Cozumel The inside track to the island's greatest dives

Text and photograph by Walt Stearns

Dwarfed by the immensity of their monolithic formations, I felt both awed and strangely peaceful. According to Dive master Juan Carioni of Sand Dollar, drifting the edge of this site gives him the sensation of flying the peaks and valleys of a mountain range. "The coral formations here are huge; it's the place I feel the most freedom. Every time I bring people here, I tell them they are going to fly, not dive." Joining the current's easy northbound trek along the edge of the Columbia Deep was turning out to be more a fantasy feast for the eyes than a dive.

Another worldly mantis shrimp
Engaged in their silent war for space, thick proliferations of sponges interlaced with deepwater seafans and long, coiled strands of brown wire corals blanket the contour. The most noticeable ones; large clusters of encrusting octopus sponges with outstretched arms and brown tube sponges shaped like twisted trumpets; have hues of mustard yellow with a near orange tint.

Sandro Cubello, a Dive master at Scuba Du, agreed. "Columbia has some of the most beautiful big coral formations in Cozumel, with all kinds of really incredible swim-throughs, big gorgonians and sponges. No picture can ever describe it!"

Sandro said, "Look for nurse sharks, they are very easy to find here. The large ledges attract them. Sometimes I will find groups of two to three nurse sharks together under one ledge." Down some of the smaller side tunnels and corridors, groups of spiny lobsters waited patiently for the cover of night to emerge in search of food.

For generations, early Mayans called Cozumel "Ah Cuzumil Peten," meaning, "place of the swallows." Following the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors in the early 1500s, the island's name was soon altered to read on charts as Isla de Cozumel. Tabletop in shape, Cozumel's landmass (measuring 30 miles long by 12 miles wide) was formed through limestone and sedentary deposits from ancient coral growth over the top of a low seamount.

Being in the path of the Yucatan current's northward journey to the Florida Straits creates two constants: underwater visibility with amazing clarity up to 200 feet and one highly noticeable current. The most extreme water movement takes place off the island's far northwestern point over an infamous site, Barracuda Reef, which is generally undiveable.

A school of porkfish and stiped grunts leads a diver on a tour of Paso del Cedral.
With speeds varying from a barely perceptible quarter knot to nearly three knots (sometimes changing direction in the process), the use of mooring buoys is impossible. Therefore, drift diving using a live boat system is employed. Unquestionably, this lends serious weight to following the leadership and advice of good, knowledgeable guides, those who know and understand these waters explicitly.

The currents, sweeping up the island's two prominent coasts, have been significant to the development of Cozumel's reef system. Sponges grow in twisted shapes, and the reef has been shaped and molded into winding crevices and swim-throughs. In all, there are about 30 established sites, from novice to expert.

Making rounds to several of the dive guides on the island, it was hard to find one individual who did not strongly favor one of Cozumel's two legendary sites: Palancar Reef or Columbia Reef.

Dive masters Francisco Marruto, Arigyl Mauzanilla, Manny Briceno, Roymundo Aké, Jose Hernandez and Roberto Castillo, from Scuba Club Cozumel, are partial to one particular part of Columbia's reef system, which measures nearly a mile in length.

Columbia Deep is one of Roberto Castillo's favorites. "The reef formations are really nice because the swim-throughs are extremely big, which makes it easy to take divers through without stirring up the sand."

Roymundo Aké feels that, "Because there are so many sponges everywhere, it makes it most beautiful."

"What I like most about it is the possibility to see a different pelagic animal going by," Jose Hernandez adds. "The last time there, a large blacktip shark came in close to our group."

According to Francisco Marruto, down on the sharper edge of Columbia's more pronounced drop-off at a depth between 80 to 100 feet, "There are these very beautiful, little iridescent blue fish with gold dots [yellowcheek basslets (Gramma linki)]. I see them nowhere else, only on this wall."

Palancar Reef

Sharing the island's southwestern quarter with Columbia, the mighty Palancar has held titles such as the Grand Canyon or the Mount Everest of the Caribbean. With living spires of coral approaching heights of 60 feet, Palancar is a true undersea phenomenon. Palancar, though, is seldom looked at as simply Palancar. "Because Palancar is so large, we gave different parts of the reef their own names," said Scuba Du's Sandro Cubello. "From south to north are Palancar Caves, Palancar Deep, Little Horseshoe, then Big Horseshoe, Palancar Gardens (a nice second dive) and La Francesca. The Caves is certainly my favorite. I like the start of the reef, the way it suddenly rises up over the sand in the clear visibility. So, how do you describe it? Majestic!" he says. "The current is often slow enough to let me take my time to look around at the little stuff that lives down in the corals, like nudibranchs."

