The scoop on the Cozumel Reef closure
Dear Fellow Diver
When we heard about Cozumel’s reef closure, one of our Undercurrent writers hurried down to get the full scoop. But, just before we were ready to go to press with our article, the closure ended. However, he wrote an important piece detailing the closure, it’s politics, and the impact on divers, and we want you to have a chance to read it.
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“Where would you like to dive today?”
The dive guides at Jeremy Anschel’s Living Underwater still ask that question every morning.
Well, sitting on a 120 cubic foot tank of air, we’d like to go to Punta Sur or Colombia Deep, drop down to 150 feet and look for sharks, but we can’t. September 23rd the Marine Park of Cozumel announced that they are closing the southern reefs from Palancar to Maracaibo due to an outbreak of Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease. The Palancar sites are some of the most popular dives on the island. The far southern sites like Colombia are some of the more dramatic dives and operators usually only take their more experienced clients there. They are certainly not dived as frequently as the sites north of Palancar that remain open, so how is closing them going to prevent the disease from spreading even further when affected reefs north of Palancar are seeing increased diver activity?
The reefs are supposed to be closed from October 7 to an undecided date in the future. But the key word there is “undecided.” After protests from local dive operators the Marine Park allegedly decided to reopen the interdicted reefs on January 15, 2020. That didn’t satisfy the operators so now the rumor is the reefs will reopen December 15th of this year. But we have seen nothing on the internet to confirm that date, so what gives?
The answer is nobody knows.
SCTLD affects the corals we most easily recognize the worst, like various brain corals and pillar corals. Worse, early onset (the species first affected during an outbreak), rapid progression, and total mortality ranging from one week for smaller colonies to complete mortality over 1-2 months for larger colonies. Studies conducted elsewhere have suggested the disease is caused by a bacterial or viral pathogen transmitted by direct contact or through the water column. The term “direct contact” implies that divers who have touched infected corals physically spread SCTLD by touching healthy corals.
So it’s our fault, right?
But if it’s spread in the water column then suppose cruise ships that have passed through Florida and other Caribbean ports are the disease vector? In any outbreak of a rapidly spread disease it is necessary to completely quarantine the affected area. That would mean that in addition to closing reefs to divers, it would make sense to ban cruise ships from affected areas.
Think that’s going to happen?
The first outbreak occurred in Florida in 2014 and spread rapidly through Jamaica, Mexican Caribbean, St. Maarten, the USVI and the Dominican Republic. Scientists in the National Marine Sanctuary in Florida began applying anti-bacterial agents amoxicillin, kanamycin and ampicillin with varying success rates.* So the idea in Cozumel was to shut the southern reefs down from all activity and give the local scientists a chance to apply the same treatments and see if the disease can be stopped. If the treatment works, then new corals can be grown to replace the dead ones.
Clearly, there’s no way a shutdown of two months is going to work. There’s also no way that local businesses are going to support a shutdown of indeterminate length.
So what does this mean for the travelling diver? Operators are trying to portray an attitude of business as usual. There haven’t been a lot of cancellations, but we were told there hasn’t been a lot of new reservations either.
Jeremy used to pick up at 09:00 but his boat the Jew Fish arrived at 08:00, hoping to beat most of the other boats to the available dive sites. A recent broken ankle has side-lined Jeremy; he dove with us only one day during our week. He has two guides, Lydia and Pepe, who switch off, three days on, three days off. I had already seen a few boats pass at 07:30, but when we arrived at Dalila we had it to ourselves. After Lydia checked the current, we four divers backrolled into the 84 degree water to check the situation for ourselves. We saw the white stripe indication of SCTLD on many brain corals. There didn’t appear to be a lot of fish, but the current was strong and mercurial, coming predominantly from the south but also spinning in eddies near the drop off and pushing us deeper.
The second dive was at Cedral but my partner had ear problems getting down. I hit the fore-reef at 65 feet and dug my light into the sand to hold position in the strong current. The spinning current was so strong it created a storm of sand and algae ripped off the sand flats. The sky was overcast and visibility was low, between 40 and 60 feet. I couldn’t see my partner, Lydia, or the other buddy team. I waited about a minute and was about to ascend to search for my partner when I saw Lydia strobing her flashlight in the lee of a coral head. I joined her and we saw the other buddy team swimming toward us, but my partner was not in sight. Lydia wrote on her slate that she had surfaced and the boat picked her up, so we went on with the dive. We didn’t see any sharks, eagle rays or turtles, and fish life in general seemed reduced.
