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April 2012    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Vol. 27, No. 4   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Living Underwater, Cozumel, Mexico

back to my first love, who still looks fantastic

from the April, 2012 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver:

I like to dive the Caribbean: 10 different countries so far, and multiple locations in half of those. However, Cozumel is my first and best love. We have a long history together. In January, I visited the island after nearly a seven-year separation, largely caused by what Hurricane Wilma had done in 2005. Wilma, the largest storm ever measured in the tropical Atlantic, did serious damage to the island and its reefs. While the island's topside, a major cruise ship destination, recovered quickly, developers can't speed the natural recovery of the coral oasis. Nevertheless, I was pleased to see underwater Cozumel, famed for its formations, currents, visibility and marine park status, looking good upon my return.

On my second day of diving, the fast boat from Living Underwater headed north of town -- not to the marine park, but probably where the snapper I ate the night before was caught. It's the location of Eagle Ray Wall, which for a winter month or two is a go-to spot for its migrating namesakes. During the short ride, the sun came out and stayed out, as it did most of the week, giving better color underwater. Winter weather is a concern, as a north wind (called a "noreaster" back home) could lock a diver on shore for a couple of days. I lucked out: Daytime temperatures were in the low 80s, and water temperatures were 80 to 81 degrees. Perfecto.

The Jewfish (an inside joke)I backrolled into a modest current, headed to the top of the wall, then eased along at 85 feet. The main show is in the blue, but I left that watch to Jeremy Anschel, the owner of Living Underwater, and checked out the nooks and crannies on the wall. Drifting ahead of the pack, I startled a spotted moray, which rushed into a hole and disappeared in a swirling cloud of sand. When the water cleared, a spiny lobster sat calmly in the hole, and the chastened moray peered out six feet away. I looked at Jeremy, who was staring intently into the blue. A barely visible squadron of eagle rays moved out of sight. We stayed put for a couple minutes (I was glad I added two pounds of lead for this dive). As a bicolor damsel, defending its algae farm, nipped at my legs and arms, seven eagles, flying in formation, banked right by us, giving a perfect show. We saw another squadron later, and several individual rays. One cruised just a meter over my buddy, who didn't see it until it passed over and startled her, to the amusement of the other two divers with us. I passed well above a huge school of yellowtail snappers. Because it's a food fish, I was surprised to see so many here in the northern fishing zone. After nearly an hour, my computer was at the deco line, and I started up in blue water. At the long safety stop, I watched a few houndfish that seemed to be chasing after nothing, while my partner studied comb jellies, which seem to favor a 20-foot depth and provide a sideshow for the long Cozumel hang time.

Living Underwater, Cozumel, MexicoCozumel reefs look good. My partner and I kept notes on post-Wilma differences. Soft corals and some sponges were fewer or smaller as they regrow. Some fish species may be sparser, especially larger parrotfish. We dived Colombia Shallows one morning, because Jeremy had two newbies on the boat. The sand bottom at 25 feet was a killing field of acropora pieces, mostly staghorn. For the most part, the reefs and fish life are vibrant, taking into account that live coral cover has been reduced here and all over the Caribbean because of global ocean degradation. Jeremy thinks the invasive lionfish has already done more damage to the reef ecology than Wilma. But the formations at Palancar, Colombia and Punta Sur are as dramatic as ever, and a big reason for the flotilla of dive boats headed out each morning.

The balcony at Casa MexicanaCozumel above water is a tale of two cities. Along the glitzy malecón, dozens of shops post hawkers out front, promising overpriced jewelry and 60 percent discounts on Viagra. I counted two to seven cruise ships docking each day but even on the high days, the hawkers looked forlorn and the shops were sparsely populated. Just two blocks from the water, the other Cozumel is a lot more fun. I ate lunch and dinner at a different spot each day, and paid $5 for lunch, $10 for a full dinner, half as much as on the malecón. Sabores, a lunch spot with a chalkboard menu, served up great soup and low prices in a backyard garden. Bahia del Caribe, a restaurant owned by the fishermen's cooperative, offered fantastic lionfish cooked to order, and a bunch of sides, including two ceviches of lionfish and octopus. The clientele was mostly locals, although we provided menu interpretation for some Dutch tourists whose English was better than their Spanish. When I mentioned this place on the boat, divers staying at the pricey hotels south of town turned green with envy. Why don't more divers get off Cruise Ship Lane?

Jeremy is a Minnesota expat who has lived in Cozumel for 12 years and owned Living Underwater for eight. He offers a fast boat with twin 115-hp engines, a competent crew of two on every dive, 120 cu.-in. tanks, and premium service. The evening I arrived, Jeremy met me at my hotel and took my equipment; the next time I handled it was when I left. Towels, bottled water and parkas for the chilly were ready after each dive, and Jeremy provided snacks during the 90-minute surface intervals, usually spent at Playa Palancar. Jeremy is now a Mexican citizen, but he showed his gringo side each day at 7:40 a.m. when his boat, the Jewfish, was exactly on time at the pier across the street from my hotel, and he made clear that he expected the same from me. I was back at Casa Mexicana by 1:30 p.m., ready to kick back or explore the back streets of Cozumel. (Some may regard "Jewfish" as an odd name for boat. Jeremy is Jewish, so it it's an inside joke. I told him it has been called the Goliath grouper for a decade; he replied, "Not in Cozumel.")

