Cozumel June 2-6, 2003

Link to article on down/upwellings (vertical currents) and how to manage them:

Read on, you'll see why I've put the link in.

It was a cold, long winter in Murray.  A few days opened up in June when the rest of the family had planned a trip to visit a college my daughter is considering.  I had a conflict with my work schedule for part of their trip so I planned a short dive trip.  Bay Adventures as always was efficient and set up the travel economically and to my requirements.  I scheduled dives in advance with Dive Paradise but had hoped to book at other operators for afternoon and evening dives.  Deep Blue and Living Underwater both indicated they had no evening/afternoon charters on the books but that I was welcome to call after arrival and see if anything had developed.  As I wanted a "no maintenance" trip I elected to go ahead and booked Dive Paradise for afternoon dives.  Morning dives were on their small boats, typically 4-6 divers.  Afternoon was on a large boat, in my case maxing out at 15 divers or so on one trip.  I stayed at the Hotel Barracuda, somewhat spartan but very clean, close to town, and inexpensive for a diver traveling alone.  Air travel was courtesy of Continental Airlines.

June 2 - Afternoon

The flight was okay, the usual awful "up at 4:00, at the airport at 5:00 AM" for clearance" routine at Nashville.  The TSA bag checkers opened the dive bag I'd checked and seemed quite enamored of my O2 analyzer that I'd packed in it's own small Pelican case. He resealed the bag with the blue TSA ties.   No problems of any magnitude were encountered.  I carry on two bags - First, a small roller bag with my BC, reg, computer, and mask plus a few personal items; second, my Oly 5050/015/YS90 rig in a Pelican 1450.  The flight was uneventful, the checked bag was literally the last one dropped onto the conveyor at Cozumel.  I took a shuttle to the hotel, checked in with Dive Paradise, and specified Nitrox 32 for morning dives and 36 for the shallower afternoon dives (didn't quite work out that way).  Note, only a slight bottom time advantage is gained as the dives are more or less done to air tables or air dives on computer (an exception, noted later).  I'll bold face it here (this may change in the future). 

Take your own analyzer. The boat may or may not have one and a stop at the VillaBlanca DP shop may be necessary to pick one up (if one is there).  The Amoxtec Analox I had worked fine and was shared on the boat by other divers who dove nitrox but didn't have their own analyzer.  Mixes were within about 1%; one was short filled to 2000 psi; I dove air on that dive.

Dive 1 - Barracuda Hotel Reef

Depth:  29 feet      Time: 17 minutes     Viz:  30-40 feet    Bottom Temp: 81F   Mix: Air

I did a 17 minute shore dive behind the Hotel Barracuda.  There's a nice junk pile there that is encrusting over with coral and is home to quite a few small fish or juvenile specimens.  Rays can be found in the grass flats a little further out and I'm told Sea Robins have been spotted (I was short on time and didn't go that far out). Chas, Dharmadiver from the Rodale's bulletin board, dropped by as I suited up.  He's a great guy, we met several times during my stay for something to eat.  He mentioned that the remains of an aborted "Dolphin Experience" pen project are still underwater in this area; just be aware there may be some netting/fencing material still on the bottom. 


This little fellow brightened up the artificial reef behind the Hotel Barracuda.

Dive 2 - Afternoon boat dive - Paradise Reef

Depth: 39    Time: 54        Viz:  60-70  feet        Bottom Temp: 82      Mix: 36%

I had booked  afternoon dives with Dive Paradise, these go out to shallow reefs at 3:00 in the afternoon.  The Aries arrived on time; it's a larger boat, we had some 16 or so onboard.  I follow a "first off - last on" practice on cattle boats; it paid off this time to get in the water early.  This Spotted Eagle Ray was close by as we descended.

According to the divemaster, it is a regular on the reef but typically swims off (but not too fast) after divers enter the water.  It was at a sufficient distance that the strobe was of no value.  We were divided into 3 groups; as I said, try to get in early and down fast in these circumstances.  We also saw would looked like "smoke" in the water.  Sponge sperm spawn!

