Isla Cozumel, Mexico
Fresh from an underwater encounter with a spotted eagle ray, complete with a black-coral backdrop, I'm kicking slowly upward in 100-foot-plus visibility. The dive site we've just finished on is called Palancar Deep, although I'm quickly learning that any Cozumel dive site with "Palancar" or "Colombia" in its name is a pretty good candidate for the whoa-dude-best-dive-so-far-this-year category.
There is no downline to return to. The boat, in fact, is not anchored. We have been drift-diving, easily the most effortless way to cover topography underwater. We've been swimming only two directions first down, and then up and allowing the currents to take care of the propulsion. Today, the current has moved us at a rate that is slow enough to admire the blennies, gobies, shrimp and other small stuff that populates the sponge- and coral-festooned wall, yet fast enough to continually present new wonders for our inspection: a gape-mouthed eel wondering who's come a-knockin', a crab of dinner-plate proportions, a Crayola assortment of fish of all sizes, all on a moving tableau of underwater Cozumel.
Rather than gathering on a line, our group four divers and a divemaster ascends together and falls into an easy hover at 15 feet. From his BC, the divemaster takes a safety sausage and a line reel, inflates the orange sausage and sends it up on the line. Soon it is standing like a crash-orange totem pole on the surface, marking the location of our still-drifting group. Five minutes later, we hear the dive boat pull up nearby and we surface and clamber back in. After roll-calling in our bottom times and depths, the divemaster says, "What do you want to do for the surface interval? Maybe hit the beach and pick some coconuts for a snack?" We all nod like kids at FAO Schwartz. Life is good. Very good.
"The world is getting out that Cozumel has not only recovered from last year's storms, but we're better," says Ramiro Ferriol, general manager of PIRA member Sand Dollar Sports. "Many of the public and private facilities that were damaged have been replaced by work that is better, more modern, more extensive or more pleasant than what was here previously. In some places, it's like a brand-new island."
That includes Sand Dollar Sports' base of operations, Reef Club Cozumel, which is now operating at 100 percent of capacity, and has just reopened its Caribbean-themed swimming pool.
"On some of the shallow dives, you can still detect storm damage part of the natural cycle of life on shallow reefs," says Ferriol. "But Cozumel is fortunate in that so many of our signature sites are wall dives and deeper dives, and those came through with flying colors."
Ferriol's not alone in that opinion. He says that a significant proportion of his visitors this year have been people who've visited Cozumel and dived with Sand Dollar Sports before.
"And I keep hearing the same thing," he says. "They tell me, 'I heard you were up and running and I'm glad I came.' And they leave here planning next year's trip. It's the beginning of a great new era for Cozumel."