NEW! See a 19s video of what it looks like to drift along with the current at Punta Tunich. (Michael's in the yellow/black wetsuit.)
My scuba buddy, Michael Lee, called me up early in January suggesting that we go diving sometime soon. We hadn't been diving together in nearly three years, and neither of us had done any diving independently in that time, either. Both of us were pretty rusty, but the idea was a good one so I agreed and we started researching where to go.
Michael initially wanted to go to Aruba, but the prices were pretty high and, as it turns out, the diving there isn't very notable. I initially wanted to go to Cabo San Lucas, as it has an up-and-coming reputation, plus it is close by. However, after spending two weeks exchanging email with the dive shops down there I couldn't find one that could deliver the training classes we wanted to take. So, scratch Cabo.
(Note to dive shops in Cabo: Quit being afraid of talking with customers on the phone. Nothing is more frustrating than trying to make dive arrangements with you when you only check email once a day and you push your customers to that communication medium. An experienced diver will have a lot of questions that aren't answered by your web site, and we don't have endless amounts of time to ping-pong back and forth via email.)
After some more research we settled on Cozumel, as it wasn't much more expensive than Cabo and it has more mature dive operators and hotels who weren't afraid to discuss their offerings over the phone. Cozumel is well known for its drift diving—the mild to strong currents running around the island make for some very rapid sight-seeing with very little effort. All a diver has to do is maintain good buoyancy and the current will carry him along the reef.
Michael and I wanted to spend most of our time taking PADI specialty classes. These are classes that provide advanced training in different aspects of diving. Earning five specialties is a pre-requisite to becoming Scuba Masters, the highest non-teaching certification offered by PADI and a goal for both of us. We initially were interested in Deep, Multi-Level, and Wreck diving, but after deciding on Cozumel and talking with the dive shop there we dropped Wreck and added Enriched Air, Drift and Underwater Naturalist.
That's a lot of training to pack into five days of diving, but one dive can count towards multiple Specialties in some cases. For example, we used enriched air on our multi-level dives, and all of our dives were drift dives, so we were able to earn all five Specialties quite quickly.
Note, however, that the relaxed attitude common in Mexico can carry over to your instructor and his style of instruction. This, of course, varies by instructor, but ours was exceptionally laid-back. We studied the course material in the evenings, had a five to ten minute review of the material the following morning and then went on a relevant dive. There was no drill or repititive practice, only practical demonstration. This may or may not work for you and your preferred learning style.
As you may be aware, Cozumel was hit by two large hurricanes last year: Emily and Wilma. There was extensive property damage throughout the island, with almost all waterfront property suffering serious damage. The good news is that the people on the island have been hard at work re-building and repairing and they are making good progress. There are still smashed buildings dotting the coastline, even in the downtown area, but most have been fixed up and are close to normal again. Probably the biggest thing missing topside are the trees with their big, shade-giving leaves. It will take quite a few years for the shade to return.
The surrounding reefs were also hard hit, but unfortunately they are not as quick to rebound. In comparison to the reefs I've dove in Grand Cayman, for example, the reefs in Cozumel still have a lot of sand covering them and significant portions are bleached and dead. Now, I didn't dive these same reefs before the storms, so I don't know how much of that condition might be attributable to non-storm factors, but they certainly weren't the most vibrant reefs I've ever seen.
Despite that, the diving was tremendously enjoyable after such a long surface interval. Each day I got to see some sort of mega-fauna, whether it was a sea turtle, a nurse shark, a spiney lobster or a spotted ray. There were plenty of parrot and trigger fish to keep things colorful and entertaining, too. Best of all, I had a waterproof housing for my compact camera so I could capture a little of what I saw and share it with you.
The best diving, however, was saved for the last day when we took a ferry from Cozumel to Playa del Carmen and went diving in the Cenotes, a giant series of linked underwater caverns. At one time these caverns were filled with air, and the water slowly trickling through them created amazing stalagtites and stalagmites. They're now filled with a mix of fresh water and salt water, halting the growth of the formations and making for some of the most fantastic diving imaginable.
The view from the caverns as you look across and see the beams of light pierce the water from above is awesome. It's like being in a giant, natural cathederal so beautiful you're convinced that God does indeed exist. The fresh and salt waters don't mix because the salt water is denser, but amazingly the warm salt water settles to the bottom and the cold fresh water floats on top, meaning that the water gets warmer the deeper you go—just the opposite of everywhere else in the world. Additionally, salt water looks like an oily, hazy layer—a million small motes streaming and swirling such that its as if you've removed your glasses. Ascend a foot into the fresh water and your myopia clears.
I'm convinced that I'm permenantly spoiled by this experience, as I can't imagine anything else as remotely fantastic that I'll ever experience again in life. Our guide for the day, a man who goes by the name Mostro, did a fantastic job describing the geologic actions that worked to create this amazing place, and his technical expertise served to make the dives safe and enjoyable. If you are ever nearby I can't recommend his services highly enough.
In all it was a great dive experience. If I were to do it over again I would probably try to work with a travel company that specializes in dive travel, as I bet they'd be able to save me a lot of the aggrivation I experienced trying to work directly with the dive shops. I'd also bring more cash; although many restaurants and shops took credit cards, some significant ones did not. I used more cash than I expected, so towards the end of the trip I was picking restaurants based on whether they accepted credit cards or not. But these points are minor blemishes on a stellar experience. (Click my picture, above, to see all the pictures from the trip.)