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Trip Report Make Cozumel Great Again: Trip Report, June – July 2020

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Ironborn

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I returned to Cozumel in June – July, more than three years after my first visit. I enjoyed this trip much more than my last one, which I would attribute to: the much healthier condition of the reefs due to the marine park closures and the absence of divers during to the pandemic lockdown; the reduced numbers of divers and other visitors within the framework of the reopening; my better choice of a primary dive operator for this trip; and my now-greater comfort with drift and deep diving. I also discovered the virtue of shore diving in Cozumel and came away with a heightened appreciation for Cozumel's macro.

Why I Went There

Cozumel was the destination of my first fully dive-oriented trip more than three years ago. I had mixed results due to: my initial choice of a dive operator that did not suit me well; my discomfort with drift diving and deeper dives as a relatively new diver at the time; and the condition of some of the reefs at the time. I did, however, come to appreciate in retrospect the abundance of mobile marine life in Cozumel, compared to its lesser density in other popular Caribbean destinations that I subsequently visited. I also grew more comfortable with drift diving in other destinations and came to appreciate that many of the places with strong currents also have more abundant marine life for precisely that reason. I had just started to think about giving Cozumel another shot when the coral disease struck and the authorities closed the marine park last year. Then the human pandemic hit and most of the world went into lockdown, but Cozumel started opening up just in time for when I would normally take Caribbean dive trips, in late spring and early summer. I decided about a week in advance to go to Cozumel, as there were no other viable options, and I had read encouraging reports on this forum and on Facebook.

Logistics and Planning

I decided to fly directly into Cozumel airport (CZM), rather than take the “bag drag” from Cancun, due to reduced bus and ferry schedules and the relative scarcity of direct flights between New York and Cancun. American Airlines was running daily flights to and from Dallas and weekly Saturday flights to and from Charlotte, so I went with them, with connecting flights to and from New York. The price was reasonable, about $400 USD, but I had an issue with a flight attendant that tried to make me check my carry-on. Otherwise the flights were fine. I filled out health declarations for my arrival and departure, and there was a thermal scanner at CZM, but entry and exit procedures were otherwise normal.

I chose my primary dive operator more cautiously this time. Since my last visit, I had developed a preference for resorts over stand-alone dive shops and a taste for shore diving. The obvious choices in Cozumel would thus be Blue Angel and Scuba Club, the former of which had already reopened and had a very competitive reopening special that I decided to pursue. I had previously considered Blue Angel for my first trip and had heard good things about their house reef, particularly for night dives. It was important for this trip that I have easy access to shore diving, since the low number of visitors and the curfew would make it hard for Blue Angel or other dive shops to offer PM boat dives. I did, however, manage to arrange a few PM dives with ScubaLuis, Scuba with Mario, and Jungle Divers. Blue Angel did not have any other divers for PM boat dives, and I wanted more variety than their house reef.

(to be continued)
 
OP
Ironborn

Ironborn

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Blue Angel and Others

I was very happy with my choice of Blue Angel. I found myself wishing that I had gone with them the first time, and I would consider staying and diving there again. My room was more than adequate for one person, and it would be fine for a couple as well. The food and the service were good at the restaurant, which has a nice ocean view. The dive shop was accommodating, within reasonable limits, and delivered quality service. They let us pick the dive sites, within their fuel constraints. The guides were attentive but not overbearing and demonstrated solid wildlife spotting skills and knowledge of the local environment. Having only a few divers on the six-pack boats due to reopening restrictions and the low volume of visitors definitely enhanced the quality of the experience. One morning I was the only diver scheduled, and they still went out just for me, demonstrating a strong commitment to customer service. Shore diving on the house reef is self-service, and they allow solo diving there, as it is only 20 feet deep and extremely easy to navigate. I was the only guest who was both staying at the resort and diving with the dive shop, so I did two afternoon dives and two night dives there by myself. For the night dives, someone kept an eye on my dive and camera lights from the restaurant.

As much as I liked Blue Angel and their house reef, I did want to get out and about a bit more with some PM dives. I did two-tank twilight trips with ScubaLuis and Jungle Divers, albeit with some timing adjustment due to the curfew. I also did a stand-alone night shore dive with Jungle Divers at the Tikila Bar, where I had also done a stand-alone shore dive with Scuba with Mario earlier that afternoon. I had done a two-tank trip with ScubaLuis on my previous trip and told myself that I would go with them again if and when I ever returned to Cozumel. ScubaLuis is a newer and smaller operation with an excellent and well-deserved reputation. Luis himself could not lead the dive due to an ear issue but had a colleague fill in for him. I was the only customer on the boat, demonstrating that strong commitment to customer service that I saw on my previous trip. The substitute DM demonstrated remarkable wildlife spotting skills, yielding my first and only satisfying shot of a splendid toadfish. Also productive for photography was my 90-minute shore dive at the Tikila Bar with Mario of Scuba with Mario. Mario has a keen eye for macro and is clearly a gifted photographer. Jungle Divers has a larger and more comfortable (but also slower) boat, for anyone that may dislike the typical six-packs of Cozumel. Jungle Divers gave us solid night dive experiences without running afoul of curfew enforcement, including one dive that yielded a whopping three octopus sightings in a row.

