I've been to Cozumel many times, drawn by the romance of paradise, crystalline waters and healthy reefs, and by the post-diving pleasure of that first taste of fine, ice-cold Mexican beer. But of all the elements that bring me back, one shines brighter and captures my imagination more completely than all the rest-the richness of the reefs and the new discoveries I keep making with each and every dive.
Many of the creatures I find seem hidden, at least at first glance. With each dive my eye adjusts and I uncover more creatures as I slow down and take the time to see through the cryptic disguises of critters hidden under ledges, within abandoned worm tubes and among the very grains of sand that cover the underwater plains between the high coral heads. With each discovery, I feel as if I have uncovered a secret.
The crowd from the dive boat pushed down along the wall in the wake of the divemaster's fins. I remained, riveted by the tiny creature before me that wildly whipped its antennae to invite me in for a closer look. The colors on the translucent carapace were unworldly; electric purple, snow white and pink.
I reached out as if in a trance toward the cleaner shrimp that danced atop the purple-tipped tentacles of a giant Caribbean anemone on Palancar Reef, Cozumel. In response, the vibrant crustacean levitated toward my hand and landed nimbly upon the thumb. Craftily, she proceeded to preen the skin around my thumbnail" I was getting a manicure at 60 feet and it tickled.
Five minutes later I reluctantly pulled myself away from the anemone and the colorful shrimp. I felt a responsibility to maintain contact with the rest of the dive group - most of whom appeared to be unaware of the countless tiny wonders adorning these reefs.
Opening EyesIt occurred tome that morning, after my encounter with the purple cleaner shrimp, that I might convert a few of the neophytes who were swimming just ahead of me, awash in the turbulence of the divemaster's fins. I watched as a sea turtle avoided them with ease - they were looking in the other direction as they raced down the reef. As I grabbed a few pictures of the turtle, I decided then and there that it would be fun to try to overcome the wide perspective that was obviously limiting these folks to views of far-off outcroppings and endless abyssal blue.
After we surfaced, I made my inquiry; How was your dive and what did you see? The resulting shoulder shrugs and repressed responses had me glowing with the proposal that was already on the tip of my tongue. You know, I teach a marine awareness class and I'd love to do a dive with you guys from the shore this afternoon and show you some of the great stuff that's right out in front of the dock.
Two couples agreed to my invitation. We decided to meet for lunch and at that time I would show them some marine-life books and discuss the types of critters we would see during our shore dive.
Before the sizzling fajitas arrived I gave my little spiel about the richness of the reefs here and how Cozumel's currents promote such fantastic productivity. The flow promotes richness and healing, so much so that every square inch of reef and every square yard of sandy seabed is covered or infused with marine life. Many of these reef creatures are tiny and camouflaged. Divers need to move very slowly and look carefully if they are to discover these diminutive denizens.
Discovery on the House ReefThe house reef out in front of our hotel, the Presidente Inter-Continental, has always been one of my favorites. In addition to proximity, the benefits of this site include plenty of light and long bottom times to explore the macro wonders that abound on these shallow patch reefs and sandy limestone areas.
With all five of us tanked up, we eased over to the steps leading into the sea. Kicking 50 feet out toward the mini-wall, I turned around and instructed everyone to go into slow-motion mode for the duration of the dive. We would descend here and begin a complete search for the yellow seahorse I had found the day before. Every clump of coral and every tiny sprig of gorgonian was to be inspected and each diver was to ask rhetorically, Is it or isn't it a seahorse?
Within 15 minutes we hit pay dirt! One of the men started waving wildly. I eased over to him and sure enough, there was the seahorse with its tail wrapped around the base of a small gorgonian. We settled gently to the bottom and eased in to watch the seahorse cock its head upward and siphon up a tiny piece of floating food. The other divers eased into a semicircle close to the seahorse and I watched as their eyes widened with wonderment. My conversion process was well under way - this discovery had obviously whetted their appetites for a new world of close encounters.
After 10 minutes of seahorse watching, I eased away from the group and swam the 30 feet to a coral head that was home to several colorful species I thought the gang might like. After I located and spotted a moray with my flashlight, I tapped on my tank to get the attention of the seahorse watchers.
Just around the other side of the same coral head we found two lobsters that flailed their antennae as they came out to greet us. The large polyp star coral head was covered with thousands of large polyps, each a healthy tan color that reflected the happy algae cells within. Atop the head were dozens of Christmas tree worms in many shades of red, orange, yellow and purple.
And there in one of the abandoned worm tubes was a crazy-looking blenny called a secretary blenny. This tiny toothpick-sized oddity characteristically takes refuge in abandoned tubes and burrows such as this one we had discovered. The blenny was too curious to remain hidden within its tube for long. It came out to inspect the divers, who in turn gawked at this macro curio. It was wonderful for me to watch as I moved a few feet away and the buddies crowded each other to get a better view of the tiny blenny.
Next, I directed the group to a sandy spot where I had just seen a razor wrasse disappear. I motioned for the group to slowly settle to the sand bottom and then I pointed to my eyes before pointing to the exact spot where the wrasse had buried itself. Within five minutes my new macro explorers were rewarded as the sand began to give way and in its place emerged the snout and red-ringed eye of that green razor wrasse. Not surprisingly, the wrasse froze in position. Imagine having fled the scene to escape this disorganized mass of behemoth divers only to reemerge to find five pairs of giant eyeballs watching your every move! After 15 seconds of unmitigated scrutiny, the wrasse pulled free and without a backward look disappeared across the sandy plain.
A few feet farther along the plain I discovered a peacock flounder, whose camouflage coloration made it invisible to the rest of the group. As we swam closer, the fish decided to swim away. When it did, its color changed from pale white into a deep green that was readily spotted by my newly observant dive buddies. We followed the flounder along for five minutes, during which it finned into another peacock flounder. The pair performed a territorial dispute that allowed the excited divers a front-row seat to this curious behavior.
Coming Full CircleThe sun neared the horizon, sending slanting golden rays to illuminate the western sides of a clump of tall coral heads. Just inside one of the heads and down on the sand, I discovered that a single frond of marine algae swayed sluggishly when compared with the surrounding fronds. Closer inspection revealed that a tiny sharp-nosed puffer had taken refuge for the evening.
I tried to wave over the group to share my discovery, but it seemed they had found something of their own and were ignoring me and gathering around a low coral head upon which was perched a giant Caribbean anemone. The group directed my attention to the tiny purple crustacean with wildly whipping antennae.
The light levels dropped as we watched the cleaner shrimp dance atop the tips of that stinging flower. In a happy irony, my new buddies, coming full circle from superficial reef racers to macro marine enthusiasts, were now watching the same type of creature that had enthralled me earlier. My afternoon's mission was a success.
We make it back to shore just in time to shower and settle in with a drink beachside to watch Maya gold erupt in the sunset. An offshore breeze lightens our mood and way off the deep bass beats from the downtown clubs being to fill the air and quicken our pulse. For us, the little things in life go a long way.
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Presidente Inter-Continental Cozumel