Whether You''ve Been Diving for Weeks or Decades, This Mexican Paradise Offers Spectacular Diving Experiences

by Rick Frehsee

I am gliding along effortlessly in water as warm as blood and clear as crystal. The nearly invisible water allows me to visualize the continuous spine of coral peaks as a flight of fantasy: It is as if I were a kind of aquatic Superman flying over the Grand Canyon, only instead of birds, there are fishes flitting about.

I look over my shoulder and find my dive buddy exactly where I knew he would be. That kind of mental telepathy, of knowing exactly where your partner is during any moment of the dive, comes with a lot of experience. That is what I share with Juan Leca, instructor, dive operator and 20 year veteran of Cozumel diving.

Juan and I are on a kind of dive holiday; actually I am on a photographic assignment and Juan is using this as an opportunity for an adventure. An adventure is exactly what we are experiencing; the second day of diving on a new site we have discovered between the traditional dive sites of Tormentos and Chancanab reefs.

Now I am at 100 feet, feeling not a hint of a nitrogen buzz, owing to the 32 percent enriched air mixture (nitrox) I am breathing. That and an increase in bottom times are the advantages over plain air; the increased responsibility is a very strict depth limitation. The current pushes us along at about three-quarters of a knot; a good ride for decent sightseeing. After about five minutes of gliding along a lackluster ledge nearly devoid of large sponges and corals, the wall turns inshore and El Castillo; the castle; appears. It is incredible in decoration and nearly unbelievable in size, a huge wall, nearly vertical, sometimes undercut and as long as a football field. It begins at about 100 feet and plummets, it would appear, to infinity. A diver in the Caribbean, especially in a popular place such as Cozumel, will rarely find a coral landscape so absolutely pristine. Beneath the ledges at the start of the wall are giant buff tube sponges, some very symmetrical and others bent into weird shapes by the current. Some scenes are truly mesmerizing; oversized sponges and soft and hard corals billowing into floral bouquets and fantasy shapes. Schools of chromis and wrasse hover above, reminiscent of a butterfly invasion of a flower garden.

Juan and I dip into calm water beneath the first ledge to study the scenery in detail. Usually a scene this complex and diverse is associated with Indo-Pacific reefs. Here, in Cozumel, is one of the richest underwater scenes in the Caribbean.

At the end of El Castillo, the wall rises to a coral mound that falls to a sandy shelf on the shallow side. In a vertical fissure along the mound is one of the largest Orange Elephant Ear Sponges I have ever seen. Roughly oval in shape, it is 10 to 12 feet high and nearly that wide; the king of sponges on the king of walls along Cozumel''s nearly continuous drop-off.

Moving out from the coral mound, we join the current again to resume our adventure looking for another oasis of corals and sponges. Few things identify Cozumel as well as the Yucatan current, which affects the island to some degree 365 days a year. This current, which originates in the west-central Caribbean, is a biological blessing, a kind of soup washing nutrients and plankton over the reef. The concentration is actually thin but the volume of water flowing by the reefs is great, providing nourishment without affecting visibility. So, besides providing transportation for divers, the current provides a constant food source for the reef and great visibility. In fact, the current washes the reef clean of any disturbed sand and discourages divers from contact with the bottom. Not a bad situation for a reef system that has been popular with divers for nearly 30 years.

The ride the current provides for divers is really the essential difference between Cozumel and nearly every other major Caribbean dive destination. For experienced divers, the current is a hoot. Drop in and exit at the right place and, in between, you have seen a tremendous stretch of reef. There have been dives where we have covered one-quarter to one-half mile of reef, all nearly effortlessly. You learn to play the current essentially like a glider or hang glider pilot plays the winds spilling off a mountain or flowing along a canyonside.

Juan and I essentially ride the current the same way, with an eye out for the next potentially great underwater photograph. We ride in the sea wind more or less in a flared-out position to gain all its energy. Occasionally we will even speed up with a kick of our fins in the direction of the current. Then, as an interesting ledge, a decorated coral spire or a colorful school of fish appears, we will move closer to the reef and seek shelter in the lee of a coral head or ledge. Recently, toward the northern end of the island, we used this technique with great success as we discovered several sea turtles sleeping in ledges on the top of the wall. Once the pictures are taken, we move out from the reef and rejoin the current, continuing our journey. In this way, each dive is a discovery; you never know exactly where you are dropping in on a site or exactly where you will end up. Not so incidentally, the boat follows from above, tracking bubbles (on calm days) or following a buoy towed by a divemaster.

