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What is Cozumel Scuba Diving?
Cozumel scuba diving is the number one option for incredible drift diving in the Caribbean. From steep wall drop offs to middle reefs that stretch for miles, scuba diving in Cozumel must be on your bucket list of dive destinations. If you are reading this because you booked with Salty Endeavors, please continue reading to receive your “Welcome to Cozumel scuba diving” informational sheet. If you stumbled upon this blog from somewhere other than booking with Salty Endeavors, no worries this will still be highly information for you as well.
Main Reefs of Cozumel
For are intents and purposes, Cozumel is literally one long reef wall that runs no less than 40 miles of length. With few exceptions this wall does not break. It is a glorious thing! However, we have several main reef sections that we have independently named. For starters, we have the north and the south dive sites. As simple as it may sound, I will still mention it. North dive sites are anything north of the city of San Miguel, while the south dive sites are to the south of downtown San Miguel. There are also dive sites right downtown, too.
To the north is mostly a deep wall with strong currents. San Juan, El Cantarel, Barracuda are the dives advanced divers seek to the north. These are dives for our advanced divers as the currents are usually the strongest of the island. The top of the reefs are also deep and lacking huge coral formations – the strong currents over the years has kept coral growth short and bushy. Getting the southern dive shops to come north is an exercise in futility. Go ahead and try and see how many excuses you can get of why they refuse to go north. It is unfortunate, too, because for experienced divers the north offers pristine reefs unspoiled by divers visiting the south day after day. As the boats of Salty Endeavors are kept in the northern harbor, these north dive sites are right out our backdoor. We are spoiled to have El Cantarel less than 5 minutes away during the eagle ray mating season!
Downtown reefs would extend from the shipwrecks at Playa Casitas south to Villa Blanca Wall. These are mostly shore diving locations and apart from Villa Blanca Wall, are inner reefs which are shallow and flat. They make for great training dive sites or intro to scuba diving classes. In fact, 99% of the photos shared on Salty Endeavors’social media accounts come from downtown shore diving. The rare exceptions would be some of our wide angle photos which we like to take on the walls. All joking aside, Villa Blanca Wall is one of my favorite dives of the island. As a first dive, deep dive to 100 feet / 30 meters, the sponge growth is incredible and colorful mixed throughout perhaps the densest deep water gorgonian forest of Cozumel.
Moving south of downtown is where the bulk of Cozumel scuba diving occurs. Once you are south of the Puerta Maya cruise ship piers you are now entering the Cozumel Marine Park. Paradise Reef would be the northern most reef in the park. As we travel south from Paradise Reef, we have both the outer wall and the inner reef or also called middle reef. As the names suggest, the outer wall reefs are wall dives with various grades of pitch, but all of them head off to depths much greater than recreational limits. Thus good buoyancy control is paramount on these dive sites. The tops of these reefs range from 40 – 70 feet / 12 – 20 meters and thus make great options as first dives. The further south you get, the more the topography of the reef changes from a simple flat wall heading to the abyss, to a highly varied and rugged stretch filled with canyons, cervices, and swim-throughs. Reefs such as Palancar and Colombia are so diverse you can do the same location a dozen times and not see the entire site twice. Ultimately these are the reefs than have made Cozumel so famous as the number one dive destination of the Caribbean.
The middle reefs make for great second dives of the day as they tend be from 30-60 feet / 10 – 18 meters. These reefs are stretched long and at times seem endless as you drift along. Many of these reefs also have plentiful swim-throughs and overhangs.
We do not shore dive the north or south reefs of Cozumel. In the south the reef is so far from shore that the surface swim would both me impractical due to the long distance, but also dangerous as it has a lot of boat traffic. To the north the currents are so strong and unpredictable that it is ill advised to enter from shore without boat support. Any shore diving we do is kept in downtown Cozumel stretching from Playa Casitas in the north and south to Tiki-la.
Featured Animals of Cozumel
As Cozumel located on the Mesoamerican Reef, the local reef is subject to a vast variety of marine fish and invertebrates. The overwhelming majority of reef species of the Caribbean are all located in Cozumel. Rather than bore you covering the typical fish of Cozumel, I want to discuss a few key animals for the area.
