Palancar Reef is without a doubt the most requested dive of our visitors. On most days we ask our divers where they want to go, and normally each day we get at least one diver that hollers out, “Palancar!” This always leads the next question – which one?
As we tell our divers during the dive briefing, when you get home and you tell your diver friends you recently visited Cozumel, they will always ask, “Did you go to Palancar?!” Instantly it becomes a common bond and you start swapping stories of your dives there. What most divers new to Cozumel don’t realize, however, is that Palancar is actually several different dive sites encompassing a vast area.
The Reefs of Palancar
If you come here for 6-7 days of 2-tank diving, we can literally do every dive on Palancar reef and not repeat the same dive. To begin with, Palancar is broken into 5 different dive sites. Additionally, most these dive sites have a maximum depth of 100 feet/30 meters (or deeper). Indeed, the best part of these dives lies somewhere between 70 feet/21 meters and 40 feet/12 meters. As a bonus, the top of the reef ranges from 30 feet/10 meters to 20 feet/7 meters. These five (5) dive site locations span a distance of roughly 3 miles! All told you can do 20 dives on Palancar and not see the same reef twice.
The dive sites of Palancar include –
- Cuevones (translated: big caves)
But what about Bricks?! Caracolillo?!
I’d like to take a moment to mention the oft argued dive sites of Palancar reef. If you are not a first time visitor to Cozumel you’ve likely heard of the argument between dive sites in Palancar. The first one being Palancar Bricks, and the second being Palancar Caracolillo. Well, Bricks doesn’t technically exist, but Caracolillo does.
What am I basing this upon? Well I didn’t consult with any textbook or internet page. I simply asked our 20-year Cozumel diving professional Raymundo and he explains it as this –
“Before GPS came along we used the trees on the shoreline to help us name and locate the reefs. I know you’ve heard me discuss ‘Roadrunner’ and ‘Crocodile’ before. Well, Roadrunner is the tallest tree on the shoreline, and it’s branches are shaped a bit like the cartoon character ‘Roadrunner.’ (Editors note: Yes, I did just laugh as he is telling me this). At other dive sites, they can look down on the reef and find the point of the reef where it is shaped like the head of a crocodile (Editors note: but of course…). Where here!”
(A Quick Bet)
As long as I’m on the topic of GPS… Our crew still finds reefs old school. I encourage you to ask them how they locate each of the reefs you dive with us. They’ll happily explain it to you. I should note that I did purchase us a high-quality sonar and GPS for the boat shortly after I purchased the boat. It was quickly dismissed as not needed and now 20 months later is still mostly unused. I say mostly unused because I was secretly plotting a few reefs on it for that “rainy day” and that day arrived. Through some comical banter I got challenged to act as the boat Captain and find a reef drop. All of a sudden my GPS had a purpose! I’ll say the crew was disappointed to learn their combined 50 years on the water was no match for my pin drops. Winner: Henry.
In any event, Ray continues, “Palancar reef has 7 points that stick out off the main wall. We use those 7 points to label the dive sites. Before everyone had dive computers, we had to actually follow our dive slates, so our dive times were shorter. Today we usually cover 2 dive sites in a single Palancar dive, thanks to computers allowing us multi-level dives with extended bottom times. We had much shorter dive times back then and dives were kept between the points.”
- Points 1-2 is the Pinnacles.
- Moving to points 2-3 is Cuevones
- Combing points 3-5 is Caves (yes, two points one site)
- Points 5-6 is Horseshoe
- And, finally points 6-7 is Gardens
That makes sense, but where does Palancar Bricks come from? Is it Colombia Bricks then?
Ray explains, “When we dive Colombia or even Colombia Deep, the middle reef extends and eventually ends at the anchor where the bricks begin. There is a break in the reef with wonderful white sand. This reef separation is the end of Colombia and beginning of Palancar reef and where we would originally find most the bricks. If we start our dive here, we would swim out to the wall. We’d find on the wall the very first point of Palancar reef. It a wonderful pinnacle, which we’ve named Palancar Pinnacle for as long as I can remember.”
