From the March 2010 issue of ISLANDS magazine.
As we descend, the ocean’s pure white floor comes into focus through the clear water — but I don’t care. My wetsuit sticks to my burnt gringa skin, my tank drags me around and my mask is fogging. Darth Vader breaths echo in my head; I feel like I’m breathing through wax paper. My fins are giving me blisters. A stingray glides through the scene, at ease, taunting me. It belongs here. That makes one of us.
Francisco, our PADI dive instructor from Scuba Du, stares at me. My husband, Jason, floating next to me and completely mesmerized by the new world around him, doesn’t notice my anxiety. How can he enjoy this? My ears pop. How can so many people — including about 1,000 daily visitors to Cozumel — enjoy diving so much?
Ten minutes into a two-tank dive, I already wish I’d stayed back at the hotel and practiced my Spanish with the locals. My secret: I’m a beach-loving Florida girl who’s scared of the water. Just 15 feet down, sitting cross-legged on the ocean floor, I panic. My regulator must be leaking. My tank is emptying too fast. My heart beats faster than it does after a kickboxing workout. But Francisco looks at me so intently I’d believe anything he said, or rather gestured. “You,” he crisply points. “You’re fine. Breathe.” His arms rise and fall in the perfect breathing cadence. I give the OK sign, half to talk myself into being OK, half because I don’t want to be a quitter. Still, I don’t like it. I add the universal hand signal for lying in a hammock drinking a margarita as the sun sets — the other reason people come to Cozumel. But Francisco isn’t buying it. He gestures for us to follow him deeper, toward the reef.
As we kick along the sandy bottom, I think about the divers I’ve met on this trip, jealous of their passion for diving. The couple from Arkansas come celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary. The wife has a pink regulator and girly decorations all over her gear, and she dives wearing a diamond the size of a baseball. No wonder she sinks so fast.
“You’ll love it,” Greg, an IT guy from Texas, had told me on the boat. “Harness the anxiety. Turn it into excitement.”
I was uncomfortable when he said it, camarones al diablo gurgling in my stomach, my suit binding in the wrong places. I’m even more uncomfortable now, and I still want a margarita.
But as Antonio Madrazo, sales manager of Scuba Du, told me, “You can drink anywhere. People come here to dive.” It’s true. From our patio at the Presidente InterContinental Cozumel Resort & Spa, I could see two tiki huts: one stocked with tequila and abandoned at dusk, the other stocked with dive gear — and always packed. “Just wait until you see the Palancar Wall,” Antonio said. “Your jaw will drop.” With a regulator in my mouth? All their well-meaning advice still sounds ridiculous, but as I fight to stay horizontal, maintain my depth, slow my breathing, I resolve that if these people can do it, so can I.
As we cross from white sand to 40-foot-tall coral heads, the famous Cozumel current gives us a 2-knot push. I move without effort, like I’m on an underwater people mover. Scrawled filefish pucker their lips at me, tails spreading like Chinese paper fans. Stoplight parrotfish in blue, green, yellow and pink swim past my mask, followed by a brilliant blue tang. I don’t even have to kick. I stop fighting and give in to Palancar.
Watching everything around me, I’m no longer thinking, I’m going to drown! I’m thinking, I want shoes that color!
Francisco taps on his tank to get our attention and motions for us to come back and look at something in the reef. Please not something carnivorous with sharp teeth, I think, but he points to a splendid endemic toadfish in the coral. It’s one of the most elaborately hideous creatures I’ve ever seen, and I couldn’t have seen it anywhere but three atmospheres of pressure underwater in Cozumel.
As we drift north in the massaging current, a coral amphitheater — pink vase sponges, convoluted barrel sponges, great star coral, black sea rod — surrounds us. Nurse sharks swim by. Hawksbill turtles sink their beaks into the most appetizing parts of the reef. Spotted morays duck into eel-only crevices. Jason spots what must be the world’s largest non-goliath grouper. The monster has entranced a triggerfish one-sixteenth its size. The trigger doesn’t move. The grouper comes at it five or six times, mouth wide open. We kick against the current, watching until the grouper finally opens wide and swallows the trigger in one salty gulp.
Fifteen, 30, 50, 75 — my depth gauge tells me I’m 80 feet underwater, but the surface seems close. I want to reach up and touch it just to prove my gauge wrong. I’m eight stories underwater, and I’m not scared. Jason’s eyes smile at me through his mask. We hover inches above Palancar Reef, so close we can study all the concentric circles, Etch A Sketch-like mazes and asterisk bursts that make up the patterns and vibrant colors in the reef. I’m thinking this intimate view — unlike anything I’ve seen snorkeling — must be what everyone loves so much.
And then the ground disappears from underneath us, and my jaw drops — somehow. The Caribbean blue goes 10 hues darker, and the temperature falls at least 15 degrees. The Palancar Wall plunges what seems like miles. Even the fish respect the abyss — only the biggest, darkest, gnarliest-looking creatures swim over that edge.
I want to go farther. I finally feel like a big fish. I want to know how deep I can swim. I want to stay down forever.
I turn around and see Francisco communicating something in broken sign language. I’m too fascinated to understand, but I assume he means welcome to the world beyond your fear. Jason is staring at me now too. He takes my hand and squeezes it, happy as I am to be sharing this.
When Francisco gives the thumbs up, the signal to start ascending, I shake my head no.
Find more trip ideas in the ISLANDS guide to Best Easy Adventures.