"I don't get the same chance to go dive the south end of the island as much as the rest of the guys," says Laura Wilkenson of Aquaworld, "but when I do, it's Palancar Caves. It's really neat because there are so many over, unders and throughs. They're not quite full caves, but the coral formations are so tall that at some points they overlap, forming 15 to 20 foot high archways. The broad sandy area at the foot of the reef, with a depth of 40 feet, has got a great profile to start out on. Here, the reef itself starts at 30 feet and "walls" down over the edge of the drop. Another thing that site is really known for is turtles: hawksbills, sometimes loggerheads and greens."

A swim-through at Columbia Reef frames a diver
For both Andres Ramirez at Marine Sports and Ruben Abarca from Caribbean Divers, the middle sections of Palancar Caves and Palancar Deep are "where it's at." Andres likes to start in the middle of Palancar Caves "because the corals are huge, 60 to 70 feet tall and full of grottos." To Ruben, the dive is more elementary. "I think of it as an easy dive where you can swim through a lot of big canyons and caverns. When the visibility is really good, you see a lot of color. Coming out of a cave on the wall side during one dive, I saw some dolphins pass by."

Palancar Deep, on the outer edge of the reef, forms a steep wall below the base of the reef's formations at depths approaching 90 feet. On the inshore side, two large offshoots loop back toward the south, forming what is identified as Palancar's Little Horseshoe and Big Horseshoe regions. These high, U-shaped ridges are alive with marine life, and there are deep alleyways and tunnels large enough in which to become lost. Naturally, with such a broad and unique configuration, the dividing line between sites is often subject to interpretation. Like many of the other large reef systems here, the starting point on a given site can vary enough for a diver to easily miss seeing the same part of the reef twice, even after two or three consecutive dives.

North of Big Horseshoe, Palancar Gardens' coral formations continue 30 to 40 feet below the surface, with an abrupt drop of 20 feet on both sides to a sand and grass bottom, sloping off to 80 feet and terminating on a sharp face oceanside. According to Jose Xiu (Aquaworld), "The barrier is long with a sandy bottom on both sides. The Gardens are not only good because there are some caves there, you can find a lot of stuff; lobsters, crabs, eels; and sometimes see some really big fish there such as eagle rays, big groupers and nurse sharks underneath the ledges. It makes a good second dive."

Traveling north for another several hundred yards, this same part of the reef becomes La Francesca. Raul Platas of Blue Bubble really enjoys this spot. "Because the current is almost always slow and you have a 60 foot maximum bottom time, it makes it nice for a slow, leisurely dive," says Raul. "The coral heads are big, making 25 to 30 foot mini-walls to the sand. It's beautiful because you have a lot of marine life, groupers and lots of schools of snappers, schoolmasters especially. There are a lot of little creatures most people do not see, such as pipefish, down in the sand."

Tormentos Reef

Going out with Juan Gomez from Dive House, I caught on to a few nuances of one of his favorite sites in the upper end of the marine park, Tormentos Reef. Tormentos is very popular among guides as a second dive because of its depths. "It's a very good shallow dive," enthuses Juan, "because the current is not strong and you get a long bottom time with plenty of reef."

Between the north end of Tormentos and Bolones de Chankanaab (Chankanaab Caves, the deeper part of the Chankanaab Reef System, is still considered part of Tormentos) is a lesser known spot with scattered, 30 foot coral heads with deep ledges. "This site is great for fish life," claims Fernando Calville of Marine Sports. "Besides the groupers, it's a good place to see big, fat barracudas. At the end of Tormentos, at a maximum depth of 60 feet, I like to go across the broad sand bottom with the current because it is full of garden eels."

Yucab Wall and Punta Tunish

Next door to Tormentos, following the plateau, is the continuous fringing reef system of Yucab Wall and Punta Tunish. Ruben Abarca of Caribbean Divers describes Yucab Wall as being unique. "From the top, around 45, 50 feet, the wall goes down very sharp. The coral is very different here. Instead of big brain coral on top, there are lots of finger corals. There are a lot of fish, blackspotted and green moray eels, big groupers, snappers and lots of small tropicals, making the reef really colorful," he says. "For a wall dive, it is a good place to find splendid toadfish. It's a really good dive when the current is moving easy instead of fast, so I can stop to look at things when I want."

Juan Carioni of Sand Dollar says, "This is one of the most pristine places on the island for coral. The formations are not huge, but they are really intact. Everywhere you will see lots of finger corals spread out over large areas on the top of the reef. Because the current is always strong there, what I enjoy most about it is you can really fly fast."

Punta Tunish is also one of German Mercado's (Dive Paradise) favorite drifts. "I love the way the current moves me over the reef. Even on a fast drift, with a bottom time of 45 to 60 minutes, your air will run out long before the reef does, which spans over a mile in length. And you see a lot of fish, especially big schools of ocean triggerfish. I love it!"

