As I backed out of the boat and took my first breaths below the surface, I felt the familiar peace of being underwater Suddenly I see a shadowy figure appear. Is it…? Yes – a manatee! One by one we realise that the training has stopped, there is no more training, just us and this graceful creature. Often called sea cows because of their size, these slow herbivores have a wide snout, flippers, round body and a flat tail that helps them move through the water with surprising ease.
Careful not to get too close and startle her, I watch as she glides over the reef, the sun streaming down behind her, creating a very mermaid-like silhouette. We watched her for a few magical minutes before she slipped away into the great blue beyond.An encounter with a manatee is just one of the many adventures possible when diving in Mexico.
Cozumel: The jewel of Mexican diving
Cozumel, a world-renowned diving destination off the northeastern tip of the Yucatán Peninsula, is the most popular diving destination in Mexico. The water is generally crystal clear and warm, and life is abundant, including idyllic waving fan corals, eels, turtles, sharks, rays and all manner of colourful fish. While there are beginner dive sites in Cozumel, the more advanced drift dives (where divers are carried by the current) are more common. The currents here make a sharp curve around the island and can be quite strong, adding to the adventure.
Banco Chinchorro: Into the unknown
If Cozumel is the crown jewel of diving in Mexico, then Banco Chinchorro is the diamond in the rough. Located in the southernmost part of Quintana Roo, this relatively unknown, remote atoll is only accessible by boat. The reefs and marine life here are abundant and largely untouched, with fishermen and divers the only people for miles around. Sightings of sharks, rays, manatees and saltwater crocodiles are common, and while there are plenty of tame dive sites, advanced wreck diving is also available.
Isla Mujeres: An eco-conscious experience
Somewhere between the popularity of Cozumel and the remoteness of Banco Chinchorro lies Isla Mujeres, just off the coast of Cancún. One of the exceptional dive sites here is the Museo Subacuático de Arte (MUSA) or Underwater Museum of Art. MUSA is an artificial reef structure made up of over 500 statues placed underwater as building blocks for coral to grow on.
Many different artists were involved in the creation of the sculptures and the subjects of the statues range from houses to cars to unexploded mines. One of the most striking exhibits is a large group of standing figures reminiscent of the terracotta warriors of Xi’an, China, with statues stretching as far as the eye can see. This unique blend of art and science is a success for the region. As divers, we’re more aware of the environmental impact that humans have on the reefs and underwater life, and the museum is a shining example of how we can still have a positive impact on our environment. MUSA is a must for eco-conscious divers.
Isla Holbox: Gentle giants
Off the northern coast of Quintana Roo lies Isla Holbox, a calm water paradise that’s the essence of island life. There are no reefs on Isla Holbox, but there is a special phenomenon that takes place every year from May to September – the whale shark migration. Whale sharks are filter feeders (aka non-human eaters) and are the largest fish known to man – they can grow to 40 feet (12m) long and weigh up to 22 tonnes. Their mouth alone can be 5 feet (1.5m) wide.
Sadly, I missed the whale shark season, but I hope to return soon to snorkel with these amazing giants (diving is prohibited, one of many rules in place to protect the sharks).
Cabo Pulmo: the big blue
The Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park lies on the Pacific side of Mexico, a world away from the warm Caribbean waters of the Yucatan. The Pacific Ocean is the big, deep blue – the waters are colder, rougher and more challenging, and the marine life matches the environment. The pelagic life here is famous, with sea lions, whales, sharks, schooling rays and dramatic drop-offs.
Cozumel has a small airport or can be reached by ferry from Playa del Carmen, about an hour from the main airport in Cancún. There are a variety of dive shops catering to different preferences (group size vs. price). Diving trips can be arranged once on the island or in advance. I recommend reading reviews on the experience and safety of the operator before booking. In terms of accommodation, Cozumel has everything from high-priced resorts to guesthouses and hostels. Expect to spend around US $100 ($2,028 MXN) for a two-tank dive.
This atoll can only be reached by boat from Mahahual or Xcalak. Both towns offer rustic accommodation. Hire a car or take the public bus from Cancun airport to reach the area. There are only a few dive operators in the area, so it’s best to contact them in advance. Dive trips start at around US $150 ($3,048 MXN) and increase for overnight trips.
The island is a ferry ride from the main airport in Cancún. There are a number of dive operators and I recommend you do your research to find one that suits your needs. High and low end accommodation is available. Prices are around US $100 ($2,028 MXN) for a two-tank dive.
This island can be reached by ferry from Chiquilá, a two-hour bus ride from the nearest airport in Cancún. High and low budget accommodation available. Snorkelling with whale sharks costs around US$150 ($3,048 MXN) per person.
The village of the same name near the marine park is a 90-minute drive northeast of San Jose del Cabo International Airport. Nearby Cabo San Lucas is a popular resort with both high and low end accommodation, but if you want to stay in Cabo Pulmo, accommodation tends to be more rustic and smaller guesthouses and rentals are the best options. There are a number of dive operators, so trips can be arranged locally or in advance. Expect to pay around US $100 ($2,028 MXN) per two-tank dive.