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May 2017    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 43, No. 5   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Aldora Divers, Cozumel, Mexico

concierge diving . . . and the other Cozumel

from the May, 2017 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

San Francisco Wall is not one of Cozumel's big-formation sites, but it's always on my list of second-dives because it never disappoints. On my February trip, the Wall had a perfect mild current, so with my light, I checked out the underparts of every ledge. Right off, I spotted the heftiest fish of the week: an outsized cubera snapper, then near the top of the ledge, a turtle ignored me as it munched algae.

But San Francisco mainly rewards me with critters. My Aldora divemaster, Mauricio Gaona, pointed to a bright blue lettuce slug, while I watched a free-swimming yellow stingray. He later spotted a shortfin pipefish, which I eyeballed with my magnifying glass, a good device to study critters. I stayed clear of reef-touches, but made an exception for a gently wiggling finger in a giant anemone, where a clinging crab scurried into hiding.

One of Aldora's six dive boatsSan Francisco had an abundance of greenish overgrowing mat tunicate (a.k.a. strangler tunicate), a sign of sickness on the reef. On all my dives, I try to track the percentage of live coral cover, which, since I started diving 30 years ago, has precipitously declined, due to human activity, which includes everything from sewage dumping to climate change. But Cozumel's reefs seem to be faring better than most of the Caribbean's, despite the burgeoning island development and the half-dozen cruise ships that arrive daily.

I played with the razorfish that routinely dived under the sand and then scooted out, and then drifted past an aggregation of grunts: blue stripe, Caesar, cottonwicks, white grunts, and others, diversity as great as the streets of New York. While studying a cute three-rowed cuke adorned with chocolate-chips, my partner yelled at me (she talks pretty well at depth) to check out a hydroid zoanthid. I was unimpressed, but she's mighty good at finding unusual inverts, including some not listed in Paul Humann's book. (Aldora Diving does not stock them on their boats, so I lugged both Caribbean Reef Fish and Creatures for the daily 90-minute interval at an eatery on the beach.)

San Francisco had been a good second-dive show, and at 70 minutes I had both air and bottom time to spare, but I was thinking about heading up when an eagle ray swooped over me and slammed into the sand. I couldn't see if it scored lunch, but two big permits shadowing it jostled over scraps. The ray circled and headed back, so all seven us -- the divemaster and our six-pack of divers -- settled into the sand bottom at 35 feet to watch the ray, oblivious to us, make a half-dozen strikes, in fact almost brushing us. Her entourage of shadow-fish included a queen trigger, whose colorful make-up had darkened to almost black, a pretty puddingwife, a remora that bobbed on and off the ray, and the two permit. On a final dive, the ray emerged from a sand cloud with a big shell, perhaps a conch, and headed off. It was a fantastic conclusion to my 87-minute dive.

Dives like that keep me coming back to Cozumel, which I do every few years (I've dived some 20 Caribbean areas from the Bahamas to Tobago). Besides the A-list Caribbean diving, Cozumel, Mexico's diving capital, has a list of benefits: it's easy to get to, it's inexpensive, and the on-shore possibilities are more interesting than dedicated dive resorts, even good ones like Itza Lodge in Belize, Maria la Gorda in Cuba, or CoCoView on Roatán, each of which I've dived.

This trip, I had arrived at the Cozumel airport in the afternoon and hopped in an inexpensive collective taxi-van for the short ride to my hotel. Later, I dropped off my gear at the shop and didn't touch it again until I headed home. Aldora gives concierge service: you pay a bit more, but considering the cost of a vacation and one's precious vacation time, the extra is negligible. You get a good boat, reliable crew, amenities like warm parkas on the boat, and -- importantly -- 120 cf tanks, a plus when I'm doing only two dives a day on Cozumel's deep walls. In the past, I have also used (and reviewed) Living Underwater, a similar but smaller operation, and if you haven't been to Cozumel, you may find this April 2012 review, still accurate, quite useful.