The Reefs and Marine Life

I had been eager to schedule a dive trip somewhere shortly after reopening. I reasoned that the environment wherever I went would be richer after the prolonged absence of divers. I had read about animals moving into human environments, such as the canals of Venice, during lockdowns. I figured that the absence of divers on reefs would have a similarly enriching effect. Cozumel was a good choice in that regard not only because it was one of the first dive destinations to reopen, but also because the marine park closures from last year must have further relieved human pressure on the environment.

In retrospect, this reasoning paid off handsomely, as the reefs of Cozumel struck me as far richer and healthier than I had remembered them from three years ago. The prolonged absence of divers must have relieved at least some of the human pressure on the underwater environment. I understand that the coral disease had killed certain species of coral, such as brain coral, but it appeared that other reef growths, such as sponges, had filled the vacuum. The corals and sponges were overall much richer than I remembered from before, and there were more of the smaller reef fish as well. The larger schools of fish, such as grunts, and the medium-sized animals, such as turtles, rays, green moray eels, groupers, lobsters, and nurse sharks, were about as common as I remembered them from three years ago. You can use the link to my Instagram profile in my signature block to see photos and videos of what I saw.

Cozumel is not known for shore diving, and it is probably more well-known for its topography, reefs, and medium-sized animals than macro. The shore dives that I did at Blue Angel and Tikila Bar nonetheless exposed me to a lot of macro and smaller critters that I did not expect to see. The house reef dive at Blue Angel centers on the neighboring stingray pen, which, along with debris from it, serves as an artificial reef and provides shelter and structure for smaller animals, such as blennies, arrow crabs, and this spotted moray eel and its cleaner shrimp. I found these tiny crabs living inside anemones there, and I have not been able to identify the species. There is at least one resident octopus on the house reef. The Tikila Bar shore dive had a similar emphasis on macro and smaller creatures, with a circle of debris housing many critters, such as banded coral shrimp and feather duster worms. I also saw many of these yellow stingrays at Tikila Bar, but I did not see them anywhere else. Both shore dives also yielded encounters with sea hares, which I was surprised to see in tropical waters, as I associated them with the cold waters of the West Coast. These shore dives could be a gold mine for photographers and macro enthusiasts (e.g. me), but perhaps they might not appeal to those seeking the more typical Cozumel experience of striking topography, dense reef growth, and larger animals.

Conclusions and Further Discussion

Life gave us lemons, so I made lemonade. The reopening of Cozumel gave me a golden opportunity to see its underwater environment after months of relief from diver traffic and with relatively few other divers present. This trip left me with a greater appreciation of Cozumel than my last trip, as I picked a primary dive operator that suited me better this time, and I had more experience with which to appreciate what Cozumel has to offer and to handle the drift diving and deeper dives. My choice of shore diving in order to get more PM dives in the absence of enough demand to justify many PM boat trips exposed me to another facet of Cozumel that suited my particular interests.

I would be happy to return to Cozumel in the future, and I have come to accept the possibility that I might have few other choices in the Caribbean for a while anyway. I would be happy to return to Blue Angel, but I am curious about Scuba Club in general and its house reef, for the sake of variety. Mexico remains one of the few dive destinations easily accessible to U.S. visitors. Having gotten my dose of Caribbean diving in Cozumel, I hope to go to the Sea of Cortez or Socorro later this year, if possible. Pacific Mexico had been high on my to do list before the pandemic anyway.

Here are a few questions for further discussion:
  • Those of you that have been to Cozumel recently and had also been there before the pandemic and the marine park closures – did you notice, as I did, that the reefs are now much healthier?

  • Those of you that have been to both Blue Angel and Scuba Club, which resort and house reef did you prefer, and for what reasons? Are there any other resorts with house reef diving that you would recommend?

  • Is the shore diving elsewhere in Cozumel similar to what I described? If it is different, in what ways does it differ?

  • Has anyone been diving in the Sea of Cortez recently, or does anyone plan to go there in the near future? What options are available, and how was it (if you have been already)?

  • Can you identify this species of crab living inside anemones?
 

newgentry

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Darn good trip report, thanks for sharing all of that. I can confirm your first bullet point, and have posted that same opinion on other threads on this board - I've been on the island for almost three weeks now, my last trip was January of 2020 and I have probably 30+ more trips here going back 15 years - and the reefs are the best now than I have seen in quite awhile, probably ever in fact. Which of course is a testimony for how quick Mother Nature can heal herself if we leave her alone for just a very short while in relative terms. Anyway, glad that you enjoyed your trip and thanks again for the report!
 

ReefHound

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Blue angel is my second favorite shore dive. What makes it unique is the stingray pen. I like to augment my boat dives with shore dives and BA is always on my list. The setup is very convenient with tanks/weights by entry, rinse tanks, easy in/out, and the restaurant for post-dive snacks and beverages.

