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The Private, Exclusive Guide for Serious Divers Since 1975
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July 2021    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 47, No. 7   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Living Underwater, Cozumel Mexico

Contents of this Issue:
All publicly available

Back in the Water Again

Undercurrent is Saving Olive Ridley Turtles

Living Underwater, Cozumel Mexico

The Risk of Selling Second-hand Dive Gear

The Tragic, Unnecessary Death of an AOW Trainee

Editorial Office:

Ben Davison

Publisher and Editor


3020 Bridgeway, Suite 102

Sausalito, CA 94965

Contact Ben

the surprises of getting back in the water

from the July, 2021 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

"¡Hola!" When Jeremy Anschel's boat Jewfish drew up to the dock at our hotel, the Intercontinental El Presidente, I recognized even under their cubrebocas (face masks) all their friendly faces: Jeremy, Andres, the captain, and Ricardo, the mate, who in turn recognized us under our masks. We carefully stepped onto the gunwale and then onto the towel that had been soaked in a cleansing solution. Jeremy sprayed our hands with another cleaner, and we descended to the deck of the panga. Being a returned customer, it was fist bumps all around, but no hugs. It was mid-May, and given the Mexican age restrictions for vaccination (June 17 it became 40 and above), Pepe, the ebullient and irascible dive guide with whom we dived on subsequent days, was the only member of the Jewfish crew who had been immunized. (Once on the boat or after several days of diving with the same group, we took our masks off. The crew did not.)

Living Underwater's Dive BoatAfter 18 months out of the water, my partner and I looked forward to our private checkout dive at Las Palmas, a nearby reef. Getting back to diving isn't like riding a bicycle, whether you think so or not. It doesn't necessarily come naturally. And it didn't, even though I've made more than 900 dives. Spitting in our masks to clean them was, shall I say, discouraged. They offered J&J's Baby Shampoo, so I used a couple of sprays and rinsed my mask in the sea. I struggled into my backplate-and-wings, draped the necklace from the safe second over my head, and looped the five-foot second stage hose around my neck. My partner, who, as usual, was ready before me, sat upon the gunwale, and at a 1-2-3 signal from Andres, rolled over backward. I soon followed.

Wearing my 3mm wetsuit, hooded vest, and my usual six lbs. of lead, I couldn't get down. Jeremy pulled the power inflator from its Velcro retainer -- I couldn't deflate my BCD -- and handed it to me. I vented (in more ways than one) and descended slowly to 20 feet in the 82-degree water with a slight current. My partner hung at six feet, pointing at her ears. She dropped down to ten feet, then back up to six and back and forth several times before she finally made it to the sand. Displaying her usual perfect underwater form, she gently frog-kicked over the low coral and sponges, looking for critters.

Not much going on fish-wise: A few four-eye butterflyfish, fairy basslets, sargassum triggers, small parrotfish, orange-spotted filefish, a small spotted moray, and a nice school of blue chromis at the end of the dive. Which came surprisingly soon. Although we all started with 2400 psi in our 100 cu. ft. steel tanks, I was down to 800 psi when the other two still had 1500 psi. We began our ascent, and I hung in the water at 16 feet, watching my gas consumption drop to 100 psi in the five-minute stop. (File that under "W" for WTF). Jeremy and I checked my ScubaPro G-250 second stage and found the inter-stage pressure had been set too high when my regulator was recently serviced, and tightening down the breathing resistance knob affected a temporary solution. I hoped my gas hog dives were over.

Cozumel - MapNot to be. The next day at Palancar Caves, in 100-foot vis, I marveled at the bright oranges, yellows, and purples revealed by my dive light in the overhangs. But, I still ran low on air way before the others. And my mask leaked. The mouthpiece seemed to be askew in my teeth. I removed it and realized it was my G-250 safe second on the five-foot hose. At least I remembered to blow bubbles while the thing was out of my mouth. I switched to my G-250V on the short hose with the Sea-Cure mouthpiece, and voila, the mask stopped leaking. I had the regulators serviced before we left, and it seems the dive shop switched the second stages on the long and short hoses, and I missed it. Dumb. I surfaced, handed my weights to Andres, and unslung the long hose, but when I pulled the necklace for the safe second over my head, it parted company with the mouthpiece. Oy. I put it back together, but it happened again after the second dive.