San Francisco Wall

Following the same reef south past Cordona Deep is San Francisco Wall. "I really like this site," says Louis Santoyo of Caribbean Divers. "Like Santa Rosa Wall, just to its south, it's a very nice wall. It's good for either your first or second dive because the top of the wall starts at 40 feet. There are mountains of coral with tunnels like Palancar Reef, but there are some nice, deep undercuts at 60 feet. Lots of seafans, sponges in reds, yellows and purples, and many, many fishes. It's easy to see big animals such as eagle rays, sometimes sea turtles, big groupers and green moray eels."

Paso del Cedral

For great fish action, the discussion often focuses on Paso del Cedral. Manuel "Caballito" Rodriguez of Sand Dollar likes the varied depths here. "A lot of divers like to follow the ocean side of Cedral, which is very nice, because there is a wall that drops down from 60 feet over the edge to thousands of feet." Caballito's favorite way to dive Paso del Cedral is to zigzag between the two reefs with the current. "It's more or less like a valley with white sand and turtle grass in the middle. It just goes up and down with some parts in the first part of the dive dropping down to 80 feet, while in other parts you can go up to 20 feet. The reason I like it so much is that it's out of the tourist line, not 200 divers at the same spot, nobody's there. The coral and sponges are more healthy; you see schools of fish, lots of eels, lobsters and octopus because of the turtle grass. Most of the time you will find nurse sharks lying down in the grass. It's fantastic!"

Sharing the same enthusiasm about Paso del Cedral are Pedro Pech of Blue Bubble and Miguel Tun from Aqua Safari. Pedro: "When people ask to see big fishes, I like taking them to Paso del Cedral. It's a favorite of mine because it is full of life; lots of fishes, snappers, big groupers. When I go there, I like to look for the big lobsters, crabs and the green morays that live there." Miguel: "In my choice of dive sites, Cedral Pass is number one. Lots of animals, big groupers, angelfish, moray eels. I especially like the spotted and big green morays there. I like to sometimes play with them. They sometimes will come out of their cave to put their face up to mine."


Although popular to several dive guides, Delilah is surprisingly overlooked. This site features 10 to 20 foot high coral formations surrounded by sand, with a maximum depth of 45 feet. Andres Ramirez of Marine Sports likes Delilah "because it is a very large chain of formations 25 to 35 feet from the surface, with lots of holes and passes that you can see clean through. What's interesting about this place, is that it is very close to the deep sites of Palancar. So after most of the people dive Palancar, they go elsewhere, instead of staying around for a dive here."

Caballito says, "Delilah is always second on my list for shallow dives. It's a beautiful drift dive, very healthy, lots of marine life. For me, it's like the ëqueen angels' house. In some areas you can often find four, five or six queen angelfish swimming together, which is quite weird to see, because they don't like to be so many together. Like Cedral, besides large groupers and nurse sharks, it's the perfect place to find octopus because of the conch shells and grass all around."

In agreement is Fernando Calville of Marine Sports. "I don't enjoy the deep dives as much as the shallow dives. I like to stay longer on a dive, and Delilah is good for that. Most people like the big animals. For them, there are a lot of nurse sharks, sometimes if you are lucky you will see a sea turtle eating some of the sponges. I prefer to pay attention to the smaller fishes, watching the way they play with each other. There is a lot of life there to see, but you've got to pay attention. There's a lot of fire coral and the current can sometimes make you fly."

Palancar Bricks

Although it is not part of Palancar's main reef system, Palancar Bricks features a rather large section of reef rising to within 50 feet of the surface, with one side rolling down the
progressively forward
Since the beginning of recreational diving here in the mid 1960s, Cozumel has seen its share of growth. There are more than three dozen dive operations on the island. Approximately half are full service facilities with their own fleet of dive boats, rental equipment and instructors. The majority of Cozumel's dive operations today utilize modern cruisers.

One of the wisest moves was the establishment by presidential decree of a marine park in 1980, protecting the overall bulk of Cozumel's most popular dive sites.

Several operations have nitrox, and having the option to dive with nitrox on three to four dives per day is an asset.

slope of the drop-off. Raul Platas of Blue Bubble says, "I like it especially because the coral formations are very bold, 40 to 50 feet tall, and full of caves. It's not a long reef and it doesn't go straight down like Santa Rosa Wall, there is a sandy area between the reef and the drop. The corals and sponges are very healthy. When I take people over towards the shallow side, we often see lots of turtles like hawksbills, and nurse sharks and eagle rays over the sand."

