Scuba Diving Mexico | Cozumel • The Riviera Maya • Isla Mujeres
This area of contrasts combines the popular resorts of the Riviera Maya with the exquisite natural wonders of Cozumel and Isla Mujeres. Underwater, too, there is much to enjoy on the coral reefs that form part of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, and at offshore sites where divers can marvel at the world’s biggest and fastest fish.
With easy access to plenty of diving that is characterised by large reefs and impressive walls, the dive sites off the island of Cozumel are among the most popular in the Caribbean. And although the area is swept by nutrient-bringing currents, the western side of the island where most of the diving is offered is largely protected from the prevailing easterlies, so you can enjoy a mixture of gentle to high-energy drifts with the chance to see everything from barracuda to several species of turtle.
Separated from the mainland peninsula of the Yucatán by a short stretch of water some 20km (12 miles) wide, Cozumel Island lies to the east of Mexico’s mainland and is famed as one of the most popular diving destinations in the world – between 900 and 1,200 divers a day dive its more than 25 sites. Diving has been the main driver of tourism with around 100 dive centres on the 48 km (30 miles) long and 16km (9.9 miles) wide.
Day boat diving is by far the most popular form of diving (although a significant amount of shore diving is available) and, as drift diving is the order of the day, divers should carry appropriate signalling equipment. Another quirk of the area is that there are no mooring buoys, so on busy sites it is a good idea to immediately descend to around 6m to avoid boat props.
Most of the dive sites are located around the more protected western side and many are within the Arrecifes de Cozumel National Park. This national marine park designated in 1996 extends around the southern part of the island and the reef system forms part of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the second largest barrier reef system in the world. The park currently covers some 120 sq km, and it is hoped that this will be extended in the future.
The long reef systems around Cozumel are known for their impressive walls, some of which drop to abyssal depths. And the deep water upwellings bring more varied marine life to the island than you find at mainland sites. This includes turtles and rays, but equally interesting are the many varieties of schooling fish species and endemics such as the rare splendid toadfish. There are 26 types of corals, with more than 100 subspecies, and 300 fish species.
The reefs are pretty with lots of swim throughs and dramatic drop-offs. And they are, considering the amount of divers they attract, in remarkably good condition.
Perfect for divers of all levels, including newbies, Palancar Reef stretches for over 5.6km (3.5 miles) and lies about 1.6 km (1 mile) offshore. It tops a sloping wall which descends to a maximum depth of more than 900m (3,000 feet). The vast coral maze offers such a wide variety of profiles that you would need 20 or even 30 dives to cover it all.
The steep reef walls vary in depth with vast stacks of coral columns providing plenty of interest and sandy patches as shallow as 10m in parts where you’ll find a variety of rays. On the walls themselves, there are plenty of gorgonians and sponges as well as moray eels hiding in the crevices. One part of the reef known as the Horseshoe is well worth seeking out – the U-shaped indent has tunnels and swim-throughs and is a good place to see French angelfish. Large brain corals and sponges make it highly photogenic.
Currents can be strong on this reef on the northern end of the island which is only for experienced divers, but it is worth visiting for the large amount marine life, including turtles, several species of moray eel, nurse sharks, stingrays and schools of jacks. The eponymous barracuda are not always on view, but when they do arrive they turn up in numbers. Few dive boats offer this dive as currents can hit anything from 3 to 10 knots, but it’s worth asking at dive centres.
San Francisco Reef
This reef, with depths between 5m and 20m, just off San Francisco Beach makes for an excellent shallow dive where you can slow down and take note of the marine life on this gentle to medium drift. The steep wall starts at around 18-20m, so you can go a lot deeper, but there is so much of interest on the shallow reef that it pays to stay near the surface and enjoy a longer dive. Expect to see gorgonians and barrel sponges along with French angelfish, filefish and black grouper.
Large schools of fish are the order of the day at Cedral Reef where a 1.6km-long (1 mile) ridge of coral heads sits at 12-15m. Individual large black grouper are common and Cedral is good for its variety of morays, but it’s the extensive schools of grunts, porkfish and snapper that make it so special.
This is actually three separate reefs. It is 180m (200 yards) from the shore and accessible to shore divers. All three sections of the ridges range from 12 to 14m and are abundant with marine life. Expect to see crab, lobster and a lot of fish including the pretty blue chromis. Look closely under ledges and in holes and might spy the reclusive splendid toad fish. Paradise reef is the island’s most popular night diving location. The current, as with all the islands reefs, usually runs from south to north. Be aware that the dive site is just south of Puerto Maya Cruise Ship Pier, so be careful not to drift too far north.
