Like countless other divers, my first international warm-water scuba trip was to Cozumel, Mexico. In 1961, well-known underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau spent some time in Cozumel and fell in love with Palancar Reef, putting Cozumel on the map as the place to dive.
The Mexican Island of Cozumel is only 32.5 miles long and 8.7 miles wide. The highest elevation is only 45 feet above sea level. Cozumel is about 36 miles south of Cancun and is separated from the Yucatan mainland by a 12-mile-wide channel. The island is well known for exceptionally clear visibility on the reefs and its effortless current diving. The lush reefs on the southwestern end of the island offer incredible drop-offs, pinnacles, and labyrinths with interconnecting caves and tunnels. Photographers and video enthusiasts will find more friendly, ‘easy to shoot’ reef fishes, eels, and invertebrates than in any other Caribbean Island destination.
The only town of any size on the island is centrally located San Miguel, which is home to almost all of Cozumel’s approximate 115,000 residents. There are over 150 resorts and hotels in Cozumel, almost all of which are scattered up and down the western coast of the island. A walking tour of the downtown area is a great way to spend some time shopping, eating, drinking, and taking in the local culture. The main downtown Area of Cozumel spans approximately 5 blocks. However, the southern, northern, and eastern parts of the island are rarely visited by tourists. These, along with the central areas of Cozumel are the less developed portions of the island that have been set aside as protected areas.
Visiting ‘off-the-beaten path’ parts of the island, such as the Punta Sur Ecological Park in the south, the San Gervasio archaeological site, the remote east side of the island, and Columbia Lagoon in the south will leave visitors amazed as to the other activities and attractions that Cozumel has to offer. Here tourists may see and experience rare birds, crocodiles, lighthouses, historic ruins, and beautiful scenic vistas.
To experience the true flavor of Cozumel, I would recommend at least a one-week stay on the island at one of the many fabulous resorts and hotels that Cozumel has to offer. On this trip, I returned for a visit to one of my favorite ‘all-inclusive’ dive resorts, Scuba Club Cozumel, which was actually built in 1976 as Cozumel’s first dedicated diver’s resort.
The flavor of the resort is the same today as when it was built. It offers 60 air-conditioned oceanfront rooms, each with its own private balcony. The resort is built right on the water and offers a freshwater swimming pool, an on-site restaurant, free Wi-Fi, and a five-star dive center. The rooms are all just a short distance from the resort’s private dock. A fleet of seven custom dive boats picks up divers at the dock and transports them quickly to dive sites. Among the most endearing things about this Resort Hotel is that it has retained its quaint charm from the days it was first constructed. Many of the professional and personable dive guides, office personnel, and restaurant staff that I have come to know, have worked at the resort for over twenty years and have become friends.
Located 1 mile south of San Miguel, it’s an easy walk to check out the many shops and restaurants. There are many excellent restaurants in town. Among my personal favorites are Guido’s on the waterfront, Cafe Mission which is about eight blocks back in town, Buccano’s and Sal de Mar both excellent seafood restaurants, and Sorrisi a superb Italian Restaurant. You might also try El Pique, which has 1$ tacos that are a favorite with the locals.
Most visitors take a break from diving and relaxing to spend at least a few hours or more shopping and enjoying the local fare. Cozumel is a duty-free port and therefore offers many bargains. Of course, some of the best deals are on local Mexican handicrafts, silver jewelry, and semi-precious stones.
Almost all of the diving in Cozumel is done along the leeward western shore of the island, which faces the Yucatán mainland. Cozumel always has offshore currents, the force and direction of which varies daily. Almost all boat diving in Cozumel is drift diving. The Guiana current, which runs in a northerly direction, sweeps up along the coastline of Cozumel producing currents of variable strength. Most of the time, these currents move from south to north. The speed of the currents is unpredictable, although when you become accustomed to drift diving, you will find that this type of diving is almost effortless. When the dive boat arrives at a dive site, the guide will give a short dive briefing, including a short description of the site, highlights of things that divers may encounter, and the maximum depth and bottom time for the group. After the guide jumps in and confirms the direction of the current, all of the divers in that group enter the water at the same time and meet the guide on the sandy bottom.
The majority of the dive sites are located along the southwest shoreline of Cozumel and they can roughly be categorized according to their depths, either as shallow reefs, mid-depth reefs, and deep reefs. For the most part, the deeper reefs, such as Punta Sur, Maracaibo, Columbia, and Palancar, are located along the edge of a drop-off that runs parallel to the shoreline and they are at the south end of the island. The majority of the other reefs can be referred to as medium-deep reefs, with depths between 30 and 70 feet. There are a few reefs, such as Paradise, Los Pecios, and Columbia Gardens that are considered strictly shallow reefs and make good second dives after diving deeper areas on the first dive of two-tank dive trips.
