IDECEMEBR, 2005: COZUMEL AND AKUMAL AFTER THE HURRICANES
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COZUMEL

"Do not go diving in Mexico." "Cancel your plans." "You will get dysentery." "The reefs are all destroyed and there is nothing left to dive." Information floating in cyberspace. We heard it all before our trip in mid December, 2005, but went anyway. What follows is a report with photos so you can make your own decision.

I would be lying to you if I said I did not have some concerns prior to going to Mexico in mid-December so shortly after Wilma struck, but the pause was shortly replaced by one reality - I have gone to Akumal for a few years, rather often, and started diving Cozumel this spring. During this time I have enjoyed the diving, and just as importantly, had developed friendships with the people and a love for the area. So even if the diving was not going to be what I was used to, it would still be worthwhile.

During the time immediately preceeding our departure we heard that the boat for our dive operator in Cozumel had been overturned and was sunk underneath other boats. Which was true. We also heard that the dive shop in Akumal had been pretty much destroyed and condos flooded or covered with sand. Also true. But by the time we landed the dive operator had another boat ready to run in Cozumel, the dive shop was rebuilt and the residences repaired. This is not to say everything is perfect and rebuilt, far from it, but there is more than enough that has been repaired or replaced that it does not detract from traveling there. And in the 10 days we were there, we witnessed people working non-stop; things seemed to be repaired overnight. I did not even realize some of the changes until I looked at photos from the day before. We did not want for food, drink, shelter or diving.

Of course there are still places that have not been cleared out, and there are sections where items removed from homes lie waiting to be carted away, but when looking at the big picture, it is still remarkable what has been accomplished in such a short period of time. Cancun, from what we were told, still has a way to go to get back on its feet. And this leads to the biggest issue - travel. Due to the drop of tourism in Cancun (and the ports in Cozumel having to be rebuilt), airlines, tour operators and cruise ships have backed off of the area; a bit more so than they probably should because Cancun, a place for them to make money, is hurt. Our flights were constantly changed, but the situation is improving rapidly. From my understanding, by March these issues should be farily much resolved.

I guess if you read this far, you also want to know about the diving and whether the dire reports of the diving being gone are right. (FWIW, I have not done alot of diving in Cozumel, and just started to dive there again. I had logged 8 dives in April, 2005 and another 8 dives this trip. As to Akumal, I have logged over 40 dives in the last 3 years or so and which about 1/2 have been in the last year. )

The most striking thing about Cozumel this trip was how quiet the town was. If you have ever been there before, you know the center of town is always hustling and bustling. Restaurants calling to you to come in, and anytime you went into a shop, a salesperson greet you. This did not happen this trip and it was not what I was accustomed to at all.

Beneath the waves the situation was also different - not quite much as marine life as last time, and they seemed a tad shyer than before, but still a healthy amount. Angel Fish - Gray, French and Queen were on every dive, often in pairs as before and some still wanting to play in your bubbles. Filefish pretty much every dive. There were more turtles than in April, 2005, and more "younger" fish than before (partly due to the time of year, but also something we noticed in Akumal compared to prior trips the same time of year.)

During our dives we observed a few cleaning stations. During one dive we saw a school of 10 large Permits (with a Smooth Trunkfish tagging along for scraps). On various dives saw a Burr Fish, a Porcupine fish, four Splendid toadfish and an Octopus [during the day!] One remarkable thing we observed was lobster (which also held true in Akumal). They were everywhere on pretty much every dive. We often came across multiple lobsters "hangin out." One overhang we dubbed, rather obviously, "Lobster Hotel". We simply lost count how many lobsters were gathered there.

The deep dives were fabulous, the walls were in very good condition and there was very little evidence of broken coral or fans. The most obvious thing missing was in Devil's Throat; the "Cross" was gone though you could still see the outline. Another major change was the C-53; due to the Hurricane and a fracture in the hull we could not go in like we did in April.

French Angels - C53
December 11, 2005

Silversides - C53
December 11, 2005
Grouper - Santa Rosa
December 11, 2005
Queen Angel - Santa Rosa
December 11, 2005
Rock Beauty - Las Palmas
December 12, 2005
Octopus - Las Palmas
December 12, 2005
Lobsters - Santa Rosa
December 12, 2005
Burr Fish - Santa Rosa
December 12, 2005

We did one shallower dive, La Francesca, which we had not done before. What we heard about the shallower dives held true (at least based on this one dive and from what our dive master told us) - the shallower reefs were hit hard. The colors we expected from fans and coral were gone; covered with sand. (We had not been on this site before but were told that the formations were similar to what we had seen earlier in the Spring on other reefs.) But despite the change, it still was a remarkable dive and maybe one of my favorites. As we went down we came upon a Stingray buried in the sand. It was very nonchalant about our presence and we were able to approach closely without it leaving. The areas of sand permitted us to get close to the the patches of coral which remained without concern of damage to the sections. We watched a Yellow Lockjaw bounce up and down in its hole from a few feet away, while sand goby's darted around right in front of us. We saw anemones, various butterfly fish, areas of bright coral and sponges. Three different eels. The largest lobster I had ever seen, who I dubbed Mongo, and many other critters. Below are some stills from video shot on the dive, and includes an example of the barren area to give you a better idea of what I am writing about. But even then it did not take much to find life in the barren areas.

