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May 29, 2007

Like nothing on Earth

The point of vacation is to get away from the everyday stresses of work and study, right?  Yet here we are, doing homework after dinner as we read our respective manuals on diving and enriched air, and sitting through “lectures” as the dive boat heads toward a new section of reef to explore.  Meanwhile, I’m up to my ears in dive tables–relearning the standard air tables, making adjustments for different oxygen/nitrogen mixes and accounting for oxygen toxicity (oxygen actually becomes slightly poisonous with increased pressure).  Thierry and I accompany the students on some of their dives, taking pictures and offering encouragement as they learn to set up their gear, clear their ears, descend and ascend properly.  And I must admit, they have a much better pool to for completing the basic exercises.

It is time well spent, and we are rewarded with good visibility and a host of the unique animals that make up a vibrant reef: snappers, groupers, eels, corals, Christmas tree and feather duster worms, damselfish, squirrelfish, the occasional barracuda.  A hawksbill turtle gracefully navigates the reef on two occasions; a reef shark ignores us as he patrols the ridge.  Peering under rocky ledges (carefully to not damage any coral) yields arrow head crabs, cleaner shrimp, and a toadfish found only around the island.  At one point, I find myself surrounded by what I call “shiny schooling fish,” and it’s only as I look down from my ascent that I realize the full magnitude of what must be a thousand fish, perfectly synchronized as one unit.  

You can tell a lot about a reef, if you know what to look for, and the reefs of Cozumel seem to be healthy, for the most part.  The corals are beautiful, and the reef is made up mostly of soft corals and plate or boulder-like species.  Cozumel is often hit by hurricanes like Wilma in 2005, and the fragile branching corals often bear the brunt of a storm’s power.  The reef shows signs of recovery, with young colonies of elkhorn coral, standing about 10 inches high and sporting white patches of growth where branching will occur.  On the other hand, there are plenty of juvenile fish, but noticeably few large fish, especially groupers.  Cozumel and its surrounding waters are protected as a national park, and fishing is not allowed within its borders.  However, intense fishing pressure outside the park, fueled by the demand for seafood in local restaurants, contributes to the depletion of larger fish which are more likely to move to reefs beyond the park’s protection.  (A handful of local restaurants, such as Guido’s, have taken grouper off their menus, with an explanation supporting sustainable fisheries on each table.)

Elizabeth later told her mom diving was “the most amazing thing I’ve ever done in my life.  When you’re snorkeling, it’s like looking into another world.  When you’re scuba diving, you’re part of it.”

Or as Eric exclaimed after our second dive, “Suzanne, you didn’t tell us what it was like!”

Some things just have to be experienced.

Photos by Thierry Lannoy.