My dive buddy, in image on the right, a good fellow from Fredricksburg, Virginia, went by the handle "Smokey."  I wish him a good time on a motorcycle ride his wife and he are taking to Kentucky this summer.  I met a lot of great folks this trip.  He told me about the morning dive his group did on Columbia - aborted after 10 minutes due to downwelling.  This was the case during the week on the deeper reefs.  The DM's explained it as a short term seasonal change in wind direction that really created trick current situations.  The current on this dive was present but not unpleasant.  Any current does make camera work more difficult as it is hard to hover and reshoot an image that didn't turn out just right.

June 3 - Morning Dives

Dive 1 - Palancar Cliffs

Depth: 97          Time: 27          Viz: 50         Bottom Temp: 81      Mix: 32%

I left the camera topside at the request of the DM; I could have taken it below but as he indicated reports of downwelling, I thought I'd be conservative.  We were on a small boat, just a few divers.  

The water was choppy and the lateral current was very fast.  This was the first time at Cozumel I was asked to remove my gear in the water and hand it up.   If you've not dove at Cozumel before, it is important to get down to the reef as quickly as possible as the current abates near the bottom and it's easier to keep contact with your buddy and group.  Fish life wasn't great.  I don't know why, I've been on this section of the Palancar section before and there was more diversity.  

We did encounter a downwelling - I dropped from 85 feet to 97 before arresting the descent.  I'd never seen what looked like underwater dust devils as the current vortexes moved across the sandy areas of the seabed.  It wasn't bad; we encountered worse a couple of days later.  Anyway, it was an ok dive, not a lot to see, though.  Luck of the draw, I guess.  No regrets on leaving the camera topside.

Dive 2 - Passeo Cedral

Depth: 54          Time: 46             Viz: 50+        Bottom Temp: 82       Mix: 21%

The diversity of fish life improved on this dive.  The lateral current was strong.  It was difficult to set pictures up without a lot of finning and there didn't seem to be much "cover" from coral formations to mask the current. Several species in left image below.  I wish I could have gotten closer to the triggerfish in the upper left, he was neat but skittish.

Grunts were their ubiquitous selves as is evident in the right hand shot above. They are a common fish but their schools' evershifting patterns are fun to watch.

Also got this Spotted Drum, wish I had two strobes (but then that would be more of a hassle to carry) as the contrast dilemma was beyond my skill to solve.  I wasn't able to drop lower in the water column to get a more horizontal picture, either (coral in the way, don't touch).

And some barracuda - couldn't get as close as I liked, out of strobe range,  and was too far above (almost directly above on the second guy -  he looks a bit ornery) for good shots, but here they are:


Dive 3 - Afternoon dive - Villa Blanca

Depth: 60           Time: 47        Viz: 50+        Bottom Temp: 82           Mix: 21%

This was a shallow(er) dive.  Large boat again, somewhat smaller number of divers.  Current was swift enough to make photo setups difficult, not a problem for diving.  Right off saw a cute argument going on (left image) - took a second look to make sure I saw the little moray striking at the fish parked outside the moray's den.  The little guy was fast, in and out.  The fish didn't budge.  I was above and moving away, ran the lens out to too far, really.  The flash was of no value at the distance.  It was luck I got the guy out of the hole with the shutter lag.

The guy on the right is a bit blown out, but colorful and headed back into his hole.  I'll make some comments about what I think I learned about setting the camera at the end of the report. 

I also ran across a couple of invertebrates, again, not much chance to hover, modify settings, and shoot again. I envy those folks who can dive frequently and work through some of these conundrums.   Coral shrimp on left, little crab on right.  These are heavily cropped.  Note problems in getting sharp focus (setting was for averaging across the picture.  I imagine my inability not to move while the camera did its auto setup thing contributed, too

June 4 - AM Dives

Dive 1 - Palancar Gardens

Depth: 93          Time: 46        Viz: 70+        Bottom Temp: 82      Mix: 32%

My one-hundredth logged dive since certification in March of 2001.  My pics should have been better than they were.  We dove another section of the Palancar formation.  Zilch current this time.  Like a Bonaire dive.  One the way across the sand to the reef, we saw this Whelk egg sac.  Unusual I'm told to see them exposed.

