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.


doctore said...

I'm getting jealous!

Anonymous said...

OOOOhhh how I love Eagle Rays!! That one was a beauty. How big was he? Ok - I'm in. Looks and sounds amazing.