Half of Cozumel’s stunning beauty lies deep underwater, where exotic sea creatures weave around spectacular coral. While snorkeling offers a small window into this watery wonderland, the only way to properly explore the surrounding Caribbean Sea is with an oxygen tank strapped to your back.
Most Cozumel dive shops offer scuba programs
for novices. // (c) Jose Luis Aragon STUDIO NOX
However, many visitors to the largest of Mexico’s islands steer clear of scuba diving out of fear that learning the sport is difficult, time consuming and, perhaps, even dangerous. There’s also squeezing into a tight wetsuit, figuring out what a regulator is and maintaining neutral buoyancy. Aren’t there sharks down there, too?
But even on a short vacation, scuba diving is surprisingly accessible and in the hands of a good instructor, not at all dangerous. The only sharks who will show the least bit of interest in your
clients will be selling timeshares downtown.
As a setting for the first-time diver, Cozumel is a little slice of paradise. Skies are sunny year-round, water temperature approaches 80 degrees even in winter and visibility is as clear as any you’ll find in the Caribbean. Moreover, Cozumel is home to the world’s second largest reef system. Known as the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, it offers dozens of fabulous dives.
Clients need not possess the fitness of a Navy Seal to scuba dive, according to Antonio Madrazo, sales and reservations manager at Scuba Du, a dive shop based at the Presidente Intercontinental in Cozumel. While certain medical conditions, such as active asthma or epilepsy are disqualifying, most anyone in reasonably good health can enjoy the sport.
Every dive shop in town offers programs for novices. These range from an introductory course of just a few hours to full-fledged certification that takes three to five days.
The most popular course for first-timers is Discover Scuba Diving, known colloquially as a resort course, which is offered through dive shops and hotels and sanctioned by PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors). While each dive shop offers something slightly different, the course generally runs around three hours and usually costs less than $100.
Participants need bring nothing more than a swimsuit and sense of adventure; the dive shop supplies wet suits, fins and all other necessary equipment.
Discover Scuba Diving starts off with basic diving theory, followed by a shallow dive in a pool or from the beach. One of the most popular dive sites for newbies is Paradise Reef, which is close to shore yet can yield a bounty of exotic sightings. With luck, you might see a spotted eagle ray or splendid toad fish (a Jabba the Hut-looking creature that is endemic to Cozumel).
“If you’ve never been scuba diving, [Paradise Reef] will knock your socks off,” said Dave Dillehay, owner of Aldora Divers, who also runs a boutique hotel for divers in Cozumel, Villa Aldora.
Students who successfully complete the Discover Scuba Diving course can add on a boat dive, but may not descend more than 40 feet.
Similar to Discover Scuba Diving is the refresher course, appropriate for already-certified divers who are nervous or have gone several years without diving. On my own refresher course with Scuba Du at the Presidente Intercontinental, Jesus Espinoza was a patient and knowledgeable instructor who stuck close by my side during two, open-water dives and pointed out interesting fish lurking in coral reefs that I might have otherwise missed.
Another program increasingly popular among Cozumel visitors is Referral Certification, which leads to open-water dive certification. In this program, students complete book instruction and pool work with a dive instructor at home while saving the fun part — the four, open-water boat dives — for Cozumel. The price is in the ball park of $250.
While it’s possible to take an entire, open-water certification course (costing upward of $500) on a weeklong vacation, few vacationers do so because the course demands serious book study, with quizzes and a final exam. Most tourists aren’t inclined to hang back in a hotel room with their nose in a book while the rest of the gang is living it up on the beach.
Those who get a chance to hit the water should know that Cozumel coral reefs are a protected and fragile environment, so it’s always good to keep in mind the scuba diver’s credo: “Take only memories and leave only bubbles.”