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Barracuda Reef

Illuminated by a Dive Light

From the May, 1994, issue of In Depth

Barracuda Reef is a name that holds a variety of emotional content for experienced aficionados of Cozumel diving. Depending on who you're listening to, diving that particular site north of town (unlike all the others on the island, which are south) is anything from foolhardy madness to the best dive anywhere. Whatever the opinion, adrenaline is always part of it. This is high-adventure diving. The editor of this publication has said that he always feels ambivalent when he hears of diving Barracuda Reef. He has, after all, had to delete from his subscription list the names of more than one experienced diver who braved the often treacherous currents that give the reef its reputation (and at least part of its appeal), never to be seen again.

The current in Cozumel (usually northerly, parallel to the coast) each day whisks thousands of divers miles along a smorgasbord of world-famous reefs, from Maracaibo to Villa Blanca Wall. Just north of town, however, the island makes a right turn, but the reef and the current don't - they go straight on, away from shore. Next stop: Cuba. The currents are often turbulent, inconsistent, different at the surface and at depth, very strong, and always unpredictable.

Why would anyone want to dive such a site? For all the reasons that people want to dive, except perhaps for relaxation. Barracuda Reef is one of the best dives in the world; with so few divers, it is absolutely virgin. The coral is lush, and in the incredibly clear Cozumel water and light, beautiful beyond description - acres of multi-colored corals covering underwater valleys, mountains, and plains. The chance of encountering sea turtles - green, hawksbill, or loggerhead - approaches certainty, with a high probability of seeing other interesting pelagics, such as eagle rays and sharks. The many and strong attractions of the reef have brought a small number of daring divers to give it a try. A few have paid the ultimate price for their bravado.

For those who want to dive Barracuda at least once (if you dive it once, you'll dive it again), a few of the operations that cater to advanced divers have devised innovative ways to limit the risk of being snatched by the current and lost at sea. The best method, in my opinion, is to have a snorkeler or two in the water above the divers. The snorkelers follow the divers and the boat follows the snorkelers. This works better than diver-towed dive flags or floats, since the current at the surface is often different than at depth.

Since my first experience at Barracuda, I've been fortunate to dive it half a dozen more times, and each time has surpassed the memory of previous dives there. On my last trip to Cozumel, local dive instructors Victor Britto and Paul Padilla, knowing my love for Barracuda Reef, suggested that another dive there might be possible if I were interested. If I were interested? You bet! They had a new idea for me, though, one that gave me a moment of sober consideration - a night dive. Barracuda Reef, at night? After about 30 seconds' thought, I sold myself on the idea. With the right group of experienced, self-sufficient divers, it would be great. The boat could never lose you at night, after all, with dive lights illuminating the water. Let's do it!

Victor was able to assemble just such a group of divers. Two days later, our gang was ready and waiting for a late-afternoon departure. Victor had an extra divemaster aboard to ride drag on the small herd of six eager divers that he would lead personally. A snorkeler came along to shadow us from the surface on the first of our two tanks, a late-afternoon/twilight dive. Victor suggested that we first dive the deep wall at Barracuda, since the current looked fairly benign from the surface, showing none of the roiling or large flat upcurrent telltales that hint at turbulent conditions below. Loaded up, we headed north from the ProDive pier to the nearby entry point. We were ready to go.

We entered the water as a group and immediately descended over the sand just inshore from the large ridge that delineates the reef from the abyss. With everyone okay, we made the wall and went over into the current. We found it as tranquil as it had appeared from the surface - barely one knot, and straight along the wall. We each descended to our deepest depth, staying in a loose group spread out vertically as well as horizontally. We planned a slow and constant ascent along the wall, then a period at the top of the mountain, until time and/or air forced an ascent to our safety stop.

The plan was perfect; the dive was perfect. With 150-foot visibility and lots of light from the late-afternoon sun, it was beautiful. While human spring-breakers were just beginning to arrive at topside beaches around the world, underwater school was already in session. Big groups of schooling fish, jacks of all sizes, large black-and-silver margates, and squadrons of a dozen or more large amberjacks were everywhere, even a good number of the large barracuda that give the reef its name. A 10-foot nurse shark lazily made way for us as we explored the wall. We found several turtles, including the biggest loggerhead I've ever seen. Not being disturbed as frequently by divers as at the more heavily dived sites, these turtles were much more approachable than most. The highlight of the dive, however, was a huge school of big horse-eye jacks circling around and above us in the sun - hundreds of them. It looked just like those famous shots that David Doubilet seems to manage so frequently but which are so elusive for the rest of us struggling underwater photographers. We swam off the mountain and over the sand in a slow ascent to our safety stop. The snorkeler and boat, visible throughout the dive, were right there waiting for us. What a dive!

We spent a relaxing, contemplative surface interval blowing off nitrogen, snacking on fresh tropical fruits, and watching a rare cloudless Cozumel sunset. With the onset of full darkness, we geared up for our night dive on Barracuda Reef. The plan was to enter above the reef and then dive the rolling plains at the end of San Juan Reef and let the current take us to Barracuda. Except for the fact that the current was now up to perhaps 5 knots, the plan would have worked perfectly. Instead, we had a quick roller-coaster ride.

It was both thrilling and frustrating. As we followed the reef like a ground-hugging cruise missile, our fast, rolling flightrequired us to direct our attention ahead. Our rapidly moving world was limited to a small cone of dive-light-illuminated space. Critters and reef structures loomed out of the dark, then quickly faded. Everyone stayed in sight of one another's moving lights, but more personal diver interaction was simply not possible. Each of us experienced a different dive, depending on what the reef offered up in his path. Two of us saw a large shark of undetermined species (though we agreed it was over 8 feet long and a real shark, not a nurse shark). Most of the divers came upon sleeping turtles. The jacks were still around, and like a squadron of fighter planes harassing a B-29, kept buzzing in and out of view - flashes of brilliant reflected silver in the dive lights. It felt much like an X-wing fighter attack on the surface of the Death Star.

About 30 minutes into the dive, the terrain signaled the end as the bottom began to drop away quickly from its previous depth of 60 or 70 feet. Several followed it to almost 100 feet before we could get their attention and come together once again as a group. The boat's lights revealed its position - it had easily followed our lights - and we made a leisurely group safety stop as the bottom fell away to 3,500 feet. Back aboard, all agreed that this night's dive had been a real high point in everyone's experience.

Would I dive Barracuda Reef again at night? With the precautions outlined and with the right leaders (I have complete confidence in few humans, but Victor Britto and Paul Padilla are two I trust), I'd do it again, gladly. And again, and again. . . .


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