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Notes From A Warmer Place: Cozumel

Diving The Mesoamerican Reef
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It’s always a good omen when you see a shark on your first dive.

We had dropped down to 80 feet on Palancar reef when I spotted the distinctive dorsal and pectoral fins of a five-foot blacktip. I banged my tank to get my wife’s attention and made the vertical hand-to-head signal for shark. The current was running around two knots so there was no time to linger and the shark wasn’t too eager to oblige us a second look. He headed for the reef wall and dropped over the edge into 1,000 feet of dark blue. Yes, it was going to be a good week.

February is a cruel month in Minnesota. The holidays have faded from view and you’re staring ahead at two more months of the coldest darkest winters this side of Siberia, regardless of what that groundhog says. Facing this prospect, it didn’t take long for my wife and I to pack our dive bags and scour Priceline.com for a cheap ticket to someplace warm. Roatan? Too far. Grand Cayman? Too expensive. We settled on Cozumel – three hours due south, no jet lag, cheap, and as many dive sites as Minnesota has frozen lakes.

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Despite its proximity to the buffet-stuffed and Corona-soaked tourist trap that is Cancun, Cozumel retains an element of authenticity to it. Sure, there are high rise hotels and Cartier boutiques along Rafael Melgar Avenue, but walk back a few blocks and you’ll find quaint and quiet residential streets and local businesses. In the evenings, locals gather to play with their kids in the plazas and enjoy late dinners in open-front taquerias.

We found a small, five-room hotel, called the Coral Reef Inn, run by a couple of happy, expat Canadians with two pet huskies. The place had rinse tanks and drying racks for salty scuba gear and a thatch-topped rooftop kitchen for guests to cook meals and hang out in the breeze. Being there a week, we settled into an island routine – a nightly trip to the supermarket for groceries and beer, post-dive afternoon siestas, and early morning coffee and fruit on the terrace.

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The dive boat picked us up every morning at one of the shared piers along hotel row. Every day dawned the same – cloudless, with the faintest breeze. Morning temperatures were in the 70s and locals were bundled up and grumbling about the cold snap they were having. By the time we’d reached our first dive site, the sun would be higher and there was always a small chop running. We’d usually suit up with little talking, each diver going through a ritual of gear checking and re-checking – air on, weights in, buoyancy vest inflated… Dive boat captains the world over have a built-in sense that the rest of us don’t. One moment we’d be racing along, bouncing on wave tops and then, without warning, the motor would cut and we’d be at the dive site, unmarked in a uniformly azure sea.

Arturo, our divemaster would give a briefing about the site as we all perched on the gunwales, waiting for the signal to go. Then it was commando time, fins-up back roll entry into the sea, the surface current quickly pulling us aft of the bobbing boat. With the group together, we’d dump our air and sink weightlessly into the briny 79 degree Caribbean.

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The island of Cozumel sits astride the Mesoamerican Reef, the second longest continuous coral reef in the world. Though only about 12 miles from mainland Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, an ocean trench cuts deep between – to a 3,000-foot abyss. This combination of coral reef and topography make for some great wall and drift diving.

After his 1954 visit, Jacques Cousteau called Cozumel one of the best places to dive in the world. Who are we to argue? The currents are strong here and dropping in on a dive is like stepping on to a moving conveyor belt. A diver needs only the occasional fin kick to be swept along the reef, with colorful coral to one side and deep blue drop offs on the other. The marine life is abundant – from pelagics like tuna, tarpon, and various shark species to the colorful aquarium that is the shallows. With any luck, a diver will spot the Splendid Toadfish, a creature only found in Cozumel waters. Aptly named, it is a beautifully ugly fish that lurks under ledges on the sea floor, like a frog half-turned to a watery prince.

We did two-tank dive trips daily. Typically, the first dive of the day would be deep – 80 to 100 feet. Then we’d motor to a blissful surface interval on an empty beach to off-gas and fuel up on fresh melon and papaya for an hour before diving again. The second dive would be shallower, where the sunlight causes prolific coral growth and a kaleidoscopic orgy of colorful fish. Bottom times creep up at shallower depths, where the air in our tanks weren’t so compressed. One day we finished up with the longest bottom time I’ve ever seen on my dive computer – 90 minutes of drifting at 25 feet.

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On a day off from diving, we rented a battered Jeep and headed east, across the island. The east side of Cozumel is only about 15 miles away, but a world apart from the busy port and resort town of San Miguel. Undeveloped, it’s an expanse of empty beaches, the windward march of waves moving in from Africa to crash on the sand and rocks. A crumbling, once-paved road rings the island, with the occasional beachfront palapa bar serving margaritas and tacos along the way. It was a great way to decompress our waterlogged carcasses after four days of diving.

We left Cozumel two days before the annual week long Carnival was to begin. On our 5am bag drag to the ferry dock through empty streets, we saw the preparations half-done. Stages were set up in the public squares, buildings festooned with banners and decorations. It was a happy scene, but one that made us melancholy to leave, knowing that cruel Minnesota February was little more than three hours North. But Cozumel has a way of staying with you, even after you leave. We know we’ll be back next year.

Or maybe in March.

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(Story by Jason Heaton, Photos by Jason Heaton and Tim Edmund)

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