Jeremy switched the two second-stages to their proper hoses. Back at our oceanfront digs at the Presidente, I added two more tie-wraps to the necklace's surgical tubing and reattached it to the mouthpiece of the G-250, now correctly at the end of the three-foot hose.

Even though we were fully vaccinated, we were generally quite careful on our trip, taking a $60 taxi from the Cozumel airport upon arrival rather than crowding ourselves into the communal vans. At the hotel, we stepped into a sanitizing shoe bath, then checked in without the usual welcoming cocktail. Once in the room, we found the TV remote sanitized and wrapped in clear plastic. Unlike in the past, there were no fruit baskets and or tequila miniatures to welcome us. We had asked for robes and slippers, which were delivered sealed in clear plastic. Welcome to the bare-bones of post-COVID vacations.

The staff always stayed masked, and guests were requested to keep masked unless eating in the restaurants or bars or using the beach or pool. Most guests complied; some didn't and were never chastised.

The first dive on our third day was at Colombia Normal. Dive guide Matteo led us into swim-thrus that were new to us, even after eight visits to the island. The towering coral outcroppings were stunning in the 100+ visibility and with no current. And the second stage swap worked, so I surfaced with the rest of the group. But when I pulled the necklace over my head, it popped off the mouthpiece again. The tubing had dried out during our COVID-enforced hiatus, and all the tie wraps on the planet weren't going to help. There was no point wandering around San Miguel looking for minor diving bits 'n bobs. While many of the operators were in action, their shops seemed to be closed. So, I used an octopus clip and secured the G-250V to a D-ring on my rig.

Inspired by my low gas consumption, I threw caution to the wind and dropped two pounds from my weight belt. I descended easily at Punta Sur past dramatic formations of coral and sponges. Matteo led the group into The Cathedral, and we emerged at 114 feet. I practiced frog-kicking instead of flutter-kicking, doing somersaults and roll-overs to check my buoyancy, and hovering a foot off the bottom in the crevices and tunnels. I found a stonefish so covered with algae it looked like part of the reef. But no eagle rays or sharks appeared.

The next day as Paseo Cedral, we did find a couple of nurse sharks hiding under coral bommies. They must have thought we had killed a couple of lionfish because they came out of their holes and swam around us looking for treats. Oddly, during 12 dives we saw no lionfish at all. The fishermen's cooperative, which used to serve lunches of lionfish and fries, is now closed, although whether that is due to the lack of catch or the pandemic, I can't say.

There was no lack of great food at the hotel, pricey though it was. We preferred the Le Cap beach club and pretty much ate our way through the menu. The Caribeño restaurant is good for tacos and other Mexican specialties, and the pool service was attentive.

Living Underwater offers new Luxfer 80 and 100 cu. ft. tanks, but Jeremy plans to add 120s for the deeper dives like Punta Sur and Maracaibo Deep. Each diver gets a refillable water bottle at the start of their trip -- no plastic bottled spring water. There are no towels on board. The warm robes are there, but you need to ask for them. Between dives, he offered fruit and snacks. For the surface interval, we stopped at either Playa Palancar or Mr. Sancho's Beach Club, where all the staff was masked. Playa Palancar seemed to be doing OK, but the rest of the beach clubs were either deserted or closed. The lack of cruise ship business may be welcomed by divers, but the loss of tourism has devastated the local economy.

For the first few days, the hotel was about 25 percent full. But for the weekend of the Cozumel Marathon, it filled up with families from the mainland, many of whom, with their screaming kids, were unmasked. Fortunately, by Monday, the crowd had departed. Cozumel has 101,000 full-time residents but has had about 120 COVID deaths. The lockdown was serious; families were required to stay at home unless going to the supermarket or hospital. On the street, they could be stopped, returned home, and fined. As of early June, a mere 12 percent of the population had been vaccinated.

According to the Mexican Ministry of Health, Quintana Roo (where Cancun and Cozumel are located) is one of three states in the orange or second-highest risk category in Mexico's color-coded system, limiting the capacity of hotels and tourist attractions and closing bars, nightclubs, and casinos. Regardless, we saw a few open but empty nightclubs, most likely due to a lack of tourists. Restaurants were similarly unoccupied, although perennial favorites like La Chosa or hot spots like the new Novena Ola on the second floor of the renovated Island Museum were at close to capacity. Señor Frogs has disbanded.

