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March 2001 Vol. 16, No. 3   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Cozumel, Q. Roo

East side, west side, all around the island

from the March, 2001 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver:

Among divers who have visited Cozumel since the 1980s, there are two points of view. The first hangs onto nostalgia, lamenting the galloping growth, the cruise ship tourists, and the horse they rode in on. The other shrugs his shoulders, says change is inevitable, and drinks margaritas at Carlos and Charlies. This month we have two points of view, one from the irrepressible Doc Vikingo who rather than just lamenting the changes, strikes out to find the last of Cozumels undiscovered diving - and discovers trouble in the process. Our other writer, recognizing that many divers need a family friendly venue, tells us what its like to be an ordinary tourist on Cozumel. Both visited last November.

* * * * * * *

Having vivid and fond memories of the slow pace, intimacy and consistent 150 ft.+ visibility of Cozumel 15 years ago, heavy cruise ship activity, mega all-inclusive hotels, and an under- construction golf course pose a powerful impetus for me to wax nostalgic. But, who is to say? Despoilers of the old environment and ambiance are undeniably bringing prosperity to the island, and entertaining vast numbers of travelers.

So, in search of adventure, my buddies and I rented a jeep and an SUV, and headed for the golden sand beaches, ironstone shores, thick scrub jungle, and the funky bars of the east end - not to mention the most pristine, practicable scuba still available on Cozumel. Its available along the rough unpaved beach road that runs north and south along the east end, just to the left of Mezcalitos bar and grill. Beaches, or playas, include Paradiso, Punta Chiqueros, Bonita, Chen Rio, Punta Morena and Oriente. As I learned the hard way, a real 4WD is hard to come by in Cozumel since most rental agencies have disconnected the function to save on maintenance; our SUV needed lifting out of a sand trap.

One site, which Ill call El Galleon for lack of an official name, is three miles down the unpaved beach road, the first right after a tiny and deteriorating Mayan ruin. Here, I noticed a wooden timber showing several ancient fastening systems, perhaps from a Spanish galleon rumored to have sunk. Cozumel, Q. RooSeveral of my buddies did a shore dive here in search of artifacts, in the 15 ft. to 30 ft. rock and sand bottom. One did find a cannonball, but it was too heavy to retrieve in a shore dive. Farther along is Los Atolones, a series of mini atolls rising 15 ft. from a bottom, deeper than 30 ft. for quite some distance. Here I found a good sampling of Cozumels customary marine life, but in smaller numbers than in the protected marine park. A brown trumpetfish hanging vertically alongside a small cluster of sea rods pointed me to a tiny slender filefish hidden within. The outrageous coloration of a solitary queen angel struck me with more force than usual against the relatively barren background of the east end. Finally, a substantial porcupinefish rustled by.

Possibly the most popular shore diving in this area is at Playa Bonita. Because of its accessibility, several in-town dive shops will schlep tanks and gear given advanced booking. Realize that this is the windward side and waves and the undertow can be strong. Also, some areas are sullied by ugly aggregations of natural and man-made detritus. It may be wise to bring a divemaster who is familiar with the area, but realize that many are not.

I found the sandy cove at Chen Rio relatively clean and calm. Coconuts, next door, is set on what in Cozumel might be called a cliff, it offers an attractive view and serves up food and drink, and entertainment by Cozumeleno, Elvis the Iguana, a lizard in full The King regalia.

For shore dives off the paved road, just past the Celerain Lighthouse at the southern tip of the island are El Mirador and Playa Bosh. Both are an easy walk with gear and offer scattered coral heads, a plethora of lovely sea fans, and a variety of marine life at depths up to 60 feet. Sites like El Islote and Chen Rio with depths from 40 ft. to 110 ft., contain small, scattered patch reef and coral heads, but tend to be largely rock formations rising from a flat, sandy bottom. The large and attractive formations, often with 125 ft.+ vis, gives me a great sense of openness and a chance to see larger pelagics, that may be avoiding the incessant diver commotion on the leeward side. On one dive, a ten-ft. hammerhead casually finned close by, seemingly oblivious. Later I watched a reef shark swim off into the distance, then, within a matter of seconds reappear in the opposite direction. The time between when I saw first it 125 ft. off one side, pass in front of me and vanish 125 ft. to my other side involved but a solitary visible flick of the tail and perhaps three seconds. Made me sit up and notice, it did.