Aerolito de Paraiso
The Yucatán peninsula is best known for having cenotes – the natural sinkholes that lead to underwater cave systems – but less well known is the fact that Cozumel has its own trio of cenotes in the Cueva Aerolito system. The area can be dived by appropriately trained divers.
CANCUN & THE RIVIERA MAYA
White-sand beaches and tropical cocktails are the order of the day along the Maya Riviera and at Cancun, which has a deserved reputation for mass tourism with large hotels, bars and restaurants serving the many visitors to this coastline. For divers, however, there are all sorts of options along the 70-mile stretch from Cancun to Tulum, including shallow holiday dives, curious caverns and underwater art installations. Topside too there is a wide range of things to see and do in an area that takes in the big tourist resorts of Cancun and Playa del Carmen and at the southern end the Mayan city of Tulum, known for its iconic pyramids.
Forming part of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the dives along the Maya Riviera attract many Caribbean species and migratory animals. It’s fair to say that the best of the diving in this area is found in either Cozumel or the Cenotes (see DIVE | Cenotes, but there are nevertheless several options to keep visiting divers entertained, with the added benefit of the many attractions topside.
The area is a great base to mix cenote diving with a few reefs dives including the world-class bull shark dive in December to February or the equally wonderful whales sharks at Holbox and Isla Mujeres in the summer months. Many dive operators also offer day excursions over to Cozumel.
As with Cozumel, much of the diving is drift diving and there is the chance to dive busy reefs with notable species such as turtles. In terms of topography, caverns and swim-throughs are common and there are some beautiful arches on the sea bed.
Bull Shark Nursery | Playa del Carmen
This is the only place in the world where bull sharks are known to congregate before giving birth. Each winter mature, pregnant females accompanied by juveniles gather in a nearby sand bay before delivering more than 15 live pups in the nearby mangroves. Saving Our Sharks, a local NGO, has set up a system to regulate up to 40 local dive centres with strict guidelines for divers to interact with the sharks without harassing them. Divers during the months of December, January and February can see as many as 30 bull sharks on each dive, half of which will be carrying pups. Saving Our Sharks is campaigning for the whole of the Mexican part of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef to be made a protected, non-fishing zone as safeguarding apex predators such as bull sharks would benefit the whole of the Caribbean region.
MUSA Underwater Sculpture Museum
MUSA (Museo Subacuático de Arte) at Cancun consists of more than 500 permanent sculptures and is one of the largest underwater art attractions in the world. The project has seen British artist Jason deCaires Taylor help create the largest underwater museum on the planet by making sculptures that will change over time, as coral grows and marine life establishes itself. The museum, located in the Cancun-Isla Mujeres Marine Park, is divided into two galleries called Salon Manchones and Salon Nizuc. The first is 8m deep and suitable for both divers and snorkellers and the second 4m deep where only snorkelling is permitted. Exhibits include sculptures of a number of life-size human figures in different poses and situations, a Volkswagen Beetle and huge humans hands – undoubtedly a hugely innovative and unique attraction.
Wreck of the C58 General Anya
Located halfway between Isla Mujeres and Cancun, the wreck of the C58 General Anya is a popular dive that is at recreational diving depths. Originally a minesweeper, the boat was sunk as an artificial reef in 2000 and now sits at a depth of 25m. The wreck was split in two by Hurricane Wilma in 2005 and now has an open stern section, which can be penetrated. It’s an excellent dive for marine life, most noticeably for the school of eagle rays that frequents the wreck.
Moc-Che – Shallow
This site off Playa Del Carmen is typical of the local diving with a shallow reef between 7 and 14m that has little current and a good smattering of marine life, including stingrays, moray eels, porkfish, grouper, crustaceans and turtles. Suitable for beginners, the dive ends with a small arch at end of the reef that is packed with fish and sponges.
Moc-Che – Deep
At 30m deep, this wall dive to the north of Playa del Carmen makes a good first dive of the day. The current varies but you are likely to cover some 500m. Expect to see typical reef species along with barrel sponges, eagle rays and turtles. There are a number of breaks or sandy channels in the wall where you can see large stingrays and on occasion bull sharks.
Brain corals are the biggest attraction at this shallow site off Playa del Carmen (Cerebros means brains in Spanish), which at 12m makes for an excellent checkout dive. It’s a pretty dive with schooling reef fish and plenty of fan corals.