First, we will begin with the Splendid Toadfish (Sanopus splendidus). These fantastic fish are endemic to Cozumel – meaning they are found no where else in the world! Be sure to ask our Divemasters to find one for you so you do not leave Cozumel without seeing one. They are nocturnal, so finding them during the day is difficult, but not impossible. As their name may indicate, they make a grumbling noise that sounds familiar to that of a frog or toad. And they are loud! During a typical night dive you will easily hear these guys surrounding you. If you get lucky you will also feel one! They make their noise by vibrating their air bladder. When you are nearby the result is your inner organs will also vibrate! No joke!
Second must be the Spotted Eagle Ray (Aetobatus narinari). Although you can see these magnificent creature sin Cozumel year-round, they are most common from the months of December – March. They gather to the north of Cozumel in huge numbers! It is not uncommon to dive at El Cantarel and see them in school numbering 20 or more individuals! They generally move to our southern reefs individually or in pairs to feed in the vast sand fields around our middle reefs. From December – March it is hard to complete a 60-minute dive without seeing at least one of these majestic creatures.
Finally, we must discuss the Sea Turtles. If you only dove in Cozumel, you would have no clue that all sea turtles are on the Endangered Species Protection list. You can find the Green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) and Loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta) in Cozumel year-round, but it is the Hawksbill sea turtle (Eretmochelys imbricate) that is most plentiful. As a bonus the Green and Loggerhead both lay their eggs on the protected eastern beaches of Cozumel. So, the months from May – September have a higher than average chance of diving with the big females.
Bad Days of Diving?
Yes, unfortunately Cozumel scuba diving is not always experiencing ideal conditions. We lose on average 10-15 days per year to Port Closures. Outside of those days, most days in Cozumel are great for diving. Our traditional blue skies and trade winds from the east leave our western shores glass smooth. This makes the boat rides to and from your dives enjoyable, and the underwater conditions simply perfect.
Best Days of Diving?
I do not mean to sound like a homer, but there really is no bad time to come to Cozumel for scuba diving. The early part of the year not only has you escaping winters of the north, but also arriving during peak Eagle Ray season. As we enter spring now you are talking about good numbers of sea turtles arriving to nest through summer. Late summer and into Fall the water is the warmest it will be all year and you can dive without a wetsuit. Late fall has perfect air temperatures making evening nights ideal but diving wise you often can avoid the high-season crowds by coming before the holidays start plus of course eagle rays are starting to arrive. There’s just no bad time of the year to visit Cozumel!
How is Drift Diving Different?
At this point I am going to assume you have done at least 1 or 2 boat dives during your Open Water SCUBA certification (if not just bear with me…). During class you would have descended to depth following an anchor line or a mooring line. Likely you used the line hand-over-hand the first time and then simply used it visually on subsequent dives. Perhaps you have already been to a few great dive destinations like the Bahamas, Roatan, or the Caymans. All of these are great destinations do boat dives from a mooring line, so again you can at least use the line the boat is tied to as a visual reference as you descend. Well, for starters, your dives in Cozumel will be nothing like this.
Cozumel scuba diving is done with no mooring lines and no anchor lines. Occasionally there is a mooring line on the C-53 wreck, but even when its present rarely do boats use it. So how do we descend when scuba diving in Cozumel? Well, without a line for visual reference for starters. At Salty Endeavors we get all our divers in the water and agreeing they are ready to begin descent. Then we simply descend and allow the flow of the Cozumel currents to push us as we descend.
The key here is a solid dive brief by your Cozumel scuba diving Divemaster, and a proper pre-dive check to ensure you and your dive buddy are ready. The dive brief should discuss how all divers must pay careful attention to each other and descend together at the same pace. Not just with your dive buddy – but the entire dive group must descend together. Cozumel currents can move at different speeds at different depths, therefore divers that drop to depth too quickly or equalize slowly can easily get separated from the dive group. Strict adherence to descending as a group must be maintained. That means if one diver is slow to equalize then all divers are slow to descend. We stick together as a group.
Furthermore, whereas a simple mistake like miscalculating your weight by 2lbs can be easily fixed when using an anchor line to descend, when diving in Cozumel the currents are rarely so forgiving. Often if you are unable to descend right away you end up separating from your dive group and needing to cancel your dive. The currents simply do not allow for us to re-gather the divers, surface, and start over. Be a prepared Cozumel scuba diver – know your lead requirements. ** Pro-tip ** It might be prudent to add 2 pounds to your desired weight for your first dives. Often, first timers to Cozumel scuba diving may find it difficult to descend or hold their position in the currents and having that extra 2 pounds is helpful.