Occasionally dive shops will offer boat dives to the East side, but even when surface conditions allow the trip, its a long haul, taking up to two hours to reach the closest site, and perhaps another hour to the northernmost. Most captains and DMs really are not familiar with these sites, despite what they may tell you. And there are other hazards as well. Let me be explicit. My pals and I chartered the Arrecife II, a boat owned by Palapa Marina, and hired our own divemaster, Oracio, formerly of Aldora. We made the trip around to El Mirador in two hours, to where the seas were five ft. to six ft. I had a tough time suiting up, but soon the others and I were in the water, doing a multilevel profile to 90 ft. for 48 minutes. When I surfaced, I couldnt see the Arrecife -- or any other boat for that matter - above the waves. Cozumel, Q. RooI popped up my safety sausage and honked my Dive Alert -- others in my bobbing group did the same -- but there was no boat. It wasnt long before we all began kicking toward Cozumel, easily a mile and a half away. It took me two hours. Despite leg cramps and exhaustion, I faced a final assault on the beach, by catching a breaker -- it had to be 15 ft. high -- into shore. From high on the crest of the wave, I could see the sharp ironstone shoreline, where plumes of water shot up from its four-ft.high face. All I could think was, Aint this a bitch? I could have floated around the island and eventually been rescued, but noooo, I had to fin my fanny off so I could get wasted in the final 15 yards. Too tired to put up much of a fight, I patted myself on the back for saving some gas, and aimed for the most accommodating spot I could find. Somehow, I made it, being dumped unceremoniously on a little patch of sand.

Having regrouped, we began to look around for the boat, and about a quarter mile out saw the captain standing on its upturned bottom. While we will never know the facts, I suspect the craft slowed or backed into a heavy following sea, took water in through a hatch, which probably entered a hull with few, if any, bulk heads, and quickly capsized. Any gear, except that secured in the front cabin, went to the bottom and has yet to be fully recovered.

In retrospect, when the captain struck a bit of reef in the south end of the marine park on the trip out, an infraction which brings big fines, I should have reconsidered the days plan. Although the owner, Jorge Munoz, has insurance, our group seems to have entered the out-of-sight, out-of-mind realm. This company, which runs glass-bottom boat & snorkeling tours under the name Kuzamil Snorkeling Center, gets no recommendation from me. In any event, some folks driving along the south road saw us spread on the beach, looking near comatose, and called an ambulance. Despite our good health, they were kind enough to drive us back to town.

The following day, we were back at, this time aboard another craft, the Choco Ha. We decided, however, to stick to the west side and the more challenging sites, such as Barracuda, Garganta del Diablo and Maracaibo Deep. On the latter I spotted a wahoo, a couple of turtles, and several large eagle rays, while much of the time, deeper than recreational limits, I drifted along in a delightfully naked state.

In summary, the east side offers some unusual and solitary dive sites when the conditions are correct, which is only sometimes. Its a long haul, and divers should have the physical fitness and dive skills to meet the challenges this end occasionally provides. And, it is still reminiscent of the Cozumel of yore.

-- Doc V.

* * * * * * * *

No doubt, there are those who view Cozumel as home to flocks of turkey divers, the Cozumel hustle, boat loads of over-equipped color-coordinated divers, a getreally- toasted-at-night and dive three tanks tomorrow kind of guys, and, of course, too many bent and dead divers. Maybe so. Its also a destination for guys like Doc Vikingo, who go there for serious diving, as I have. But its also a place for a real vacation, to take my wife for a mix of pretty good diving, friendly and eagerto- help people, nice hotels, a gaggle of good restaurants, shopping, even a bit of nightlife. Having made eight trips there, its been all those things and then some.

On this November trip, my wife and I returned with European friends to dive with Blue Bubble Divers and lodge at Casa del Mar, where I had been many times before. The venerable Casa del Mar, not an elegant hotel, has always been clean and friendly and claims to having been refurbished. In advance I upgraded for $20 to the 3rd floor deluxe ocean-view room, which turned out to be the smallest room Id stayed in there. A two-year old renovation was but paint and tile work and the addition of a space hogging armoire to hide the TV. The tub drain was so slow and by the end of the shower, I was ankle deep in water, but I didnt want to tarry because the shower head only dribbled water and it was often not warm. Nothing got fixed, so by midweek, I told the manager I was disappointed in the room size and problems. He promised to do something for me, which turned out to mean no more eye contact for the rest of the week. Oh well, Im not an in-your-face kind of guy and besides, I had a nice view from my little porch. Adios Casa del Mar. Hola La Ceiba, at least next time.

