Friday, March 28, 2008

Cozumel 5th day: Cedral Wall, Chankanaab

"This will be the last time I'm doing this," I thought, as I spun the combination lock dial and swung open my locker near the lower rinse tanks at Scubaclub Cozumel. It was Tuesday, my last day of diving, and the good weather had returned.

I liked the lower rinse tanks because there is a nice shower right there, and after your morning dives you can get everything off and cleaned up including yourself, at least enough to go have lunch. Food, of course is very important for divers, especially those engaged in activities as arduous as drift diving. It is a fact that on a typical drift dive you will burn as many calories as PSI of compressed air you breathe from your tank. Since on a normal dive you'll consume around 2500 PSI, that's as many calories as you have depleted and must restore. Really.

Cedral Wall was a ripping drift dive and as soon as we dropped onto the abruptly sloping contour of rubble reef and sand patches I knew I was going to have to have a big lunch.

Instead of the massive block and buttress structures of the more southern reefs, Cedral Wall featured small rocks and ledges with outcroppings of coral that formed a habitat for a huge population of fish. For the second day in a row the reef was fairly bustling with a variety of Angels, Parrots, Grunts, Spotted Drums, Wrasse, Filefish, and Butterflies. There were many juveniles wriggling around the bases of coral and sponges, never venturing far from their holes.

The sloping shoulder of this wall angles down at about 60 degrees for around 60 yards from the crest, and then plummets straight down. I wandered over toward the drop off but Nestor motioned me to come back to where the group was near the reef about half way up the shoulder. A good soldier, I obeyed and abandoned my quest to look straight down into the vacant blue depths one last time.

The first part of this dive was very fast, and the reef was like on a conveyor belt rolling along beneath us so fast that if you wanted to take a picture you had to see the shot coming, ready yourself, and then shoot as it was closest to you. You didn't get two chances.

Later in the dive the current slackened just in time for us to gather around a young sea turtle who was feeding on a sponge. Unperturbed by the sudden company, he continued snapping off morsels and I took pictures. Here he is.

Soon after out of the corner of my eye I noticed a huge fish moving directly toward me from the left. It was the biggest Grouper I'd ever seen, and he veered off at the last minute and took up a position in the middle of the circle we'd somehow formed above the reef. The grouper swam up to Nestor and halted about two feet away. Nestor made some hand motion that the Grouper ignored, and then it abruptly swam away out into deeper water.

Here's the video.

When we ascended after our safety stop I was with Nestor and one other diver. I stayed with Nestor because he had shot a marker bag to the surface and that was how the boat was going to find us. Nevertheless, as we rose to within 10 feet of the surface I spotted a group of about 8 divers on the surface and swam toward them, thinking they were in our group. Not. Instead, when I hit the surface I realized that I didn't know any of them, and I also noticed that one of the diver's had lost his tank, which had apparently fallen off his BC due to a too-loose tank band. His bottle was bobbing just behind him tethered to him only by the low pressure inflator hose. Scary. I got out of there fast. Looking around I'd found our boat about 50 yards to the south picking up the last divers from our group, so I beat it in that direction and gave a little blast from my whistle so they wouldn't drive off without seeing me.

On the boat Nestor asked me, "where'd you go, buddy?" I laughed and said I was just happy to get on the right boat.

Next, we stopped near the bouy marking the resting place of the Felipe, and I asked if we were going to dive the wreck again. "No," came the reply, we were there to do an opposite direction, north to south, drift dive on Chankanaab Reef.

Just offshore of the Chankanaab Park, this reef is a macro photographer's dream. Formed of low slabs of rock and coral, there were countless small attactions, mostly beautiful sponges, antler coral, and fish. One fish, not so small, that swam pst us was a fairly large barracuda. Here he is. I tried not to look too shiny in the dappled sunlight, but he ignored me, so far as I could tell.

We cruised along the west side of the low reef, that jutted up only about 15 feet from the sand bottom. There were numerous overhangs creating refuge for large schools of grunts. As we cruised along the edge of the reef I found myself secretly enjoying my 36% nitrox blend. Sweet air.