The Cozumel current makes macro photography a challenge and requires a new plan for shore diving. But successful close-ups can be taken in a lee behind the reef or in little current close to shore, without lying on or in the corals. And shore diving, which is fairly popular in Cozumel, can be planned with entry and exit areas defined. One merely has to arrange for a vehicle at the exit point.

Under ideal circumstances, Cozumel current diving is so relaxing there is little or no aerobic benefit to scuba diving. But dive poorly and challenge the current and you will have to work like an Olympic athlete. To the uninitiated, current diving can be intimidating. To the ignorant or foolish, it can turn a holiday dive into a nightmare. There is all the difference in the world between diving the popular reef stretch between town and Punta Sur and diving at the northern or southern ends of Cozumel. Along the island there are plenty of boats and, if you are in good shape, by swimming perpendicular to the current, you could reach shore. At the southern tip of the island, the current often splits and is unpredictable. At the northern end, it is even worse, usually picking up speed and moving away from shore. Additional experience and precautions are mandated here. Fortunately, most established dive operators in Cozumel are experts in knowing where, when and how to dive the 30 or so most popular sites along the island.

What you will see: Wonderful things appear constantly before the eyes of the diver in Cozumel. The underwater environment presents a complete selection of stony corals, gorgonians, sponges and an assortment of marine fishes and other invertebrates. In addition to the clear Yucatan current, Cozumel''s ocean waters are kept crystal owing to the absence of rivers on Cozumel and the near absence of outflow along the limestone-based Yucatan peninsula, 12 miles away. The 32 by 10 mile island is mostly beaches, parched ironshore and dry, scrub forest. Rain, when it does fall, is usually in brief showers. Water temperatures vary from a low of about 77 degrees F in February to a high of about 84 degrees F in August and September.

Marine life is generally excellent, with numerous pockets of schooling fishes found along the reef, a generous selection of colorful reef tropicals and fairly frequent encounters with pelagics and schools along the outer reefs. Cozumel does not have an abundance of massive shallow reefs. Most snorkeling is done close to shore, because of the current, and along low patch or striated reefs. An exception is Colombia Shallows at the southern end of Cozumel but this is a long boat run. Night diving is popular and offers a good chance to find an octopus or Spiny Lobster out and about. An unfortunate circumstance has been the recent ''sacrifice'' of Paraiso Reef, a popular night dive site, owing to the building of the new cruise ship pier. This occurred even in the face of the island government''s professed dedication to environmentalism. Compromises are sometimes necessary but hopefully this will be the last reef that will have to succumb to Cozumel''s continuing development.

The real and constant attraction in Cozumel diving is along or just off the ''wall,'' a nearly continuous shelf that parallels the island''s western coastline for 20 miles. Here, coral spires and pinnacles billow off the white sand floor, creating sea castles and strange labyrinths to explore. Even very experienced Caribbean divers are generally thrilled with the size of Cozumel''s towering corals and the maze of fissures and caverns penetrating the reefs. Names such as Palancar, Santa Rosa and Punta Sur are world renowned as underwater spectacles. There are specific attractions to encounter, such as the schooling fish atop Tormentos Reef and the yellow sponge forming a cross in a cave at Punta Sur. But, just like our newly discovered dive site mentioned at the beginning of this article, true adventure can be found anywhere along the Cozumel reef tract. I much prefer to chase conditions, allowing the divemaster to determine the dive site according to the current and visibility.

In search of the Splendid Toadfish: Of all the special critters and encounters in Cozumel, one stands out as the island''s signature marine life. The Splendid Toadfish (also known as the Resplendent Toadfish or Cozumel Toadfish) is nearly indigenous to Cozumel, although some specimens are found along the coast of the Yucatan and even a few have been sighted in Belize. It can be said that the Splendid is the most beautiful of the Caribbean Toadfish, that is, it is the prettiest of the ugly fishes. Its body is lined with black and white zebra stripes. The Splendid is particularly royal looking with its pectoral fins flared, revealing their splash of yellow color.

Splendid Toadfish aren''t difficult to find. Nearly all (except on night dives) are found in holes or under ledges, comfortably wedged in and at a safe distance from the opening. They are pugnacious and often aggressive. Hold a snorkel tip close to the entrance of their lair and they will often bite at it or push sand out at you.

