A Vacation for Palancar, Colombia and el Cielo
By now, many of you know that on September 23rd, 2019, the Cozumel Marine Park officials announced their difficult decision to temporarily close several well-loved dive sites in the Southern zone of the Marine Park area. They encouraged us to think of it as a “vacation” for Palancar, Colombia and el Cielo. (see previous post about the reasons, here.)
It remains a complicated situation, of course, but there is evidence that high levels of chemical sunscreens and boat fuels can weaken the corals that are already suffering from the Stony Coral Tissue Loss.
And while divers are not the main threat to the reefs, of course, we’ve honestly all seen far too many people grab, bash, kick and poke corals and sponges on nearly every dive. (We all really need to get our scuba buoyancy skills together, people!)
Cozumel Dive Sites – Reopened!
Don’t worry about your upcoming Cozumel dive trip! The sites are now reopened, and there is plenty to see.
Just stop touching them! And keep in mind that along with knives and gloves, sunscreen is now prohibited in the marine park waters. Bring those eco-friendly cover-ups.
Eagle Rays are Coming!
First of all, Eagle Ray season starts SOON. In fact, I’ve already seen glimpses of about 3 or 4 in the last couple of weeks.
Eagle Rays can be seen on any site here! Including the shore dive in front of Casa del Mar Hotel! They don’t discriminate. I’ve likely encountered more eagle rays on Cedral Pass, Yucab and San Francisco than I’ve seen anywhere else.
You just never know.
Marine Life on Open Dive Sites
As someone who lives and dives in Cozumel year round, and loves taking underwater pictures, let me share some tips on what to look for on some of my favorite dive sites.
If you like scuba diving, and especially if you like eagle rays, turtles, nurse sharks, and certainly underwater macro photography, you’re still going to be a happy camper.
My Favorite Cozumel Dive Sites:
Lately, my absolute favorite in Cozumel has been Tormentos reef.
An excellent shallow second dive, but if the current is mellow, you can find an amazing variety of life to admire or photograph.
Try hovering over the top of the reef, and keep your eyes peeled for Giant Basket Stars that coil up in gorgonians during the day, creating an almost sinister looking tangle of limbs.
These are night feeders, so they unfurl when it’s dark to feed on nutrients drifting through the water – bonus if you’re doing a night dive there.
Along the sides of the reefs you’ll likely see lots of anemones – most of which are home to tiny clinging crabs, and if you’re lucky, a flamboyant Spotted Cleaner Shrimp.
These coral formations are full of blennies bobbing out of brain corals, frilly lettuce slugs feeding on green patches, and lots of colorful fish.
As with all the reefs, spend some time in the sandy areas on either side. You may need a magnifier, but often hiding in plain sight are tiny yellowface pikeblennies poking their heads out of the sand. If you’re lucky, you might find a couple out and interacting.
Truly, this dive has more cool critters than I can count.
Just to the south of Tormentos, Yucab is another awesome second dive.
Many of the same animals as above, but some of my best photo moments on Yucab bring to mind the beautiful Flamingo Tongue sea snails. There are a LOT of them on Yucab, and they often seem to be doing something – namely mating, walking, or laying eggs.
Yucab is also a nice place to look for the endemic Cozumel Splendid Toadfish, with its iconic ‘bearded’ face just barely peeking out from under low crevices where the reef meets the sand. (I’ve personally found them more often here on the “outside” – i.e. toward the blue.)
But it’s not all small stuff! Again, I’ve seen many many eagle rays on Yucab, and typically while they’re low to the ground and hunting in the sand, so you get a really good look at their markings and behavior.
That is, as long as you keep your distance and don’t spook them away. (Don’t be that guy…)
Punta Dalila & La Francesa
La Francesa, commonly known as “The French Lady,” and Dalila are somewhat of a pair. They are positioned back-to-back, and closest to the closure area, just north of Palancar point.
Both of these dive sites have an outer wall route – relatively shallow at around 60 feet – as well as really intricate shallows that are fun to explore.
I’m always on the lookout for tinies, like sea slugs, blennies and shrimp. However, to me these two sites bring to mind turtles, bigger fish, and probably my highest number of octopus sightings.
These are also excellent reefs to carefully look for the Splendid Toadfish, various types of eels, and of course the ever-present huge and purple-y Caribbean lobsters.
Santa Rosa Wall has often been noted in write-ups as Cozumel’s most iconic dive site, and for good reason.