These conditions persisted for the rest of the week, although the cloudy conditions of the first couple of days cleared and the reefs appeared brighter. But the snow storm effect of the blowing sand continued. On Santa Rosa Wall. I dropped to 92 feet but I could feel the current pushing me down and had to swim against it to regain the group at the top of the wall. Yellow lined grunts, yellowtail snappers and sargassum triggerfish were huddled out of the current in the chutes and cuts. Normally you don’t see a lot of fish in the swim throughs, but during our trip we occasionally had to push our way past the sheltering schools. Lydia is extremely adept at finding macro life and consistently pointed out nudibranchs, toadfish and what must be the world’s smallest spotted drum fry.
(*Source – National Marine Sanctuaries document 20181002, Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease Case Definition.)
We didn’t see any lionfish at moderate depths of 40 to 80 feet. My partner recovered from her ear issues and later in the week on Tunich Wall we found four specimens between 90 and 110 feet. Jeremy and Pepe dispatched them and tossed them out as fish food. One drifted to within two feet of my mask and a queen trigger zoomed in and gobbled up the soft parts while avoiding the spines. Pepe baited a green moray hiding in a coral head with another former lionfish, but it was having any. A queen trigger hovered nearby, eyeballing the treat but didn’t get close to the eel.
Pepe seems to believe that experienced divers can take care of themselves. Later in the week back on Santa Rosa Wall I stayed below 100 feet hoping to see something big. When I finally rejoined the group my 32% nitrox mix was getting low so my partner and I signaled we were beginning our five minute safety stop. At 20 feet we drifted away from the other buddy team without a second glance from Pepe and eventually surfaced a good quarter mile from the Jew Fish. We both carry DAN surface signaling kits and Nautilus marine radios but had nothing to worry about* because of the cluster of other dive boats all around us. One captain asked what boat we were on, but he didn’t radio the Jew Fish. Eventually we inflated an SMB and the Jew Fish crew wended its way through the traffic to pick us up. Pepe later asked us to use our Dive Alert horns instead of the SMB, as there were so many operators in the area the boat crew wouldn’t know if it was us or divers from another boat.
This situation was not unusual; a day later ascending from Yucab we surfaced alone, used the horns and were picked up right away, amid a half dozen other boats at the same location. Looking south toward Dalila and Cedral I counted two dozen boats working those two sites.
There were some high spots. Tormentos proved to be an excellent second dive on two occasions. Sunny weather had returned, and the reef was bright with no discernable current, so we had 76 minutes of stress free enjoyment. A pile of conch shells led me to two octopi snuggling under the reef within two feet of each other. Peppermint shrimp hid inside tube sponges, there were lobsters under the corals, free swimming morays and a sharp tail snake eel crawled in the sand. I watched a small stone fish use its pectoral fins to galumph along the sand from one coral head to another and then settle in for some ambush preying.
What does this mean to the travelling diver? Well, you’ll be diving the same sites repeatedly and you’ll see a lot of other divers in the water with you. You will likely see dead and dying hard corals. What this means to the fish life on the reef is beyond my capability as a recreational diver to forecast.
As to a way forward, the cacophony abounds. You have the scientists who want to shut the entire island down, treat the disease and give the reefs a chance to recover. Then there’s the dive operators who see their income in jeopardy. But there are five separate dive operator associations clamoring for answers without a unified voice. Another problem is dive shops operating without the necessary permits. There is no agency out checking dive boats for proper documentation; the manager at the Caleta marina must make do with an inflatable boat and has no authority in the marine park. Back in Mexico City officials want the income from the cruise ship lines and would like nothing better than to see cruise docks along the entire shore line of San Miguel.
So stayed tuned. The next several months will likely yield decisions, but no answers.
*Unless you count getting conked on the head by another boat.
Divers Compass – If you’re not using airline points to travel we suggest using Expedia or Cheap Flights to get the best deal, and as always, avoid the high season. . . . .Our 737-200 sat on the tarmac in Newark for three hours while the crew tried to get the flight computer working so we missed our connection in Miami. After waiting three hours to get our luggage back AA put us up in a nice hotel and fed us, but still…The morning flight from Miami to Coz departs at 10:30. When we arrived on a Friday morning at 11:30 local time we were the first flight in and the immigration area was empty. We zipped through in five minutes, had our luggage in ten minutes and checked into the El Presidente by 1:00. . . . .Great hotel, but the Faro Blanco restaurant embarrassed themselves when they didn’t produce a steak in 45 minutes due to a “problem with the charcoal,” which translates as the steak was frozen and couldn’t be thawed.