So basically anytime someone refers to “the Bricks,” in reality they are referring to the end of the Colombia dive site, intentionally or otherwise. If you asked your Divemaster for Bricks, they likely took you to Pinnacles and didn’t bother explaining it to you (or perhaps didn’t know the difference them self).
All this may be true, but I used to call it Bricks, myself. Until Raymundo corrected me, that is. Even still, I think Pinnacle and Bricks could be swapped harmlessly, assuming everybody knows we are talking about the same dive site.
Additionally, you may hear some divers refer to Palancar Caracolillo. However, this is just north of the Gardens traditional drop zone, technically the midway point of Gardens. Actually, it is the infamous “Roadrunner.” Dropping in at Caracolillo would ideally put the Divemaster right into the caves of Gardens and potentially finish at Dalilah with a current running strong to the north.
(Note: If you disagree with any of this, please do not send me hate mail. You can direct all hate mail towards Raymundo. If you write to me politely, I’ll provide his contact info LOL.)
Okay, but what does ‘Palancar’ mean?
For the veterans of diving Cozumel, you are likely aware many of our dive sites are named after Mayan words. Additionally, you’ve likely heard that Jacques Cousteau himself named all the reefs of Cozumel. Well, if you believe in either of these cases, at least with respect to Palancar reef, you’d be wrong.
If you are to ask Ray, Palancar actually has its roots in Spanish and was named by the local fisherman. As the story goes, a century or more ago the fisherman would fish in the shallows of Colombia. Like all fisherman, they were aware that the splashing of their oars would frighten away the fish, making fishing difficult. To counter this, the fisherman would paddle ashore at what is now known as Palancar Beach (Playa Palancar) to grab themselves some long, skinny palm trees. They’d stripe the trees of any leaves, resulting in a skinny tree trunk that could be utilized as a sort of push pole. The Spanish word “Palanca” translates to “leverage.” Thus, because the fisherman always paddled ashore here to retrieve their leverage poles, or palancas, Palancar Reef was born.
However, Cozumel historian Ric Hajovsky disagrees. He says, “My vote is that Palancar Point, Palancar Beach, and Palancar Reef were named after a nearby rancho that was named after its owner, in this case Palancar, a very good Spanish surname that has been used as a toponym in several locations in the world. Most of the reefs off of Cozumel’s west coast were named (prior to recreational diving) after sites located on the shore adjacent to them. The earliest mention of Palancar on Cozumel I can find is the “Punta Palancar” described in a 1901 Mexican government report. Punta Palancar also shows up on maps of that year. There were a lot of other ranchos down south near there that have been lost to most people’s memories.”
So there ya have it… Urban legend, or historian research? The choice is yours.
But what makes Palancar reef so special?
For the better part of the reef, the top of it rises between 20-30 feet / 7-10 meters from the surface. Traditionally, Captains will drop you on the inside of the reef where the sand and sea grass is at a steady 30 feet / 10 meters of depth. A currently usually pushes gently from south to north. Divers swim over the top of the reef, which varies in width but is always densely covered in hard corals and colorful. Once at the edge there is a drop to 60 feet / 18 meters, give or take. This drop is completely vertical, but is marked by a vast assortment of overhangs, tunnels, swim-throughs and caves.
Along the outer wall offers incredible wide-angle photography. Massive coral spires rise from the depths creating numerous canyons and crevasses. In particular, these are the points 1-7 discussed above, which offer drops beyond recreational diver limits. Deep water gorgonians and all species of Black Coral populate the pinnacles while massive barrel sponges as added diversity. Underneath you is a mixture of sand, gravel, and rubble, which slowly fades into the abyss.
On a normal day there is very little, if any, current once inside the canyons and pinnacles. Whereas most of Cozumel is a drift dive, in contrast divers of Palancar are forced to fin-kick through the dive site and it’s passages – an usual concept for divers in Cozumel. But as divers approach one of the 7 points, they will then notice the current as it pushes them around the point and into the next cove. The points are always densely covered in corals because of this constant water / food supply. And then once again, as divers begin their ascent and find themselves along the top of the reef the familiar currents of Cozumel return, bringing you an ever changing scene as you burn off your safety stop.
Any concerns with diving Palancar reef?
