I feel like an F-16 pilot as I fast-run over mountains, down into canyons, around blind corners, only to have to angle up quickly to soar over the next peak. Yes, I do have a vivid imagination, but it's no stretch of it for me to be in the top-gun seat on this mission. I'm flying over Cozumel's famed Palancar Reef, specifically the section called Palancar Deep, and the ground resembles the Canadian Rockies as viewed from a plane.I'm diving with Tony Castillo, the manager of Del Mar Aquatics, and the current -- not a terribly swift one -- is pushing us along steadily, and we're weaving in and out of the stunning formations. As some canyons channel the current, it condenses and picks up speed. At one such juncture, I soar past a small outcrop of elkhorn coral that's vibrating like a tuning fork.Nearly all the dives in Cozumel (it's pronounced KOH-su-mel, regardless of how you'll ever hear me say it!) are drift dives, and while hard-current drift diving requires a modicum of skill and ability, it's also, once mastered, the easiest kind of diving there is. I'm pretty much an air hog, but I come out after some 30 minutes at around 80 feet with nearly 1,000 pounds remaining. That, my friends, is a record for this ol' boy. We pull a second dive at Paradise Reef. It's a low-profile structure and not terribly interesting reef-wise, but the abundance of animal life more than makes up for the lack of coral. Paradise is a good second dive after a deep first, and it's also within snorkel distance of shore, though there can be a lot of boat traffic to watch for. As we fin along with the gentle current, we're joined by a big grouper that stays with us for the length of the dive as we see the sights. And what sights. If your passion is underwater photography and you want to shoot fish - singly, in pairs or schools; parrotfish, jacks, 'cuda, permit, crabs, lobster, whatever - you'll find it at Paradise Reef. Surfacing at Paradise, I look north to the huge cruise liners docked there, which can jar you quickly out of tropical-reef-paradise mode. But these ships are part and parcel of the Cozumel scenery, too. It's scenery that is changing, yet trying its hardest to remain the same. If the Cozumeleqos have anything to say about it, the more Cozumel changes, the more it will remain the same.Cozumel TodayThe big news on Cozumel these days is the marine park and what it'll mean to diving on the island. But there's also the specter of the increased cruise-boat traffic, the advent of Riviera Maya on the mainland south of Cancun, and the continued growth on Cozumel itself. Avenida Melgar, the island's waterfront main street, may remind you of the cruise-ship strip of any major Caribbean city, but it exudes a charm that seems to be missing at the others. The vendor hawking isn't as intrusive, and the friendly Cozumeleqos have a rather humorous outlook on life. This is best illustrated by signs posted in some of the shops. The customer's always wrong, notes one, while the Blue Bubble Divers shop offers, We speak perfect broken English and No Ice Diving. One thing you'll also start to notice, especially at the eateries and hotels, is that Cozumel is becoming a family vacation spot as well, a change from its former reputation as solely a hard-core dive destination. A relatively new addition to Melgar, and one that seems to be overlooked by a lot of visitors, is the Museo de la Isla de Cozumel located just north of the ferry pier. The first day on Coz, hit the museum. For $3 you get an intimate look at the natural and human history of Cozumel, and while the exhibits are small, they're incredibly informative. They'll leave you with a greater understanding of these people and their island. You'll also get a kick out of some old hard-hat and sport-diving gear on display, including a tar-coated leather diving helmet.Hard-Core No More?Something else you'll notice that's at odds with Cozumel's hard-core rep is the dive demographics. The influx of cruise lines is introducing more and more people to Cozumel and to scuba diving. More beginning divers are coming to Coz because the water-sports association and the new marine park regulations are making diving increasingly more professional. About half the dive shops on Cozumel (there are over 100) belong to the ANOAAT (Asociacion Nacional de Operadores de Actividades Acuaticas y Turisticas); they've been increasingly successful in standardizing and upgrading the type of diving being done on Cozumel. The dive masters are more professional, boats are equipped with O2 units and radios, and the boats are getting bigger and newer. You can still dive from the smaller boats, but many of the Cozumel dive operations are going big league. The single most common topic on everyone's lips, however, is what the marine park will mean to diving on Cozumel.The Marine ParkThe Parque Marino Arrecifes de Cozumel is the name of the zone from the new International Pier south around to Punta Chiqueros on the west side of the island. While hardly any argue the environmental necessity of having the marine park, there are disagreements on a number of issues, and this is keeping the dive community from acting as a whole. There is still no money forthcoming from Mexican federal coffers to help enforce new park rules and regulations. Some dive boats still try to bring divers over from the mainland. Many operators accuse the maritime officials of working against the park regulations, if not actively, then certainly passively. Questions abound on the type of dive boats allowed (it has been suggested that two-cycle motors be excluded because of the oil they discharge), the number of guides required versus the number of divers, and how extensive will be the reporting required to operate in the park zone. The list of concerns goes on and on. A highly charged debate also concerns who will get permits to operate in the park. Many feel that priority should be given to those who live, dive and spend money on the island; this versus those who day-trip from the mainland or dive off the cruise ships. Most of the problems voiced can best be summed up as being a problem of accommodating capacity. Growing pains are mixed in with some turf fighting and the usual bureaucratic bumbling, but the park is a reality nonetheless. And one that Cozumel - both its reefs and its diving - dearly need in order to maintain its lead as the dive spot of the Caribbean.Drifting AwayMy last dive day on island means a dive at Punta Sur. The wind's out of the northern quadrant and howling, the whitecaps are dancing outside the reef, and the inside looks like it wants to join in. With our teeth clattering loose from the boat's pounding, my partner Carol, our dive guide Ricardo and I decide that enough's enough. We call off Punta Sur somewhat reluctantly and opt for Santa Rosa Wall. Between visibility and sea conditions, we can't find the reef, so we drop off into the deep, fin down to 60 feet and start swimming east in a blue void -- no top, no bottom, just heading east -- until the wall looms out of the murk. While I'm not seeing Santa Rosa at its best with the vis down to around 40 feet, it's still a remarkable dive with lots of swim-throughs cut in the reef that we navigate through playing the current against buoyancy control to leave the reef unscathed. We call off a second dive, head back to Del Mar, pack the car, cross the street to Beto's, grab a couple of Sol Especials and sit on the sea wall that runs along Yucab Beach, soaking up the hot sun that pops out of the clouds every now and again. The guys at The Dive House have told us about a secret dive site up north, and we talk about the promise of future excursions. The future is what Cozumel diving is about these days; it seems to hold a lot of promise.
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