My fave shore dive is down by Tikila and Atlantis (Casa del Mar is also there). The mini-wall offers more relief than most shore dives with a lot more corals and sponges. You have similar convenience with at least 3 places to rent tanks (Tikila, Marine World, Roberta's) and a couple of nice places (Tikila and Ernesto's) for post-dive refreshments.

You can also find tanks, easy in/out, nearby refreshments, and similar diving at Hotel Barracuda and Villa Blanca. Barracuda has by far the most rubble just to the south in the form of a collapsed pier. All have the same 20-25' depths with Tikila reaching 30'.
 

Cozdreamer

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wow! Thank you for an excellent write up about the island I miss diving! You could submit that to a magazine for a well rounded article easily! Continued safe travels to you. Thank you for taking the time to share your trip here.
 

GameChanger

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Thanks for the detailed review!

I used to stay at the high-end all-inclusive "resorts" for my Coz trips because I have a non-diver wife who appreciated all the luxury crap that goes with "AI camping". I never thought the food and service at the AI's was anything beyond average at best. (Cozumel Palace is nothing but an overrated dump!).

I had the opportunity to do a solo "Hall Pass" Coz trip and I was looking for recommendations for a decent hotel with ocean view balconies, a Dive Op that picked me up at the hotel pier so that I can avoid the taxi shuttle to and from the marina, and a decent restaurant on-site. Gordon Gunn recommended Blue Angel Hotel and Dive Op with the same name. After experiencing BA, I have found a Coz home and I recommend them every chance I get.

The BA hotel works for me. All the amenities I need/want. It is clean and safe. The on-site restaurant is awesome! My non-diver spouse would probably like it too. Your hotel stay includes complimentary individually prepared breakfasts (not buffet food). Lunch and dinner are very good and very inexpensive and they have live entertainment (or used to pre-Covid) on Friday and Saturday nights. The Dive Op and their DM's are second to none. You dive your air and they have fast boats. Depending upon skill levels, they are open to requests for more aggressive dive sites (Barracuda, Devils Throat etc). The pre-dive safety briefings for those dives were impressive! They offer free dive gear valet service too if that's your thing. They will even rinse and dry your wetsuit for a reasonable tip.

I have not experienced the BA shore dives at night. My understanding is that they will provide complimentary tank/weights for hotel guests to use for onsite shore dives. To be honest, after a morning 2-tank dive I am pretty tired and by sundown, I am eyeing the bed. I don't drink so I don't do bars and that makes the most of the Coz nightlife irrelevant for me. I may make an effort to do a shore night dive or two during my upcoming Coz trip next month.

I cannot compare BA with Scuba Club because I have never stayed or dived with SC. I have buddies who swear by SC though. I did have the opportunity to check out a SC room and it was OK. I think BA rooms are nicer and 100% are ocean views. All the rooms have oceanfront balconies except for the ground floor.
 

ReefHound

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I have not experienced the BA shore dives at night. My understanding is that they will provide complimentary tank/weights for hotel guests to use for onsite shore dives. To be honest, after a morning 2-tank dive I am pretty tired and by sundown, I am eyeing the bed. I don't drink so I don't do bars and that makes the most of the Coz nightlife irrelevant for me. I may make an effort to do a shore night dive or two during my upcoming Coz trip next month.

Point of clarification. The tanks/weights are complimentary for dive shop guests not hotel guests. You can stay at BA and dive with someone else and be picked up at the dock. If so, you can still rent tanks/weights for shore dives and put it on your room, as with meals and drinks and other charges.
 

cozcharlie

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I think general consensus is that reefs do look healthier , but I would also note that there haven’t been any cruise ships around Cozumel for a while. I suspect the ships themselves and the snorkel and party boat traffic they generate aren’t that good for the reef either. I am just nervous about the narrative that divers are the sole cause of reef stress

SCTLD likely had nothing at all to do with divers. It moved somewhat gradually from its epicenter near Miami going north and south through that reef system . If divers were cause don’t think you would have seen such a linear progression on eastern Florida reefs (see time lapse at bottom of link below ). After a few years in Florida, it started jumping around Caribbean (frequently to cruise ship ports) . I am not saying divers couldn’t have spread it, I just think the more likely suspects were 1,000 foot long and carry hundreds of thousands of gallons of ballast water


[Florida's Coral Reef Disease Outbreak | Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary]
 

DandyDon

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Nice report. Horrible thread title that unnerves me every time I look at the forum, just wow! BA is a wonderful little hotel, and I'd bet the dive op is still great. I used to stay there before their rates went up.

I think general consensus is that reefs do look healthier , but I would also note that there haven’t been any cruise ships around Cozumel for a while. I suspect the ships themselves and the snorkel and party boat traffic they generate aren’t that good for the reef either.
This!
After a few years in Florida, it started jumping around Caribbean (frequently to cruise ship ports) . I am not saying divers couldn’t have spread it, I just think the more likely suspects were 1,000 foot long and carry hundreds of thousands of gallons of ballast water
And their dumped sewage, dragging anchors, and reef collisions.
 
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