Off the coast of southern Mexico, the world’s second largest reef system has colourfully alien landscapes that are home to sharks, turtles, rays and more. The best thing to do is dive right in...
The turtle came close, looking at me eye-to-eye. I’d watched him hovering on the ocean surface, 20 metres above our heads, as he took a few breaths. He’d poked his head under, then, unperturbed by the site of three dark human shapes with masked faces and oxygen tanks strapped to their backs, came down to join us, swimming towards me and settling on the sandy ocean floor nearby.
It’s an incredible thing to watch a Hawksbill turtle munching sea grass, not least because the idea of an animal breathing and eating underwater is so alien. He doesn’t look bothered at all by our presence.
“It was beautiful to see it take a breath and come straight down to us,” dive instructor Annalisa Zagara agreed later, back on the boat.” They don’t mind people at all.” Like most of the marine life in Cozumel, from the miniscule trunkfish to the two-metre-long nurse sharks, the turtles here just seem supremely chilled out.
One of Mexico’s largest islands, Cozumel is famous for scuba diving, with some of the richest underwater environments in the Caribbean. The island’s reachable via an hour-long ferry ride from Playa del Carmen in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, and situated on the great Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the second largest reef system in the world (after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef), also known as the Great Mayan Reef, which stretches from the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula for 600 miles along the coasts of Mexico, Belize, Guatamala and Honduras’ Bay Islands.
Jacques Cousteau was a fan of Cozumel, his underwater documentaries helping spread the word to divers around the world. Today, there are more than 30 remarkable dive sites around the island, the otherworldly landscapes and thriving ecosystems coming under the protection of Cozumel Reefs National Marine Park. Sharks, turtles, rays and hundreds of colourful fish species, large and small, make their home among massive coral towers and colourful ‘gardens’.
We’d arrived on a Friday evening at the main pier, tall white hotel blocks lining the coast, with behemoth cruise ships, roughly the size of Luxembourg, resting offshore. A giant Mexican flag flapped in the wind.
Away from the main strip of resorts, much of the island is undeveloped, with protected jungle and mangroves, as well as beaches where turtles lay their eggs. We rented a motorbike and set off to explore, quickly leaving the touristy town behind for vast stretches of greenery on one side of the road, long stretches of sand and breaking waves on the other, punctuated only by an occasional reggae bar or surf shop. A wild pig stepped out of the trees and ambled along the roadside. Vultures perched on wooden archways near empty beaches, where we stopped and saw areas cordoned off to protect turtles’ nests.
It was the diving I’d come for, though. Early next morning, I went down from our hotel to Pro Dive’s beachfront dive shop on the south-west of the island (well situated for the key dive sites). Fitted out with a shortie wetsuit and diving gear, I made my way to the pier and boarded the boat, wondering what lay waiting for us below the surface of the shining, calm ocean.
“Cozumel has the best diving in Caribbean Mexico,” dive instructor Annalisa Zagara told me, as we motored out. “It’s famous for coral formations. The vis (visibility) is usually good. The water’s warm, from around 29 degrees centigrade down to 24 degrees at it’s coldest. You can dive all year round. The reef has the most variety you can find in the Caribbean.
Our first site was Palancar Caves on Palancar Reef. “Palancar Reef is very peculiar and spectacular,” Anna filled me in. “The landscape is wonderful. No matter how many times you dive at the same spot, you can always take a different route and see different things. There are endless possibilities.”
Palancar Caves is also a ‘drift dive’. “All dives in Cozumel are ‘drift dives’,” Anna explained. “Some are stronger and faster, others shallow and protected, but for most dives here, you drift with the underwater currents.”
We got our gear on and jumped in. I’d barely taken a second underwater breath when I noticed a stingray drifting by. We saw another two during the dive, as well as big blue and yellow angelfish. There were tiny details to spot, too, including, a favourite of mine, tiny trunkfish, often swimming in pairs around coral features.
You can see how well the Park’s protection is working. Life down here is healthy, varied and colourful, especially compared to grey, lifeless sites I’ve seen around the world where coral has been damaged or areas have been overfished.
Huge coral columns rose up towards the surface. Elsewhere, it looked like giant boulders had fallen. Much of the coral was covered in thick greenery, which looked like straggly overgrown moss on a forest floor. “Some of it was plants but some of it was soft coral,” Anna told me later. “It looks like a plant, but it’s an animal.” The underwater forest floor was decorated with spindly purple ‘twigs’ and ‘branches’, luminous green tubes, massive ‘jars’ and ‘vases’ (barrel sponges), and giant brain sponges.
During the dive, there were fun swim-thrus and coral corridors. Anna pointed to a lobster in a nook, an absolute giant that I wouldn’t want to wrestle with, no matter how hungry. Elsewhere, we saw stingrays and an eagle ray, as we drifted along on the gentle current.
