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April 2006 Vol. 32, No. 4   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Post-Hurricane Cozumel

the reefs? well, they're different

from the April, 2006 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Last year was a rough one for Cozumel. On July 18, Hurricane Emily blew gusts over 150 mph. Then on Oct 19, Hurricane Wilma, at one point the most intense Atlantic storm in recorded history, pounded and drenched the island for days.

While many hotels and homes were seriously damaged, topside the island has bounced back like a champ. All but a few resorts are open and in good condition. A number have taken the hurricane opportunity to renovate and look better than ever. However, El Presidente, one of the hardest hit, has just begun rebuilding and Sol Cabañas del Caribe may never reopen. Some shops downtown have closed permanently, but the good cantinas still serve up tasty meals and potent margaritas.

Nearly every diver pick up pier was destroyed or damaged but they’re nearly all operational now. I stopped in about 20 shops of the nearly 90 dive operations on the island and business was slow. Several, including two bigname operations, told me I could have a boat to myself the following day.

Many small dive operations are struggling, as Dean Knudson (Golden Valley, MN) reports of Pacual’s Scuba Center. “His boat was flipped upside down and sunk. Both engines were submerged. He lost his gauges, most weights, and his Bimini top. In February the boat was functional; it had been painted, the fiberglass was new, though he still does not have gauges. Pascual asked us to take a taxi each day to the Caleta Marina, instead of meeting us with the boat at our condominium. This was annoying, but understandable, given his fragile financial condition. It would save him money on gas, a major expense. One day the boat was crowded with 10 divers. It was difficult to fault him for booking so many, as he had had little to no business since the hurricane and was struggling financially. He managed to lead an interesting dive, even for the more experienced participants.”

Contrary to what some people who make their money off divers say, there is no debate that the underwater environment has been significantly rearranged forever. Even to a 32- year Cozumel veteran, many of the 20 or so sites I surveyed in February were unrecognizable.

“. . . the underwater environment
has been significantly rearranged
and changed forever.”

Shallower sites bore the brunt of the damage, and some are covered with sand or badly denuded. Bill Allen (Melbourne Beach, FL) found in February that “Tormentos and Paradise are now effectively buried under sand, sometimes feet of sand. Santa Rosa and Punta Sur (deeper reefs) have a good dusting of sand. The underwater scene recovery is already taking place. When the current is running, you can watch the sand being blown off the reef structure. Cozumel has changed, and it’s not all bad. It is all new.”

The more delicate life, such as long tube sponges; sea fans, bushes, and rods; finger, pencil, and thin lettuce leaf corals; and leaved algae were all but obliterated. Hardier growth such as sheet, boulder, brain and star corals and low profile branching tube, elephant ear, and encrusting sponges, have fared better. However, silt may yet choke existing sponges, and corals that are not easily cleansed by the current. While some readers report fish life is as good as ever, others don’t see it that way. Surveys by volunteer divers from REEF show a reduction in numbers of many species, especially the sand dwellers

I was especially upset at San Juan up north and Dalila in the mid south. San Juan provided its customary high-speed ride, but hawksbills and freeswimming eels were nowhere to be seen (though I did see two monsters below overhangs), nor were the verdant gardens of watercress, hanging vine and other leafy algae. Piles of broken finger coral littered its expanse. Oddly, it even sounded different — quieter. Dalila, once a rolling plain of coral and Gorgonians, looked more like a lunar landscape than a dive site.

On the brighter side, the storms revealed and created delightful new chasms, caverns, and swim-throughs. At Punta Francesa, Columbia Deep, and Palancar Bricks I could stay inside one or another of these tunnels for much of the dive. Moreover, close inspection revealed new life: tiny sprigs of fresh finger coral and sea fan here, a pregnant Sargassum triggerfish and silver-dollar-sized peacock flounder there,

Some mid-depth sites such as Palancar Bricks and the upper reaches of the Santa Rosa Wall, although silted, are better preserved. At the former site, the hurricane uncovered many unusually shaped bricks said to be from a load that went down in transit from the mainland. The bricks appeared to have been arranged by divers, but nonetheless added an interesting aspect to the dive.

