By David Helvarg
A scuba vacation off the Yucatan brings a diver face to face with a hungry grouper, a shy octopus and a nosy barracuda
Minutes after taking off from the Cancun airport, the prop plane banked steeply away from the coastal hotel zone, and soon we were looking down at the wild, unbroken rain forest of the Yucatan peninsula. Before I had time to contemplate the lure of the jungle, land slipped away and the turquoise waters of the Caribbean were below us.
It only takes a few minutes for the air hop from Cancun to the island of Cozumel — about 12 miles off the mainland coast — but it’s a trip you could measure in time lost, going back to those years when travel south of the border was as much about adventure and discovery as sunshine and margaritas.
Although cruise ships often dock for a few hours of shopping in the town of San Miguel, Cozumel is primarily a diving destination. Above sea level, green jungle and mangrove swamps — full of egrets, iguanas, wild pigs and toothy caimans — cover much of the flat island, which is about 11 by 28 miles. On the eastern coast, there are long stretches of powdery white sand beaches (usually empty, however, because of dangerous currents) and a few palm-shaded cantinas.
But it’s when you get below the water’s surface that the island’s true promise explodes in a surge of life and color. The reef that fringes the rocky western shore was declared a national park in 1996, and despite its popularity among divers, it remains a vibrant, pristine environment.
My cab dropped me off at the Galapagos Inn, since renamed the Scuba Club. Here I hooked up with Scott and Brad, two old friends from California for some early fall diving. The inn is a simple three-story whitewashed building with a red tile roof, lounging cats and hibiscus trees in the courtyard. The 55 rooms, with tiled floors and stucco walls, have private patios and outdoor racks to hang wet suits. There are also dive lockers by the coral-encrusted quay just a few steps below the pool.
We picked up weights and tanks from the hotel dive shop and did a test dive off the quay. Everything seemed to be functioning well in the 83-degree water, where visibility was at least 120 feet. That evening, after testing the hammocks strung beneath the hotel’s straw-roofed palapa by the waterfront, we had a delicious chicken fajita dinner at the inn’s Fat Grouper restaurant, thus establishing the daily pattern for our stay: dive, eat, free time, dive, eat.
The next morning, we headed out on the Dive Cat, one of the resort’s two catamarans. As we left the dock, I looked across the bright water and counted three shades of blue: aquamarine in the sandy shallows, changing to teal and finally deep-sea cobalt. Our dive master was Manuel Briceno, rotund and casually confident while pedaling his bicycle around town, but as sleek and fast as a sea lion below the waves.
Our first dives were at Palancar Gardens and Tormentos Reef, both less than a hour’s boat ride away. After taking a big stride off the fantail, regulator in mouth, I dropped down through 85 feet of gin-clear water.
Soon we were drifting above white sand channels, which meandered through towering columns of hard corals, sponges and gorgonians. We spotted the usual clutter of bright tropical fish: parrots and queen angels, triggers, hamlets, schooling goatfish and small blue chromis, scattered like confetti through the water. I noticed a couple of electric rays cruising the bottom, before Manuel motioned toward a sandy cave. Inside was a giant green moray about eight feet long, with a toothy open mouth. His razor-sharp teeth could easily have taken my arm off at the elbow.
On the second dive, a large grouper approached us and I patted him on the side. When a smaller 60-pound tiger grouper sidled up to me, I realized that what we were seeing was a regulatory backlash. One of the new rules of the national park is no feeding the fish. Word apparently had not filtered down the food chain.
The next day, we visited Colombia Reef near the southern tip of the island. We swam single file through 90-foot-deep caverns whose walls were covered in soft star, flower and plate corals, barrel and vase sponges, and algae in red, white, orange and green. The caves, where our bubbles hung on the ceiling like bits of quicksilver, were filled with big-eyed squirrelfish, spiny lobsters and rattle-shaped glassy sweepers.
The next cave ended abruptly over a precipice, with nothing but pelagic blue before and below us. On another day, in another cave, I looked out the entrance and saw a sand devil swirling across the sea floor between underwater mesas and buttes.
For those who prefer less dramatic encounters, Cozumel also offers snorkeling and swimming at various points along its western shore. One of the most popular spots is at Chankanab National Park, five and a half miles south of the island’s only town, San Miguel. Backed by a lagoon and botanical garden, the wide beach opens on quiet shallows full of shoaling schools of bright tropical fish.
Our second night, we walked into San Miguel, with its bustling waterfront traffic, exhaust-spewing buses, mopeds, dive shops, curio stores and bars. The town square rapidly filled with local residents and tourists. There was little of the hustling found in more developed resorts.
The next day, we were back underwater exploring Paraiso Reef. I glimpsed some spotted eels, sergeant majors and a toadfish under a rock. There were also spotted drums, popular victims of the aquarium trade; depending on their state of maturity, they resemble little American flags or a tail without a fish.
I searched under a ledge and spooked a large angelfish, which turned sideways and slipped into the crevice like an envelope through a mail slot. A multihued parrotfish ignored our little drama, contentedly crunching away on the coral.
On our fourth day, most of the dive group headed for the mainland for some fresh-water cave diving in old cenotes, or crystal clear sinkholes, in the jungle. Scott and I decided to explore the island instead and rented an open-framed Volkswagen Safari with a canvas top. We looped around the island, stopping at the San Gervasio ruins, a site that the Maya believed was a favorite of Ixchel, the goddess of childbirth and medicine. We walked along the white limestone roads under a vine-covered jungle canopy, spotting a half-grown two-foot iguana in the bush and discovering, among the ancient cut-rock temple platforms, hundreds of tiny frogs the size of our pinkie nails.
