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.

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