Punta Sur

For conducting dives past 100 feet, Punta Sur is one of two untamed sites at the island's extreme southern tip. "Not too many people go there because it is so far away, and it is for advanced divers anyway," according to Juan Gomez of Dive House. "The corals are very nice, and you find a lot of animals like lemon sharks, big groupers, sometimes tarpon." The week before I met up with Juan, he saw the biggest hammerhead shark he had ever seen in Cozumel's waters, measuring 18 feet in length.

"The drop down starts 70, 80 feet maximum, really huge coral formations with swim-throughs 15 to 20 feet high," Juan stated. Some of the caves in Punta Sur extend for quite a distance, approaching lengths of 100 feet.

German Mercado of Dive Paradise and Pedro Pech from Blue Bubble are also fans of Punta Sur. Pedro: "I like it because it is a nice deep dive with big coral formations that make beautiful caves, 70 maybe 80 feet long. The maximum depth we do there is 120 feet, where it is the most beautiful and full of life; sponges, lots of small fishes, sometimes we can see big fish there. The most beautiful are the caves. I like the inside of them, seeing the sunlight come down the openings and the green, yellow, red and purple colors that become visible with a dive light." German: "After diving Punta Sur, I became very interested in cave diving, getting my cave diving certification with NSCDS. For a deep dive, especially for caves, this is the dive to do. Their entrances start around 80 or 90 feet with the exits around
Travel Information

Flights: Nonstop flights from Dallas, Ft. Worth and Houston, Texas, with Continental and Mexicana. Most flights from Miami go first to Cancun, with a changeover to Cozumel.

Money: Visitors can anticipate a rate of exchange of approximately 10 pesos to one U.S. dollar. Money can be exchanged at the airport and the hotel. Almost all credit cards are accepted.

Health Abroad: Cozumel is free from most tropical disorders such as typhoid, malaria, yellow fever, etc. However, some vacationersdo on occasion fall victim to the malady known as Montezuma's revenge. Since resorts and hotels don't like seeing their guests getting sick, the island's made great strides in improving the quality of both their tap and drinking water. Generally, avoid drinking the water, unless bottled, or eating anything uncooked, including fruits and vegetables washed with tap water.
120 feet on the edge of the drop. I love the feeling I get going through the caves where it's pitch black, then all of a sudden you see the light up ahead bringing you back out into the blue." One of the caves German described is the famed Devil's Throat, a deep chimney that starts at the top of the reef at a depth of 90 feet, dropping almost vertically to a depth of 122 feet before opening out.

Maracaibo Drop-off

Equally intriguing is the Maracaibo Drop-off, bridging the edge of the shelf's most southern point. Louis Santoyo of Caribbean Divers feels, "Maracaibo is beautiful and is a very special dive. Because it is so far away, not many people dive here. It's a deep wall dive, but not like Santa Rosa Wall or Palancar Deep. The top of the wall is at 80 feet and drops straight down, like somebody cut a cake. Way down the wall is just black! It's easier than other places to see sharks, turtles and eagle rays. The visibility is also very nice, sometimes with almost no current."

Miguel Tun of Aqua Safari views Maracaibo as "a place for only experienced divers. You see sea turtles, eagle rays and sharks often there, but what I like most is the long yellow tube sponges that hang from the wall way down deep and the corals, the way they look so very alive and colorful."

Paradise Reef

For stocking up on small critter images Paradise Reef near San Miguel can't be beat. "It's a real flat sort of reef, with little strips of coral with sandy areas on either side full of turtle grass patches reaching a maximum depth of 44 feet," says Laura Wilkenson. "We normally use it for resort courses because the current is often very light, and there is not too much that sticks up for them to crash into. What a lot of people overlook is that it's a nice spot for seeing a lot of marine life. You can always count on finding at least one splendid toadfish. Over on the side closest to shore, little sea horses in shades of brown, black and red are easy to find." During a short dive on the last afternoon of my stay, I discovered at least five splendid toadfish peering out from their dens, hoards of small lantern, tobacco, harlequin and chalk bass, as well as one crazy looking mantis shrimp in its burrow.

Navigating our way out and back around the upper levels of Columbia's summits, I starting taking in the broad assortment of inhabitants, from multitudes of vigorous, mid-water corals and sponges to small reef fish going about their daily rituals of hunting and foraging in their surroundings. Attempting to hover close to some of the corals to compose a few sweeping shots of the reef, I sensed my guide, Juan observing me. Spinning around quickly to change course, fearing that I was about to damage something, my eyes locked with those of an adult hawksbill turtle just two feet away. Rather than trying to backpedal from its collision course with me, the turtle made a subtle bank to one side, missing my head by only a few inches. Snapping a fast look back, my quiet dive guide was apparently snickering at me, evidenced by his mask half filled with water. What can I say; you gotta love it! I know I'm going to look forward to coming back.