Another worldly mantis shrimp
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
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.
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."
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
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."
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."
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
|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.
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
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.