Scuba Diving in Cozumel: Fantastic Diving All Year Round

Scuba Diving in Cozumel: Fantastic Diving All Year Round

Living and diving here year-round, I’m spoiled by Cozumel’s consistently warm waters and very clear visibility while SCUBA diving. But I still wouldn’t say I’m biased.

I’ve traveled to other amazing dive destinations with an open mind and a real hope to be blown away. 

But honestly? Even the rare opportunities to dive the outer Great Barrier Reef and the pristine dive sites in Cuba’s Jardines de la Reina did NOT surpass Cozumel for me.  

So if you’re wondering if Cozumel is good for diving, rest assured, it’s not just good. It’s great. 

Cozumel is a fantastic place for scuba diving, due to its incredibly high visibility throughout the year, consistently warm water temperatures, and typically gentle to medium currents for easy and safe drift diving. Divers will love Cozumel’s great variety of beginner to advanced dive sites, including walls, pinnacles, colorful coral gardens, and the diversity of large and macro marine life that flourishes among them. 

Prices for diving, accommodations, and food in Cozumel are very reasonable, as well, making it an overall great value for a top-notch diving destination. 

Common marine life in Cozumel includes various sea turtle varieties, nurse sharks, spotted eagle rays, moray eels, tropical reef fish, barracuda, loads of tiny macro treasures, and perhaps most special of all, Cozumel’s endemic “splendid” toadfish (sanopus splendidus) that is only found among Cozumel’s dive sites (see more, below). 

In certain seasons, you can also do day-trip excursions from your home base of Cozumel to dive with bull sharks in nearby Playa del Carmen (winter), or snorkel with whale sharks in nearby Isla Mujeres (summer). 

Nearby Playa del Carmen is also home to the Yucatan peninsula’s famous cenotes, so you could take a day trip to experience cavern diving at any time of the year.  

But it’s Cozumel’s reef system and marine park that is known far and wide to offer the best warm-water diving in this part of the globe. 

Plus, Cozumel is relatively inexpensive and super fun. 

If you’re really into scuba diving, then Cozumel simply has to be on your bucket list.

Cozumel’s Amazing Scuba Diving Conditions

There are beautiful and fun diving destinations, worldwide – luckily for those of us who sometimes live for our next dive trip. The thing is, you often have to time those trips just right to get the right combination of good conditions, the star marine life, and airfares and hotel rates that are within reach.

But more likely, you go when you and your family or friends can arrange dates and have the time off from school and work.  

And you might have to compromise on conditions, or maybe just miss seeing those minke whales or weedy sea dragons – two of my real-life examples from when I traveled all the way from Mexico to Australia (yay!), but just a few weeks off the seasons for these animals (drat.). 

If you plan on a dive trip to Cozumel, though, many of those concerns fade away. Aside from a rare patch of rough weather – which can happen anywhere – diving in Cozumel is fantastic all year round, and for all levels of experience.

Trust me on this. I get to go diving in Cozumel every week of the year these days, and no matter the season, I always come up with a huge grin on my face, and a memory card full of cool underwater photos. 

Consistently Warm Cozumel Waters

First of all, Cozumel’s blue and turquoise waters are warm and clear all year round.  

Cozumel "Bubbles" boat in the marine park with blue water and blue sky

The water temperatures range from about 83F/28C during our Summer months – so, from about July through September. 

The water temperatures go down just a touch to about 78F/25C in the coldest few months – usually February-March.  But to most visiting divers that is still very warm. 

Aside from those two ends of the spectrum, the water temperatures in Cozumel hover around 80F/26C throughout the rest of the year. 

Divers traveling to Cozumel for vacation typically only need a 3mm wetsuit, or maybe even a shorty, unless they’re doing lots of repeat dives, for weeks at a time. 

Some of us do just get cold easily, though, so you’ll find me (and several of my dive buddies) in a full 5mm wetsuit, usually starting in December through March, and often with socks and a light hood. But so be it! I just want to make sure I stay warm through a full, 60 min.+ dive. 

But again, most vacationers are comfortable in a shorty or 3mm full suit. 