As I stepped off the plane on this trip, a refreshing tropical breeze and an impossibly blue sky dotted with cottony white clouds greeted me in Cozumel. After being cooped up in a plane, albeit a short two-hour hop from Dallas, it was time to put on my sunglasses and get to the resort so I could get wet. Arriving in midafternoon, there was still plenty of time to grab a quick lunch, say ‘hello’ to my friends at the resort, set up my dive gear, sign up for the next day’s diving, and jump off the pier for a quick dive along the shoreline. Even the shallow diving just offshore always delivers incredible interactions with moray eels, octopus, colorful reef fish, and a plethora of other creatures waiting to grab my attention. This time was no exception. I took some quick images of a small puffer, overflowing with personality, to knock the cobwebs out of my camera and warm up my shutter finger for the next day’s diving.
Resorts that offer week-long dive packages try to keep the same group together throughout the course of the week so that everyone will get to experience as many different sites as possible. It is also a standard practice that the less difficult dives are made at the beginning of the week, putting off the more advanced dives until later on. Scuba Club Cozumel, as with most of the dive operations, offers two-tank boat dives in the mornings.
The next day found us at Palancar Caves, one of four sections of the famed Palancar Reef. The broad reef structure of Palancar Caves is honeycombed with an extensive network of caves, tunnels, and pinnacles with intermittent sand slopes and channels. Small pinnacles averaging 30 to 40 feet in height are spaced at regular intervals along the outside edge of the reef. Divers will find a few beautiful large red deep-water gorgonian sea fans decorating these pinnacles. Hawksbill Turtles are often encountered in this area, and there are also a large number of unusual fishes here including trunkfish, cowfish, pufferfish, spotted drums, and filefish. The outer edge of the reef in this area drops precipitously to a steeply sloping sand and rubble drop-off in a depth of about 100 feet. Most dive operations set maximum depth limits to 90 feet in this area.
A few days later we dove one of Cozumel’s most popular dives, the C-53 Felipe Xicotencatl shipwreck, which was originally a World War II Minesweeper. It now lies just offshore from Chancanaab Park, protected from strong currents. The wreck sits upright on the sand in 70 feet of water. Large openings have been cut from her sides and the interior has been cleared of most sharp metal obstructions, making the wreck fairly easy to penetrate and swim through. On the inside, we chanced upon a large green moray eel along with a school of glassy sweepers on the interior of the wreck. There are a number of other residents that frequent the wreck including a 5-foot barracuda, a small school of Horse-eye jacks, and pairs of large angelfish.
One of my favorite dives in Cozumel is Paso Del Cedral (Cedar Pass). This medium-deep site has two sections, divided in half by an expanse of sand. The first section is comprised of a flat plateau at a depth of about 50 feet. The topography of this first section is uninteresting, but the variety and abundance of marine life, especially large reef fish are amazing. The site almost always delivers large rainbow parrotfish, queen triggerfish guarding their nests, sea turtles competing with angelfish over meals of delicious sponges, and pairs of white-spotted filefish. For photographers, this area is difficult because you are drawn in so many directions at the same time. The second section of the reef has a higher profile and is literally a latticework of caves, tunnels, and swim-throughs. In the interior of the reef, divers will always encounter schools of porkfish, beautiful reef fish with blue and yellow stripes, and black vertical bars. Divers may also encounter nurse sharks, large lobsters, green morays, and an occasional loggerhead turtle.
We also had a couple of very interesting dives at Yucab Reef, a medium-deep, high-profile reef where we ran into currents running in opposite directions at the same time, only at different depths. This reef has many small schools of reef fish, including grunts, schoolmasters, and margates, that tuck in next to the reef to hide during the day. There was a wealth of colorful reef fish such as cowfish, white-spotted filefish, and large triggerfish.
Toward the end of the week, we had a couple of incredible dives on the shallow Paradise Reef. As we were exploring the shoreside of the reef, amongst the eel grasses, we found a beautiful red long snout seahorse that seemed to be indifferent to our presence. On the other side of the reef, we had multiple encounters with Cozumel’s famed Splendid Toadfish, which has become synonymous with Cozumel.
Our final dive of the trip was on the newest dive site in Cozumel. When the third cruise ship pier was built directly over the northern section of Paradise Reef, the Cozumel dive community acted with foresight, transplanting many corals and sponges that would have been destroyed by the ship traffic, to a new dive site call Los Pecios. At this site, artificial reef structures consisting of large concrete blocks and a couple of small wrecks have become the new home for these sponges and corals, transforming what was once an expanse of sand and rubble into a healthy and vibrant shallow reef.
Many positive things are happening in Cozumel. Cozumel’s Underwater Marine Park (Arrecifes de Cozumel National Park) continues to protect those dive sites that fall within the National Park. In addition, the National Park has recently adopted a calendar that closes sections of the reef on a rotating basis to “protect the reefs from damage or decay.” From my perspective, most of the steps that the Park has taken have had a profound and positive effect on the health of the reef environment.