On the way back toward town you could see the big cruise ships gathered around every available deep draft dock, and some where waiting offshore. Easter Week must be a busy time in Cozumel.

There are a lot of very good places for divers to stay in Cozumel, and Scubaclub is one of them. Another that I'd like to try someday is Caribe Blu. Here it is from the water. A nice cozy place.

The one day I walked into town while the ships were in port the scene reminded me of the raucous pirate shenanigans that must have characterized Caribbean ports 300 years ago.

Horse-drawn carriages coursed up and down the main road along the water, and taxi cabs blasted out of side streets faster than seemed prudent given the fact that the roads were awash with tourists, some of them decidedly unsteady. Forget it Jake, it's Mexico.

As a final and unexpected treat, as I was returning my weights to the dive shop counter, I looked right and saw Ray Simon, from Scuba Center in Camp Pendleton, CA, whose group I had joined on a Channel Islands trip last June. What's more, many of the divers on this trip with him were people I'd dived with last summer.

What are the odds of running into people on a remote island off the Yucatan Peninsula that you dove with off the California coast? Apparently, not vanishingly remote. So we had a lot of fun together that day, and I saw them off on their day of morning dives after I'd gotten all packed up to leave Wednesday morning.

As the boats receded to the south, I turned and headed back up to my room to bring the last of my things down for the cab ride to the airport, stealing one last look at the hammocks at the water's edge.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Cozumel Fourth Day: Wildlife Jamboree

I should have known something was up with the weather Sunday night; I kept waking up to the sound of my wetsuit, which I'd left hanging outside, flapping against the sliding glass door.

Monday morning early the flags were all stiff and pointing south, and if you stood anywhere near the pier or the hammocks at Scubaclub you were going to get wet. Waves were crashing into the rock and concrete, and it was fun watching the little water jets shooting up through the small cylindrical holes in the pier half a second after a wave hit.

However, as I stood there watching, the sea noticeably calmed and over a period of half an hour, as the sun rose, the wind slacked and the white caps disappeared.

My growing confidence that we were going to be able to dive was boosted at the sight of one of the DMs wheeling a cart of tanks down to the pier. I turned and went to my locker to get out my gear.

The diminished wind was still rather brisk beneath a low ceiling of ragged clouds, and on the Reef Star I actually felt a little cold with my wetsuit peeled down to my waist. I laughed at myself a little, thinking how I try to be brave on winter surface intervals in Monterey, where the surface air temp is 52 degrees and the wind chill factor on blustery days is, well, colder than Monday was in Cozumel.

As I retreated into the protected area on the boat I looked astern and there was a very low, broad, dark, and nasty looking squall descending on San Miguel. I asked Martin if it was headed our way and he smiled and said that we'd got out of the harbor at the right time and that the rain would miss us.

The sea was bumpy where we stopped for a dive at Palancar Caves, and there was current. Nestor made sure we were all ready to go at the same time and counted us briskly off the stern like airborne troops being deployed over a drop zone.

Once in the 79 degree water I dealt with the chop by using my snorkle at the surface before we descended, and then, much to the entertainment of the boat crew, forgot that I didn't have my reg in my mouth when I began my descent. This little embarrassment behind me, I caught up with the group as we dropped gently in the current over the massive reef structures.

Once again, descending upon the great monolithic pinnacles and buttresses extending to the north made me feel small. Then, dropping over the precipice to see the spires and walls disappearing into the vertical depths below was as exciting as ever. We floated down to a sand berm connecting two big blocks of reef and immediately Nestor vanished into a hole in the rock. We followed him into the narrow passage in single file, and the seven of us threading one-by-one through the winding arches and tunnels set the theme of the entire dive. Here's a video.

Sometimes we would come to a juncture of multiple caverns, and we would have to wait for divers in other groups to go through into the next hole. Nestor would wait and we would hover in the large, roofless chamber behind him until he signalled us to follow him. The passageways would wind down and then up in spiral paths from which we would exit, as on earlier dives, onto a bright, white sand berm. It was fun to turn and watch the other divers coming out through the hole. Some of them would rotate onto their backs to take in as much as possible as they emerged.