Turtles at Akumal
Mexico is well known for the numbers of sea turtles that visit its waters. Akumal Bay is a popular site for green turtles and at various times of year there are turtle hatchlings on the beach making for the water. Hawksbill and loggerhead turtles also frequent the bay.
Isla Mujeres (Island of Women) sits a few kilometres off the tourist metropolis of Cancun, at the tip of the Yucatán peninsula. Once a place of veneration where the Mayans would worship images of goddesses (hence its name), the island now attracts pilgrims in search of something very different – underwater encounters with some of the world’s most impressive creatures. Expect to see pods of dolphin, bait-ball-attacking billfish, and congregations of mighty whale sharks, the biggest fish in the ocean
The summer months of June to September bring large numbers of whale sharks to the island, in search of rich planktonic waters upon which to feed. There are several whale shark tours available which take place in La Reserva de la Biosfera Tiburón Ballena (The Whale Shark Biosphere Reserve) close to Isla Mujeres and nearby Isla Holbox. Scuba diving with the sharks is not allowed but snorkelling is permitted and there is a well-enforced code of conduct in place to protect the animals. The official price set by the official regulating bodies is US$125 minimum per person and only trained and licensed tour operators are allowed to take people out.
For many people an encounter with one whale shark would be a dream come true, but at Isla Mujeres there is often the opportunity to swim with multiple sharks, and at times there are between 20 and 30 whale sharks in the area. At an offshore site outside of the reserve known as the Afuera, aerial surveys have recorded whale sharks in their hundreds.
These filter feeders, which can reach 14m in length and weigh more than 20 tonnes, cruise serenely through the water seeking out phytoplankton and copepods and in deeper offshore waters highly-calorific fish eggs. Although generally, they remain horizontal in the water, at times observers will be treated to a full-length vertical display as a shark sucks in a patch of fish eggs – truly a remarkable sight. The migration to Mexican waters is celebrated in Isla Mujeres with the annual Whale Shark Festival (20-23 July 2017 ), which includes parades, talks and cultural events.
The slow-moving whale sharks might be impressive, but between December and June the action steps up a gear with the arrival of sailfish season, when divers have the chance to see the fastest fish in the ocean in predatory mode. There are a few specialist operators that will take the divers out to the blue water, where packs of up to 40 sailfish will corral schools of sardine into frenzied bait-balls. With their sails flashing iridescent colours that confuse the panicked sardines, the sailfish attack the balls by whipping their heads from side to side. The stunned sardines are then easily picked off.
Perhaps remarkably, given the quality of the diving and the snorkelling, Banco Chinchorro is little known to many divers and few have visited the area. But, then again, maybe that’s testament to the strong protection and relative difficulty in getting to the site. This is the largest coral atoll in the northern hemisphere and covers some 1,500 sq km (600 square miles). In 1996 the area was given protection as a biosphere reserve and few operators have permission to enter its waters –special permits are required from the Mexican government
There is little in the way of accommodation on the atoll, so visitors have to take a relatively long dayboat trip to reach the diving. Boats to the atoll will only sail in good weather and take approximately 90 minutes from Xcalak (a distance of around 36 nautical miles) and a little faster on the return leg. Liveaboards have been known to visit the area, but Banco Chincorro features on very few itineraries, probably due to a lack of permissions.
Both snorkelling and diving are available at Chinchorro, and you can expect everything from crocodile-filled lagoons to countless wrecks, with some dating back to the 16th century; there are also some interesting iguanas on land. The best time of the year to dive the atoll is in summer when the seas are at their calmest.
At Banco Chinchorro there are three small keys, Cayo Norte, Cayo Centro and Cayo Lobos, with a ranger station on Cayo Centro, but there are no permanent settlements. Inside the lagoon depth is a maximum of 5m, while beyond the outer reef lie there are a number of dive sites from 10m to 40m. The quality of the corals found in the atoll are exceptional, including black coral which is found at unusually shallow depths. The barrel sponges and brain corals are exceptional. Marine life is plentiful with the chance to see larger animals, including manatees, nurse sharks and schools of large tarpon.
Cayo Centro is known for its population of American crocodile (Cocodrylus acutes). Here you’ll be able to snorkel with them in the clear shallow water.
Due to its shallow reef, Banco Chinchorro has many shipwrecks many that are the subject of archaeological investigation. There are nine identified, including two Spanish galleons: SS Caldera, SS Escasell, SS Far Star, SS Ginger Screw, SS Glen View, SS Penelopez, SS San Andreas, and SS Tropic. There is also a large ferry which was grounded during Hurricance Wilma in 2005.