I'm caught up in a current at the Horseshoe, drifting rapidly through the colorful underwater canyons, sometimes coming so close I can kiss the multicolored coral solidifying into the next generation of growth on Palancar Reef. I pick up speed, and suddenly the vivid purples, oranges and greens become a fluorescent blur. It's then that I pull myself out of the drift of sleep and realize I'm on dry land - in my hotel bed. I've only been asleep for 20 minutes. The underwater Eden off of the leeward side of Isla Cozumel had invaded my dreams after four dives in less than 30 hours. I'm in Cozumel mainly to check out C-53, a 600-ton Mexican naval vessel sunk just over a year ago, now in the initial stages of evolving into an artificial reef. Nevertheless my goal has eluded me for the better part of four days of frenzied diving. Upon arriving in Cozumel, I had barely exited customs when I found myself doing a giant stride off the dock at La Ceiba Hotel's Del Mar Aquatics for a night dive that revealed the nocturnal inhabitants of the Paraiso Reef. During the trek, our divemaster Alfredo uncovers spiny night creatures and flirts with an octopus. Nearby, barracuda drift by, blissfully unaware of us. A sleeping stingray gets a brief wake-up call before settling back in the sand. We move northwest and then turn back before coming upon the popular Airplane Flats site. The current mysteriously kicks into high gear, adding an unexpected element of drama. Alfredo requires several of us to secure ourselves as he makes sure our party of four stays safely together. The next day I'm on a flatboat riding out to Palancar Reef, where we're going to dive the Horseshoe. I make inquiries about C-53 and find out the sinking was just one result of a public-private ecological coalition that earlier this year led the passing of a new Plan de Ordenamiento Ecologico. Although in a prime position for rapid expansion of its tourism sector, Cozumel instead seeks maturity and has severely limited development in order to preserve the environment. The beauty of dive sites such as Palancar are guaranteed protection from everything except acts of God. The huge hard-coral formations encrusted with neon-green, orange and purple growth formed into canyons and gorges that seem to go on forever will likely remain that way. The brain corals will grow even more massive, as will the pinnacles and miniature mountains. We hit Tormentos next, a drift dive with a strong current that sweeps us along over coral heads that provide plenty of photo ops. We see more underwater residents that are typical of Cozumel's reefs: yellowfin, yellowmouth and black groupers, parrotfish, moray eels, bar jacks, trunkfish. But it's the sculpted crevices and passageways within the corals and azure stretches of sand that provide the charm here. Still in search of C-53, we take a detour to El Paso del Cedral with Sand Dollar Sports. The relatively shallow pass has the swiftest current so far and the largest cross-section of species, many of which are apparently expecting lunch and aren't afraid to assertively approach us. An animated moray springs out from its home at the behest of our divemaster, whipping like a green flag in the wind. Grunts swim in schools, and the current forces sea fans to stand at attention and makes gorgonians resemble green and purple divining rods frantically pointing upward. We nearly lose a camera-laden diver in the swift waters, but we safely regroup on the boat and head back. The next day's dive is an easy shallow trek at Chankanaab Park, where we fin south until reaching Beachcomber Cavern. Clouds of silvery blue fingerlings sentinel the thermocline, where fresh water seeps down from the limestone roof of the cavern and forms a shimmering vertical layer of water that we pass through in order to check out the outer area of the cavern. The colder water reminds me that I'm only wearing a dive skin. The cavern is a strange adventure that I hope will be echoed tomorrow - when I finally get to dive the C-53 with the staff of Dive House. Palancar Caves, like my previous Palancar dive, is infused with the Technicolor stuff that dreams are made of. Those three primary colors again, pigmenting the star corals, gorgonians, sea fans and encrusting corals that populate the massive buttresses. But here, short tunnels lead to the interior of coral clusters, allowing rays of light to illuminate the surroundings that begin to resemble crystal cathedrals. Finally we make it to C-53. After we are briefed on how to manage the potentially swift currents, we hit the water and descend to the bow in relatively calm waters. The ship is more than 178 feet long but is already encrusted with the mossy green beginnings of a coral colony. We penetrate at the second level and follow a safety line to the front of the ship, free to maneuver into interior rooms well lit by the sun. A passage leads to the bridge, where portholes facing the foredeck provide a perfect candid photo or video shot from the exterior. On leaving the bridge we frolic around the upper reaches of the boat before the current beckons and pulls us farther south. The subsequent coral beds are less exciting, but the prospect of a return to the ship is already occupying my thoughts, as are the dizzying visions of colorful corals and assorted awesome seascapes that already have penetrated my dreams. Hopefully, the philosophies that guide the ecology of this fragile island will continue to make the reefs of Cozumel the stuff diving dreams are made of for generations to come.
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