Okay, everyone has descended, and we find ourselves at depth starting as a group – welcome to Cozumel scuba diving! It is at this time our Divemaster will allow the group to distance itself a little bit in buddy pairs. Please remember, should you require assistance at depth, our Divemaster will have to swim against or across currents to reach you. We understand its Cozumel and your visibility seems to be endless, but please be mindful of safety and access to professional assistance at all times.
The currents pushing us during our scuba dives in Cozumel is generally 1 knot in speed. For those of you not keen on maritime lingo one knot equals roughly 1.15mph or 1.8kph. And that, my friends, is the beauty of Cozumel scuba diving. That current means, on your typical dive, you will see more than 1 mile / 1.6 kilometers of reef with virtually zero effort at all. Some of our stronger currents found at our more advance dive sites can easily double these numbers.
Remember, divers at different depths will move at different speeds. This means that divers 3 feet / 1 meter from the reef will move SLOWER than divers 10 feet / 3 meters above the reef. Should you find yourself getting ahead of the group simply lower yourself behind coral structure to get out of the strong current. Other divers will quickly catch up to you. Do not at any time grab onto, stand on, or hold the reef.
Once you have reached your agreed upon Low-On-Air pressure, the buddy pair should ascend to safety stop depth. You will of course keep drifting at this time. Most often in Cozumel, your safety stop will be “blue water”, meaning there is no reef or structure immediately beneath you. Good buoyancy is paramount at this time. If you do not have good buoyancy, now is the perfect time to practice and get better. Carefully watch your depth to stay at your safety stop depth.
If you are surfacing with your Dive Master s/he will have their Surface Marker Buoy (SMB) inflated. If you are surfacing as a buddy-pair without a Divemaster it is highly recommended you have your own SMB. Once you have finished your safety stop carefully search and listen for potential boats in the area that would cause surfacing to be hazardous. If it is all clear, slowly surface. If all goes smoothly your dive boat is nearby and ready to receive you.
Is Safety A Concern?
We often get asked a couple questions regularly. “Is Cozumel a suitable location for new scuba divers?”, and “are there strong currents in Cozumel?”. The answer is yes to both questions. Cozumel is a great place for beginner divers. In fact, Salty Endeavors has been the #1 Scuba Schools International training center of Cozumel for the past 3 years. We teach hundreds of divers how to scuba dive in Cozumel each year. Plus of course the cruise ship divers who do the one-day Discover Scuba for non-certified divers. There are many reefs here that are excellent choices for beginning divers, so yes Cozumel is a perfect spot for student-divers.
Likewise, we have a lot of repeat clients who like to explore and are experienced enough to do some of the more challenging dives of Cozumel. Be it the tunnels of Palancar and Punta Sur or the depths and speed of Barracuda, we can cater to certified divers of all levels. So if strong drift dives is your objective, we can hit that, too.
But that is only part of the story of Cozumel, of course. The reality is strong currents can happen at any time and any dive site. As you may correctly assume, strong currents are more common on some sites than others, but its best to always be prepared. Two main concerns still exist: down currents and lost boats.
For the rookies of Cozumel, your boat Captain will follow your bubbles during your dive. Assuming they do their job well, when you surface after your dive the boat is ready to pick you up. However, if the Captain loses track of your bubbles, then its possible (likely?) you will be on the surface awhile waiting to be found. This should be no concern. Worst case scenario is you might get some sunburn on those bald heads or slightly cold during the winter months.
I know lost boats sounds scary, so please do not let me scare you off with the next few paragraphs. A lost boat is generally not all that bad. Allow me to explain: I want to first start by saying that your Captain losing you at sea is rare. Or at least it is for a good Captain. Additionally, there are enough dive boats operating in the area that it is very unlikely you would be lost. I cannot think of any time someone has been lost on the surface in Cozumel. Now, of course, you might be, shall we say… misplaced??? Yeah, misplaced sounds about right. Your boat Captain may lose track of you for 5-10-15 minutes. But eventually you will be found.
But Why Am I Lost?