Pricewise, the trip was a good deal. I booked it through Blue Bubble for $980/person. Two couples got rooms and, get this: our own boat for six days with a captain and divemaster. Each morning at 7:45, a time we picked to beat most other boats, Pedro and Romeo picked us up at a dock across the street from the hotel. They had assembled our gear on aluminum 80s and all we had to do was tell them where we wanted to go. The semi-covered 27-foot boat was pushed by 150 horses and equipped with 02, first aid, radio, water and soda, padded seats, and a workable ladder. Indeed, country club diving on a country club schedule, returning every day at 11:30, in time for a well-deserved lunch after two dives.

Pedro, a boat captain for years before turning divemaster, and Romeo, provided top-notch service. Pedro helped me pick sites when I was at a loss, and provided guide services underwater when asked. All in all a good guy. Typically, we hit 110 ft. on the first dive and 60 ft. to 70 ft. on the second, burning up nearly all our air. If divers got low on air, they would surface for Romeos never-fail pick up service and the rest continued.

We did our first dive at Columbia, along a nice wall, where a turtle swam among impressive tube sponges and honker barrel sponges. Though we had significant current, Pedro tried to stop us or call us back to see lobsters and small eels. No thanks. Our rule became significant stuff only: turtles, sharks, submarines, mermaids. Hanging at the end of the dive, Pedro yelled through his second stage and pointed down to an enormous nurse shark paddling along. Wed often spend the surface interval at a dock halfway down the island, walk the beach, or sit on the dock, while Pedro and Romeo stayed in the boat and had breakfast.

Punta Sur, one of Cozumels primo sites with two or three varied dives, cost us an extra $10/diver, a fuel charge for the longer trip. I guess. At Devils Throat, I swam through a confined hole that makes a 90-degree turn, where I popped out on the magnificient wall at 120+ feet. Feeling a little claustrophobic, my wife declined. The Cathedral is a series of swim-throughs and dramatic features at the 100+ foot-top of a deep wall. The wall starts deep, and the blue is brilliant. At the top edge of the wall, there is healthy coral, sponges galore, and lots of opportunities to swim through big arches. Two great wall dives.

I was pleased to see how good Cozumel looks underwater. While its been popular for nearly three decades, zillions have visited in the last decade, thanks to an onslaught of cruise ships. The reefs are healthy and beautiful: no bleaching, no dead coral, healthy sponges, plenty of fish, and clear 100-ft.+ vis, 80-degree water. I think the numbers of smaller fish -- snappers, butterflies, parrotfish, wrasse, grunts, chromis, coneys, etc. -- have declined. Yet there were scores of huge French angels, along with a fleet of portly groupers, some seemingly Volkswagen-sized. Some rays. Big hogfish. Scores of anemones. Still, there is an exception: Paradise Reef is more of a moonscape than ever, thanks to the cruise ship port where as many as six vessels tie up. While not particularly pretty, the reef still had big groupers, French angels, crabs, lobsters and eels. However, our European friends, who dive the Maldives and other exotic places, said Cozumels reefs looked better and there were more interesting fish, though the Maldives had more schooling fish. They chose to join us in Cozumel, as opposed to other destinations, because its both good diving and good fun.

Even with the beauty, not all is blissful. At Palancar Gardens so many divers showed up after we began our dive, I came out early because it was more trouble than it was worth. Most operators run boats with up to 25 or more divers. As we sat on the dock for one of our intervals, I counted more than 15 big boats on the way out. Blue Bubbles fleet carries six to eight divers, with one large boat for ten.

By leaving early we beat most boats, so we got to enjoy the magnificent wall of Columbia Deep, which belongs on the dance card of every experienced Cozumel diver. Its a sheer wall, however uniquely composed of distinct vertical columns. From 120 feet, I looked up and saw the towering columns unlike any other place in Cozumel or the Caribbean, for that matter. Through the clear water, the sunshine between the columns and overhangs created such a vision that I spent half the dive kicking along on my back looking up.

Of course, Cozumel diving is all about currents, essentially relaxing and going with the flow. While there are occasionally dangerous upwellings and downwellings (see Undercurrent, February 2001), this trip I spent mainly in gentle currents two knots or less, though a couple moved along at nearly three knots. On a flight along Santa Rosa, we blew past schools of fish, beautiful coral, sponges, and a huge free-swimming green moray.

