El Comeback Kid | Scuba Diving

El Comeback Kid

By Bucky McMahon

The shocking blue Caribbean is crisscrossed by the foamy wakes of dive boats of every size. We pass three colossal cruise ships that loom under puffs of cumulus clouds like wedding cakes of the gods. It's a typical Cozumel commute, from a dock in downtown San Miguel to the famous reefs of Colombia and Palancar on the southern end of the leeward coast, and the scene is festive, thrumming with aquatic enterprise. You wouldn't think there had ever been a disaster here, but everyone who was on Cozumel last October has a survival story to tell.

Up on the flying bridge of the dive boat Deep Exposure, Carrie, a petite blonde divemaster, recalls how as soon as she realized she wasn't going to be blown off the island, she couldn't wait to see how the underwater world had fared.

"Right after the hurricane we had some incredible dives," Carrie tells me. "I'd never seen so many lobster-huge ones!-just walking around the reef in broad daylight. All their hiding places had been filled with sand, so you saw more fish than ever. Everything was exposed. It was like they were all stunned."

|| |---| | | | A school of grunts converges at Paradise Reef.| With good reason: Hurricane Wilma was the most powerful Atlantic storm in recorded history, and one of the slowest moving. It struck Cozumel on Oct. 21, packing 140 mph winds, and then lingered over the leeward coast-the heart of the tourism economy-for an agonizing 40 hours. Cruise ship piers disintegrated in the surge. Hotels were battered, beaches submerged. Lush jungles, especially in the south, were burned brown by the intensity of the salt spray.

But Cozumeleños were quick to overcome their shock. In what Carrie describes as "a big resurgence of community spirit," an army of determined volunteers turned out to clean up and get the island back on its feet. Impressed by their plight-and pluck-the governor of Quintana Roo stepped up with salaries for the pro bono clean-up crews. T-shirts were distributed to rally team spirit. On Nov. 14-just three weeks after the disaster-the first returning cruise ship anchored off the muelle fiscal in downtown San Miguel, coincident with the lifting of the ley seca, the post-storm ban on alcohol sales.

The message was loud and clear: Cozumel was back.

For this tourist mecca 12 miles off the Yucatan coast, the post-Wilma chapter is just another remarkable rebirth. Twice in its history the island was abandoned by its human inhabitants-the first time following the Spanish conquest, and again after the collapse of the chicle industry. It has always bounced back, though, which is only fitting since, for the Maya, Ah-Cuzamil-Peten is the home of Ixchel, the goddess of fertility. Its latest incarnation, as Mexico's leading cruise ship destination and the drift-diving capital of the western world, may be the most durable. I see proof of that strolling the waterfront Avenida Rafael Melgar-its (replanted) palm-lined charm restored-inhaling the luxurious scent of leather goods, catching glimpses of glittering diamonds, admiring young devotees of Ixchel carrying supersized cocktail glasses, and seeing everywhere the red and white emblem of the dive flag.

For sure, it's the 30 miles of reefs and walls, the sweep of the Yucatan Current and the extraordinary vis it creates, but whatever time and tide may wreak, a Cozumel trip is really all about the divers you meet. My immersion in dive culture begins on the van ride from the airport, where I am sardined in between a rookie and an old pro. The rookie, a young Texan, hadn't even heard about Cozumel's renowned drift dives when he hopped on the Playa del Carmen ferry a year ago, just for a look-see. One resort course later and he is a starry-eyed enthusiast, jazzed now to be back and packing a C-card. The old pro, he's been coming to Coz for years, and has his own cadre of expat islanders with their insiders' knowledge. As he expounds on breath-control technique, I am practically rubbing my hands with glee, a whole week of dives ahead of me-some new school, some old school-and even a foray into the world of Cozumel's underwater caves. My wallet is bulging with every specialty card I've earned over the years, and I mean to use them all, taking the pulse of Cozumel's latest rebirth along the way.

New School

|| |---| | | | A painted Elysia sea slug.| "There must be a diving god watching over Cozumel," says Omar Gomez.

It's my first night on the island and I'm being fitted for a metal backplate harness while imbibing the Deep Exposure philosophy, which is "to take diving in Cozumel to the next level," as the cosmopolitan young shop owner explains in fluent Scottish-accented English. Rather than leaving customer safety to the benevolent if over-taxed dive god, Deep Exposure wants every dive to be a learning experience. To that end they have embraced the "Hogarthian" way-consoles clipped, hoses wrapped just so-and the no-nonsense motto: "Do it right." The niche Deep Exposure has carved out in post-hurricane Cozumel is semi-tech and super service-oriented. So, when we depart for a three-tank trip the next morning, the divers on our boat are a wildly mixed lot. We've got three hardcore techies packing state-of-the art rebreathers, plus a Dallas obstetrician and his teenage son, both with a mere 25 open-water dives under their belts-and me with my pack of cards but no Cozumel or stage-bottle experience.

Within an hour, Captain Paco is prowling above Colombia Reef near the southern tip of the island, and the rebreather boys are on the transom, sweating in their three-mil suits. They'll be down a good long while.