After Captain Primo took the boat over to a pier at Playa Palancar for a rest stop, we were soon back in the water at La Francesa for the second dive of the day. Minutes into the dive, a Hawksbill turtle appeared, hovering for a while, before slowly flapping away into the blue. Under the water, I could feel myself grinning.
One of the most relaxing and colourful dives I’ve had in some time, we drifted with the mellow current over colourful coral gardens. Ahead, in thick shoals of yellow grunts and silver snapper, we saw a massive green moray eel, its green-brown sides shining as sunlight hit it’s rippling body. Later, an eagle ray moved across our path.
Anna pointed inside a hole to show me a toadfish, watching us as we peered into its hiding place. “The splendid toadfish is an endemic fish of Cozumel,” she explained later. “They’re different colours from those anywhere else.”
Towards the end of the dive, a nurse shark joined us, exploring the coral, most likely searching for food. This one was around 1.5 metres; they can be seen at over two metres in the area.
After lunch, we dived at Paso del Cedral, a site known for large numbers of marine life, rather than crazy formations. It didn’t disappoint. I noticed a turtle casually leaning its flippers on a coral ledge of coral, deep under the surface. Soon after, we saw a nurse shark and then another pair, dark shapes disappearing into the grey-blue depths.
Mid-way through the dive, I had my face-to-face encounter with the Hawksbill turtle from the surface. A huge lobster scuttled quickly across the sand. Further on, we swam by a giant crab, it’s massive claws strong enough to take off fingers.
A two-metre long nurse shark also glided past. I swam to catch up and watched as it curved around the head of the reef and worked his way back down with movements of his powerful tail.
The current was stronger than on our earlier dives, carrying us along from coral ‘hill’ to ‘hill’. Back on the surface, Anna pointed back at a tower onshore near where we’d started the dive. “I think we travelled underwater for about one and a half kilometres,” she said.
On the boat, we discussed our turtle sightings. “You saw the tags on them? They have a programme on the island. They tag the turtles to monitor them,” Anna explained. “They do a good job. Without the protection, people would eat the eggs and we would see a lot less turtles in the water.”
Later, as the sun set and the sky turned pink over the ocean, I made my way back down to the pier and set out on the boat with instructor Bonnie Holt. Night diving is a different world, with many marine creatures, including lobsters, octopus and predators, like sharks, tending to be more active. “I like diving at night,” Bonnie told me. “It’s a little bit eerie. I like the peacefulness, and getting to see different stuff than in the day.”
Torches on, we jumped in and sank down into the black, beams of light scanning the ocean floor. As predicted, lobsters were on overdrive. We saw several on the move, as well as giant crabs, one with a few legs missing. “I quite often see bits of lobster or crabs with missing legs,” Bonnie told me later. “Obviously the sharks have had a good munch on them.”
We were carried along on the current into the blackness. At times, it felt like we were floating in space. Light from our torches cast ominous shadows as we moved around corners. We didn’t see more sharks, but did swim over an octopus, moving ghoulishly from the coral out into open water, and I watched a gangly starfish climb up a piece of coral, with long, strange, spindly legs, looking very much like a lifeform from another planet.
By the time we were back on the beach, the sky was bright with stars. Out in the ocean, away from any major light pollution, Cozumel gets incredibly clear night skies.
After much needed rest, I was back in the ocean early next morning at Columbia Reef. Swimming down, a large wall of colourful coral loomed ahead up ahead, which felt like arriving at an alien world. A stringray shuffled into the sand in a failed attempt to hide, not least as it’s accompanying Remora fish gave away its location.
We swam around towers, through tunnels and down narrow alleys, coming out of cool shade to dense patches of sunlit life, with hundreds of bright blue chromis swimming around corals of gold, orange, purple and green. Later, a spotted ray shuffled along the sand, camouflaged and almost imperceptible except for the outline and protruding eyes. Hovering over big sloping sand banks that looked like the surface of the moon, we saw a massive grouper.
There was time before heading back to the mainland for one final dive, over at Punta Dalila. I saw more of the little trunkfish that I’d enjoyed spotting on each dive and came face-to-face with a long barracuda, who seemed to be playing a game of ‘chicken’, eyeball to eyeball, only changing his course and swimming peacefully by at the last moment. Otherwise, it was, by far, the quietest and least eventful dive of the weekend. Another time, another day, it might be full of life. In Cozumel, you just have to catch the right 'drift'.
The author dived with diving holiday specialists Regaldive (regal-diving.co.uk), who work with Pro Dive International (prodiveinternational.com) in Cozumel. He stayed at the Occidental Cozumel (barcelo.com/occidental-cozumel/) resort, which Pro Dive Cozumel’s dive shop is attached to.
Virgin Atlantic fly from Gatwick to Cancun in the Yucatan up to three times per week during the summer, two per week during the winter. For more info, see virginatlantic.com.
For more on travelling in Mexico, see visitmexico.com.
Main image: Hawksbill turtle in waters around Cozumel (Dreamstime).