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Diving in Cozumel, Mexico

Updated on April 27, 2010

No one knows how long schools of migratory sailfish have been journeying to the tiny island. Yet each spring, thousands of sleek, tireless swimmers cross vast distances of fluid space to ply the waters around Cozumel. Their arrival follows the winter migration of divers who flock to this Caribbean island 12 miles off the Yucatan Peninsula to soar on clear currents that sweep across Cozumel's massive submarine wall.

Humans have been making the pilgrimage to Cozumel for more than 20 centuries. The ancient Mayans who first settled the Yucatan Peninsula named the island Ah-Cuzamil-Peten, or Land of Swallows. Each year they trekked to the 28-mile-long island to pay homage to Ixchel, the goddess of fertility. The remains of their limestone temples can still be found in the parched scrub jungle and marshy lagoons that cover 90 percent of the island. Rumors of treasure that surfaced more than a millennium later inspired Hernan Cortes and his conquistadors to sail to Cozumel in 1519. The Spanish missionaries who followed seized upon the island as a source of souls.

But judging from the numbers, neither Ixchel nor golden treasure nor the Spaniards' missionary fervor exerted the drawing power of the offshore paradise that lies just beyond the jungle-covered isle. Their existence was not revealed until Jacques-Yves Cousteau put Cozumel's reefs on the map with a 1961 film expedition. Today, nearly 60,000 divers undertake the annual trek to Cozumel's protected marine sanctuary, making it Mexico's numero uno dive destination.

Sojourn to San Miguel

Once a quiet Mexican fishing village, the island's sole town of San Miguel today has a bustling tourist economy fueled by air-fills, cerveza, and souvenirs. Until 1997, there was only one gas station on the island but three bordellos listed on the Internet. There are fewer than five churches but more than 50 dive shops, and no one has counted the bars, eateries, and T-shirt stalls. Whether they serve saint or sinner, all of these engines of economic life depend on the reefs that lie at the heart of the island's ecosystem.
 
Cozumel's reefs spill over the top of the protected Western flank in a phantasmagoria of form that defies description. There are majestic coral cathedrals and cavernous reef archways, acres of undulating sea fans, and vertical sponge-covered reliefs that plunge to a depth of over 600 feet. Local divers have christened these individual formations as if to validate their own fleeting impressions. Shallow reefs like Paradise, Paso del Cedral, and Tormentos lie atop the submarine rampart in less than 60 feet of water, and a few of these are even accessible from the beach. The deep reefs — Maracaibo to the far south, San Juan to the north — plummet into azure vistas beyond the reach of divers. Like a crude map, the names fall short of their ambition as one formation seamlessly gives away to another in water with visibility of up to 150 feet year-round.

The Gospel of Cozumel

There is a natural order to San Miguel, a rhythm as predictable as the annual migration of sailfish, the mating of the endangered sea turtles, and the thousand other cycles that play out on the reefs. In the morning, the first shift of divers makes its way to the docks where the boats are waiting, stowing their gear on board for the passage to the reefs. The flotilla of skiffs and cruisers and yachts — almost anything that floats — motors off to attend to the important business of Cozumel.
 
Continued In: Diving in Cozumel, Mexico  - Part 2

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    • Deborah Demander profile image

      Deborah Demander 8 years ago from First Wyoming, then THE WORLD

      Can't wait to visit there. Thanks for writing.

      Namaste.

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