Strange item.  The diving was quite spectacular with swimming around towering formations and clear water.  Our divemaster, Porfirio, on the left.  Note the reel and tube. I'm glad he had this as boat traffic could be heavy and fast on the surface.  Take your own sausage as well, I deployed mine several times over the course of the week.  It was a very relaxing dive, I just enjoyed looking around.

Fish were abundant.  Queen Angel on left, Damselfish (cropped) on right, moving too fast for my shutter speed.


Next trip, I'm going to do more experimentation with settings.

Dive 2 - Delila

Depth: 57      Time: 47     Viz: 40+        Bottom Temp: 82       Mix: 32%

This site wasn't in the Lonely Planet guide I use; I asked the DM twice for the name to make sure I had it right.  This dive had the fastest current along the reef of any dive we did.  The highpoint of the dive was a large nurse shark, well out of photo range and in cloudy water, that swam along with our group for a few minutes.  It was also being harassed by just about every fish that it swam past, much like those little birds that will dive on a hawk.  My buddy and I got ahead of the main group, we swam out over the sand and attempted to hold position by planting a finger in the sand. That did a lot of good. 

We finally rejoined them; it was a pretty uneventful dive other than the nurse shark.  There was lots of life on the reef but it was a "Hi fish, Bye fish" kind of dive, very fast current.  Several of the group headed up into the even faster current  when their air hit 700psi; we were well spread out on the surface.  I used my safety tube again; pickup took about 20 minutes after I surfaced.  The first groups to go up were wayyyyy downcurrent of us.  I had a nearby boat radio ours. 

This raises a point.  Be sure you can remember your boat's name or divemaster's name, better yet both, as with the small boats being quite numerous, it's helpful to get word to your boat.  Take a small slate and write the info down during the trip out or the briefing.

Dive 3 - Afternoon Dive - Paradise Reef (typical for a Dive Paradise PM dive)

Depth:  44         Time: 47        Viz: 60+     Bottom Temp: 81   Mix: Air

As we drifted along the reef below the drop off, another group could be seen as illustrated on the left below. As I labeled the picture,  it was an "Oh My" experience.  In spite of this, the reefs seemed in better shape than last time with plenty of fish life.  Note the Black Durgeon - they were plentiful but shy.  I never got a good detail shot of one.  A little ticked off over the length of the dive, when I surface with 1300psi, one knows it's been a shortish dive.  So it goes.

The big hermit crab on the right was in relatively shallow water out on the sand flats; it goes to show that one should keep an eye out as the swim to the reef is completed.  I'm not at all pleased with the image, taken with available light in P mode.  I couldn't avoid a blow out with the external strobe as the shell and the sand were the same color; power down for the reflectivity of the sand, the crab itself is just a black lump, power up for the crab's body, I got a white smudge for everything else with a disembodied crab body in the middle of it.

Once we got to the reef, the DM kinda folded his arms and appeared to go to sleep, drifting along.  Plenty of angelfish of various stripes.  I pretty much just drifted along, too, with the camera tucked in. It was a pretty dive; after I gave up trying to get a close-up of a durgeon, I tucked the camera in and just enjoyed the scenery.  The reef structure was very health irrespective of the action pictured above.  However, on this dive as on several others, we did pick up a bit of human trash - snack wrappers, a bottle cuff, part of a low pressure hose, and a collapsible pointer.

June 5 - AM dives

Dive 1 - Palancar Bricks

Depth: 93          Time: 34        Viz: 70+       Bottom Temp: 81      Mix: 32%

Apple was on the dock this morning and asked if I'd fill out an EDP (extended dive plan) trip.  I had talked to a person earlier who wanted to do Maracaibo; I declined due to the description in the guide of the dive - deep and lots of current.  However, this morning, we would do Palancar Bricks so I agreed.(not in the guide, again, but I checked the name and have seen some other pics from this dive site on the board).  The Palancar formation is in my experience some of the best that Cozumel has to offer for the deeper dives.

