Diving & Snorkeling: Cozumel

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THE JUNKYARD
(FORMERLY AIRPLANE FLATS)

Location: In front of the El Cid La Ceiba Beach Hotel
Depth range: 10-40ft (12-14m)
Access: Shore

The Junkyard (formerly Airplane Flats)stretches from the front of La Ceiba inthe south to just north of the next hotel(its name has changed several times inrecent years, but most locals still call itthe Sol Caribe, while others call it theCrown Paradise). Most of the terrain atThe Junkyard is rather flat, but there’s alot to see. Snorkelers will find this an excellent spot to see fish and gorgonians(sea fans).

On the sandy bottom directly outfrom La Ceiba in about 40ft (12m) ofwater, there is some wreckage left froman old twin-engine airplane placed hereas a prop for the movie Survive by filmdirector Ramon Bravo in 1977. It’s beenbroken up badly by storms, which havemoved it around. Be careful not to getsnagged, and look out for sharp metaledges. Many fish have made it theirhome over the years, and octopuses arenot uncommon.

Exposed metal surfaces remain fairlyclean due to the scraping bites of parrotfish, whose toothmarks can be seenon the metal along with the graffiti ofthoughtless divers. Also, look for purple patches of sergeant major eggs onthe pieces of the plane. The eggs will beguarded by expectant — and aggressive — parents that will nip divers who gettoo close.

Unfortunately, the area is also litteredwith old tires, barrels, pipes, cables andother large pieces of junk. If it ever getscleaned up, we’ll change its name in thisbook back to ‘Airplane Flats.’ Snorkelerscan rent gear from the full-service divestores at most of the hotels along thewaterfront.

Due to easy access and lights at thehotels and docks, this is a near-perfectsite for night diving. If there’s any current running, you might consider jumping in at the up-current end of the site(usually, but not always, La Ceiba) andexiting at the down-current site (usuallythe Sol Caribe) to save yourself someswimming.

Near shore are some elkhorn coralheads, though the best formations havebeen battered by major hurricanes in1988 and 2005. Long-spined sea urchins are common around these coral heads — be careful not to touch or stepon them. Beds of gorgonians begin ata depth of around 10ft (3m) and continue seaward on a shallow shelf, whichis ideal for snorkelers. At night, basketstars are frequently seen spread outon top of gorgonians, feeding in thedark. There are also big open areas onthe shelf with a few small coral heads.These areas are excellent places to lookfor large rainbow parrotfishes, especially when the sun is low in the late afternoon. You’ll see them feeding on thebottom, picking at plants and chunksof coral. The shallows are patrolled byterritorial damselfish that, despite theirdiminutive size, are inclined to nip at offending divers.

The shelf breaks at the edge of a sand flat about 30ft to 40ft (9m to 13m) deep,where a low-profile coral reef replaces the gorgonian beds a few hundred feet from shore. The most characteristic species are leaf or ribbon corals.

This reef is an ideal warm-up dive.There is enough open space over thesand to practice buoyancy control, andenough fish action to keep the dive interesting. The coral is not in very goodshape due to heavy traffic and stormdamage, but you’ll find plenty of thingsto see. The fish are accustomed to handouts, so don’t be surprised if you’remobbed by Bermuda chub or sergeantmajors. Due to the large amount of trashon the bottom, keep your eyes open andbeware of sharp or entangling objects.


PARAÍSO REEF SOUTH
Location: South of the International Pier Complex
Depth range: 35-45ft (11-14m)
Access: Boat

Paraíso (Paradise) Reef South consists oftwo long ridges of coral running end-to-end parallel to shore and surroundedby sand, at depths of about 35ft to 45ft(11m to 14m). It lies to the south of theInternational Pier complex and is sometimes visited by charter boats and diveoperators after a deeper wall dive, or asa third dive of the day. It is also a favoriteamong dive operators for night dives,since it is a short boat ride from mosthotels and is fairly shallow. It may also bereached easily from the shore, but boattraffic makes that inadvisable. While it’s abit deep for most skin divers, the near-shore ridge is a good reef to snorkelover and watch scuba divers. Look outfor boat traffic!

Paraíso Reef South is home to manytame fish that have been fed by diveguides. If you’re hoping to see large,bizarre filefish, or French and gray angels within arms’ reach, you probablywon’t be disappointed. The coral formations are medium-sized and this entire reef is relatively low in profile. Thesmall crevices at the bases of the coralheads shelter many squirrelfish duringthe daytime, and serve as ‘toeholds’ forthe six-foot-long (2m) sea cucumbersthat stretch out on the sand at night tofeed. The reef is ideal for photographers,since depth control on the fairly levelbottom is far simpler than on any of thewalls. If you’re planning to make a walldive while in Cozumel, you’ll find whenthe current is running, Paraíso South isa good place to get some experience indrift diving techniques over level bottom before you hit the drop-offs.

If the current is running to the north,drift along the coral ridge with it. The firstridge is several hundred yards long andends abruptly in sand at its northernmost point. If your air and bottom timepermit, continue swimming toward thenorth, but angle to your left (westwardor seaward) about 30 degrees from theline of the reef when you leave the firstridge. You will come to the southern tipof the second ridge within a minute ortwo. The second section runs parallel tothe shore, but slightly seaward of thefirst, and is about the same in length.The second section also ends in sandat its northern tip. There is a small thirdsection farther north and more seawardstill, but it is near the International Piercomplex and should be avoided (seeAvoid the International Pier Complex!box). If the current is running to thesouth, ask to be dropped on the northern tip of the second ridge, and do thedive just described in reverse.


Published: 15 Jan 2007 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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