The overall air climate is still sunny and very warm, too, so the surface intervals are a great chance to sit in the sun and warm up. It’s a good idea to bring a light rain jacket to Cozumel in case of short showers, and also to block some of the local breezes, especially when you are out on the water. 

Clear Diving Visibility in Cozumel 

The other really noteworthy benefit of diving in Cozumel is the consistently clear visibility. 

Of course, there are days when the current is strong and things get churned up a bit.  But that is definitely not the norm, here.  Most Cozumel dives boast visibility of at least 100ft+ (30+meters). 

To me, that’s a huge advantage. For example, I was thrilled at the chance to dive at Jardines de la Reina in Cuba, but I was not as thrilled with the murky visibility, and the occasional difficulty in seeing our dive guide. 

As the excellent Dive Training magazine puts in this good article about diving visibility, here

One of the most important considerations for diving is the “viz”. Clear water can make a mundane dive site shimmer in glory. Conversely, even the best coral reef can be a disappointment when it’s clouded by a veil of murky water.

In Cozumel, the odds are in your favor to be on the shimmering and glorious side of things.  Again, barring a random storm event.

Cozumel’s Drift Diving

Many new divers, or divers from places where drift diving is not the norm, occasionally express some nerves or discomfort when it comes to drift diving. And I’ve seen Cozumel’s drift described as super strong or even intimidating, from time to time. 

While the currents can run a little “too” fast on occasion, that is really not what it’s like, day-to-day.  

Most dives have a gentle drift, carrying you along the dive site with very little effort. It also gives you something to softly brace against if you want to face the current and stop to take a photo or examine a certain feature of the reef. 

There are times when hovering like that is more difficult, so be aware of some of the basic strategies for managing yourself and your buoyancy in a current.  

The easiest ways to manage yourself and your buoyancy control while diving in a current are: 

  1. Turn 180 degrees and physically face into the current, then gently use your fins to kick moderately, holding yourself in one place. Kind of like using a treadmill.  And btw, watch the fish for pointers – many of them are doing this alongside you! 
  2. Look for a coral head, or a drop-off after a stretch of coral reef, then duck down behind it, allowing the current to pass over you.  Even a small formation, and allowing the current to pass overhead, is an easy maneuver that will save you energy – and save you from getting out ahead of your divemaster and group. 
  3. Cozumel is a protected marine park, so no reef hooks, sticks, or knives are allowed. These common crutches for buoyancy or control in a drift certainly would come in handy if the drift is unusually strong for some reason.  Instead, try to duck down and find a NON-coral or sponge area, and use one finger to lightly hook onto a rock or the sand. It really doesn’t take much to keep you in place and wait for your divemaster.  Ideally, you shouldn’t touch even the sandy bottom, as there are living critters all through the sand. But better still if you’ve used the previous two tips well before this point, so you stay in control, and let your dive guide lead the way at all times.    

But again, a strong current that is difficult to manage is something that does happen in Cozumel here and there, but it is not like the current is ripping every day.  Most of the time, drift diving in Cozumel is awesome!  

You get dropped off right on your divemaster’s chosen spot (selected based on interest and the conditions that day). Then you enjoy a nice, lazy drift with little to no effort, covering long swaths of the beautiful reef.  And then you get picked up right where your group has done its safety stop.  So easy!  Doesn’t get much better than that. 

Cozumel Marine Life

It’s hard to “rank” marine life, as all of our underwater encounters are special, in my opinion. 

Cozumel has a great variety of marine life, though, from spotted eagle rays and loggerhead turtles to mini macro favorites, like mantis shrimp, clown crabs, juvenile trunkfish, nudibranchs and sea slugs.  

I’ll start with two of the rarest stars of the Cozumel Marine Park, and move on from there.  

Cozumel Splendid Toadfish

The Splendid Toadfish is so-called because of its unique and flamboyant coloration. 

Unlike other toadfish species, the “splendid” toadfish has a bright blue and grey body, with black and white stripes and markings, opaque light blue eyes, and impressive flashes of brilliant yellow edging all of its eight fins.  