The most likely answer is a strong current which moves you either at a pace much more rapid than the Captain was expecting, or a current moving in a different direction than your Captain was expecting. Or worse – both at the same time.
Generally, your Captain and Divemaster are aware of the day’s conditions and can plan properly, but occasionally the current will change speeds or directions, or both, during your dive. Perhaps even multiple times during a single dive. Stronger currents make it more difficult for the Captain to follow the divers. Strong currents often cause the bubbles to not breach the surface, or when they do breach they are doing so far up current from where the divers are. Obviously not good for a Captain using the bubbles to keep track of divers.
To assist with this, Salty Endeavors has placed yellow reflective tape along the top of each of our dive cylinders. This allows our Captain to see our divers at depth of 60 feet / 18 meters. If he puts a snorkel mask and dips his face the water, our Captain will see you at depths greater than the recreational limits of 130 feet / 40 meters! Got to love Cozumel water clarity!!
There is another way divers can get lost at sea. Unfortunately, at times a Captain might be at fault by falling asleep. I am reminded of two unrelated stories. One time upon surfacing our Captain Felipe was laughing and going on about how during our dive he found random divers adrift at the surface. After attempts to contact their boat by marine radio were unsuccessful, Captain Felipe loads these random divers into our boat and runs them back to their own boat. Upon arriving they find their Captain comfortably asleep on the bottom of the boat!
The other story refers to a freelance instructor that occasionally worked for us. One time he was working at a resort in Tulum. During the dive, the Captain literally left the area (WHAT?!) and planned on returning 45 minutes later and easily finding his divers. Unfortunately, midway through the dive the Divemaster decided to end the dive and surface when currents took a turn for the worse. Upon surfacing there was no boat and a strong current pulling them away from land. After being adrift at sea for 7 hours a local fisherman found them badly sunburned and exhausted, less than an hour before sunset. Nutty!
The last way it is possible to get lost out at sea would be a mechanical issue with the boat. Perhaps the engine has stalled and will not restart, or the boat ran out of fuel, or worse yet the boat sinks. Yes, that is a real thing. Again, I am reminded of a story. On Christmas Day 2019 our Captain came across 6 random divers adrift at sea. It turns out their boat sank during their dive! Our Captain collected them all onto our boat and ran them quickly to shore and then returned to us. We surfaced from our dive and were completely unaware of the situation. Even nuttier! Great reasons to dive with a reputable dive center I’ll say.
Down We Go
The other consideration of possible hazards would be our downdrafts. Some dive sites present conditions which allow for the current to shift and slip down the wall at a rapid pace. When the current is rolling down the wall it can take the diver to the depths. In some cases, like Barracuda Wall, the current constantly moves at a strong horizontal pace but also slightly downward to the degree you need to keep more air than normal in your BC to avoid getting dragged down. Therefore, we consider it an expert only dive. Other dive sites can allow for the current to slide straight down the wall. For example, El Cedral, a dive site we would take most certified scuba divers. The site has sand chutes that are clear demarcations of water rushing down the wall. Uncommon, but possible.
I can share a personal experience on El Cedral. I was with a couple of new divers who also happened to be young twin sisters. I took them to the shallows of El Cedral, a dive site we call Montanas, or Mountains translated to English. The shallows are less than 40 feet / 12 meters for the duration of the dive. On that dive when we dropped in there was no current at all. When that happens, I am sort of disappointed because that means I need to fin kick. Yes, I am a lazy diver! Cozumel has spoiled me!!
However, midway through the dive the current started to pick up. Very slight at first, but certainly appreciated. This allows us to see more reef, of course. But as the minutes went by the current started to get stronger. Normally a good strong current is really appreciated by me – I love feeling like I am flying over the reef like a bird! But as I said, on this day I was with two young divers, so a strong current was not what I wanted. Then, without warning the current made a hard-left turn by 90 degrees and started sending us out to sea. No worries, we were 50 minutes into our dive anyway so we can end it here. I send up my SMB so the Captain has a chance of seeing us turning out to sea and not lose track of us.
Just at this moment a huge Loggerhead Sea Turtle swims past us and cross paths with an open-water swimming nurse shark. As you might imagine my new divers were overtaken with awe and they started to swim towards the turtle and shark. Unfortunately, by this point the current had blown far enough out that the top of the reef was significantly deeper than I wanted so I quickly gathered up the two divers and grabbed a hold of them.