Aldora owner Dave Dillehay and his manager, Memo Mendoza, have an efficient operation with a helpful and competent staff. The fast and well-equipped boats always arrived on time with full tanks (3200-3400 psi). They pick up at their dock in town, and then at any resort dock where divers are staying along the 30-minute ride to most sites. If you select a 120 cf steel tank, your lead requirements diminish; I used six pounds of lead, seven pounds less than with an aluminum 80. With back-roll entries and staff help in taking off the gear in the water after the dive, the heavy tank was no problem.

Map of Cozumel, MexicoDM Mauricio was not the best creature scout (I have high standards -- I want new entries on my life list, but perhaps that's too much to ask of a place I've frequented), but very competent, and he adapted to my group's slow diving style. He was no babysitter, but divers were to be within sight and behind him, and if one wished to surface before the group, he would put up a surface buoy and both the diver and his buddy would ascend. Because Aldora runs several boats, they can separate groups appropriately: I had three inexperienced friends traveling with me, who were placed on a separate boat and had a great time, while we more experienced divers could visit deep sites and not cut bottom time. My only beef was their report that their divemaster over-handled the animals. Pouring sand into giant hermit crabs to make them exit their shell isn't my idea of role-modeling for new divers, and I passed that on to Memo.

My fourth day, I requested a favorite site, Punta Sur -- Sur (Punta Sur South). I back-rolled into the 79-degree water, dropped to 75 feet and had to kick over deep sand; it's rare in Cozumel to have the captain miss the drop point. At the reef, seven eagle rays hovered above, bobbing in the current.(I had seen so many eagle rays on my various dives that I dropped my request to head north one day to Eagle Ray Wall to watch the migrating rays.) The current varied from Cozumel-brisk to nonexistent as I snaked around pinnacles and through tunnels. In one alcove I found a huge school of copper sweepers, in another, big hogfish glimmered when I shone my small light on them. As we exited a long tunnel into the blue at 100 feet, my computer went into deco, an indication to begin rising. While I used nitrox, I had set my computer to air, but my partner was on air, so I signaled to Mauricio, who was already easing upward. (Nitrox cert comes in handy for Cozumel diving, especially with big tanks.) Several black groupers patrolled the reef edges. At the safety stop after 52 minutes, a huge school of bar jacks zipped past, while an eight-foot nurse shark cruised below. My favorite dive of the trip. While winter weather can be a factor in Cozumel, especially if a north wind blows, I had sun for most of my dive time in the first week of February.

Owner's Split-Personality Disorder?

Villa AldoraThere's more to Cozumel than diving: in fact, a little bit of nontouristy Mexico that few divers seem to notice. While sitting with friends in a nice, open-air restaurant, enjoying lionfish ceviche and Negra Modelo beer, we discussed a disease we see among many of our fellow divers: split-personality disorder. The question we puzzled: why are many divers so adventuresome underwater and yet so timid on land?

For example, I never see other divers -- at least not American divers -- at Bahia del Caribe, which is called "the fisherman's cooperative restaurant" by Cozumeleños. Most seem to be at Señor Frog's -- just like a "Mexican" place back home in Detroit -- paying twice as much and missing out on the real Cozumel.

So, why is it that the same people who eagerly head down the dark tunnel called Devil's Throat to 130 feet, or hang tenuously on Eagle Ray Wall in a ripping current, take their drinks in a Taco-Bell-with-beer?

If you want to get off the malecón (the waterfront Avenida Rafael Melgar) and dodge the overpriced jewelry shops and chain restaurants, I've got a tip. Try the Other Cozumel: that's the Cozumel that's just a couple blocks away.

First, get a hotel room in town, near the zócalo (central plaza). One good choice is Hotel Mary Carmen; for $35 + tax, you will get a clean room with A/C and a continental breakfast in their interior courtyard. (Avoid the nearby Agave Azul, formerly named Suites Elizabeth. My friend's room was OK, but the loud disco next door was not.)

