Finally, we've discovered something truly world class in Mexico. Yes, I know that Chichén Itzá is a World Heritage site, and it is impressive, but somehow it pales into comparison compared to the coral reefs off the island of Cozumel. When I think of Mexico, I'll remember the madness of the cenote diving and I'll think of those picturesque ruins at Tulum, but the highlight will definitely be diving in Cozumel.
We almost didn't manage to get out to the island, as the boats need a minimum complement of divers before they'll set sail, and not enough people were interested in diving on the day after our cenote dive. But if we waited an extra day, then there would be enough bookings to guarantee the boat, so we put our names down with Dive Mex and sat back to soak up the beach vibe in Playa del Carmen for one last day while waiting for the diving trip. Truth be told I was getting a bit sick of Playa by this point, but I guess that's what happens in two-dimensional holiday spots with their inflated prices, boorish touts and limited imagination; it felt a bit like we were circling a black hole and I desperately wanted to attain escape velocity instead of spending yet another day doing nothing on the beach, but it was worth waiting in the end, because the diving in Cozumel is absolutely amazing.
Luckily for me and my seasickness, the dive boat we took from the harbour in Cozumel was large and uncrowded compared to the tiny speedboat that threw me around on Peta's first sea dive. Designed for a maximum of 18 divers, we had exactly half that number pottering about on board, plus three guides. Our guide, Marcel from Dive Mex, who had helped teach Peta, was looking after us and Kelly and Gretchen, a really friendly middle-aged couple from near Salt Lake City in Utah who were celebrating their honeymoon in style. Happily for Peta, it turned out that Kelly had learned to dive a couple of days before and had only done a couple of sea dives off Playa since qualifying, so Peta and he had done exactly the same number of dives, while Gretchen had done about 20 dives, the same number as me. After Dario's impatience in the cenote, this meant that we'd all be at the same level, and nobody would be tutting if we lost our buoyancy or gulped through our air in record time.
The first dive was in the Palancar Caves, a section of the reef made up of large coral outcrops, threaded through by a maze of sand-bottomed channels. Although we'd swum alongside coral on the sea dives off Playa, this was a whole different world, and it instantly brought back happy memories of the astonishing colours and life of my dives on the Great Barrier Reef. Everywhere we looked there were brightly coloured fish, lobsters poking their antennae out of their hidey-holes, psychedelic brain-shaped and fan-shaped and stacked coral formations... compared to the short attention span of life in Playa del Carmen, the reefs of Cozumel manage to pack so much interesting life into such a condensed area that you don't quite know where to look. We saw a turtle gracefully swimming underwater, we saw large grouper gliding round the coral, and even the other divers exploring the reef were an impressive sight, if only because it showed how great the visibility was.
Peta adored it. For a couple of years now, she's been playing a videogame on the Wii called Endless Ocean (and its sequel, Endless Ocean 2: Adventures of the Deep), and in it you get to be a scuba guide, taking customers on serene trips through dive sites that are faithfully modelled on the real thing. She's been pointing out different sea life and swimming with the virtual wildlife for some time now – it's a perfect wind-down from work – but to do it for real is another thing altogether.
For me, it reminded me of how much scuba diving is like flying. When you dive properly, you control your height in the water by breathing; inhale deeply, and you'll rise up a bit, and breathe out and you'll fall. For larger ascents and descents you also use your buoyancy jacket, but for rises and falls of two or three metres, it's all in the breathing. Of course, when you breathe in or out, it takes a few second for your buoyancy to adjust, so it's a bit like steering a boat or driving on ice, but once you've got the hang of it, it feels like you're gliding through air, gently 'thinking' your way up and down through the undulating coral corridors.
This skill takes time to develop, so Peta stayed a little higher than me and further away from the coral, but she had no problems staying close by; she'd had a baptism of fire in the cenote, where losing your buoyancy is a lot more dangerous in such a confined space, and she got the hang of reef diving straight away. Unfortunately our diving partners weren't having quite so much luck, and Kelly was going through the fear that I experienced when I learned to scuba dive; coming from the open vistas of Utah, where he's a cowboy in his spare time, the claustrophobia of a scuba mask and the pressure of deep water on the face nearly proved too much, but after a quick emergency ascent while the rest of us stayed with another guide, he eventually joined us again and we set off through the corridors, with Peta and I gracefully gliding through the canyons while Kelly and Gretchen bounced along in a slightly more creative manner.
It was a lovely dive, and after surfacing we took the boat to the shores of southwest Cozumel, pulled up by a small pier with a handful of other dive boats, and ate lunch with paradise on the doorstep and the sun beaming from a pure blue sky. The only fly in the ointment was that we'd left the cameras at home, as we'd assumed incorrectly that the dive boat would be a liability for technology like that, but never mind; we just drank in the beautiful curves of the beach with our eyes instead.
Paso del Cedral
We were dropped off a little too early for our second dive and had to swim over a fairly flat bit of light coral growth to reach the real deal, but even that was enjoyable, as I used it to see how close I could get to the coral without touching it, something you don't really want to practise on fully formed and ancient coral reefs. This time the coral was in shallower water and wasn't as towering, but I tend to prefer this kind of diving; deep channels are fascinating and fun, but when you dive in shallower reefs, your air lasts longer (as it's delivered at a lower pressure), you get better colours (as there's more sunlight) and it's easier to equalise the pressure in your ears and mask (really deep dives can sometimes feel a little suffocating).
Again we saw lots of wildlife and intricate coral formations, and apart from a small hiccup when Kelly lost buoyancy control and tumbled into the reef tank first, requiring Marcel to grab him by the tank valve to stop him ploughing a furrow into the coral, we managed a longer dive that was arguably more enjoyable than the first. I felt for Kelly, as getting the hang of that buoyancy thing is probably the hardest thing about learning to scuba dive, though I'm happy to report that it's like learning to ride a bike, and even though it's 16 years since I last did any scuba, that feeling of effortlessly gliding through the ocean is clearly something you don't lose. It seems that Peta's skin-diving sessions as a kid have given her an innate feeling for ocean gliding; either that, or Endless Ocean is an untapped educational tool that PADI should consider endorsing.
So these two dives have done the trick, and we've now caught the scuba bug. This is convenient, as we're in one of the planet's diving hotspots, and we're planning to travel south through even more of them. Next up are the northern cayes of Belize, where the diving is suposed to be spectacular, and after a detour inland through Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, we again come to spectacular Caribbean diving in the islands of northern Honduras. There's also some diving further along the Caribbean coast in Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia, but the best is in the northern Caribbean... and that's where we are.
That's pretty handy, then. I think we could get used to this...