Updated: Dec 6, 2019
Pretty beaches, quaint Mexican villages and ancient Mayan ruins, make the island of Cozumel one of the most-loved tourist destinations on Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. Despite being only 30 miles (48 kilometers) long and 10 miles (16 kilometers) wide, this tropical paradise is actually the nation’s biggest Caribbean island. Crystal-clear waters surround Cozumel, beneath which lies a spectacular reef system that presents some of the best snorkeling and scuba diving in Mexico.
Maya groups settled on Cozumel some 2,000 years ago and developed important sea trade routes throughout Central America. Pilgrims also came from across the Mayan world to worship a shrine dedicated to Ixchel, the goddess of fertility. From 1518, Spanish explorers battled with the Mayas for control of the island; however, it was all but abandoned by the turn of the century. Fast forward to 1961 and French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau landed on an island home to flourishing fishing communities. Cousteau declared the waters as some of the most enchanting on the planet and by doing so gave birth to diving in Cozumel.
Scuba Diving in Cozumel
Affordability and convenience coupled with healthy coral reefs and a plethora of colorful marine life make Cozumel an accessible and sought-after diving destination. It’s suitable for all levels, from absolute beginners to PADI certified and technical divers. Depending on your experience and personal preference, diving here is possible from speedboats and the shoreline. Advanced divers in particular relish in the deep walls, high-voltage drifts and swim-throughs.
Cozumel’s waters are protected by the Cozumel Reefs National Marine Park. This forms part of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, a 600-mile (966-kilometer) long ecosystem that stretches from Mexico’s Islay Contoy to Honduras. It shelters 26 coral species and upward of 500 species of aquatic animals. On a standard day, you’ll spot nurse sharks, huge lobstars, moray eels, and sea turtles. Lucky divers may catch glimpses of black-tip reef sharks and eagle rays, too. Reefs to the south of the island are characterized by enormous coral formations with sheer drop-offs and a labyrinth of swim-throughs. The reefs get shallower the more you travel north and the numbers of fish species become more abundant.
A great beauty of scuba diving in Cozumel is the incredible visibility, which can reach up to 100 feet (30 meters) on almost any given day. The water temperature remains mild year-round and rarely falls below 75 degrees Fahrenheit (24 degrees Celsius). December to April offers optimal diving conditions, with November through March being the prime bull shark-spotting season. Consider a trip from May to September for warmer water temperatures and uncrowded dive sites.
Not only is Cozumel among the world’s greatest diving locations, but it’s also a nirvana for underwater photography. The sheer numbers of fish, magnificence of the reefs, remarkable visibility and ease of reaching the individual sites are all the factors needed for a memorable photography expedition. As drift diving and strong currents are normal here, it’s useful to have previous diving experience or at least practice buoyancy control beforehand. Photo opportunities come and go in and flash, therefore the ability to pause momentarily behind coral heads, sea sponges and whips will come in handy for those magazine-worthy shots.
With coral heads the size of apartment buildings and hundreds of multicolored sponges, the southern reefs are ideal for wide-angle photography. Wide-angle lenses are great for shooting barracuda, green moray eels, hawksbill turtles, nurse sharks, and parrotfish as well. Further north, the shallower reefs are more suitable for taking photos of small creatures with a macro lens. Think butterflyfish, crabs, pipehorses, seahorses, and shrimp. Shore dives are fantastic for macro photography of the marine life that clings to the sandy bottoms.
Maximize your underwater photography in Cozumel and truly capture the diversity by bringing at least three lenses: a fisheye wide-angle lens for deep wall dives; a portrait lens for reef fish portraiture; and a longer focal length lens for shore dives and macro photos. And try to think about camera settings in advance because before you know it the opportunity might have drifted out of range.
Best Dives Sites in Cozumel
Barracuda Reef is a lesser-visited dive site that lures only the most experienced divers. Extremely fast currents create the possibility of getting lost, so a knowledgable guide is necessary. The rewards are diving beneath a rocky ledge to discover black-tip reef sharks, hammerheads and large schools of barracuda.
Colombia Wall is one of the best dive sites in Cozumel for viewing giant sea pillars, which can rise to heights of over 50 feet (15 meters). This is a remote site with a breathtaking system of caves, caverns, and tunnels. Expect to see barracudas, blue tang (aka surgeonfish), eagle rays and nurse sharks.
El Paso del Cedral receives plaudits for the chance to observe giant green moray eels and the nocturnal porkfish. It’s also rife with nurse sharks, parrotfish and turtles, which feed on sponges that decorate a mile-long sloping hill of the reef. The timid slender filefish is also visible amid rope sponges.
Palancar Reef stretches for some 3.5 miles (5.6 kilometers) and has depths ranging from 50 to 115 feet (15 to 35 meters). The reef is broken up into several individual sections that offer an adventure for all diving abilities.
Palancar Gardens is good for novices as it has large numbers of fish and optional swim-throughs.
Palancar Horseshoes gets its name from a magical amphitheater-shaped wall peppered with beautiful tunnels. Hawksbill turtles are frequent throughout the entire Palancar Reef.
Santa Rosa Wall is a high-voltage drift dive and suitable for intermediate and advanced divers. The strong current takes divers deep into a dazzling blue abyss and passed gigantic sponges, ledges, overhangs and tunnels. Common sights are eagle rays, grouper and pelagic fish.
Punta Sur is a true otherworldly diving experience for advanced divers looking to explore deep caverns and fissures. Sand chutes travel down to about 90 feet (27 meters) to reveal coral tunnels teeming with colorful fish. Part of this reef is Devil’s Throat, notable for its narrow tunnels, gorgonian fans and sea whips.
Tunich Reef astounds with its dramatic barrel reefs, rope sponges and fascinating feather hydroids. Thousands of damselfish, grunts and snapper glide around the coral and sponge hills of this intermediate dive. Shiny copper-colored glassy sweepers inhabit the tiny caves of pretty overhangs.
How to Get to Cozumel
Cozumel International Airport receives direct flights from major U.S. cities such as Atlanta, Dallas, Denver and Houston. Direct services also operate from Montreal and Toronto. An alternative option is to fly to Cancun and then catch a ferry to the island. The ferry service departs regularly throughout the year from Playa del Carmen, situated an hour’s drive south of Cancun.