And, Cozumel is about vacations. I rented a jeep ($60/day) to visit the other side of the island, where theres miles and miles of undeveloped beach and crashing surf, a few bars and restaurants, but no electricity. The old two lane that goes around the island is becoming four lanes. Did the afternoon of shopping for the obligatory t-shirts and do-dads. My European friends were delighted that there were several new places to get good coffee (Starbucks cant be far behind) and lots of hustle: Come in, Amigo, and see the wonderful black coral for your bonita wife!

Theres a lot of people shuffling along the street from cruise ships, slipping into The Hard Rock Caf for a mudslide. Of course, there are always afternoons in the hotel pool (with both swim-up bar and to-your-chair drink service). And great eats. Hotel lunch is good, reasonably priced and easy. Club sandwiches, burgers, beans and rice, or grilled chicken salad with a mustard sauce. Prima and The Veranda are standout restaurants. Prima is Italian with lots of seafood, handmade pasta. Second floor seating with a partially open roof, great wait staff and a savvy owner. We ordered great bottles of wine, a couple appetizers to share impressive entrees, lots of after-dinner coffees, with Cuban cigars from the first floor store and the four of us racked up a couple of $250 nights there.

The Veranda, sort of an upscale restaurant, is more sedate. Beautiful outdoor seating (including tables near fountains or in a gazebo); wonderful and romantic. I had handmade lobster ravioli and again we opened our hearts and wallets. Then, theres Ernestos Fajitas, a wallet saver and the home to the best fajitas. The nightly trip to town ($5 by cab) for dinner followed by a stroll through town with a little of hustle and bustle and maybe a margarita along the way makes Cozumel a nice change from the quiet nights at other dive destinations.

Two years from now, Ill take another Cozumel vacation and go diving with Blue Bubble. Experienced divers have other options, as well, including Aldora, Richard Madrigals Careyitos, Manta Raya, Flashs Adventures, and Dive with Martin among the better dive operations. The key is to find small, fast boats, that carry only a handful of people and get to the more distant reefs. As I said, Ill be back, but not for my next trip. That will not be a vacation, but a foray in search of serious diving, without the masses.

-- A.G.

Cozumel, Q. RooDivers Compass: Blue Bubble Divers: 1-800-878-8853. www.bluebubble.com/ and also, www.cozumel-diving.net/blue_bubble/Keith: blubub@aol.com. Hell direct you to hotels and sign you up for diving. Blue Bubble will pick you up at any hotel south of the municipal pier. For a couple dollars a day, take the gear storage option (the only downside is having to go into town and complete an equipment inventory). Blue Bubble charges extra for special dives that include Punta Sur, Maracaibo, and El Isote (all at the southern tip of the island). Blue Bubble has rental gear. They can start your dive day as early as 7:30 a.m., and they run afternoon, twilight and night dives. Even the good restaurants have websites: www.islacozumel.net/food/prima and http://www.islacozumel.net/food/la_veranda ... Diving the east side is by special arrangement only ... dont be surprised if an op wants to observe your skills in a tamer area first. Oracio Martinez, a DM long with Aldora who has since struck out on his own, can set things up ... hes at Oraciomartinez@mail.com. A well-designed, very comfortable boat for six divers but able to handle eight without significant problem is the Choco Ha ... reserve it through the Reef Runner Dive Shop at reefrunner@jobe.net or (573)336-5361. Take water along and bring bug juice. While waiting for my buddies to surface around sunset, I was nearly exsanguinated by Paul Bunyan caliber mosquitoes. Contact Aldora at www.aldora.com or call the Houston office (281) 338-9888; Fax (281) 332-6152 ... Flashs Adventures at http://cozumel.to.flash. Telephone and fax in Cozumel: 011-52-987-88544 or 011-52-987-20570 (non-office hours) ... Careyitos Advanced Divers (Ricardo Madrigal) www.cozumeldiving.net/careyitos. Phone: 011-52 (987) 2-15-78, Cell Phone 011-52 (987) 47 990; Fax (987) 21 417 or (987) 2- 37-49 ... Manta Ray (Fernando Gonzalez), www.xaac.com/mantaray 011-52-987-2-0684, cell phone 011-52-878 6002 ... Yellow Rose Divers www.yellowrosedivers.com. Toll-Free Voice Mail: 1-888-366-8708 Phone: 011-52-987-20848. Houston Area Voice Mail: 281-754-4119. Fax: 281-754-4119.

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