On the sandy east side of the island we stopped at Playa Bonita, a well-named open-air cantina on a palm lined crescent beach where we drank Coronas and ate guacamole. A black wall of thunderheads loomed in the west. Ninety minutes later, the storm had moved on. Good thing, because that night we were planning a night dive on Chankanab reef, halfway down the western coast.
Fifteen of us were on the Dive Cat for our nocturnal dive. We attached green luminescence sticks on our tanks and checked out our under water lights. Beneath a three-quarter moon, we splashed off the fantail.
At the bottom, we searched for night life. Within minutes, I found a four-foot octopus. Caught in the open, he slid across the sandy floor, changing from green to bright blue to rocky brown. Soon, he found a hole in the rocks and pulled his tentacles in behind him. Manuel pointed out an aquamarine parrotfish to Scott, who had brought his flash camera. The fish, under elkhorn coral, let itself be petted and illuminated for a picture. If we’d dropped in later, we might have found it sleeping in a spit bubble that acts as a flight trigger should a predator break the shell.
I turned off my light and looked up. Fifty feet above, the moonlight glittered on the surface, radiating beams of silver through the water. A school of ocean triggerfish cruised by like moonlight shadows.
Drifting off on my own, I trained my light on a good-size barracuda, swimming along the outside of the reef like a coyote tracking the edge of a mesa. It began to approach. It looked to be about five feet of silver muscle and teeth. I lifted a fin toward the lantern-jawed predator, but it kept coming at me. At three feet, I chickened out and turned the light away. The barracuda hesitated, then streaked past my head.
Back at the Fat Grouper, we had bacon-wrapped steak, followed by banana splits for dessert. The restaurant contained a cross-section of divers, both men and women — two lawyers, a social worker, a firefighter, an Air Force auditor, a medical worker, a professor, an entomologist, a TV cameraman and a journalist.
Our last day’s dives were fast drifts over a runner reef full of barracuda, jacks and groupers. We carefully checked out a six-foot nurse shark resting in a narrow cave. Twenty minutes later, I looked down to see a massive eagle ray with a 10- to 12-foot wingspan cruising by, a couple of remoras clinging to its handsome spotted back. I tried to catch up but a few graceful beats of those wings sent it soaring off across the sea grass plains. Manuel grabbed Scott’s camera and took off after it. He’d get a picture five minutes later when the big ray stopped to eat a conch on the sandy bottom. Meanwhile, another big eagle cruised past.
Back on the boat, we were giddy with delight. Above us a split-tailed frigate bird tracked something in the water. Suddenly, a dozen flying fish took to the air, skimming a foot or two above the sea. The black and white frigate swooped down, grabbing one of the winged fish in midflight. I had to laugh. Frigates look for wahoo, jack or barracuda chasing prey, and the flying fish might have taken to the air to escape predators below only to end up in a beak of death from above.
A week earlier, plagued with work problems, moving and a romance on the rocks, I felt a bit like one of those flying fish. But that day, buoyed by the light and clarity of this place, I was more like the frigate, the wind whistling under my wings.
Dive, eat, play, sleep
Where to Stay
The Scuba Club, (52-987) 20844, (800) 437-9609, is just south of San Miguel de Cozumel. Six-night dive packages cost $615 a person plus 12 percent tax double occupancy, and include daily breakfast and one lunch or dinner (drinks extra) and five days of boat diving.
La Ceiba Beach Hotel, (800) 877-4383 or (52-987) 20379, also south of town, is a larger hotel with a variety of water sports and a lighted tennis court and a dive shop. Its 113 large, comfortable rooms all have ocean-view balconies. The swimming pool includes a swim-up bar and lots of socializing. Rates are $167 for a double through Jan. 3, and $138 Jan. 4 to April 16. Several dive packages are available. There are more than a dozen other hotels, with prices from $60 to $70 for in town bed-and-breakfasts to $180 to $360 at the Presidente Inter-Continental, (52-987) 20322, near Chankanab lagoon.
Where to Eat
Cafe del Puerto, 3 Avenida Melgar, (52-987) 20316, is being renovated and expects to reopen before Christmas. At $15 to $35 for entrees like mustard steak flambe, shrimp brochette and fresh catch of the day, it has been one of the most expensive restaurants on the island.
El Moro, 75 Avenida Bis North 124, (52-987) 23029. Funky Formica decor; the pollo Ticuleno (a Maya dish of breaded boneless chicken in red sauce) and large margaritas ($4) are recommended. Entrees $5 to $12.
The Playa Bonita Beach Club is one of several open-air cantinas with great views along the white-sand beaches on the island’s eastern side. Basic lunch fare can include fresh fish tacos, steak sandwiches, delicious bowls of guacamole with homemade chips, and cold beers or sodas for $6 to $8 total.
The bars and sidewalk cafes around San Miguel’s Zocalo are good vantage points for evening street entertainment, which can range from brass bands to spray-paint artists creating sea-sprite masterpieces on demand. Popular hangouts include Carlos ‘n Charlie’s on Melgar near the municipal pier, and Karen’s Grill and Pizza on Avenida 5. Scaramouche, a disco on Melgar at Salas, opens every night at 10.