A dramatic deep wall dive with great visibility (of course), cool swim-throughs, and good odds on seeing turtles, big beautiful filefish, and loads of other colorful fish.
Just last month, I saw the biggest adult drumfish I’ve ever seen in my life.
The current can be challenging on occasion, so listen up to your briefing. Overall, though, it is a great drift, and nice chance to go a little deeper.
Meanwhile, Santa Rosa Shallows is another favorite – a long drift over beautiful sandy areas where you’ll see tons of Southern stingrays, peacock flounder, pike-blennies, conch paths, giant hermit crabs, and more.
The pretty sand bars are punctuated by awesome coral formations and lots of chances for macro shots.
Eagle Rays and resident loggerhead turtles also cruise around the shallows here.
And finally, if your tank lasts until you hit the large grassy areas, keep an eye out for a few flying gurnard fish, as well as lots of yellow stingrays, grey and queen angelfish pairs, juvenile porcupine fish, and the occasional sea horse.
San Francisco Wall doesn’t get enough love, in my opinion.
It is a beautiful place, especially as you’re hovering and gliding along the top edge of the wall. Pretty coral heads and sand chutes alternate, and the deep wall drops away behind you. Gorgeous.
This site is also full of life! My last dive there was like homecoming day. I not only saw the somewhat rare midnight parrotfish – always a treat – but a huge granddad loggerhead turtle, a sleeping shark, and an octopus scooting around in full shape-shift/camo mode.
Cedral Wall and Cedral Pass (Paso de Cedral) combine to make a super cool and popular site, that’s never the same dive twice.
Cedral generally consists of three long mountainous reef formations, and depending on the currents and the day, your dive route can vary greatly.
Any way you slice it, you’ll have a good chance of encountering large turtles (Hawksbill, mostly, but also greens and loggerheads). Also sharks, stingrays, all variety of parrotfish, huge queen triggerfish, and pairs of grey and queen angels. And more.
At the heart of this site is the slightly shallower Paso de Cedral reef, known for some gorgeous swim-through areas and bigger schools of snappers and grunts.
There are a few enormous green moray eels in residence, plenty of Splendid Toadfish, and the tail end of the dive seems to be a favorite napping spot for nurse sharks.
In between all of that excitement, the macro is still fantastic – provided the current doesn’t have you zipping along.
The Wreck. OK, I’ll be honest. This is not my favorite.
But not because it’s not a fun dive! I just like reef dives better.
That said, over time I’ve truly warmed up to this wreck, and all the cool critters that hang out there. As long as the current cooperates, divers and photogs can get a lot out of this dive.
Formerly part of both the US and Mexican Naval fleets, the boat now known as C-53 Felipe Xicotencatl was placed in the park in 1999, very close to the shore of Chankanaab Park.
Diving here, you’ll often see a large grouper or two under the stern area, and green moray eels sometimes take shelter inside.
Before the dive, your divemaster will often split small groups into those who want to enter the boat, and those who don’t. It’s not a super tight squeeze, but not good for beginners nor those who don’t like enclosed spaces.
I typically head to a small coral area in the sand off of the port side of the bow, to look for little blue Pederson Cleaning shrimp in corkscrew anemone.
There are lots of arrow crabs in purple sponges (these you’ll see on every dive in Cozumel…), huge hermit crabs, and I’ve often come face to face with a nice spotted moray eel.
I enjoy a really slow ascent by heading up to the bow deck where I can look around for more types of shrimp, juvenile fish and fireworms, and whatever I can find.
Then it’s on to the exterior of the pilot house, which has one of the biggest explosions of tunneling Christmas Tree Worms I’ve ever seen. All different colors and sizes.
Due to the man-made substrate, you really get a better sense of how they burrow and tunnel to their eventual ‘blooming’ spot. It’s given me a whole new appreciation for them.
Every once in a while, you’ll even see (and hear) the Atlantis Submarine take a cruise past your group, full of bone-dry tourists getting a kick out of seeing the divers. This is the only site the sub can visit, and it’s a pretty funny experience for everyone involved.
Plenty of Cozumel Dive Sites to Visit
Cozumel is beautiful diving. Period. But it does need some relief.
If we can stem the losses, and take responsibility and care, then these reefs have plenty to give. Your dive trip with be great, and hopefully you’ll want to come again or give back in some other meaningful way.
Please chime in with any questions, or thoughts on your favorite dive sites, below.