SCUBA Diving in Cozumel – Rest for the Weary
I was writing a much different post last weekend when the bad news started to break.
Cozumel’s Marine Park – Parque Nacional Arrecifes de Cozumel – announced their decision to close a large portion of the park. The sites affected include the dive sites at Palancar, Colombia, Punta Sur, Marcaibo, and a popular snorkeling spot known as El Cielo.
These areas will be closed and monitored from October 7, 2019 until at least January, pending reassessment. (UPDATE: now there are rumors that it will be reassessed in Dec. 2019…so stay tuned.)
The primary reason for the closure is the rapid spread of a viral condition known as Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease (SCTLD). SCTLD is also referred to as Whitening Syndrome, but it’s distinct from the problem of coral “bleaching” due to elevated sea temperatures.
The coral disease was first detected in the Miami area of Florida in 2014, and has quickly spread both North and South along Florida’s southern coastline.
Reports of SCTLD in Cozumel began in 2018 (though it may have been here earlier), and has affected a dramatic number of hard corals since then.
The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, has a lot of good information on the outbreak, including downloadable cards showing the different corals that are affected, and what the disease looks like as it takes hold and progresses.
I also recommend this informative page by Reuters, here.
Local Reactions in Cozumel’s Diving Community
As a resident and very frequent diver in Cozumel I have seen the damage and rapid spread up close, and it’s heartbreaking. Most diving industry people I’ve talked to so far – even those who stand to lose some business – are generally in favor of doing whatever is needed to save the reefs. But…
But, we all know there are far greater stressors at work on the Island – and responsible operators wonder if doubt those will ever be curtailed. Their skepticism is hard to miss, but quite easy to share.
Cruise ship impacts, oversized development projects, illegal fishing in the park, illegal boats and operators increasing the loads, rampant littering, people treating El Cielo like a trashy swim-up bar…just to name a few.
These threats should be confronted, as well.
What Can WE Do?
Various organizations studying the problem are still feverishly studying things and examining samples to try and find a solution. I’m sure they could use financial support, for starters.
Meanwhile, divers and general visitors can help, too. We all need to stop ignoring these problems, and become committed to responsible travel.
In this case, the main recommendations are:
- Opt for hats and clothing in eco-friendly materials to protect yourself from the sun. Sunscreens of any kind may weaken the corals, and are now officially prohibited in park waters.
- Seek shade on the boat and cover up while you’re in the marine park.
- Sanitize your dive gear before coming, and rinse very well between dives or at least dive days.
- Ask important questions of your dive operator:
*Do they have the proper permitting? If they don’t, they’re adding to the overload, undercutting responsible owners, and not contributing to the Park’s resources.
*Do they maintain their boats well to avoid leaks and spills?
*Do they have insurance?
*Do they carry emergency Oxygen, and have a good plan in case of any dive-related accidents?
*Do they respect the marine life, and make sure their divers know not to touch anything or get too close to the coral?
And finally, come visit! Support the industry during this tough time, and have fun – you’ll still be seeing some of the finest diving in the world, unbeatable customer service, and a fantastic town.
So, Should You Still Plan a Dive Trip to Cozumel?
Short answer: Absolutely!
Despite this challenge, Cozumel still has some of the best conditions in terms of temperature and visibility, and they’re consistent year-round (barring weather, of course).
Plus, we’re just about to enter Eagle Ray season, and those beauties can be seen on any of our reefs.
Many of the best dive sites are still open for business. Plus there’s some new motivation for DMs to get creative and dive in some new spots – whenever I’ve gotten a chance to do that, it was a treat.
Especially if you like more variety of marine life and little tiny animals, the shallow dives are where it’s at! Check out this post to read my review of the sites that will remain open this season.
But remember – no sunscreen, excellent buoyancy, don’t touch or kick anything, and make sure you’re diving with a responsible operator who has permits and contributes to maintaining the marine park. We’re all in this together.