The wind was very strong, the water rough, the ride rougher.  Porfirio was again our divemaster; he's good.  The boat driver was also good, keeping the boat off plane during rough sections.  I met another D2D'er on this one,  tleo52398 and his wife.  They're really nice people.  The boat had a D2D sticker on the dash bulkhead, too.  It was quite a ride to the site; we picked up a diver at one of the southernmost resorts.  A thought - it's a good idea to stay south, maybe, as one is last to be picked up (sleep later); and first to be dropped off (eat earlier).  Not a bad "compromise" for the distance from down.

The dive on Palancar Bricks was preceded by a thorough briefing on the the currents.  However, it boiled down to, as it usually does, a case of just having to go down and see what happens.  In this case, we indeed could see it before it happened.  The descent and swim to the reef was uneventful with a little horizontal current.  I then saw a vertical wall of sand some dozens of yards long (not that spectacular to see, just spectacular in what it represented) rising along the edge to the reef's drop off.  We hit a very strong downwelling coupled with a strong off-reef oriented horizontal current.  It took a lot of lift and hard swimming to get into one of the swim through tunnels in the coral and get out of the flow.  I rested for a bit to slow my respiration back down; no ongoing problem, but it was quite a thrill.  After exiting the swim through it was pretty much a standard deeper drift dive, very beautiful formations and good coral variety.

We saw several nice turtles, really too far away for decent pictures and I wasn't inclined to chase them up current.  I missed the really large one that several folks on the dive saw.  I did try to set up another shot of a damselfish.  This time, it manage to get completely out of the picture during the shutter lag (I wanted to avoid any blur induced by me).

Not a bad exposure, I think it's pretty at thsi size, too bad the fish didn't stick around :-)   It was a thoroughly enjoyable dive.

Dive 2 - Francesca

Depth: 65      Time: 57        Viz: 60ish        Bottom Temp: 81      Mix: 32%

This dive was great.  What a way to finish a trip.  The fish life was fantastic as was the coral growth.  Again, my photographic skills fail to show the scenery as it should be viewed.  I just didn't have the lighting set up right; both images below have significant Photoshop adjustment of color and curves.  I removed quite a bit of backscatter from the the Queen Angel and Blue Tang.  There was also a funky little flounder out on the sand flats, he kept bouncing up out of the sand and moving around.





The water was very clear with a fair current.  Again, holding still for bracketing was not really feasible.  It was just a great way to end the trip.

The last evening was a happy one.  It had been a great trip and had fulfilled it's purpose, getting me back into a good frame of mind after a long winter.  I've put some thoughts on a variety of topics together below.

Hotel Barracuda


It's a two star property and is pretty spartan.  However, the rooms are reasonably large, have a great view of the ocean, and the beds are somewhat softer than the Cozumel standard of "it's too soft if it moves" for firm mattresses.  The bathroom is in room but is shower only if that makes a difference.  The AC worked great, cool  but not clammy in the room,  better than either the Las Brisas (Costa Club) or Plaza Los Glorias where we stayed before.  The flooring is tile, gets real slippery when wet so take care.

There is a small restaurant outside but many other choices are nearby.  The hotel is about 2 minutes walk from Punta Langosta, about 10 minutes from the ferry pier.  The single person supplement for 4 nights was a total of $100.00.  No pool but a shower and gear basin outside (I'd occasionally refill it as it got quite cloudy and brackish as the day went on).  No one hassled me about my drippy stuff in the lobby.  There are lockers but they really seem (based on a Costa Club experience) to impart a stale smell to one's gear.  No in room safe but there is a hotel safe guests can use if they choose.  I didn't, had no problem.  There is a Dive Paradise shop on the premises, it's easy to pick up air and weights for an afternoon or early evening shore dive.  The view at night out the Barracuda over the water is one of the prettiest I've seen in Cozumel.

Cell Phones

My Cingular account cell phone called stateside without a hitch this time.  Be sure to use "001" (zero zero 1) for the prefix to the xxx-xxx-xxxx US number instead of just "1."

Bottled water, etc.