Omar and I are the last to jump ship, and I see at once-I can see so much!-what the excitement's about. We free-fall slowly down the monumental bottomless wall-until Omar signals to me: Watch your depth! I puff a little air into my BC and level off at 120 feet, and we begin a leisurely drift angling upward. Down here, all is right with the undersea world. A turtle sculls past; a five-foot barracuda poses beneath an overhang, while deeper in the recesses a nurse shark dozes in the gloom. There's wildlife large and small: a toothy grouper in the 300-pound range and a neon nudibranch no bigger than this exclamation point! We catch up with the others, where Ramon has spotted the endemic splendid toadfish, a brilliantly striped gargoyle nestled deep in a sponge.

It's only when we've drifted up to the top of the reef that we begin to see storm damage-a dusting of sand like a light snowfall (which the divemasters take the time to fan off, cleaning as they go) and toppled finger coral. But already color is returning to the reeftop in new corals, like spring buds in a temperate clime.

Forty minutes into the dive, Omar gestures with his reg: time to switch to the nitrox stage bottle. We finish the dive above a sandy plain, watching an eagle ray fanning up food for two accompanying permit. (Of course! This is a national park, after all. Can't dive here without a permit.)

|| |---| | | | The propeller of the Felipe Xicotencatl, a minesweeper sunk in 2000.| We dock for lunch at a southern beach and dig into a gourmet spread, including a cold pork salad and melt-in-your-mouth mango slices, which Ramon, the long-haired rock-star divemaster, has procured from local markets. While the techies-two northeastern wreck divers and a Coloradan-turn pink in the sun, I go ashore to check out the jungle. It's been worked over, all right, trees uprooted, palms beheaded, and the undergrowth a rat's nest tangle. But it is hurricane-adapted, and it'll be back. Already Cozumel's north end is showing new green. I hear the boat's horn blow, and then it's back out to the reef to a site known as Mountains of Dalila, a maze of canyons and swim-throughs. The air temperature is 80 degrees, the water temp about the same, and the vis is 150-feet-plus. I can see how this could be habit-forming.

By the end of the day, I've clocked over three hours of bottom time, but I'm still among the conscious at 10 p.m. when Omar shows me a bit of the other Cozumel-a tiny family-run restaurant with no sign deep in the heart of San Miguel. The whole extended family, from grandma down to baby, is glued to the tube watching the Mexican version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," while dad works over a blackened pan, out of which emerge salbutes and panuchos, tortilla-like creations that are muy picante and oh-so-autentico.

Two days of intensive diving later, the Deep Exposure gang decides I'm ready for the big time: the high-speed drift dives of the north end. Ramon cautions me to stick close, because things might happen fast. And he's right. Sixty feet below the drop, the three-knot current is whipping up dust devils of sand behind the first coral heads of San Juan reef, which we zoom over. We fly like jets in formation, everyone in our group in Superman poses. With miles ahead of us to enjoy, we experience the Cozumel trance: that feeling of weightless flight through extraordinary clarity, the whole scene of waving fans, schooling grunts, turtles, big barracuda-a marlin!-passing at cinematic speed. Like a couple of bats on a zip-line, Ramon and I are hanging upside down, arms folded across our chests Count Dracula-style-and we're flat-out flying. It's a bit show-offy, but there's a practical side to fins-up flight. There's no better way to look an eagle ray in the eyes.

Afterwards, on the short hop back to the dock, we're joined by a school of bottlenose dolphins riding our bow, enjoying a drift of their own, and Carrie teases Ramon: "Looks like you've found your perfect dive partner-somebody who likes being upside down as much as you do."

Old School

|| |---| | | | A juvenile three-spot damselfish.| In front of my hotel, the Scuba Club, a couple of guys in full wetsuits are hailing a cab. I'm thinking, "Only in Cozumel!" And then, "Hey, I know these guys." It's Mike Hruby and Josh, Mike's middle daughter's boyfriend. What the heck are they up to?

"Oh, we're just gonna take a ride a few miles up the beach and drift back to the hotel," Mike says.

The big Arizonan is a tireless enthusiast who has passed on his passion to his wife, Pam, and their three teenage daughters. "All very good divers. We have great times," Mike gushed when we met aboard the boat.

One of things I'm enjoying most about Cozumel is diving with the Hruby family. We do the Palancar Caves, a gentle drift at 80 feet with numerous tunnels in the tongue-and-groove formation. Light filters through gaps in the reef, lending some of the swim-throughs an ecclesiastical glow. It's ideal grouper habitat and home to some whopper snapper, too. The big pelagics and schools of bar jacks stand guard at the entrances to the caves, some of which are long, dark and narrow enough for a mild case of the heebie-jeebies.