Very early in this dive Nestor stopped at a hole in the wall and gestured for us to look. There was a good sized lobster sitting half way out of his hole, and he didn't retreat when we approached. I was able to get a few decent pictures of him, but I had told myself not to lag behind the group, which I'd noticed myself doing earlier in the week, so I didn't stay long.

As it turned out, this was the big day for wildlife and the lobster was just the first of many close encounters with marine life including octopus, eels, lots of angel fish and parrots.

We continued our tour of the underwater maze, swimming through a series of unique tunnels, cracks, and fissures in the massive reef, and we gradually worked our way up into shallower water near the inshore sand flats.

As we moved back up past the top of the reef the sunlight had come back out and set fire to the yellows, reds, purples, and greens across the reefscape.

Heading back to the north against the remains of the norte was an exciting, bumpy ride, and to sit out on the stern of the boat was to ensure that you would be engulfed by spray coming off the bow. Unsurprisingly, everyone abandoned their perches on the bow and midships to huddle up in the cabin. The windchill was probably around 65 degrees, and that may seem only slightly chilly, but it was just plain chilly.

In any case, things were brightening up; the squall that had hit San Miguel earlier was gone, replaced by lighter, less menacing clouds, and where we stopped, at Punta Tunich for our second dive, the sky was sunny.

During the prior two days of diving I'd grown a little frustrated that I hadn't got as many pictures of the great fish, the angels and parrot fish, that these reefs are famous for. I'd seen a few angels, but they had been a little wild and ran away, even though I was doing my best to keep my bubbles soft and unthreatening.

What I realized upon descending onto the sloping reef and wall at Punta Tunich was that the reason I hadn't seen too many fish up to now elsewhere was that they were all here. Borne along in the moderate current across the reef I could see all three angels, and parrots everywhere, along with juveniles including lovely juvenile spotted drums.

Nestor stopped us to show us an octopus holed up, and a Green Moray sitting halfway out of its hole, actually posing for me it seemed. Unfortunately, due to photographer error, I didn't get the shot. There were Stoplight and Rainbow Parrotfish, and a few Grey Angels and French Angels that swam right up to me, though the Queens continued to keep their distance. Under rock ledges were schools of hundreds of grunts, and the sponges and coral were alive with color.

The reef surface was studded with small, lovely arrangements of rock, coral, sponges and fish that were perfect works of natural art, simple, in complete balance, lacking nothing. I tried to photograph these but the pictures just don't give the same feel of artistic perfection beyond the inspiration of even the most gifted human artist.

Drifting along with these thoughts I was suddenly distracted by Nestor waving and pointing. A sea turtle had launched itself off the reef and was soaring up into open water.

At our safety stop I continued my habit of remaining at around 10-15 feet even though my computer had released me to go up. I still had some air and enjoyed just drifting along looking over the reef as I rotated myself slowly through 360 degrees. It was truly like you could see forever, at least to me, used as I am to Northern California visibility which on an average pretty good day is 40 feet. During these interludes I also amused myself watching Nestor reel in his line and gradually coax everyone to the surface.

I was happy with my catch of fish photographs from this day, and would have been completely satisfied if this was all I ended up with for the trip. So imagine my delight to get more shots I was really happy with on the next day, my last in Cozumel, at Cedral Wall and Chankanaab Reef. That story is next.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Cozumel Third Day: Columbia Bricks

At 6:30am Sunday I was astonished to see the ocean even calmer than the day before. It was almost completely still; you could just hear the faint sound of water lapping at the pier, which amounted to the greatest commotion Mother Nature was in the mood to stir upon the face of the Caribbean Sea.

What I didn't know at the time was that in 24 hours a fairly angry Norte would be blowing into Cozumel, and the still sea surface would be transformed to a chaotic jumble of whitecaps and chop.

