Cozumel Up Close

By Rick Frehsee

I am about to enter the sea from the sand beach and iron-shore outcrops of the island of Cozumel. The leeside ocean is nearly as flat as a lake with crystal water gently lapping the shore. A few yards away from the wading pool entry at the Villa Blanca Garden Beach is a field of small nugget-shaped coral heads and seawhips; farther out, still within swimming distance, is a "grand canyon" wall-monstrous coral pinnacles and undercut ledges lining a blue abyss. Together they make up the Villa Blanca Reef and Wall, one of more than 30 named dive sites that parallel the island's western coastline over nearly 20 miles.

This reef is special due to the easy shore entry and due to my dive guide, Pico Castello, marine biologist, instructor, and pied piper of Cozumel diving. I am on a mission looking for little things on the big reef, and Pico is much more than a second set of eyes. After more than a thousand dives here, he knows the intricacies of this reef like few others.

Cozumel's underwater attractions are well-known among experienced divers: huge coral formations, excellent marine life and some of the best viz in the Caribbean-all made possible by the nearly constant Yucatan current and the long, wind-protected western coastline. The limestone, scrub-jungle island literally sucks rainstorms dry. Seldom does any freshwater runoff affect the visibility.

For this visit, I want to develop a photographic catalog of Cozumel's wonderful close-up and macro subjects, often overlooked in the pursuit of big reef diving here. Within the first two minutes of the dive, we find several huge, Spotted Scorpionfish (Scorpaena plumieri). A fish without a swim bladder, scorpionfish can survive nicely by remaining negatively buoyant. One, totally confident of his defensive spines, poses for my camera, sitting atop a small coral head. Looking more like coral rubble than a fish, divers often overlook this pugnacious creature.

Also within minutes, I am getting the impression that the Cozumel reefs are carpeted with Yellow Stingrays (Urolophus jamaicensis); they seem to be everywhere. Sometimes partially buried and sometimes fully exposed, they, too, can be approached closely, with a little patience.

Pico led me along a reef ledge lined with gorgonians. Several times we stopped and found Flamingo Tongue Shells (Cyphoma gibbosum) clinging to seawhips. At the base of the whips were a number of Lettuce Sea Slugs (Tridachia crispata), portraying the blue phase of coloration.

A very special resident of most Cozumel reefs is the Splendid Toadfish (Sanopus splendidus), an interesting bottom dweller. Exhibiting a zebra-striped head, a barbel-fringed chin and bright yellow borders on all fins, the Cozumel Toadfish is the most distinctive of its family in the Caribbean. Patience is required. At night, their grunts will often lead you to their hideouts.

Another bottom dwelling camouflage expert is the Peacock Flounder (Bothus lunatus). We found at least a half dozen during our dive. Gliding over the sand bottom in a wave-like motion, they move from one perch to the next. Once settled on the bottom, they are nearly impossible to spot.

At the end of the reef ledge, Pico pointed out a special subject-a stand of relatively rare pillar coral (Dendrogyra cylindria) nearly obscured by a thick school of mixed Blue-striped Grunts (Haemulon sciurus) and Caesar Grunts (Haemulon carbonarium).

During the dive we easily found four species of eels, some swimming freely, others tightly wrapped inside pocked and popcorn coral heads. Spotted Morays (Gymnothorax moringa) were the most common and the most unafraid, casually swimming in the open, between corals. Shy and retiring Goldentail Morays (Gymnothorax miliaris) were generally much smaller and difficult to coax into view. Translucent Sharptail Eels (Myriethys braviceps) were relatively unafraid and often allowed us to approach closely before shimmying into holes in the reef. Out on the deeper reef, we found huge, friendly Green Morays (Gymnothorax funebris) hiding in recesses, their heads extended.

On the swim back to shore, feeling very satisfied with all the lovely creatures we had found, we had a final surprise-a Caribbean Octopus (Octopus briareus) sliding along the sugar-sand bottom. Normally out in the open only at night, our octopus quickly rose into the water column and jetted away.

The next day we headed out to the big reef. If the current is not too strong, the Villa Blanca Wall can be reached on a shore dive, but it is always easier from a boat, which Pico arranged for the occasion. This site is a drift dive along a shelf, which occasionally bursts into a series of undercut ledges of huge proportions. Just underneath the lip of the ledge is a forest of large, colorful sponges bent and twisted into surreal shapes.

Having paid homage to the big reef, I devoted my final day to a shore dive from the Barracuda Hotel. Here, in very shallow water, Pico pointed out several seahorses, their tiny snake-like tails wrapped around feathery seawhips. Both Lined Seahorses (Hippocampus erectus) and Longsnout Seahorses (Hippocampus reidi) can be found in Cozumel, but very few divers ever see them. They are not out on the big reef, but hang out near shore where there is little current and a lot of seawhips for protection. I have seen two color variations-brownish-black and rusty orange-brown. They can be closely approached with lens or macro tube, but after a couple of shots they shyly duck down and turn away.

A quick three-day shore dive excursion produced more exciting macro photographs than I could ever have imagined. Pico's reefs abound with little attractions that nicely complement Cozumel's obvious big reef appeal.