Use it for any water that goes in your mouth.  Chaudrai (sp), a large kind of Wal-Mart like store with a deli, department store, pharmacy, and grocery store, is about 2 blocks south.  However, there was a small quick market just next door.  I buy a gallon or larger container and fill a bicycle water bottle as needed for carrying around. Coz has an osmotic desalinization system but the distribution system allows in-seepage of contaminated ground water. 

Where I ate.

Chas and I ate at Rock'n Java a couple of times; I ate all my breakfasts there.  They have a great menu for vegetarians (me) and an outstanding chocolate cake and chocolate almond milkshake. For breakfast the muffins are fantastic as is the Freedom (Belgian)  :-) waffle.  I also ate a couple of dinners in a new (to me) restaurant across the street from the small naval base just towards town from the Barracuda (you can't miss it - walk up to the guard, look across the street, there it is) and had great food.  I finally went to Carlos 'n Charlies in Punta Langosta..  Arghhh.  US juvenile behavior (from all age ranges) at it's worse.  The staff seemed to take its cue from the behavior in the SNL satirical sketch of the TGI Friday's culinary experience.  A world class domestic dispute that appeared to be stoked by a lot of booze at a nearby table kept me on my toes for potential flying tableware (didn't happen).  I also ate at Lobster's Cove, next to the Barracuda.  Overpriced and overcooked.  In my book for good solid food, prepared well and fast, Rock 'n Java can't be beat.

Internet Access.

$2.25/hr at the facility just next to the Barracuda, actually on it's old first floor, it seems.  Fast connection, great A/C in the room.

Cruise Ships.

Lots of them.  However, there seemed to be a spat between the Punta Langosta/N. pier owners and most ship lines.  Only one docked north while I was there but there were a bucketful of them at the S. pier by La Cieba. I understand from Doc's post and other sources that 60-70 cents of the tourist dollar comes from the boats.  Divers contribute far less.

Camera Comments.

I like Bonaire for photo activity better but Cozumel has more challenging diving. In drift diving  I can't bracket several shots to get one as good as my best skills will allow.  Getting close with any camera for effective strobe coverage is also a trick for me in the current.  No problems with NiMH charging in the rooms.  I used  Maha and Sony chargers.  The 256mb xD card seemed several times faster than the 128's; not sure why. 

I used NiMH's in the YS-90.  I really wasn't too happy with my photography skills.   My notes on settings from Bonaire just didn't seem to jibe with my results in Cozumel.  I will try a much higher shutter speed next time because of the contrast issues and speed at which the target area seems to move by.  This occurred to me later so I didn't try anything beyond 250. 

I'm in the market for a new strobe arm.  The Loc-Tite ball-based Sea and Sea arm simply would not hold position in the current as I changed orientation.  More limp .... comments from the boat crew.  The strobe head also seems to fit too loosely on the end of the arm fitting.  No problems with Maha Poweredge 1800's holding enough charge for two dives, both in the strobe and camera (although I'll admit I shot far fewer images this trip than Bonaire).

Photography Support.

Foto Omega (just past the ferry pier downtown, big sign) transferred my images to CDR from the memory cards (if you have xD's, use a CF adapter)  for $7.00/card/CDR, irrespective of the number of images up to the capacity of the CD.  They do good minilab 1hr print developing, too, based on my 2002 experience (and offer printing from digital storage media).

Continental Airlines, other travel and diving notes

Same awful 53 minute (actually 43 given the 10 minute pre-taxi door closing policy) connection in Houston.  You're toast if you get in a slow immigration line (usually caused by too many folks trying to re-enter with birth certificate/picture id docs rather than a passport, IMHO).  I was running behind (more than 25 minutes in Immigration seems to translate into a potentially missed connection on this flight pair) and asked a Continental agent I passed to phone my gate.  She said they wouldn't hold the plane but she'd call. 

I arrived; the jetway door was closed and locked but I hit a winner with the gate agent; he asked if I was the inbound Coz guy and opened the door and got me aboard.  I was at the gate a full 2 minutes before published departure.  So, everybody, including little kids, should, IMHO again, have a passport.  Take the birth certificate/id as backup; photocopy everything and keep the copies separate.  American Express now advertises help for it's Traveler's Check holders in replacing passports. 