The trick for photographers is to find a fairy mellow toadfish. This will probably occur in every one out of six animals. When this happens, you will be rewarded by a toadfish that will protrude several inches from the opening of its lair and sit up on its pectorals, seemingly undaunted or oblivious to the presence of diver, camera or strobe.

Where to stay, where to dive: The only thing vaguely difficult about Cozumel lodging or diving is the possibilities, which are nearly endless and run from the nearly primitive to the almost opulent. Every style and class of lodging is available in Cozumel. These include full service luxury hotels and ''name brand'' beach resorts, stunning Caribbean villas, quaint Mexi-Maya hotels, all-inclusive resorts, dedicated dive resorts and apartment/condo rentals. Guestrooms are often on the beach and nearly all are air-conditioned. Most large and mid-sized hotels also offer phones, cable TV and often mini-bars and individual patios. Many suites and condos offer a kitchen or kitchenette. Most hotels have bars and restaurants and offer meal packages. AP, MAP and EP packages are popular as Cozumel features a staggering variety of restaurants. Most major hotels provide large freshwater pools, in-house dive operators, fax, travel desk, concierge and transportation rentals. Very popular at Cozumel hotels are theme nights, shows and special dinners. Generally speaking, the farther south the hotel, the shorter the boat run to the popular reefs. But this might be offset by other advantages, such as being closer to town.

According to someone''s latest account, there are more than 60 dive operators currently on Cozumel but only a dozen or so come quickly to mind. The only regulation for dive operators on the island is competition; it is basically a wide open business. The criteria for selecting an operator should be based on affiliations, recommendations, reputation, experience and longevity. Some operators have fleets of boats, established bases of operations, an extensive professional staff and 10 or more years in the business. This, along with personal scrutiny, should determine who you should dive with. In Cozumel, it is not unusual to be staying at a hotel and diving with an operator not directly affiliated with that hotel. Several dive operators near or close to town pick up divers on hotel piers all along the waterfront twice daily on their way to the popular southern reefs.

Nearly every kind of diving and boat schedule can be found on Cozumel (as well as nearly every kind of dive boat). Very early morning dives, morning dives, late morning dives, afternoon, twilight and night dives are offered daily, with one or two tanks per trip. Big ''social boats,'' fast V-hulled cruisers, flattops, catamarans and yacht-style dive boats can be found. Some operators make it a point to segregate divers on boats according to experience levels. PADI, NAUI, SSI, etc., standards are usually rigidly kept and, except for snorkelers from the cruise ships, there is an aversion to ''cattle boats.'' Most mid-sized boats in Cozumel go out with 12 to 16 divers. Very popular are the 20 to 25 foot outboard six pack (six passenger) boats usually chartered by experienced divers. Diving in this reputed "ma-ana-land" is actually quite organized and usually on schedule. The exception is the ''party boat,'' usually chartered to a 16 to 25 person dive group that is seemingly on its own schedule.

There are three hyperbaric chambers on the island and an excellent full service IANTD nitrox facility. Also available are several custom video services normally booked through your dive operator and a full service photo/video center.

Around the island: Still comparatively small, San Miguel is a former fishing village that, during the past 30 years, has sprung into a tourist town. Today, San Miguel seems to be in the thrashes and throws of a decision whether to remain quaint or turn commercial. As a result, it is actually both; the layout still adheres to a small colonial town with a parque central (central park) and a grid pattern of restaurants and storefronts, complete with a watch tower and two churches.

In addition to the considerable charm of architecture and layout, you are ''slam-dunked'' with more than 200 gift shops peddling both trash and treasure, and more bars and restaurants than you can visit in a year. There are also several recognizable U.S. chain fast food eateries along the beach strip. That said, there are also many charming seafood, Mexican and specialty restaurants and more than a few boutique shops offering crafts and jewelry. Little white taxis are everywhere and fares are reasonable. There is the Calling Station in town that offers phone and fax service. If you are interested in the island''s environment and culture, don''t miss the Cozumel Museum downtown.

A really nice excursion is to rent a Jeep and tour the island, which can include wilderness white sand beaches, thick stands of tropical dry forest, rugged ironshore coastline, several small ancient Maya sites (San Gervasio is the largest and most impressive), beachside restaurants and cantinas, and the picturesque Celarin Lighthouse at the southwest tip of the island. If you have time to venture farther, Cozumel ferryboats depart the town pier for the mainland tourist village of Playa del Carmen every half hour from before dawn to after sunset. There are also daily trips to Tulum, Koba and Chichen Itza; major Maya sites on the mainland.