Eagle Rays and Turtles in Cozumel

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Cozumel is a tropical island off the east coast of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. It has long been known in the divers world for its excellent reefs and pleasant atmosphere. During Mayan times, Cozumel was a sacred island covered with temples and shrines to the goddess Ixchel. Today it’s known as an underwater paradise. Jacques Cousteau raved about the spectacular coral reefs that ring the island in his 1961 documentary and divers have been frequenting Cozumel ever since.

Most of Cozumel diving is done on the South West side of the island. The North West side has good diving as well but strong currents and is only suitable for experienced divers.

We had heard about schools of Eagle Rays that so famously frequent the Cozumel reefs in late January and early February and were curious to find out more. We arrived on the 17th of February, a little late in the season, but hoped to still be able to catch the tail end of the migration. According to the locals you see Eagle Rays by themselves all year round. Would we be lucky enough to see the large schools?

We had also read about abundance of turtles in the water. Nature lovers come to Cozumel to see Giant Sea Turtles laying their eggs from May to September. Cozumel has an active marine conservation community. A group of people have set up a large-scale turtle conservation program on the island. A few years ago the turtles had almost all been fished out. Each year, volunteers collect the turtle eggs on the beaches and bring them to a special protected area. You can see the result in the significant increase of turtles on the reefs today.

Dive Sites in Cozumel

Palancar Reef; Colombia & Paso del Cedral

On day one we explored Palancar Reef, on the South East side of Cozumel. The first dive site is called “Colombia” and consists of coral pillars 50 feet tall that are resting at 90 feet on a white sand bottom. At 90 feet the reef slopes into the abyss. It was a wonderful dive, we saw Hawksbill turtles, Queen Angel Fish, Gray Angel Fish, Barracuda and lots of turtles. A beautiful dive! But where were the Eagle Rays…?

The afternoon dive was at “Paso del Cedral”, also on Palancar Reef. This site is like swimming over rolling hills with very interesting swim-through’s and again, lots of fish; Barracuda, Scorpion fish, Chestnut Morrray, beautiful Midnight Parrotfish, Banded Butterfly, Rock Beauty, French Angelfish and quite a few turtles.

That evening we were invited by Chellie and Antonio to experience the yearly “Carnaval de Cozumel”. We met under the clock tower at the main plaza. This is a big night for Cozumelenos. They get to see the elected Kings and Queens of the Carnaval of 2003 in full color on a stage erected on the plaza. What a show! The whole town seemed to have come out to participate in the festivities and the music and costumes were amazing. Cozumel people are extremely friendly and seem to co-exist with the large ex pat community in complete harmony. After enjoying four different shows of the various Kings and Queens and their dance troupes, we wandered over to el “Foco Taco”, a famous eatery in Cozumel. At Antonio’s suggestion, we tried the local “Michilada” (a kind of Bloody Mary but with beer instead of tomato juice!) and ate tacos filled with chopped pork and cactus leaves. Delicious! A great night out.

Santa Rosa Wall & Paradise

Bright but not too early we arrived at the harbor the next morning to dive “Santa Rosa Wall.” The wall starts at 50 feet and drops straight into the deep. There was a pleasant current that took us past immense sponges, huge overhangs of stoney coral and lots of caves and swim through tunnels. Eagle Rays and Turtles are often spotted here. We saw Giant Groupers and Blue Parrotfish, and even a couple of turtles, but no Eagle Ray…

The second dive that day was called “Paradise.” This site consists of three separate reefs running parallel to shore approximately 200 yards out. And true “Paradise” it is! This is a great dive very close to the harbor, perfect as last dive of the day. It is a shallow reef dive (15m max) with extremely healthy and colorful coral. Excellent for underwater photography. We encountered a Shrimp Eel, Oceanic Triggerfish, Lobster, Rock Angel and French Angel Fish. There were lots of Blennies and a cute little Puffer fish.

That night we found our way to El Moro after driving around for quite some time and asking directions. This well-known restaurant is a little tricky to find, but like Chellie said, totally worth the effort. We had the “Alhambra Special” and huge margaritas.

The following day we met Antonio and his crew on the “Miguelito” at Nachi Cocom beach. The plan was to dive the legendary “Devil’s Throat.” This is a deep tunnel dive only suited for very experienced divers. The reef around Devil’s Throat is very interesting with some great reef formations around the dive site and clear deep blue all around. We saw some turtles and colorful coral with lots of fish in shallower part.

In between dives we had a leisurely lunch at one of the many sea side restaurants.

Our last day of diving came way too soon. We still had not seen an Eagle Ray but it didn’t matter. The diving around Cozumel is so colorful we almost forgotten that we had come for the Eagle Rays in the first place. They must have been avoiding us! We had obviously arrived to late to see the schools and unlucky enough to spot even one.

We opted to search for them once more at “Cantarell.” This dive site is on the North Western side of Cozumel and not often visited due to its whipping currents. And strong they were, we were flying along the wall for half an hour until we finally slowed down over a sandy bottom. There were lots of sponges and soft coral amidst a large sand bank. No Eagle Rays however. Oh well, The diving was still great, we couldn’t believe how healthy and colorful the reefs of Cozumel are. And Eagle Ray Divers made it such a wonderful experience. We will definitely have to do this again, earlier next time!

Dive Center

We explored Cozumel diving with Eagle Ray Divers. This dive operation is owned by the lovely couple Chellie and Antonio Castellanos. They’ve been in Cozumel for 13 years after meeting in the United States and driving all the way down to Cozumel to set up shop.

Antonio is a certified PADI Dive Instructor who was born in Mexico City but always knew the ocean was his passion. He married Chellie, a certified PADI Divemaster and american from Arkansas. We couldn’t have wished for better people to show us the underwater world of Cozumel.

We rented a VW bug the next morning and found our way to La Caleta marina for our first day of diving.
The marina is easy to find, located just south of San Miguel, right next to the new Puerta Maya international cruise ship pier.

Eagle Ray Divers operates two boats, the 39m “Miguelito” and the 30m “Chuchos Vivas.” These are both traditional mexican fishing boats from the area that were refitted to accommodate divers. Like all things old and charming, they are slowly disappearing. Unfortunately, faster, more modern speed boats will soon replace all of them. We could still enjoy the slow pace during the 20 minutes or so it took to get to the dive site. It gave us time to appreciate the stunning coastline.

Whether you want to go drift diving, snorkel around the coral reefs or learn how to dive, Eagle Ray Divers can organize it for you. While many dive companies in Cozumel leave the dock at the same time daily, and go to the same areas with as many as 25 divers per divemaster, Eagle Ray Divers is not a cattle boat. It operates at the pace of its guests and limits its passenger to 12 divers per boat unless a private group specifically requests otherwise but usually they run with 4-8 divers. They take safety very seriously and use the latest in modern and high quality diving equipment.

Eagle Ray Divers must also have some of the nicest and most experienced divemasters in Cozumel. Instructor/divemaster Arturo and Raul and divemasters Carlos and Bernardo were knowledgable, dedicated and lots of fun to dive with. You will find Antonio and Chellie almost always on one of the boats as well as Antonio loves to teach people diving and Chellie divemasters from time to time.

Diving with Eagle Ray Divers is very easy going. They try to accommodate any group, big or small, divers and/or snorkelers and love families with children as well. Because they are a small operation they can guarantee you personalized service and make sure everybody is happy, no matter what your diving level is.

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