Not surprisingly, the more southerly deep reefs survived better. Maracaibo Deep, which takes the diver below recreational limits, continues to exhibit handsome arrays of sea fans, rods, bushes, and healthy tube sponge. I spotted two juvenile nurse sharks — my only shark sightings. Bill Allen of Melbourne, Florida, also noted a paucity of fish in February: “Noticeable by their absence are the large green eels and large grouper. I saw only one green moray and maybe a half dozen medium-sized grouper.”

The Devil’s Throat, entered at ~90' and exited at ~125', remains open, though the walls were scoured by sand. Finning north to the Cathedral, you’ll find that the landmark cross-shaped sponge on the ceiling has been torn away save for a nubbin.

There is still scuba to enjoy. To access outstanding deeper sites such as Garganta del Diablo with its northward add-ons, Maracaibo Deep, and the Wall of the Widows, Maya Gate/Labyrinth, and Devil’s Other End trio, only the rare gas sipper will be able to safely and comfortably descend on a standard 80 cu ft. tank. Choose an operation such as Liquid Blue, Aldora, Living Underwater, or Deep Exposure. They have thorough knowledge of the reefs, tanks that provide an opportunity to dive deep for extended times, and a willingness to visit more advanced sites for better post-Wilma diving.

If you don’t pick the better dive operations, you can be in for trouble. In January, one of our readers went out with a cattle boat and reports: “The first day our captain took a while to find us drifting because he was too busy fishing. The second day we had to endure him vomiting from a hang over. The third day he left us drifting at sea for 45 minutes. Finally after kicking 1.5 miles, we reached another dive boat . . . Blue Bubbles never offered an apology — only a new captain the next day. They felt it was not a big deal. Drifting in a 6-knot current for 45 minutes in 3,000 feet of water is a big deal!”

Marjorie Griffing (Shoreview, MN) went out with Dive Paradise in February. “During the morning dives, the operation did a good job of grouping divers of like experience. In the afternoon, however, there was no attempt at grouping people appropriately. They sent out as few boats with as many people as possible. While we enjoyed looking at the fish doing their own thing, other divers seemed to enjoy swimming headlong into a school of fish on purpose to scatter them. I suspect they lit bugs on fire with a magnifying glass as kids! One afternoon, we objected to diving Villa Blanca wall again and it seemed they punished us. They dropped us over sand with virtually nothing to see. It was at least four minutes into the dive before we saw anything living.”

But, our favorite operations always seem to get good comments.

In December, Wayne Whittier (New Braunfels, TX) went out with Liquid Blue Divers owned by Roberto and Michaela. “Their attention to detail is first class; rinsing and cleaning your gear nightly, towels and jackets on the boat, intervals at a beach restaurant, and providing 120cf steel tanks that allow longer bottom times at greater depths. We were always the first boat to the dive site each morning, giving Roberto the opportunity to point out many creature sightings that would hide once all the other boats would arrive.”

And, in November, Peter and Sandy Oemichen (Oregon, WI) said that “Deep Blue did a fine job of accommodating divers under less than ideal circumstances, providing transportation, and handling our gear. They were eager to please. (The captain even took my suggestion to approach divers with the motors downwind so divers waiting to board didn’t have to breathe exhaust fumes). Our last day, we dove with Living Underwater and Jeremy Anschel. I was impressed with his new steel tanks and the service.”

Tom Day, there in March, said “my heart continued to sink on dive after dive seeing how the reefs were scrubbed of their corals. It also looks like a fresh layer of snow has fallen on most of the reefs. Tuniche was scrubbed, but along the wall fared better, deeper down 80-100 there were still corals and sponges and lots of large grouper, and sharks, and I saw a large mating pair of puffer fish. Barracuda . . . current was as fast as I have seen in 15 years. San Juan the same. Tuniche had upwellings along the wall except one large pass that usually has a downwelling. Barracuda had its typical downwellings . . . Aldora Divers was fantastic, can-do-will-do attitude, groups of like experience together, top notch office and dive staff. Equipment repair? Done! Dive site request? Done!”

So, pick the right dive operators, keep your expectations in line, and go have a dive and a cold cerveza. Cozumel is still a lot of fun. But don’t expect to find any bargains. Prices at hotels, dive ops and eateries were much as they were on my pre-Wilma trip.

– Doc Vikingo

Aldora Divers,
Deep Exposure:
Liquid Blue Divers,

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