Casa Mexicana is a first-class hotel right in town. My room was on the fourth floor, lacking an ocean view but otherwise fine. I put six Leon Negras in the mini-fridge and sat on the second- floor terrace, near the pool and tiny bar, to gaze at the ocean. There are plenty of other hotel options near the zócalo, some very inexpensive. I prefer being in town, rather than the highrises south and north of town.

On my one non-diving day, I rented a cheap motor scooter and headed for the reserve at the southern tip of the island. (Our scooter rental involved a guy at a booth on the street, set up for cruise shippers, who asked twice the going rate of $20 but was easily bargained down.) In the lagoon, we saw saltwater crocodiles and a variety of spectacular birds. There's still some dead mangrove cover -- a Wilma graveyard -- but a naturalist told us the birds are steadily coming back. It sure seemed so.

Living Underwater, Cozumel, MexicoIt's nice to have a final dive be a special one, and Cedar Mountains, at the south end of Cedar Wall, didn't disappoint. I saw turtles on most dives, but this was turtle soup. As I got down to the reef, a curious juvenile hawksbill came within 10 feet of me within moments before heading to the surface for air. I cruised over the "mountains" of coral mounds, with a fast current up top and more leisurely below. In a low spot, I slowed down to entice a mantis shrimp out of its hole, as a queen angel circled me. At another low spot, I stopped to watch Jeremy kill a lionfish. After he removed it from the tiny spear, two ocean triggerfish dashed in to gobble the carcass. That stop cost me a patch of hydroid stings as I put a hand in the sand. My buddy, a naturalist by profession, thinks hydroids have proliferated on some Cozumel reefs. That didn't ease the itch I had the next day. As we came up one hill, I was lucky to spot a well-camouflaged, bright green peacock flounder on an algae patch. The sixth turtle I saw on this dive was a large one just off the reef, with gray and French angels busily picking tidbits off its shell. Later Jeremy told me that I misinterpreted this -- they were nibbling scraps left behind by the feeding turtle.

Jeremy is a keen observer. I use a magnifier to view macro life, and he accommodated my interest in the small and unusual. On San Francisco Wall, he found two spectacularly painted, half-inch elysia sea slugs that I would surely have overlooked. In Colombia Shallows, he tied a piece of algae to a string and jigged it in front of a hole until a splendid toadfish, a Cozumel endemic, snapped it up. A disappointment for that carnivore but a chuckle for five divers. As my computer went into deco status, my buddy and I signaled to Jeremy we were going up, and he put up a float before he and two other divers headed on. As I left the top of the reef, I saw several big almaco jacks in the blue water. After a six-minute safety stop, I did a 360-turn for safety in Cozumel's heavy traffic. The boat crew of Francisco and Ricardo was always nearby and ready to help lift gear through a door opening on the side of the boat, and they seemed to have it set up for the next dive (or ready to wash) by the time the last diver came up the ladder.

It wasn't the first time I surfaced "early," which was usually after an hour. I told Jeremy that because my partner and I are senior citizens, we dive conservatively and would appreciate a slightly different profile. His response was direct: Surface when you feel you should because the float will be up and the boat will be there. There were two to four other divers on the boat each day, mostly experienced Canadians and Americans who regularly went into deco. It's an operation for experienced and confident divers. I would recommend that beginning divers ask in advance to be part of a novice dive group.

On my last evening, I ate at Casa Denis. My first meal on Cozumel was here in 1986, and the place is still attached to the family home, just steps from the central plaza. After snapper and a couple of beers, I visited with the waiters there and then moved on to another bar. Everyone I talked with, both here and in the state of Campeche a few days later, blamed the global recession for the business slowdown. But some also noted the unfounded fears in the U.S. of widespread crime in Mexico. In reality, the drug cartel violence is confined to a few areas, mostly near the U.S. border. Cozumel and all of the Yucatán are safe for tourists. When I asked for a key to lock my room at a little inn on the mainland, near Guatemala, the owner said not to bother locking it. I won't try that back home.

-- M.A.

Living Underwater, Cozumel, MexicoDivers Compass: Cozumel is an easy and relatively inexpensive destination all around . . . I flew on Delta one morning, connecting through its Atlanta hub, and was on the island before 1 p.m . . . Living Underwater charges $87 for a two-tank dive (discounts for groups of four divers; nitrox is available at extra charge) and you can scan and email your c-card along with their litigation waiver in advance . . . I booked a double room at Casa Mexicana through Orbitz.com for $91 per night, including tax, with an excellent breakfast included . . . Most visitors use ATMs and credit cards, but I hate bank fees, so I carried a good bit of U.S. dollars and changed them at a good exchange rate at convenient outlets (don't change money at the Cozumel airport) . . . I took the ferry ($12) to Playa del Carmen, a cheap place to stay and eat although crowded with visitors, and rented a car through Orbitz to drive five hours south to visit a few Mayan sites and see another side of Mexico . . . Websites: Living Underwater - www.livingunderwater.com; Casa Mexicana - www.casamexicanacozumel.com

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