As we rode south past the Fiesta Americana Hotel on the Reef Star I couldn't believe the saturated sapphire and azure tones of the sea beneath its glassy surface. Sunlight glinted sharply off the bow wave and sparkled in the foam we left in our wake. It was a perfect day to go diving.

We stopped (you don't anchor for drift dives) just north of Punta Sur at Columbia Reef. This is one reef further south than Palancar Gardens where we dove Saturday. Once again our DM, Nestor, led us down onto unthinkably massive rock and coral towers and monoliths jutting vertically out of the sand but also perched at the edge of the drop off, so that the effect of descending into that world was as though parachuting into a large city with tall, irregular buildings built upon the edge of a cliff.

As we swam deeper down the face of the huge towers we dodged among overhangs and into valleys whose sand floor caught the bright sun at 90 feet and made it clear and bright as day.

Visibility was probably 100 feet or so.

As we had the day before, we swam through labrynthine passageways and tunnels all somehow connected in an impossible maze that Nestor no doubt has completely memorized. My compass was no help; you could only go through the holes and arches that honeycombed the reef, and where you exited relative to entry was a complete mystery.

The scale of this place is unimaginable. It's like walking into New York City when you've never seen anything bigger than Lodi.

Again, at the end of the winding swimthroughs we would be spit out onto bright white sand berms peaking just to the west before plummeting vertically to the depths. From there we could see more huge outcroppings which would be the beginning of our next maze.

At one point I decided to turn onto my back and look up the entire length of these monoliths to the sea surface, and they were so massive and tall that they almost disappeared into the haze and only the bright sun streaming across their ramparts marked their outline.

The current picked up, and I was watching out to sea when I realized that I'd missed the exit for the next series of tunnels. You really can't swim against the current on a drift dive at 70 feet and expect to have any air left after 5 minutes. So I shrugged and contented myself with following the little bubble streams filtering up from the roof of the structure the rest were passing through. I ended up happy about this because I was able to get some nice sunny photos. As i swam over the edge of the reef I looked down onto the sand and watched the other divers squirting out of the rock 20 feet below me. I rejoined them, but it was really time to begin ascending so we all headed east toward the sandy flats and put the monster reef behind us.

Magically, the boat appeared precisely when and where we surfaced, though it must have been a mile from where they put us in.

After almost an hour boat ride back to the north we slowed just off the Villablanca Hotel. We would do a drift dive along the sand and patch reef shoulder of the Villablanca Wall. Once again the current was fairly ripping and I assumed my customary seated position while the ocean carried me along the reef. One of the divers turned on her back and amused herself by kicking against the current on her back. She was getting nowhere, but that was the whole point. I have a video of this which will eventually appear here.

Highlights of this dive, once I tired of hovering motioinless, were the two tiny seahorses we saw, the Yellow Stingray and another shadowy turtle off in the blue beyond.

In the afternoon we got back on the Reef Star for a special dive on the wreck of the Felipe Xicotencatl, a sunken minesweeper in about 80 feet of water west of the Fiesta Americana Hotel.

Dropping down onto this ship created an eeire feeling; it looked like a ghost ship. When I got there there were already people inside, and their bubbles streamed in tiny rivulets up out of the rusty hull and superstructure of the ship.

I was the only one on the boat who refused to penetrate the wreck. I'm sure it was safe, and everyone came out just fine, but

I was more than content to putter around the outside, now and then passing a hole in the side through which i could see the other divers like aquarium attractions inside the wrecked ship.

Actually, the outer hull and superstructure of the Felipe was alive with sponges and marine life that I set to photographing, and before I knew it the others were streaming happily out of the side of the boat. We waved at each other and I joined them. Here's a shot of Nestor just after they came out. The others were low on air and began their ascents but I still had some air left so Nestor showed me around and pointed out the tiniest brittle stars I've ever seen.

Here's a video of the approach to the Felipe.

Strangely, at this point on the coastline of Cozumel the current goes north to south which is opposite of what we'd been getting out on the reefs. This same opposite current took us north to south on Chankanaab Reef two days later. Chankanaab is a macro photographer's dream, but more about that in Tuesday's Cedral Wall/Chankanaab report.