Check opening times for the airline at your departure airport.  Continental's ticketing people on the phone say "2-3" hours early arrival for international departures; the Continental desk at Nashville opens at 5:00AM.  My flight was 6:20 AM - that knowledge translated to another hour of sleep that morning.  Not a bad thing.

I  finally learned to equalize efficiently starting last Christmas with the Bonaire trip.  That's a relief and a bit embarrassing to admit but it wasn't easy to get a consistent routine down.  Now, I chew gum and pop my ears after breakfast, blow my nose a couple of times, and insure that I pre-pressurize a bit before entry and continually equalize on the way down.  It wasn't a natural routine to learn.

Gear notes

I still really like my Zeagle Escape.  I used the larger 34lb wing, the 24 would likely have been okay but I like the higher head position I can maintain in choppy water with the larger wing.  The Octo+ is a bit questionable as a keeper at this time.  It leaked on a pre-trip dive at Mermet, was fixed and didn't leak on the trip BUT the non-standard hose fittings aren't comforting.  I took a standard hose/elbow/inflator/corrugated hose + a standard second stage as backup, that's not necessary.  The Octo+ does breath well at depth though.  I haven't tried it in a deep air share scenario though.  I probably should.  Scubapro TwinJet Blacks worked fine, zippo cramping in my double-nickel aged legs. 

My Oceanmaster Z2 worked well with it's purge except on the first full dive when a winter's worth of allergy driven snot blew out of my sinuses and clogged it up.  The mask filled with the gross bubbly glop that I removed completely only after taking the mask off during the dive and really shaking it underwater.  The Henderson gold 3mm was fine; maybe a bit of overkill but I was quite warm and never felt chilled or tired.  Chas suggested the plastic shopping bag trick to ease entry; this really worked well and made gearing up in 90+ air temps much more comfortable.  I saw more people dive in t-shirt/bathing suit attire than ever before; it looked appealing.  No sign of jellies in the water.  My Mares Epos/V16 rig worked fine, although it has a bit of a retro look, I like the heavier second stage as it is slightly negative, hangs straight down,  and is easy to find with an arm sweep in the water.  I don't care for adjustments underwater.

TSA Staff

They wanted no locks but did replace (and used customer supplied) cable ties after opening bags picked for an open inspection.  Very polite, but very thorough.  Very interested in my 02 analyzer but would not interact with me regarding what it was.  No problems with carry-on/personal screening although I had to removed my shoes in both directions of travel.  I saw an argument over hand checking unexposed film going on; glad I had digital.  My carry-on contained my reg set; the x-ray guy was real interested but called off the hand check when the next two travelers in line had the same thing in their carry-on bag.  I guess they don't get too much training on what coiled up scuba apparatus looks like.


My experience with Dive Paradise varied.  The morning dives were all okay except for one short tank.  A couple of PM boats didn't have it aboard.  Communication issues.  Do take your own analyzer if at all possible.  I preferred the Bonaire model at the Divi Flamingo of a pre-dive inspection and analysis of the the tank at the shop, labeling it as to boat and dive time, and then rechecking on the boat.  Here, your first introduction to your tank was when you stepped aboard at your hotel dock.  Other than %02, there was no other label info.

What I'd like to do next time.

More extended time diving on the shallower reefs.  I'll try to book well in advance.  This was a spur of the moment, 6 days ahead of time, trip.  However, I dive conservatively with the computer (Oceanic Versa Pro) and start up a few minutes after the last bubble in the green for N accumulation appears before the yellow zone bubbles appear.  That's just me.  Those dive times seem to parallel my daughter's Suunto Stinger's allowances, which I like.    The Dive Paradise folks do tend to call the PM dives short. As I mentioned above, for me to have 1300 PSI back on the boat means a too short dive. A first off-last on routine helps.   I'd like to do boat night dives but after a negative personal experience two years ago and the terrible event the night we arrived last year, I may save that for other venues.

That's about it, back in rainy Murray but with a much better attitude.  Best of luck to all the good folks at the dive operators, Chas, and other people I met.