Diving Cozumel's Wild Side

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Diving Cozumel's "Wild Side"

by DocVikingo

 

Having vivid and fond memories of the slow pace, intimacy and consistent 150''+ visibility of Cozumel 15 years ago, heavy cruise ship activity, mega all-inclusive hotels, an under construction golf course pose a powerful impetus for me to wax nostalgic. But, who is to say? Despoilers of the old environment and ambiance are undeniably bringing prosperity to the island, and entertaining vast numbers of travelers.

So, in search of adventure, a bunch of buddies and I rented a jeep and an SUV, and headed for the golden sand beaches, ironstone shores thick scrub jungle and the funky bars of the east end -- not to mention the most pristine, practicable scuba still available on Coz.

It's available along the rough unpaved beach road that runs north and south along the east end, just to the left of Mezcalito's bar and grill. Beaches, or playas, include Paradiso, Punta Chiqueros, Bonita, Chen Rio, Punta Morena and Oriente.

As I learned the hard way, a real 4FW is hard to come by in Cozumel since most rental agencies have disconnected the function to save on maintenance; our SUV needed lifting from one sand trap.

One site, which I'll call El Galleon for lack of an official name, is 3 miles down the unpaved beach road, the first right after a tiny and deteriorating Mayan ruin. Here, I noticed a wooden timber showing several obviously ancient fastening systems, perhaps from a Spanish galleon rumored to have sunk. Several of my buddies did a shore dive here in search of artifacts, in the 15'-30' rock and sand bottom. One buddy did find a cannonball, but it was too heavy to retrieve in a shore dive.

Farther along is Los Atolones, a series of mini atolls rising 15' from a bottom, deeper than 30' for quite some distance. Here I found a good sampling of Coz's customary marine life, but in smaller numbers than found in the protected marine park. A brown trumperfish hanging in the customary "you can't see me" vertical pose along side a small cluster of sea rods brought my eye to the pleasing tiny slender filefish hidden within. The outrageous coloration of a solitary queen angel struck me with more force than usual against the relatively barren background of the east end. Finally, a very substantial porcupinefish rustled on by.

Possibly the most popular shore diving in this area is at Playa Bonita. Because of it's accessibility several in-town dive shops will shlep tanks and gear given advanced booking. Realize that this is
the windward side and waves and the undertow can be strong. Also, some areas are sullied by ugly aggregations of natural and man-made detritus. It may be wise to bring a divemaster who is familiar with the area, but realize that many are not.

I found the sandy cove at Chen Rio relatively clean and calm. Coconuts, next door, is set on what in Cozumel might be called a cliff, it offers an attractive view and serves up food and drink, and entertainment by Cozumeleno, Elvis the Iguana, a lizard in full "The King" regalia.

For shore dives off the paved road, just past the Celerain Lighthouse at the southern tip of the island are El Mirador and Playa Bosh. Both are an easy walk with gear and offer scattered coral heads, a plethora of lovely sea fans, and a variety of marine life at depths of 30' to 60'. Sites like El Islote and Chen Rio with depths from 40' to 110', containing small, scattered patch reef and coral heads, but tend to be largely rock formations rising from a flat, sandy bottom. The large and attractive formations, often with 125'+ vis, gives me a great sense of openness and a chance to see larger pelagics , that may be avoiding the incessant diver commotion on the leeward side.

On one dive, a 10' hammerhead casually finned close by, seemingly oblivious. Later watched a reef shark swim off into the distance, then, within a matter of seconds reappear in the opposite direction. The time between when I saw first it 125 'off one side, pass in front of me and vanish 125' to my other side involved but a solitary visible flick of the tail and perhaps three seconds. Made me sit up and notice, it did.

Occasionally dive shops will offer boat dives to the East side, but even when surface conditions allow the trip, it's a long haul, taking up to two hours to reach the closest site, and perhaps another hour to the northernmost. Most captains and DMs really are not familiar with these sites, despite what they may tell you. and there are other hazards as well.

Let me be explicit.

In November I and my pals chartered the Arrecife II, a boat owned by Palapa Marina, and hired our own divemaster, Oracio, formerly of Aldora.

We made the trip around to El Mirador in 2 hours, to where the seas were 5'-6'. I had a tough time suiting up, but soon I and the others were in the water, doing a multilevel profile to 90' for forty-eight minutes.

When I surfaced, I couldn't see the Arrecifie -- or any other boat for that matter -- above the waves. I popped up my safety sausage, honked my Dive Alerts -- others in my bobbing group did the same -- but there was no boat. It wasn't long before we eight began kicking toward Cozumel, easily a mile and a half away.

It took me two hours. Despite leg cramps and exhaustion, I faced a final assault on the beach, by catching a breaker -- it had to be 15' high - into shore. From high on the crest of the wave, I could see the sharp ironstone shoreline, where plumes of water shot up from its 4' high face.

All I could think was, "Ain't this a bitch?" I could have floated around the island and eventually been rescued, but noooo, I had to fin my fanny off so I could get wasted in the final 15 yards. Too tired to put up much of a fight, I patted myself on the back for saving some gas, and aimed for the most accommodating spot I could find. Somehow, I made it, being dumped unceremoniously on a little patch of sand.

Having regrouped, we began to look around for the boat, and about 400 yards out noticed the captain standing on it's upturned bottom. While we will never know the facts, I suspect the craft slowed or backed into a heavy following sea, took water in through an undogged hatch cover, which probably entered a hull with few, if any, bulk heads, and quickly capsized. Any gear, except that secured in the front cabin, went to the bottom posthaste and has yet to be fully recovered.

In retrospect, when the captain struck a bit of reef in the south end of the marine park on the trip out, an infraction which brings big fines if detected, I should have reconsidered the day's plan. Although the owner, Jorge Munoz, has insurance our group seems to have entered the out-of-sight, out- of-mind realm. Due to the lapses of safety & ethical behavior of this company, which runs glass-bottom boat & snorkeling tours under the name Kuzamil Snorkeling Center, I'd never again consider using them. In any event, some folks driving along the south road saw us spread on the beach, looking near comatose, and called an ambulance. Despite our state of good health, they were kind enough to drive us back to town.

The following day, we were back at, this time aboard another craft, the Choco Ha. We decided, however, to stick to the west side and the more challenging sites, such as Barracuda, Garganta del Diablo and Maracaibo Deep. On the latter I spotted a wahoo, a couple of turtles, several large eagle rays, while much of the time, deeper than recreational.

In summary, the east side offers some unusual and solitary dive sites when the conditions are correct, which is only sometimes. It's a long haul, and divers should have the physical fitness and dive skills to meet the challenges this end occasionally provides. And, it is still reminiscent of the Coz of yore.

DIVER'S COMPASS: Diving the east side is by special arrangement only...don''t be surprised if an op wants to observe your skills in a tamer area first. Oracio Martinez, a DM long with Aldora who has since struck out on his own, can set things up. He's at Oraciomartinez@mail.com. A well designed, very comfortable boat for 6 divers but able to handle 8 without significant problem is the Choco Ha…… reserve it through the Reef Runner Dive Shop at reefrunner@jobe.net or (573)-336-5361.Take water along and bring bug juice. While waiting for my buddies to surface around sunset, I was nearly exsanguinated by Paul Bunyan caliber mosquitoes."

The editors would like to thank DocVikingo for his generosity in contributing this exciting article which was first published in the March 2001 issue of UnderCurrent Magazine.