There was also obvious damage to some places on the shore, and the beach areas where we used grab food and drinks during our surface intervals were damaged so we could not use them, but they are being rapidly rebuilt. In fact it would seem by the beginning of March most of these things will be back up and running fully.

Some of the damage along the shore

If you had not gone diving on these sites before (or in Cozumel) you would be under the impression there was alot of approachable marine life, wonderful swim throughs, and ,even at shallower depths, sections of reef teaming with life, and in fact there was. As one diver told us when we arrived, "The diving is still great, not the same as before, but still great." And he was right.

AKUMAL

The town of Akumal also experienced damage, but was being rapidly rebuilt. The bulk of the businesses were all operating - places to stay, eat, drink and dive were there. Some trees were gone, some areas of the road seemed wider and covered with sand, there was some more beach front and some things waited to be removed from the road where they were placed after being removed from the insides of buildings. But again, I am sure they will be gone soon.

As mentioned I have a good handful of dives in Akumal, and was concerned because there were so many reports that the reefs had been totally bleached out. Some photos on the internet, which seem now to have been shot at bad angles, had me ready to see nothing but white. So when I saw minor bleaching spots, at worst, during the dives I was relieved. In fact going back through old photos from the same areas, it did not look like substantial bleaching occurred - most seemed to be where Parrotfish were eating. I knew what I had seen in the reports, so I tried to make sure to get some wider shots when diving to give you an idea of what was going on. The first shot below is pretty much the worst spotting I encountered during this trip to Akumal - and most of it seemed to be from Parrotfish - but as you move closer there still is alot there.

Probably one of the worst sections we had observed, and far from being totally bleached out.
And a shot of the same reef taken less than a minute later as we moved in.

Like Cozumel, there were some differences that we noticed; usually when we dive here we see turtles (which make sense since it is the place of the turtles) - our last trip in fact we saw at least 1/2 dozen turtles every dive, except for one where we saw a pair of Eagle Rays. The turtles were still there but not quite as abundant. Also again, lobsters were the word of the week. On one dive we counted 15 lobsters; not in one place but at different parts of the dive, including a couple wondering over the sand. Other fish were still there, Parrotfish, Angels, Butterfly, Tang, Squirrelfish, Barracuda, Eels, Trumpet fish, a Flounder (once, they are hard to see :) ) and more. In fact at one point I found myself in a school of Horse Eyed Jacks and Eagle Rays still came into the bay, just yards offshore. Below are some of the photos from these dives.

And some of the areas - The trees are already bouncing back and two days after the picture of this construction was taken, they were putting the final touches on it - something we saw happening over and over

HURRICANE AFTERMATH: Well

 

I guess the part now is to say what do I think? The way I see it there are a few ways to look at it.

First, from a new diver's perspective. If you are new to the sport, there is no doubt these places are spots you should be looking into. I know in Akumal we dove with about 4-6 brand new divers (in fact some had just completed a resort course) and the look on their faces more than conveyed how much they enjoyed the diving and being in Akumal. And of course I spoke with them, and the excitement and enthusiasm was evident - some of the things that we (as prior visitors) may have noticed had changed was not enough to diminish their experience.

Next, if you have enjoyed going to Cozumel or Akumal before - go back. Yes it is not quite the same in either place as it was, but it is far from "gone." One person we dove with in Cozumel had been going for awhile, for extended periods of time each trip, and still had a great time diving. If you have developed any attachment to the diving or the people it is well worthwhile to go. It will be a chance to see first hand what goes on when mother nature strikes and to see how the reefs were affected and how they recover or change over time. In fact I plan to dive there more just for that reason alone. (Of course if that is not something of interest to you as a diver, there is still good diving.) The people down in the area on numerous occasions expressed their thanks to anyone who made the effort to visit and dive. They have always been gracious, and even more so now.

The last group of divers may be the hardest to address - those who have logged many dives but have not been to these areas before. There is a good chance you will still enjoy the diving. I have one friend who has been to places all over the world - Red Sea, Truk, Fiji and so on, and the first time we bought him to Akumal we did not know what his reaction would be, but he came back. Other divers (and you can only address this yourself) find anything less than the Pacific or the Red Sea and the things you see there as not being worthwhile. In that case, neither Akumal or Cozumel, even before Wilma, will be what you are used to or desire. One person I know did their open water certification in the Red Sea, and with the exception of one dive site in Grand Cayman, everything always comes up a bit short for them. ( I personally can say having just dove in Hawaii a few months prior to this trip, I did not find myself saying I wish I was in Hawaii instead of Akumal or Cozumel. But to be fair I have only found one place where I did not like the diving.)

My impression is that most of us who dive are happy just being beneath the waves. A clean bed, warm shower, decent food and drink and seeing a couple of cool or interesting things each dive makes for a good trip. Despite Wilma and the changes, all of these criteria were met and I have already made plans to find some Eagle Rays in Cozumel in February.