Cozumel Diving – Use The Force
By BOB STERNER
For Northeast Dive News
And Midwest Dive News
To dive Cozumel is to feel the raw power of the Gulf Stream.
The force that delivers warm blue water to the Carolinas, lionfish
to Maine and Maine lobsters to England begins in the lower
Caribbean. As it sweeps northward, it envelopes Cozumel, a 30-
mile long, 10-mile wide sliver of limestone that rises from abyssal
depths, 12 miles east of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula.
The constant current from the south makes drift diving the
standard for most dives. Just splash off the boat and go for a
scenic ride while the captain follows your bubbles topside.
However, there is a notable exception to drifting with the current
– the wreck of the Felipe Xicontencatl C-53.
The 144-foot-long, 33-foot wide C-53 was called Scuffles when
it was built as a U.S. Navy minesweeper as World War II drew
to a close. Mexico bought the ship in 1962, renamed and
refurbished it as an Admiral Class gunboat. It saw service on
rescue missions and drug and illegal arms patrols until 1999,
when it was decommissioned and sunk as an artificial reef off
The C-53 now rests on its keel at 82 feet, rising to within 42 feet
of the surface. It is a magnet for schools of fish, and is
becoming more decorated with coral with each year. Dive boats
tie up to it to give northern wreck divers a fix for their favorite
sport when they vacation in this warm blue-water paradise.
There is some shore diving in eddies protected from the
relentless current. On Airplane Flats, just off La Ceiba Beach
Hotel, some fragments can still be found of the airplane that
served as the underwater stage set for the 1977 film Survive. But
because the current picks up not very far offshore, most diving
is from charter boats.
On-shore winds hammer Cozumel's eastern side, which also
faces the brunt of the Gulf Stream, so it is rarely dived. On the
protected western side, though, is a string of sites for divers of
all skill levels. In general, reefs off the southern tip are the most
challenging because of depths and tricky currents. Skill demands
lessen as divers head north.
Along sheer walls of southern reefs – Maracaibo, Colombia,
Punta Sur, Palancar and Santa Rosa – divers are most likely to
see pelagics such as sharks, and manta and eagle rays. These
also are visited by more skilled divers and have the most lush
fans and corals, unbroken by misplaced fin kicks.
A favored feature of Punta Sur is Devil's Throat, a hole at the top
of the reef at about 90 feet snakes through the rocky substrate to
an exit in the wall face at about 115 feet. Divers with a fear of
heights can get a dizzying sense of vertigo as they emerge to see
nothing below but the inky deep blue of extremely deep water.
Downdrafts here can slam divers downward, so be prepared to
pump air into the buoyancy compensator.
At the top of the wall is a sandy plane studded with coral-
encrusted hummocks. They are home to myriads of tangs,
snappers, sergeant majors, angelfish, squirrelfish and other Day-
Glo tropicals. Expect to be accompanied by German shepherd-
sized grouper. Bring a flashlight, even on day dives, to snoop into
crevices to see green and spotted moray eels, nurse sharks,
miscellaneous crabs, cleaner shrimp, honey holes filled with
lobsters and Cozumel's unique splendid toadfish.
Currents on these top-of-the-wall reefs can be exhilarating. El
Paso del Cedral, Tunich, Yucab and Tormentos can feel like a
New York City cab ride without the occasional red light to stop
the traffic. This can be a problem for photographers. Reef hooks
to hold steady against the current are generally frowned upon at
this popular resort. However, ducking behind a coral head can
provide enough relief to stop to snap a photo.
Low-speed, shallower dives are closer to the shore, especially as
the sites progress northward. Chankanaab Reef, just off the
national park, is favored by snorkelers and as a second dive after
ones on deeper, challenging sites. A cavern at the park is
accessible as a shore site for snorkeling. Paradise, the
northernmost of the island's regularly visited reefs, fairly lives up
to its name for its beauty, and its 35- to 50-foot depths are where
many newcomers to the sport have their first real eye-popping
A full week of repetitive dives can overload deep tissues with
nitrogen, so it's a good idea to take a mid-week safety break. You
can dive and off-gas too by taking the ferry to Playa del Carmen
on the Yucatan mainland to dive the cenotes. These caverns are
the anterooms of the massive underwater cave below the
limestone surface. They also are where native Americans lived
during the last ice age. So in addition to being decorated with
stalactites and stalagmites, there are petroglyphs on walls over
charred fire pits where families cooked meals 1,000s of years
Cozumel International Airport has direct flights from many U.S.
and Canadian gateway cities, plus transfer fights from Mexico's
mainland and other Caribbean islands. Shuttle vans outside
customs offer rides to hotels.
Accommodations range from all-inclusive resorts, especially at
the southern end of the island to quaint hotels in or near San
Miguel, the island's population center. Those who like the
comfort of cuisine and rooms typical of any top-line hotel
anywhere will like the all-inclusives. Southern ones are closest
by boat to the most challenging reefs. Those who like to feel like
they escaped home for a Caribbean vacation will like the in-town
properties and choosing nearby restaurants by aroma. The
streets are safe and the nightlife bustles. The ferry to the cenotes
leaves from the San Miguel pier.
Taxis are abundant, but strike your deal before entering one.
Make sure you have the right change for the ride and typical
15-percent tip because some drivers will say they can't make
change. Cars and motor scooters can be rented by tourists with
a valid driver's license. Dollars go farther when converted to
Drink lots in this sunny land with topside temperatures in the 90s
F. However, consume only bottled water, soda or beer. Avoid
drinks with ice, unless it's made from purified water. Dress is
casual. Bring a wide-brimmed hat and a light long-sleeved shirt
and slacks to protect from the sun by day. A light jacket can feel
nice in the evening.
Water temperatures range from 75 F in January through March
up to 85 F in July through September. A shortie or a skin is
adequate for some for a few days. However, those spending a
full week will want at least a 3-millimeter full jumpsuit and a
hood. The 127-volt 60-cycle current charges batteries well.
There is a recompression chamber on the island.
Cozumel was where nubile Mayan women paddled by canoe
from the mainland for a rite of passage, officiated by priests who
lived on the island. No one knows exactly what went on there,
but take an afternoon off to fantasize at handprints virgins left
centuries ago on the walls at San Gervasio ruins, and see El
Cedral, where the lucky guys lived.
Save $18 U.S. or $21 Canadian for the departure tax, which
must be paid in dollars or the peso equivalent. Bring your U.S.
passport if you want to be admitted back into the country after