I sign up for an afternoon wreck dive-again with the Hrubys, and their favorite divemaster Ariel, who leads us on a long game of follow-the-leader through the many chambers of the Felipe Xicotencatl, a 1944 minesweeper that stands upright in 80 feet of water. Sunk for divers in the summer of 2000, the 184-foot hulk has been diver-proofed for full penetration. Everyone's packing a dive light except me-idiot! I've left mine onboard-so I bring up the rear and stick close, nearly spitting my regulator when I turn a sharp corner and find everybody sitting on the six-seater head. I'm most impressed by the engine room, which is so intact it looks like you could crank this baby up and head for Cancun.

I meet other folks besides the Hrubys-how could you not?-like Angela, a single mom from Houston who's been coming here for the past five years. We meet on adjacent hammocks, waiting for the morning dive, both of us mock-complaining about the grueling pace of a Cozumel vacation. The loyalty of returning customers goes both ways, of course. During Hurricane Wilma, the sturdy Scuba Club had waist-deep water in some of the oceanfront rooms, but amazingly the kitchen never closed. Except for the loss of its pier, rapidly being rebuilt, the Club is back to normal, which means mucho bottom time and the supremely relaxing feeling you get when everyone around you is a fellow diver.

The Caves of Cozumel

|| |---| | | | Divers gear up outside the entrance to Cocodrilo, a cave site on the grounds of the Paradise Beach Club.| Caffeine fiend that I am, I never want to get too relaxed. So on my last day in Coz I hoof it to downtown San Miguel to meet the proprietor of Yucatech, German Yañez, Cozumel's cave-diving pioneer.

Convinced that the youth on my "Intro to Cave" card is really me as I once was, German agrees to show me a couple of his haunts, beginning with Cueva Quebrada, where he parks his pickup beside an unpromising-looking tangle of jungle. Though German's playground is pretty much bulletproof, the access trail was trashed by Wilma. "It took a week with a chainsaw," he tells me. "But the cave wasn't affected, except for a strong flow from the rain for the first couple of weeks."

We suit up with steel doubles at the truck and carry our fins some 200 yards through the scrub, working up the sort of sweat that'll make you especially grateful to jump in the water, no matter how forbidding that water may be. And Cueva Quebrada's water turns out to be my least favorite kind, snaky and murky, a blind dive to the cave's entrance. But once we're inside, the water clears splendidly and just ahead, bursting through a hole in the limestone, is a beam of light, bright as a laser-worth the trip alone. Cueva Quebrada, like all of Cozumel's caves, is an anchialine cave, meaning there's saltwater intrusion causing haloclines and their weird wavery effects.

Our second cave dive takes place in much more congenial surroundings-the grounds of the Paradise Beach Club. Passersby ask us where we're going diving, and I happily point to a little duck pond. German named this site Cocodrilo because of the crocodile skulls he found near the entrance. He believes that back when the cave was above water, some enterprising sorts sought refuge in its shade to skin reptiles for the leather trade. It's another blind entrance, which I very nearly botch getting a wee bit tangled in German's line and kicking up silt. Then it's clear sailing into the crypt for a gander at those cocodrilos. I'm spooked, though, by my demonstration of minimum competence, by the archaeological significance of the site, and by the bottom, which is an ominously soft mat of goop. When German leads us into a small chamber where we could see some Mayan pottery, I wave my light, giving him the no mas signal. No puedo ir alli: I can't go there!

This is quite a contrast with my last sea dive, I'm thinking, which was at Paradise Reef, one of Cozumel's most popular shallow dives. I was kicking along the bottom, following a jewel-eyed flounder with one of the Hruby girls when a large group of divers swam by, and then another and another. The crowd wasn't a problem. It was just kind of funny, as if every dive boat on the island was converging for a party. Then two catamarans sailed up, launching scores of snorkelers. Everywhere you looked you saw kicking fins on the surface. Fifteen feet below them were little groups hanging out for their safety stops. And as I watched, a remarkable thing occurred. A gentleman held out his hands and a lady took them in hers and they began to dance, a slow aquatic swing with graceful twirls.

That's Cozumel, in a nutshell.

Dive In

Water Conditions: Water temperatures vary from 75 degrees in winter to 85 degrees in summer, but you can count on 100 feet of visibility just about year-round.

Climate: Cozumel averages a balmy year-round temperature of about 80 degrees. During the May-to-October rainy season, expect afternoon thundershowers that quickly drench the island.

Documents: By Jan. 1, 2007, visitors will need a valid passport; before then, a combination of a birth certificate and driver's license will suffice.

Getting Around: Shuttle vans or rental cars are the only transportation from the airport and make the circuit to all the hotels. Cabs are readily available at all hotels or you can wave one off the street. You can also rent jeeps, cars and scooters.

Language: Spanish, though English is widely spoken, especially at hotels, dive shops and major restaurants.

Money Matters: The Mexican peso trades at US$1 to MXP11; dollars are widely accepted by most businesses, as are traveler's checks and credit cards.

Electricity: 110 volts/60 cycles.

Time: Cozumel is in the Central time zone and does observe daylight saving time.

For More Information: For detailed information on Cozumel's dive operators, a comprehensive travel guide and recent trip reports submitted by users, visit our TripFinder section.