Diving on the Meso American Reef

I was first put into the idea of diving the Mesoamerican American reef by Mike Alt back when we lived on Pemba Island, in Tanzania. Mike had had enough of Zanzibar and wanted to do something different. So he called up, jumped on a propeller plane and then walked into our dive lodge on Pemba Island. He took one look at the place and instantly booked a week’s diving. Mike was taken by something that we did that kept him coming back year after year. We became friends and he in turn invited us to come to Xcalak. Getting to his tiny part of the Mesoamerican reef involved a 5 hour drive from Cancun airport, the final part being down a dusty track. We dived the southern reefs of Mexico with Javier Salas of XTC dive centre.

We would sometimes stop for our surface interval in the lagoon between Mexico and Belize. But that really is a different story, and you can read more about our dives with Mike and Javier here: https://www.travelblog.org/North-America/blog-757829.html
Back at his house, with a stunning bottle of Argentinean red open, I asked mike what made him so interested in the reef that ran from Cozumel in the north, down the Yucatan peninsula, through Belize and down to Honduras. I had always known it as the Belize Barrier reef, but I was wrong. Mike explained that in the 1980’s he had read a National Geographic magazine about an expedition by NOAA down the reef to the Chinchorro Banks. The Mesoamerican reef comes close to the shore in some locations and has some outer banks. The Chinchorro banks were the outer reefs opposite the village of Xcalak, which ironically had the reef within swimming distance of the shore. Mike was a professional doctor but he might as well have been a professional diver. He stopped logging his dives at 1000, when he was in his thirties.

His fascination with the reef was compelling, and over many chats in the intense heat of the Mexican night, we discussed Mexico as it was in the 1970’s the ‘80s and finally into the 1990’s. Mexico and her underwater world had something very special to offer. Year after year we dived the Mesoamerican reef with Mike and Javier, learning each individual cave and dive site better and better. But life caught up with us all. We sold our dive shop in Tanzania to concentrate on being the best small dive and safari tour operator in Britain. Mike grew tired of the heat and moved to Chiapas state in central Mexico. Javier was kind enough to invite us down to stay with him and dive, but it did not seem the same without Mike. He in turn never returned to Tanzania without us.

It was a chance meeting with Paul Flower of Dressel divers who put the Mesoamerican reef back on the agenda. He suggested we dive with him. Last year on our way to San Cristobal De La Casas, we stopped off in heavily commercialised Playa Del Carmen. Paul arranged for us to dive the reef in front of the hotel. I did not have high hopes, but was very surprised to find the diving as diverse and pleasant as anywhere on the reef. What it lacked was the underwater landscape of Xcalak. Buoyed with such good diving, Paul suggested that we visit his centre in Cozumel. After some thought we agreed and asked around if anyone would be keen on joining us. Eleven months and a small group later, we found ourselves looking out of the window of an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737-800 over impenetrable bush while descending into Cancun Airport. Cancun has a bad name, perhaps given to it by the visiting all inclusive American sun tourists. But they do it a disservice. Cancun’s centre has a certain concrete charm to it, with friendly people and excellent restaurants. But this did not really feel like Mexico. We stayed in the excellent and cheap hotel Amontilado, which had some impeccably behaved Russian group guests and a few other nationalities. It was a far cry from the all inclusive beach monstrosities. Every bad side brings a good, and the infrastructure of the northern Yucatan is excellent. The next morning, we bussed down to Playa del Carmen with Adam and Maya (two friends) . There we painlessly boarded a rather modern looking catamaran and thundered off across the Caribbean sea to the island on the horizon.

We spent very little time in Cozumel town, but the town itself looked majestic. Low white buildings, small shop houses and polite people abounded. We climbed into a taxi and puttered off to our hotel in the south. Dressel Divers use the iberostar chain, and while all inclusive is not my thing, the iberostar was full of divers. It also had excellent food buffets with tons of vegetables and healthy options. The coffee was appalling and there was no hot water to make tea, but apart from that it was great.
Upon arrival I co-ordinated with Maddy, the dive manager. “I promise you none of us will misbehave, none of my team will pull off some form of stunt dive, but please do not give us a divenazi- as a guide.”

Maddy was rather taken aback by my direct nature, but she got to grips with our madness and assigned us Omar, a Christian Mexican of Lebanese descent. Omar was quite simply brilliant. He knew what to say, how much to say, and how to treat us. We in turn behaved impeccably and gave him no trouble. The only bad boy was me, when I lagged slightly behind and below the group, but Omar was patient and I finned like hell to catch up. (having a camera is no fun sometimes). Omar had a girlfriend called Anna, who was a very different dive guide. She was blessed with mixed groups of Americans and handled them so well. She was charming and delightful, but I was rather glad that I was allowed to slack off by Omar, I was sure she’d have made me and Cisca keep up!

In addition to all this, Paul was happy for me to run a NAUI nitrox course for three of the team and a NAUI advanced course for two of our former peace corps volunteers. I have always loved training, especially advanced training, and it was a privilege to be able to teach Nikki, Kyle and Adam. What was interesting was the difference in buoyancy control between a NAUI trained diver (by my former staff) and a PADI open water diver. I will not lie, the NAUI diver was superb, and the PADI diver, with very similar experience (he was her husband) was not quite as perfect. Lets leave it at that!

The diving in Cozumel was like no other. It did not have many steep walls in the conventional sense of the word, but it had a series of pinnacles with massive fans, and swim throughs. The diving was very similar to Mtwara in southern Tanzania, with the tops of the reef being at 50-70ft and the pinnacles going down to 40 metres before a very steep sloping bottom descended into the blue. We were all diving on 30-33% nitrox, and so even with my computer set to a partial pressure of 1.4 the thing started bleeping at 118ft. I am far more bothered by nitrogen absorption than by oxygen toxicity, and many of my dives were deep, I kept glancing at my analogue depth gauge and momentum torpedo watch. The bezel was especially useful for the half stops, and long safety stops that I did. Without going into detail, I have studied decompression theory and various tables. I am a firm believer that the half stop and two safety stops at 27ft and 18ft are the best insurance policy, But that is a subject matter for another blog.

The words above barely touch on the stunning beauty of Cozumel. There were some underwater grass fields, but these had a plethora of nurse sharks, giant fans and coral heads and below 90ft, some very steep walls. The diving was unbelievably good and great value.

Every evening at sunset, most of the American guests would go inside to shower and prepare for dinner. We the ex-Africa mob would shower the salt off well before and make our way to the wooden jetty. There we would gather on the end of the jetty watching the sun disappear and then shed rays on the massive cumuli nimbus clouds. All too soon the week was over. It was time to check out of the hotel and take the ferry back to the mainland, Nikki and Kyle flew back to Boise Idaho, while the rest of us went pyramid bashing.
Three days after that we had to split up again. Francisca and I flew to Chiapas, Uwe and Laura flew to Portugal Singapore respectively while Adam and Maya took their time to take in more pyramids.

Days later I found myself sitting on a pavement at 7000ft, watching the world go by, snapping the occasional black and white photo with my Nikon FM2. The world of Cozumel and the Mesoamerican reef seemed so far away. But perhaps a return might be in order?

It goes without saying that we organise dive tours to Xcalak and Cozumel

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