The hotel manager told us the government was a little lenient with Cozumel. But hotel practice seemed to change from day-to-day. One day the pool towels were simply stacked on a shelf. The next day they were wrapped in plastic. One night dinner could be ordered from the menu. During the weekend marathon, it was buffet only, behind Plexiglas shields.

The reef closures are on a rotating schedule. In April and May, the prohibited areas were Dalila (north), Palancar Gardens, and Palancar Horseshoe. For June and July, closures will be Paradise and Lower Paradise.

At Dalila for our second tank, it was sort of a ho-hum aquarium dive until we came upon a hawksbill turtle near a coral overhang munching on a chunk of barrel sponge. Unconcerned with our presence, it used its front flippers to hold down the sponge while tearing off hunks. But, when Ms. turtle lost her grip, her lunch tumbled down the slope. I picked up the shards and held them out to the turtle, which in total nonchalance braced its flippers against my hands and gnawed away, completely consuming the sponge, and thankfully, not my fingers.

Living Underwater - RatingThe next day at Colombia Pinnacle, we had a full boat, seven divers, plus Pepe, so we were arranged four on a side. When I rolled over, I collided and banged heads and tanks with the diver next to me, who sustained a minor cut on her scalp. I apologized, and she said it wasn't my fault, but she aborted the dive. The impact had loosened my upper tank strap, and I rearranged my weights and was able to gain some degree of equilibrium but felt slightly dazed.

Back on the boat, I was dizzy and decided to skip the second dive. My pupils were the size of pinpricks, said my partner, so she took my pulse, which was normal. We went in at Playa Palancar, and Pepe called Jeremy to arrange a taxi back to the hotel. I called DAN, and an EMT named Ben suggested I go to their recommended emergency facility at the CostaMed Medical Center. I called the doctor, recited my symptoms, and were told to come right over. We were advised that due to "political issues," we were to instruct the driver that we would only go to CostaMed and nowhere else.

At the hospital, I checked in with my DAN card. Everyone was masked and gloved. A nurse fluent in English took my vitals. I reviewed the morning's incident with Dr. Jorge Dario Gomez Castillo, a friendly and competent physician, and he ushered us into the recompression chamber suite. Clean and modern, it seemed like part of a space station ( Dr. Gomez administered a neurological exam and diagnosed a slight head bump and dehydration. He prescribed a bottle of electrolytes with every bottle of water and told me to skip diving the next day. Cozumel, he said, is the most heavily-dived destination in the Caribbean, with 500,000 to 600,000 individual dives per year and 100 to 120 DCS cases annually. The "political issues" had to do with billing irregularities at the other three chambers on the island. (Would the cab driver get a kickback if I didn't specify which chamber?)

Feeling better (and relieved), I toddled off to lunch at Novena Ola. The next day we reported to the front desk for our free Covid tests and were escorted to a room reserved for the testing. A fully gowned, masked, and shielded nurse took our samples. After the results came in later that day, we were given a negative test document to bring back to the States. So, for our day off, we drove around, toured the Mayan ruins at San Gervasio, ate lunch at Señor Iguanas, and generally took it easy. The following day it poured rain, and we decided to be grateful for the 12 dives we had and let the gear dry out in the room before heading home.

So, is Cozumel safe? Part of the answer is, are you safe? If you are vaccinated and take simple protective measures, it's probably one of the safest places in the Caribbean. After 18 months out of the water, we needed a place where we were comfortable, people we trusted, and to lose ourselves and our worries in a calm cerulean sea. And Cozumel filled the bill.

But keep in mind what I learned. Diving is not like riding a bicycle.

Divers Compass DIVER'S COMPASS: As of June 20, negative COVID tests are no longer required to enter Mexico, but getting back into the States may, for some, be an issue. When booking your hotel, ask them if they will provide the rapid PCR test and at what cost. Carry your original vaccine card, but keep a copy at home. When we landed in Charlotte, CBP glanced at the test results and waved us through; we presented our vaccine cards to the agent, but he handed them back unexamined . . . Book hotels early for the best pricing; discounted pricing is becoming challenging to find as the hotels are trying to make up lost revenue. We got our best deal at the Intercontinental Presidente by calling them directly. The age 62-plus price was the least expensive and could be canceled if need be. or call +52 987 872 9500. . . . Jeremy will rent a larger, second boat to accommodate large groups. Again, book early. . . . Cozumel gateway cities include Chicago, Houston, Miami, Charlotte, Dallas, and Los Angeles.

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