tzono'ot

Many cenotes in the Yucatan Peninsula are identified by names derived from their physical attributes, or some notable event.

We decided to name our built cenote habitat to honour the late Bil Phillips, a local man from North Vancouver who spent over 30 years exploring and mapping Yucatan’s underground caves. A passionate protector of cenotes, he spearheaded the removal of invasive tilapias from Aktun Ha (AKA Carwash cenote). Bil's full name "William" includes the roots words willeo (for determination) and helm (for protection) — we named our cenote U yumil tzono'ot, Mayan for "the cenote protector."

Exhibit Location

The Tropics Gallery

From anemone-dwelling clown anemonefish to sleek blacktip reef sharks, life and colour abound in this gallery.