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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