And boy was I lucky I did! At that exact moment, the current fell off a cliff and started trying to drag us down. So there I was with one handing holding firmly to my SMB reel with a fully inflated SMB at the surface (thankfully!), my other hand holding the tank valve of one of my divers, and the second young diver I have their cylinder between my legs squeezing hard as we teach our divers in Rescue Diver class. I have the situation under control but as each of us exhaled, our bubbles spiraled in our face before slowly descending! It is an eerie feeling when that happens, let me tell you. but also so way cool to experience!
Right at that moment our Divemaster Ray slammed into me. He and his divers also got caught in the current and now all of us were in the center of the downward siphon. We really could not see much besides a wall of bubbles that were spiraling with us. After a couple of minutes it subsided, and we surfaced under normal safety-stop protocols. Back on the boat our divers were laughing and really enjoying how the dive ended while Ray and I looked at each other in a manner than clearly was a mix of relief and comical enjoyment.
Best Dive Equipment for Cozumel?
So naturally your next question might be what type of equipment you should have for Cozumel scuba diving to keep yourself safe. Well, for starters, like any other dive situation, you want to make sure your BC and your regulator are both functioning optimally. This means a BC that holds air, does not leak from the inflator, has ample lift to bring you to the surface in the event of an emergency, and of course easy ditch-able weight systems. The regulators should be regularly serviced, hoses that do not leak, plus of course functional and accurate depth and air pressure gauges. Ideally piston balanced regulators, like our rental regulators, for optimal safety and performance.
But additional safety equipment is paramount in Cozumel, too. Having your own Surface Marker Buoy (SMB) is a huge safety bonus. Even if you never shoot your SMB during your Cozumel dive vacation, it is worth having your own just in case you need it. As is often repeated, “it is better to have something and not need it, than need it and not have it.” Also, a surface signaling device like a mirror and a whistle would be a wise investment. All Salty Endeavors rental BC’s have a whistle attached to it. It is also smart to remember four things about your dive boat: The name of the company, the name of the boat, the name of the Captain, and the radio channel the Captain monitors. In the event you get *ahem* misplaced at sea, another Captain will ask who you are diving with. And that is your answer – company name, boat name, Captain name, channel number.
What Items are Banned in Cozumel?
We should probably also cover the items not allowed to be used in the Cozumel Marine Park. Dive knifes may only be worn by certified park guides. Dive gloves, muck sticks, and reef hooks are not allowed. As should be obvious no touching, grabbing, standing, kneeling of the reef – no contact of any kind – is allowed in the Cozumel Marine Park. Also, topside, all sunblock must be reef-safe. If it does not say reef safe clearly on the front of the label, its not reef safe. Here is some information on why we restrict sunblock in the Cozumel Marine Park.
Types of Boats
Cozumel scuba operators utilize two distinctly different boat styles – “fast boats” and “cattle boats”. Of course, those are the nicknames we have given them, but they are quite fitting.
The “fast boats” are panga-style boats that seat between 6 – 10 scuba divers. As the name indicates these boats are generally fast and will get you out to the reef and back quickly. If you hop on the 8am boat, you will be back on land after 2-tanks with plenty of time to clean up for lunch. These fast boats tend to naturally draw experienced divers that like the smaller number of divers per group. Most (but not all!) fast boats have a roof to provide cover from rain or sun. This is a critical detail. Make sure your dive provider of choice has roofs on their boats, and make sure it covers the entire boat, not just half the boat. You do not want to be stuck for over two hours of travel and surface interval time where you are baking in the Caribbean sun! Entry into the water is as simple as falling overboard from where you sit – we cannot make it any easier for you!
The “cattle boats”, on the other hand, are boats that hold 12 or more divers. Some boats in Cozumel have capacities of up to 40 divers! These boats are slow – a typical 2-tank excursion departing at 8am will either have you returning to land after 2pm, or the boat will not travel far south into the Cozumel Marine Park. This also means afternoon departures are not possible because the morning boats will not have returned in time. Most these boats do offer a bit more space to walk around the cabin but would require the more difficult giant-stride entry.
All our boats at Salty Endeavors are panga-style boats seating 6 or 8 divers. They have a roof that covers the full length of the boat. And they are fast!
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