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February 2000 Vol. 15, No. 2   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Cozumel For the Serious Diver

A perennial returnee’s view

from the February, 2000 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Every time I leave Cozumel I say it’s my last trip. But I keep coming back for more of what I like about “Coz”: healthy, current-fed walls and reefs, great viz, labyrinthine swimthroughs, and lots of reef life. There are a mind-boggling 160 dive operations, ranging from huge organizations to one-man bands. And things just got better, because now these reefs are to be protected under the Cozumel Reefs National Marine Park.

But the sheer number of dive ops can make it a challenge to find what you're looking for. A quick scan reveals places for the budgetminded (often staying at the Hotel Barracuda on a combo package with mega-operator Dive Paradise, started by a well-remembered American, Tom Hartdegen); upscale hotels like the Plaza Las Glorias and the Presidente; and burgeoning all-inclusives like the Club Scuba (ex-Galápago Inn), catering to economical dive-shop groups. There are a number of unaffiliated ”indys” offering the ultimate in custom diving, where divers choose the sites and set the schedule and pace. I’ve even dived from land, renting tanks from the various operators, but the currents and rough ironshore entries make this an occasional option at best. What’s a diver to do?

As an experienced, welltraveled diver, I want more than cattle-boats to the usual reefs, where you’re surrounded by schools of divers dropped by flotillas of dive boats. For a time I used Aldora Divers. I enjoyed the steel tanks, the skilled divemasters, and the fast, small boats to the pristine southernmost reefs, but eventually I began to feel that Aldora had become too much of a good thing. They grew so large so rapidly that it was difficult to maintain their quality and personalized service, and my experiences became too uneven. However, Aldora has since gained an educational component: Jorge Marín, one of only two PADI Course Directors on the island, and longtime Instructor/marine biologist Daniel Martinez, who’s absolutely tops with initial or advanced students.

On this trip I was in Cozumel to survey the reefs, so I found myself in the remote south island at Diamond/Allegro, with 300 mediocre, cookie-cutter rooms housing huge air-charter package groups escaping the snow, a variety of handy restaurants with decent food, and a “house” dive op, Dive Palancar. But if I thought I should softly “mooo” on check-in, the diving assured me cud-chewing would be in order.

Divers were advised of the park’s new prohibition on knives, gloves, and fish-feeding (though Dive Palancar’s staff fed sausages to the fish), then arbitrarily assigned to a boat where divers ranged from literally just-certified to master divers. Amenities were sparse: laundry basket “lockers,” camera rinse tanks that ended the day as potent brine, gear guests paid to have repaired that was returned untouched, and a desk manager who played favorites and probably learned his hospitality skills at the lap of Attila the Hun. Most divemasters also came across as burned out and uncaring, with their greatest concern being a speedy return to the dock. Only once did I see a canny divemaster, José, who talked to his divers, watched how they geared up, asked for experience levels, and divided everyone up into two groups according to experience. He also gave a real and accurate dive briefing, a rarity here.

A one-tank 80 and 60 sequence is offered both mornings and afternoons, “pay-in-cash” night dives three times a week. Staff randomly divided divers into groups of eight for each guide. Surface intervals were as brief as 38 and 40 minutes, and guides often ignored safety stops and seemed bent out of shape when we made them anyway. However, the several variously sized boats looked well-maintained and safe and were supplied with oxygen, emergency first aid, and radios. The boats ran at capacity, and the topped-off air and Nitrox tanks were a waste as we often came up with 1000 psi.

Dive Palancar/Allegro has one huge advantage: they are five to ten minutes from good reefs. Santa Rosa Wall with its huge sponges is less than five minutes away. Paso del Cedral had schools of friendly fish, bommies with shelter to drop out of the current from, endemic splendid toadfish (tip: toadfish dens always open to the west!), and gregarious black groupers. Palancar Caves’ deep swimthroughs were often studded with fairy and blackcap basslets and glassy sweepers, otherwise uncommon here. We even saw nurse sharks, usually deep in overhangs. It’s all still there, and it looks pretty good considering thousands of divers visit weekly.

I decided to examine a new dive op that’s advertised its posh boat, lofty ideals, and great diving: Yellow Rose Divers. I knew full well that their park permit transfer had not yet been approved, something I feared would condemn us to the mediocre sites just off San Miguel. Owner Steve McConkey, an old Coz hand and one-time partner of Dive With Martin’s Martin Aguilar, quickly reassured me his crew had not been idly standing by while the permit process was stalled. Steve, wife Toni, and divemaster Carlos, GPS in hand, have documented a good thirty new sites off the island’s north shore!

Yellow Rose is a recently built Pro 48 with twin diesel jet drives and 30-knot capability, making sites north of San Miguel or even across the channel accessible. With a spacious flying bridge, it’s high and stable enough for these often swelly northern waters. A quick scan revealed marine head, fresh-water showers, capacious rinse tank, carpeted two-level camera table, and an eager “cando” crew. Capacity is pegged at 16 divers, although the 48-footer holds 30. Ice water, soft drinks, juices, and baked goods held divers together between dives on this full-day three-tanker.

Our first dive was the famous (or infamous?) Barracuda Reef. With swift, sometimes wild currents and a choppy surface, small boats and inexperienced divers can easily get in trouble here, so dive boats must have permission from the harbor master. Barracuda is the mother express of Coz reefs, but I had an exhilarating ride, pristine reef unmarked by fishing lines or anchors below me along with schools of pelagics not often seen south.

After fresh towels, drinks, and a relaxing surface interval, the GPS put us on another of the infrequently dived reefs, San Juan. Though the sea here was a bit calmer, the speedy currents again meant pristine coral, schools of pelagics, and healthy populations of fish. Spotted eagle rays, mantas, and sharks are seen here regularly, and turtles are common. After our excellent and ample catered lunch came our third dive on the “house reef,” Abrigo, just off the marina. Although there were bottles and long strands of fishing line here and there, no major dumping or damage was observed, and the flat reef top was filled with life, including the highest density of colorful cherubfish I’ve seen in Cozumel.

At $89, our 9 am - 4 pm, 3- tank day was expensive for Cozumel, but I felt we received more than fair value: top-notch dive op, live-aboard comfort, stateof- the-art boat with all safety items and navigational aids, top-notch personnel, pristine reefs with nary a dive boat in sight, adrenalinepumping but safe dives. When Steve and Toni get their oftpromised parks permit, they’ll be a real incentive for other Coz dive ops.

This is the last time I’ll go to Cozumel — well, maybe not the last. I’ve said that before, but I always wind up returning. Since the reefs are now part of Mexico’s newest national park, Coz is likely to remain a destination.

— L. J.

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