This trip, my partner and I went "upscale" to Casa Mexicana, across the malecón from the Aldora dock. I paid $77 + tax via Expedia for a nice room, with an excellent breakfast included.

Aldora Divers, Cozumel,
Mexico - RatingFor an altogether different version of the Other Cozumel, if you are diving with Aldora, have a homey experience in a quiet condo neighborhood at Villa Aldora. For Aldora divers and their families only, they offer nice rooms with kitchenettes, right on the water, where one can snorkel. The town center, a half mile away is easily reachable on one of the free guest bicycles. And, on arrival day, they'll even drive guests to the market to shop for food. Prices range from $95 to $295, and you'll hang out with other Aldora divers.

For meals, ditch the cookie-cutter bars and eateries. Take an afternoon walk and try one of many interesting "loncherias" along Avenida 5 (one block in from Melgar) or stop at a stall near the town market (el mercado), a good option. For happy hour and dinner, try just about any interesting local restaurant in town. My friends and I walked to the busy Chilango's Taqueria (about half a mile from Rafael), where for $1.50 I got a delicious "huarache" (a Mexico-City-style stuffed tortilla) too big to finish. The bill for seven people, with beers: $25.

Another evening I enjoyed the more upscale and quiet Sal de Mar, where I had the huachinango (snapper), and they served whole fried lionfish with their fins outstretched, a lovely presentation. Other tables were occupied by American ex-pats, Cozumeleños, and a few divers who passed on Señor Frog's. And put the Fisherman's Coop on your list for lionfish any way you want it.

You might check out, a site written by ex-pats living in Cozumel, with some good recommendations. (By the way, why is it that Americans living in Mexico go by the comfy term "expats," while Mexicans living in the U.S. are called immigrants or even aliens?)

If you take a day off from the reefs, rent a bike -- or take an Aldora freebie -- and ride straight east across the island to the windward-side beach. Perhaps stop along the way at San Gervasio, the small Maya site on the island, for a lovely, uncrowded walk.

Aqueria Chilangos, where $1.50 fills you up!I took a taxi a couple of miles north to the golf course and went birding, my pocket binoculars in hand. I'm not a real birder, but I spotted about 15 species in the scrub forest and on the pond, including the endemic Cozumel emerald hummingbird. Another trip, I rented a moto and headed to Parque Ecológico Punta Sur to see lots of birds as well as crocs sunning themselves.

And for smart money management, change U.S. dollars to pesos. Pretty much every restaurant and business on the island will accept U.S. dollars and credit cards, but will charge a very inflated exchange rate. I carry a wad of greens to Cozumel, then head for either the Elektra appliance store (on Calle 11) or the Santander bank branch next to the church just off the zócalo to get the best rate for pesos. You'll get the worst rate at the airport.

I could conclude by saying "take a walk on the wild side," but there is nothing wild about Cozumel any longer. It's safe, fun and gringo-friendly. High-school Spanish is helpful, but you even will do fine if you all you know is "gracias" and pronounce it grassy-ass.

So, say adios to the cruise-boaters and visit a fun slice of Mexico. After all, even using Aldora's big tanks, you'll still be underwater for only 10% of the 24 hours in a day.


Our undercover diver's bio: The author has made annual Caribbean trips for 30 years, with Cozumel being his first and best love. He's the guy with a magnifier and light dangling from his wrist and expecting his partner to find the critters. He has written several reviews for Undercurrent.

Divers CompassDivers Compass: Cozumel is easy and relatively cheap to get to. From the Midwest, I arrived at 3:30 p.m. and was at my hotel at 4:30. It is on Eastern Standard Time ... Aldora Diving charges $95+tax = $111 for two tanks and suggests a 10 percent daily crew tip (I tipped a bit more) ... got a discount for using cash instead of a credit card ... Nitrox (EAN32 for the first dive, EAN36 for the 2nd) is $10 per dive ... their staff was extremely helpful by phone and via email to get everything set up in advance ... I could call locally and to the U.S. for free, thanks to AT&T's new policy of free calling and data usage in Mexico. , ,

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