According to several news reports, 2005’s hurricane Wilma was the worst storm on record in the Atlantic Ocean. Local Cozumel residents told me that the eye passed directly over the island and sat there for hours. We traveled to the island in mid-June, 2006, expecting much of the same damage and sparse vegetation that we saw on our first trip to Cozumel in1989, which was on the heels of hurricane Gilbert. In contrast to those more expert opinions, I’m tempted to say that Gilbert was more destructive, not only to the beachfront hotels, but to the reef. Of course, it could be that since the dive industry has accelerated tremendously since 1989, the financial motivation for restoring the hotel properties has also been stepped up. Almost all of the larger hotels and resorts have already re-opened and first time visitors might not even notice that anything is amiss.
We arrived expecting palm-less trees trunks dotting the beach, haggard island vegetation, on-going hotel reparations like we had seen in 1989, and a somewhat lessened quality of dive. What a pleasant surprise to find only slightly noticeable remaining damage. I should, of course, acknowledge that I did not travel into town (San Miguel), other than during the taxi ride to and from the airport, and cannot fully report the status of the recovery there. After 16 trips to Cozumel, I rarely leave the all-inclusive resorts, anymore. From the poolside chatter about wild, gotta-go-there nights at Carlos & Charlie’s and other in-town entertainment venues, I gathered that a sufficient number of these establishments are back to business as usual, so that visitors who depend upon them for the quality of their trip will not be deterred. And while I did see a few crumpled businesses in town two hotel staff members told me that their homes further away from the beach in San Miguel had suffered only minimal or no damage.
Perhaps, due to similar expectations by other divers, both our resort, the Iberostar (which re-opened for post-hurricane business back in February ’06), and the reefs were less crowded with visitors than almost all of our last four or five trips to the island. Not that I have any more right to dive than anyone else, but I have to admit, I’m sort of glad that we ventured back before many of you. I enjoyed the less-crowded dive sites.
The reef system on the deeper dives like Palancar Caverns seemed largely unaffected by Wilma and the active 2005 hurricane season. The towering coral formations were just as majestic as ever, but since my strobe flooded in 1990, and the caverns are a ninety-foot dive, I can’t really prove that on film. I never replaced the strobe, because I already had sixty jillion bluish dive photos from ninety feet from 1989.
At first, I thought perhaps that the two hurricanes that hit Cozumel in 2005 had roughed up the coral much worse at the shallower depths. At the south end of Columbia Shallows, there was a lot of dead, busted coral, despite a surprising abundance of fish. By the end of the dive, however, we had drifted into some extremely beautiful and large, vibrant outcrops of coral, hosting the same diverse quality and quantity of aquatic life that I have come to expect from our multiple trips to Cozumel. Frankly, I don’t ever remember seeing as many lobster and sea turtles during our dives, as I did this trip. I also saw two octopuses on dives this year – one small, one large, almost matching the total number I have ever seen on daytime dives in Mexico. Divers will still encounter the omnipresent thousands of multicolored wrasses, hordes of yellow-striped grunts and sergeant majors, and the plentiful, trademark parrotfish and eels. As always there are the occasional barracuda, permit and nurse shark, and almost ever dive offers a glimpse or two of a reddish squirrelfish, porcupine puffer, triggerfish, honeycomb cowfish and several of Cozumel’s utterly stunning Queen Angels. About the only thing we didn’t see much of were the huge groupers that used to be so common along the Palancar reef system. The disappearance of this latter species is almost entirely attributable to overfishing in the past decade, not the weather disturbances.
This trip, we dove with two different dive operators that we have never used before Dive-with-Martin (bad experience) and Dressel Divers (good experience).
In the case of Dive-with-Martin, my impression would probably have been so-so, had not they failed to pick us up on the second day. DWM’s owner would no doubt dispute this; he claimed we were a no-show, but I gathered sufficient witnesses to win a partial refund from the local travel agency (Lomas) that booked the dives. There are plenty of rave reviews for Martin at various travel forums, but if you look a bit more, you’ll also see that I’m not the first time DWM has failed to pick up a diver. You might pay attention to the reviews that talk about the state of the boats and equipment as well.
In the case of the other dive operator, Dressel Divers, conveniently located on the Iberostar beach, they actually offered us each a free dive, after witnessing what happened. (We did pay for the $2 national park fee and equipment rental of $15 each). Now, that’s the way to gain repeat business. (I promise you they were unaware that I periodically write articles for magazines and e-zines).
At the Iberostar, Dressel conducts an on-site resort SCUBA course at the pool, much like most large resorts. In Dressel’s case, however, they even have an indoor classroom located over their dive shop. Although I have always though rather poorly of learning to dive via a resort course, I have revised my opinion in the case of Dressel Divers. While poolside for seven days at the Iberostar, my wife and I were able to eavesdrop on the instruction being provided to dive students. We were very impressed with the thoroughness and diligence being applied by Dressel Divers staff.
Dressel’s pre-dive briefing was excellent, as was their on-board check of equipment, and underwater siting/pointing out of aquatic life. Dressel Divers is a first-class, professional SCUBA operation, which I can now recommend. I am amazed and very impressed by their entirely non-requisite intervention to minimize the effects of the other dive operator’s actions.
A third dive shop option for Iberostar guests is Dive Palancar, which operates from the nearby Allegro resort, just about a mile down the beach to the north. I’ve used them several years in the past, and except for the logistics of pickupdrop-off (once they forgot us and asked us if we could reschedule, once they asked us to walk down the beach to their dock), they are a good alternative. There are of course a plethora of dive shops closer to town.
The condition of the Ibersotar resort was excellent. Everything was clean and in good operating condition, and the meal buffets were perhaps the best they have been in our many trips to several of the resorts on the island. Kudos to Iberostar’s Chef Maria and the other restaurant cooks and staff. The lobby and main restaurant area have been totally rebuilt following the two 2005 hurricanes and a kitchen fire that damaged the hotel’s main restaurant last year. Everything looked typically exotic, bright and beautiful.
A few travel forums mention a problem with tourists cutting their feet on loose tiles in the Iberostar pool. Although I stepped on a couple such broken pieces during the week, I’m hard-pressed to figure out what I would have had to do to cut myself on one. I didn’t see it as much of a problem, but perhaps I could have tried harder.
As best I can tell, Cozumel is back in business. See you there next year!