On our return to the dock the sun was low in the sky. It had been a whole day of diving, interspersed with eating and lounging in the sun. If I'd looked to the north I might have seen the dark clouds forming that would engulf us the next day, however, when I went to sleep I just assumed that Monday would be a perfect day like every day is in Cozumel.

Well, Monday did end up pretty good despite the blustery Norte. in fact, we escaped San Miguel just a half hour before an intense downpour hit the town which we viewed safely from the stern of the Reef Star on our way south to Palancar Caves. That report is next.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Cozumel Second Day: Palancar Gardens

If you walk out of San Miguel to the south, past Hotel Cozumel toward the lighthouse, you pass a stretch of rocky shoreline that makes you think for an instant that you're in Hawaii. Sharp, craggy black limestone rocks (look like volcanic but aren't) form an uneven barrier to the waves that, on days like today, Monday, March 24, are driven ashore by the strong north west wind.

As I awoke today, Monday, I imagined that the sea would be bright and calm as it had been Saturday and Sunday. But the sea has different moods and not all of them, or probably even most of them, are friendly. This morning there was a hard wind blowing onshore and the seas were rough with 4-foot wind chop. I thought, "I'd dive in this, but it would be annoying to spend too much time on the surface."

Saturday, my first day of boat diving, had dawned with scattered white clouds mirrored on the sea as on polished glass. I was excited as I looked on the assignment board for the boat I was scheduled on. My name was on the list for "Reef Star." I scanned the picture of "Reef Star", "Oh, good," I thought, there was probably a head. I would prefer to avoid peeing in my wet suit, which has a wool lining, and some of the faster boats just don't have heads. Also, there was shade, which I also value. The number of names was about 14, not a bad size group.

By 8:15 divers were lining up at the dock awaiting their boats. As we got underway, heading south, Nestor came up to me and confided with a wink and a smile., "We are going to Palancar Gardens." I took this as meaning good things.

I began to fathom what he was talking about when, after we'd descended onto a patch reef surrounded by sand at about 60 feet, he motioned the five divers in his group, I among them, to follow him through a large notch in some massive coral and rock pinnacles just ahead to the west.

As we swam through the opening a whole blue world unfolded before me. We swooped over the edge of the wall and glided down through a fluted space between gigantic rock buttresses, covered with sponges, hydrocoral, gorgonians and busy with multi-colored fish like the Queen Angels shown above. I could see a sandy ledge below me at about 80 feet, beyond which was the abyss. Faint outlines of divers down that wall were just visible a hundred feet away and another 30 feet below us. They were deep.

Here's the video of our descent.

Massive rock and coral columns and dikes extended out toward the brink of the wall, and there were multiple hole and fissures forming a kind of labyrinth of passageways, corridors, and tunnels connecting the structures and providing fun places to swim.

We turned a corner and suddenly, beneath an overhang, a baby turtle saw us and bolted. Here he is in mid-flight.

We meandered through sunlit expanses above the wall among the buttresses and pinnacles, and followed passageways beneath them that spilled us out into some other sandy patch berm connecting the huge outcroppings.

Every few seconds Nestor would turn and look for us. Here he is with his yellow and blue fins.

Always, to the right there was an infinitely rich ecosystem of marine life, invertibrates, coral, sponges, and fish growing from this or that protuberance or overhanging bit of reef; always to the left was the deep blue. You could look straight down a hundred feet of that wall and it was lifeless blue, like a doll's eye, uninterrupted dim azure fading darker the farther down you looked. Hovering there in 90 feet of water looking down probably another thousand, with those massive buttresses everywhere, it makes you feel small.

Eventually we gradually ascended up over the top of the reef and onto the sandy flats with patch reef that constitutes most of the inshore areas of Cozumel. As divers ascended in buddy teams as they became low on air you could see groups hanging at different depths all the way back down a hundred or more feet behind us.

At the very end, just as we were swimming out of sight of the blue world a giant Sea Turtle appeared just barely in view off in the pelagic distance.