This is Cozumel, which means currents can change, for better or worse, in an instant. So inherently there are risks to diving just about every dive site in Cozumel. This is but one reason why the Cozumel Marine Park requires all divers to be accompanied by certified park guides.
On days where currents are running strong, dropping into the canyons of Palancar reef can provide quite the challenge. Currents begin to swirl inside the canyons and at best the dive is tiresome, at worst you damage the reef (and yourself). When this happens to us, if we are unable to immediately abort the dive and move to a new location, I prefer to hang near the top of the reef and simply turn it into a shallow drift dive. Thankfully Palancar is a loooooong reef so it seems like it never ends during a dive.
Every so often the currents run perpendicular to the reef. This poses quite the quandary for Divemasters as there is no good answer. A current pushing us out to sea can be combated by hugging tight to the wall, but this current often drags sediment from the shallows and creates poor visibility.
Conversely, a current pushing in towards shore often will push divers up and over the wall and into the sand flats. Depending on the strength of the current and fitness of the divers, it might be best to simply enjoy a shallow sea grass dive. These can actually be quite amazing, with the right Divemaster. Many times this “bad” situation becomes a memorable dive of animals you’ve never seen before.
I figured we could finish up with letting my staff have a few words about Palancar reef. I asked each team member which site was their favorite and why. I’ll add my comments at the end, too.
Raymundo says, “Palancar Caves is my favorite dive because it has a bit of everything. Tall coral formations, sandy area, and deep blue. We start shallow, at only 30 feet, and we can go as deep as we want – literally as it sits along a 2400 feet drop-off! I saw a Hammerhead shark there once, winter time always brings the eagle rays and baby Blacktip sharks. Moreover, the sand in the area holds lots of sea horses (if you can find them!).”
On the other hand, longtime Salty Endeavors instructor Aries adds, “Palancar Pinnacles for sure. I think it has the best blend of colors and coral formations, but it also has a better chance to see big ticket aquatic life.”
Our video and tech guy, Instructor Erik chimes in with, “Favorite Palancar reef? Oh man, so hard to choose, Pinnacles because it is nice but Caves is cool. The absolute Swiss cheese environment of a thousand swim throughs. It’s unlike any other place I’ve been, and some of the swim throughs are gigantic. Can’t forget the towering spires, some 60′ tall, just jutting up from the depths. The topography at Palancar is mind blowing. Favorite dive was probably the one where you were spearfishing lions. A snapper started acting like a bird dog pointing out the lions, and following us the entire dive. Showed me how much marine life can be influenced by just our presence…It also made me nervous when he eyed up my GoPro on the selfie stick as well!”
In the meantime, here’s some of Erik’s handiwork…
And as I said, I’ll add my own thoughts to the page. My personal favorite has to be Palancar Horseshoe. To begin with the dive starts moderately deep ~ I personally like it around 80 feet / 24 meters. I like to pop out on the wall and fully experience the spires rising from the depths. At this depth the walls are littered with Blackcap Basslets hanging upside-down, and orage rope sponges going every which direction. The occasional deep water Longsnout butterfly is also seen swimming upside-down at these depths. The points are current-blown with the deep water gorgonians literally vibrating from the water movement.
After exploring what seems like endless overhangs the reef parts to a U-shaped sand patch (hence the name). This open area also has Razorfish to play with, and while divers are playing with the Razorfish I can search the sea grass for the true gems like nudibranchs and seahorses. Back into the reef, a long V-shaped swim-through is always packed with Hatchet fish hiding from the sun, and the swim-through opens into an incredible maze of canyons before leading you tot he top of the reef for your safety stop.
Can I shore dive Palancar Reef?
In a word, no. First is the Cozumel Marine Park rule that requires all divers to be escorted by a certified park guide at all times. You won’t find a certified park guide willing to make this dive from shore for three reasons – it’s an incredibly long surface swim; the surface swim would be in a very high traffic location boats, which purposefully cruise in the shallows away from divers; and finally the erratic and often times strong currents of Cozumel could make the swim back to shore literally impossible. Given these points, the best way to dive Palancar is to contact us and allow us to arrange for you a 2-tank boat trip where we can provide you our expert services and ensure you the perfect dive.
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