BARRACUDA REEF
"Life's A Beach and Then You Dive" read the print on the T-shirt of the young lady in front of me as we checked our luggage through the small but efficient international airport in Cozumel, Mexico.

The cold November winds were blowing in Toronto as we boarded the plane bound for Cozumel. We were looking forward to sunny weather and warm waters as we had come to scuba dive.

Diving in Cozumel is an exhilarating experience. Drift diving at its very best, allowing the diver to explore much more territory with very little effort.

As a result of this, the marine life is abundant. Large Hawksbill turtles, Eagle Rays and many nurse, black tip, and tiger sharks have been spotted by the writer in the past.

To dive Barracuda Reef in Cozumel,you first have to find a local dive master who is willing to take you out. Most dive shops, and there are approximately forty in Cozumel, will not. Diving in Cozumel is, in relation to safety standards, at best adequate. Therefore, when local dive masters look at you as if you are crazy for wanting to dive Barracuda, you must be a little hesitant about going.

Mariamo Moguel Mendoza, known affectionately by his friends as "Pocho", is the owner of a small dive shop in the heart of San Miguel. Pocho, a native of San Miguel, has been diving in the waters around Cozumel since he was 11 years old. He is now a boyish 41 year old with many stories to tell. He informs me that approximately 10 divers per year perish in the blue waters off Cozumel. He is perhaps the most respected diver on the island and the only one I know who will take a small group of experienced divers to Barracuda Reef with written permission from the Harbour Master.

Diving Barracuda Reef with a ten knot current is reminiscent of the scene from Star Wars where Luke Skywalker is on a low altitude flight through the windy canyons of Darth Vader's battle ship. The difference here is that the current sets the overall pace and direction for the diver to follow.

Perhaps the greatest advantage of drift diving is that during the 45 minutes that you are at 60 feet with 3000 psi of air in your tank, you sail over such long stretches of reef that you are almost guaranteed to encounter impressive marine life.

Drift diving in Cozumel is very simple. The dive boat drops the divers at the reef and follows the air bubbles while drifting along in the same current. When the divers surface, they are picked up and taken into the boat.

At Barracuda Reef this practice is modified as the surface and bottom currents are different. The system Pocho has come up with is to drop off a snorkeller at the surface and then he follows the divers from the surface and the boat, in turn, follows him.

Are the strong currents of Barracuda Reef the main cause for concern for most divers, I wondered? I put this concern to Pocho and his reply came as a bit of a surprise. The wave action at the surface is of greater concern to him. The down currents on the seaward side of the reef are also dangerous. The reason is that they can take divers unknowingly to depths of 200 feet and more before they are aware of what has happened. This can be avoided by staying on the landward side of the reef . Wave action, on the other hand, makes it very difficult for the dive boat operator to notice a little masked head on the surface waiting to be picked up and at the same time being taken away by the strong currents.

The currents are not always strong at Barracuda Reef. The week prior to our arrival there was no current at all. This enabled Pocho to dive in the caves on the seaward side of the reef. According to Pocho, many large moray eels reside there. I asked him if he had ever been bitten while in these caves. He said he hadn't. However, he did indicate that he knew divers who had been bitten. He explained this by making an analogy to a dog living in a kennel. If you stick your hand into the kennel, the dog is likely to take a bite of it.

This trip to Cozumel has been my fifth. In times marked by rising crime rates, this is one of the few places where you feel totally comfortable and safe walking around the streets of town (San Miguel) taking in the nightair. The islanders do not merely tolerate the divers and other tourists but seem to genuinely enjoy them. Considering the antics of some tourists, this alone is a miracle.

The next time you are diving in Cozumel, go into town and visit Yucab Diving Centre. Speak to Pocho and get him to take you and a group of three other divers to Barracuda Reef. Do not be surprised if he tells you that the dive boat will pick you up in front of your hotel at 6.30 a.m. because the currents are not as strong then.

One thing for sure, I'll be back next year.

BY CHRISTOPHER FERNANDEZ

Copyright 1998 - 2000


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