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November 18, 2009

Drift diving in Cozumel

When people think of diving in Cozumel, they generally think of drift diving. That means the current is such that the dive boat drops you off in one location and then picks you up at another. Drift makes everything a little different from diving in places where the boat is moored and you’ll always get back to the boat in the same spot. It also means there is no anchor line that can be located on the way back and back up. So how does drift diving in Cozumel work?

First, there are only a few ports or marinas along the west coast of Cozumel, which is where almost all hotels and also the one and only town (San Miguel) are. So the boats all start out from a few dispatch places and then go and pick up divers at resort, hotel and dive shop piers. Divers buy individual dives or sign up for multiple dives to get a better rate. Generally, it’s about US$32 per dive. You don’t necessarily have to sign up with your hotel or resort’s dive shop.

Once a boat arrives, prepare for some stampeding and general confusion as no one ever seems to be quite sure what boat they are supposed to be on or are allowed to be on. Sometimes you get a “boarding pass,” sometimes someone simply takes your money and tells you where to go. Reservations seem to mean very little, so look out for yourself.

Chances are you won’t do all your dives on the same boat or with the same dive master, though sometimes a dive master will make efforts to book good customers (i.e. those who aren’t a nuisance above and under water, and who also tip well). Boats come in many different sizes. Before this trip I thought Cozumel dive boats were either big, sluggish “cattle boats” or speedy little boats, each with its inherent pros and cons. In fact, you see the whole gamut from massive catamarans to standard boats with room for 16 divers or so, to smaller pontoon boats for eight or so, to really small boats where you have to enter the water via back-roll. Some boats are fairly new, others are pretty beat up. A particular menace are boats that do not have adequate tank retainer systems (tired/broken clips instead of recessed round holes) and no windshield in the front. This means that tanks are in constant danger of falling off, doing damage to equipment and people. It also means you’re getting sprayed constantly even in moderately rough water.

Cozumel is not a large island and there really are only a few reefs and dive sites. It is, however, still large enough so that where you stay pretty much determines where dive boats will likely take you. Since most boats return to the docks after each and every dive, but certainly at noon time, they don’t like to go to remote dive sites. This means that if you stay in San Miguel, you’ll likely be diving the sites that are fairly close to town. If you stay in a hotel or resort farther south on the island, you’ll be closer to some of Cozumel’s most famous reefs, such as the Santa Rosa wall and the several Palancar reefs and walls.

As for drift, the current varies from barely noticeable in some locations to quite strong in others. Unlike the surge you might experience on some islands close to the beach, the current off Cozumel is constant and steady. You’re not getting buffeted around at all. It’s more like being on a conveyor belt or escalator. You just go along for the ride.

This means that divers need to stay together in groups with their dive master, or at least stay within viewing distance. You get in together, go down together, then follow the dive master as only he will know where he’ll be going and when he’ll be going back up. When the dive master decides to go up, he’ll inflate a safety sausage on a line that signifies to the boat where the divers will come up. If you miss the dive master here, you may end up surfacing a distance away from the dive boat. They’ll likely find you, but it’s not a good idea to take a chance. It can also be confusing because some of the more popular dive sites can have dozens of dive boats in close proximity and it can be difficult to figure out which one is yours, or for the boat captain to figure out which surfacing divers belongs on his boat.

The disadvantage of this system is that you can’t just stay down a bit longer if you still have enough air. It’s frowned upon even if there is almost no current, and if there is current, you’ll drift away from the boat.

As for the dive sites, some are truly spectacular. Be aware, though, that you may not see the same scenery someone else will see on the same dive. That’s because those reefs are fairly large and unlike other places where boats moor, the boat never seems to drop divers off twice in the same location. So depending on your drop-off, you may be treated to spectacular sights or to unexceptional sand chutes and plains and not much else. We did, for example, three dives to the famous Santa Rosa wall. On the first dive, after a ten minute swim/drift we got to see the wall/slope in all its splendor and it was a breathtaking experience. On a second dive, we saw no wall at all and simply labored against the drift over unexciting and mostly flat sea bottom for the entire time. On the third dive I specifically asked to be dropped off at the wall and, presto, instant wall.

In fact, you cannot even be totally sure you’ll be taken to the site you’re told you’re going. While sometimes the destination is agreed on beforehand, most of the time the dive master(s) will ask the group where they want to go and it’s then decided by consensus. What happens then seems to depend on traffic, current, or the mood of the captain. For example, an otherwise splendid dive to the Palancar Brick dive site yielded plenty of great scenery and swim-throughs, but no bricks at all. A next day’s dive to “Colombia Deep” showed bricks but wasn’t deep at all.

The above, and many other instances, require an understanding of the local mentality that differs quite a bit from what Americans may be used to. It’s almost impossible to get a definite answer, you have to take a lot on faith alone, and you really never know what is actually going to happen. You may be asked to arrive at 8:30 and then boat leaves at 10. Or you may be asked to get there by 9 and the boat has already left. Reservations mean nothing as they are usually lost or not honored. Add to that the occasional language barrier and things can get a bit frustrating.

That said, the diving can be spectacular. The strong current along the island means the water is constantly moving and so visibility is better than in most places. 150 to 200 feet is not uncommon. In some places it’s like swimming in an aquarium, it’s so clear. Those accustomed to vertical walls (like in Roatan or other Caribbean islands) will find the Cozumel reefs quite different. The reefs are composed of huge heads and formations that have numerous cuts, gullies, tunnels and swimthroughs. That makes for a dramatic, interesting and very attractive diving experience. As of November 2009, the reefs were in splendid health and condition. We saw a little coral bleaching here and there, but almost everything is in full bloom and without damage or silting or wear.

In terms of critters, some of them are plentiful, others less so. There’s the usual Caribbean variety of parrot fish, damsel fish, angel fish, groupers, spiny lobsters, giant crabs, moray eels, French grunts, Southern stingray and spotted rays, etc. You also see the occasional splendid toad fish peeking out from under a rock, an octopus, a turtle or two, and, if you’re lucky, a nurse shark. We didn’t see any other sharks, though some divers claim they’ve seen some.

Posted by conradb212 at November 18, 2009 04:41 PM

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