For some on the boat, Cozumel Vets, this was just another impeccable reef dive; for me it was a visit to a large world that I will never forget.
Next stop was Las Palmas reef, a drift dive patch reef at the top of the wall just south of town.

This established a pattern: first dive on the southern reefs, not much current, but incredible structures and marine life, second dive a drift dive in ripping current back toward San Miguel.

Las Palmas has a broad, sloping shoulder of patch reef with little rock outcroppings and many fragile stag antler coral and gorgonians. Nestor had cautioned us that the reef here was very fragile and not to disturb the bottom.
Hovering above the reef about 10 feet I assumed a cross legged, upright posture and rode the current like the Disneyland train, watching the underwater tableaux go by beneath me. Literally, all I had to do was sit there and breathe. This, I thought, is what drift diving is all about.

Suddenly, out of the blue i could see the outline of a very large Spotted Eagle Ray. Its majestic wings beating the current up the slope toward the top of the long berm. Then, breathtaking to see, it circled back and soared down the slope its wings motionless, as though it was riding a thermal. I was of course speechless, because I was under 60 feet of water, but dumbfounded is basically the same wherever you are. Here is the video.

Later Saturday as I walked into town to spend money and see the big cruise ships I kept looking at the sea and it still maintained that azure, clear quality, as though you could jump in and see all the way under water to Playa Del Carmen on the Mexican mainland. I imagined the sloping shoulder of the island as it gently then abruptly plummeted into the deep and thought, "wow, three more days here."
Next Columbia Bricks.

Cozumel: First day, a warm up dive

Late Sunday Afternoon, after I'd rinsed and put away my gear I walked down the sunlit concrete pathway to the water's edge by the pier. If you look seaward you may see bubbles coming up off the artificial reef out in front of Scubaclub Cozumel. What this indicates most likely is that guests have probably checked out tanks from the dive concession, strapped them on, and walked into the water or strided off the pier.
That is exactly what I did Friday after my arrival, clouded a little by lost luggage containing my dive lights and some other sort of important but not totally essential gear. I checked in, ignoring the fatigue from having taken the red eye to Houston Thursday night and then connecting to Cozumel Friday morning. As I checked out a tank and put my gear together, realizing that I was only feet away from crystal clear, vibrantly azure, warm water the horrors of the red eye (horrors indeed) faded from memory.

I walked the short distance to the small grotto with stairs down, perfect for dialing in weights, I passed the little thatched hut with six or so hammocks all in a row. I didn't know it at the time but Sunday afternoon I'd be in one of those hammocks pretending to model for a Corona commercial. The little grotto has a small archway that you swim through to get to the ocean. Once through it opens up into a jumble of volcanic rock walls and small buttresses surrounded by mostly sand, sand made by Parrotfish.

This opening was my first experience of Cozumel diving, and it was lovely. The clear water enabled me to see all the way across the property to the pilings of the pier extending to 20 feet depth or so. Further out there is a very interesting artificial reef made from cute little fish houses and structures that were probably condemned trash when on land. But underwater they became palaces for fish, and the fish are moving in.

Every little recess or overhang or indentation was populated by a Blue Tang that became agitated when you or another fish drew too close. I witnessed a few fishy skirmishes out on that reef.

Nearby an instructor was teaching a Scuba student a class and I swam around them to the far side of the reef.

Looking oceanward I saw an amazing fish. It looked like the Mola Mola we have in Monterey, but it was pure white. This was an Ocean Triggerfish (see pic above). Beyond it there was a shimmering wall of fish, French and bluestripe Grunts. They reminded me of another wall of fish I'd seen on kauai with Lynn.

Playing around Friday on the little concrete reef out in front of the hotel was a perfect warm up for the massive walls and gardens of the Southern Reefs that I visited in the next few days.

As I scrolled these memories of my first day, from my Sunday hammock perch, watching other divers going in and coming out, I thought, I'm basically on a liveaboad dive boat except that I sleep on land.
Saturday was my first day on the southern reefs, at Palancar Gardens. That story is next.