February 23, 2009
Getting the real scoop on new dive locations
It's interesting how almost three years after I got my Open Water Scuba certification I still find things they simply don't tell you in class, like what diving in certain places is really like. For example, Cozumel, a smallish island off the east coast of Mexico, is a very popular place to go diving and it's high on the list of places I want to go this year. So naturally I want to find out as much as I can about diving in Cozumel.
If I try Google I find endless commercial links. As of this writing, February 2009, while Google is certainly a phenomenal search engine, it has also become so commercial that it's hard to sift for the nuggets of real information in a giant flood of commercial links. Google is starting to look more and more like the old Yellow Pages. Sure, I can probably link to every dive operator's website from Google, and also to all the travel agencies and hotels. But that's not the information I am looking for.
I want to know what it's like to dive in Cozumel. Like, where on the island do people dive? Are the dive spots all in one place and if you don't live close your boat rides will be much longer? And when you book a Cozumel dive package, does the hotel also have its own dive operation, or are they contracting it out to third parties? And if so, to whom? If there are resorts with their own dive operations, is it better to go to one of them? What's it like to deal with a third party operation? Does that mean they pick you up at the hotel? Or do you have to walk/drive to some pickup point? If you deal with a third party, is there a pecking order? Are there outfits to stay away from? What if you want Nitrox? Will my hotel's operator have it? If not, what do I do?
As far as hotels go, as expected, there seem to be significant differences in pricing. In part, that's because some include all meals whereas others do not, and some are big, luxurious places with lots of facilities whereas others are not. So if all I want to do is go diving every day, does it still make sense to stay at a fancy resort that advertises all sorts of luxury amenities included in the price when in all likelihood I won't ever use them? Would it be better to stay at a place that specializes on divers, or one where you simply get a decent room and good access to the pier?
Is the location of the hotel important? Some advertise they are close to downtown, or just a short cab ride away. Does that really matter? Would it actually be better to be farther away from a town or village? Or does being far away mean you're stranded with nothing to do and nowhere to go?
What's the weather like for diving and how warm can I expect the water to be? That's pretty important when figuring out what wetsuit and clothing to bring along. And will there be bugs/pests that are worse in some seasons than in others? Which ones?
Then there's the diving itself. Apparently, a lot of diving in Cozumel is drift diving, which means the current is strong enough so you can't just go on a dive and then return to the dive boat. Instead, you go down, let the current carry you along and then resurface at some other point. The dive boat follows your bubbles and will pick you up when you surface. This presumably means that groups need to stay together and go up together. Which I suppose also means that whoever runs low on air first will dictate how long a dive will be, as opposed to non-drift places where you can always stay down longer if you still have enough air. I've heard people complain about very short dives on Cozumel, like mostly in the 30 minute range. I don't know if this is true, how dive masters in Cozumel handle dives and divers, and just exactly how this surfacing together works.
I read that there are "large" boats and "fast" boats. Apparently, "large" one are just that. They can carry a couple dozen divers or more and have some amenities. "Fast" boats appear to be much smaller, with just enough room for six divers or so. So who decides what boat to take, who gets on a boat, who will dive together, and where the boats will go? If I go with a group, will the group be split up and never dive together?
Not knowing any of this drives me nuts. I like to know what to expect so I can make an informed decision. I know I can just sign up for one of the trips at a local dive shop and they arrange everything for me and all I have to do is show up. That's probably how most people do it. But why is it that it's so damn hard to get the real scoop on a place, the real information? I often use Wikipedia as a last resort for commercial-free factual information. There's a brief Wiki entry on Cozumel, but apart from saying "scuba diving is still one of Cozumel's primary attractions" there isn't much useful information there either.
It's really interesting that at a time where we have access to instant, endless information, it still all comes down to trial and error. Unless I go to Cozumel to find the answer to all my questions firsthand and on location, I just won't know. And maybe that's not such a bad thing.