COZUMEL CLAS­SICS

Scuba Diving - - Getaways - BY MARY FRANCES EM­MONS

Coz is Coz for things down there, not up here,” Scuba Du’s Aldo Me­jia says as we re­lax along a pretty stretch of Cozumel’s male­con, a seafront prom­e­nade that par­al­lels busy, bustling Av­enue Rafael E. Mel­gar, where mar­gar­i­tas and cervezas flow with the tides. He points to­ward the 12-mile chan­nel be­tween Coz and Mex­ico’s Yu­catan penin­sula, home to some of the best div­ing on the planet. “The vis­i­bil­ity is amaz­ing.”

Grounded for a day by wind and rain, I’m dy­ing to find out. We fi­nally head over Coz’s fa­mous wall with guides from Scuba Club Cozumel at Palan­car Gar­dens, part of the 3-mile Palan­car reef sys­tem, a fa­vorite of lo­cal di­ve­mas­ters. “Gar­den” isn’t ex­actly the right word for these mon­u­men­tal, maze­like struc­tures with tun­nels, swim-throughs and wide, sandy pas­sages that make it easy to ex­plore high and low.

We spi­ral down from 25 feet to about 80 on a gen­tle magic-car­pet ride — Coz cur­rents, com­monly around 2 knots, can reach a rip­ping 6 knots — glid­ing through for­ma­tions stuffed with gi­gan­tic sponges, ele­phant ears glow­ing a neon orange, and so many rope sponges that it gives new mean­ing to the word “fes­tooned,” strung like crepe pa­per at a high school dance. Sen­sory over­load sets in in room-size domes un­der every over­hang, plas­tered with more sponges ev­ery­where you look.

Be­gin­ning our me­an­der­ing as­cent, we spot every sort of reef fish at a mul­ti­tude of clean­ing sta­tions as we fol­low our di­ve­mas­ter in and out, here and there, over co­ral hills and sandy dales, where huge grouper pa­trol the path­ways, each new turn re­veal­ing some­thing beau­ti­ful or fun, or both.

Even­tu­ally the for­ma­tions drop away as we start a long, slow safety stop look­ing down on the world’s big­gest, friski­est free-rang­ing lob­sters skit­ter­ing about, so large they’re al­most grotesque. Hi­lar­i­ously homely splen­did toad­fish — en­demic to Coz — also be­gin to show them­selves in large num­bers.

Our sec­ond dive, at nearby Tor­men­tos Reef (at right), is en­tirely dif­fer­ent in char­ac­ter — who knew Cozumel had muck div­ing? Along a sandy bot­tom at about 55 feet, we find drag­onets, snap­ping shrimp, pipe sea­horses, sail­fin blennies in courtship dis­play, and more pouty-faced toad­fish than we can count, round­ing out a morn­ing that’s splen­did in­deed.

IT’S TOUGH TO CHOOSE BE­TWEEN STAY­ING WET AND EX­PLOR­ING THIS BELOVED IS­LAND PLAYGROUND

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