Splendid toadfish out of its hole body exposed

The Splendid Toadfish is endemic to Cozumel, meaning it was originally only found along the reef sections of Cozumel, and nowhere else in the world.  When you’re a diver in Cozumel, finding your first Splendid Toadfish is kind of a right of passage!  

Splendid toadfish typically hide out in small low caves where the reef meets the sandy bottom, or in cracks and crevasses in the coral reef.  

Being predators that rely on the ambush, splendid toadfish often have their faces peeking out of these hiding spots, so can be detected by the ‘barbels’ protruding off of their “chins” – almost looking like spiky beards. 

For more in-depth information on the Cozumel Splendid Toadfish, including its odd mating call, please read this related feature article on the unique fish.  

Spotted Eagle Rays

Spotted Eagle Rays are arguably Cozumel’s most majestic marine animal.  

Spotted eagle ray in Cozumel with diver, sunny clear water

While not as large as manta rays, spotted eagle rays are still large but very graceful creatures, with strong ‘beaks’ used to dive into and root around in the sandy ocean floor, while hunting for crustaceans and other small prey.  

Their white and black markings make a striking visual, especially against the clear and deep blue of Cozumel’s water.  Getting an up-close view of them eating along the shallower, sandy areas is also a real treat.  

Eagle rays avoid divers, generally, but often if there is a mild current and/or they are on a mission to hunt, they will go about their business and let you watch. Just don’t charge them or move too close or they’ll take off abruptly, ruining your encounter and making you *quite* unpopular with the other divers in your group.  

Sharks of Cozumel

Cozumel has sharks (you can read more about that here), including nurse sharks, blacktip reef sharks, and in nearby Playa del Carmen, bull sharks.

The vast majority of sharks found at our common Cozumel dive sites though are Atlantic Nurse Sharks. It is typical to see at least a few if you dive here for at least a few days. 

Nurse sharks in Cozumel are typically about 4-6 feet long (1.25-1.8 M) and tend to hunt at night, so scuba divers will often spot these sharks resting under rock outcroppings along the shallow reefs, or smoothly cruising along the mid-to-deep wall dives.  

 

Pair of nurse sharks at rest along the coral reef

Nurse sharks are not dangerous to divers, and tend to eat small bottom animals like lobsters, crabs, and conchs, though they will also eat other crustaceans and fish, etc.  

They are sharks, though!  So keep a healthy distance, and don’t get cute and try to wake them up for a photo op. 

These wild animals do have strong jaws (strong enough to make quick work of lobsters and hard conch shells!) and multiple rows of small but sharp teeth.  

There’s no need to fear the nurse sharks in Cozumel, though!  Normally, they will ignore you or avoid you.  

Tropical Reef Fish in Cozumel

Cozumel has a beautiful array of colorful reef fish that reside here. 

Every dive will be filled with parrotfish, angelfish, trunkfish, filefish, butterflyfish, damsels, triggerfish, barracuda, groupers, blennies, gobies, and more.

Foureye butterflyfish swimming in Cozumel

Macro Marine Life in Cozumel  

After many years of diving, I still love seeing sharks, big turtles, and eagle rays. No question.  But I’ve also become much more interested in the thousands of tiny macro marine creatures that Cozumel divers can see on every dive.  

Cozumel is not always celebrated for its macro life, but it should be. There’s an abundance of macro life to find and photograph. Stay tuned for our upcoming feature post about Cozumel’s macro marine life, but for now, here are just a few that deserve special attention. 

Cleaner Shrimp

Cleaner shrimp are fascinating, and as the name implies, they have a symbiotic relationship with their host (a giant anemone, for a very common example) or a fish or larger animal that will seek them out at a “cleaning station” to get various algae or parasites picked off of them.  

Banded cleaner shrimp in sponge along coral reef in Cozueml

The image above shows one of the more plentiful cleaner shrimps in Cozumel, the banded cleaner shrimp.   These are very easily found in purple sponges, and in and under other various coral types.  

The image below is of a spotted cleaner shrimp.  These spotted cleaner shrimp are not rare but are a bit harder to spot than the banded variety.  They most often visit common giant anemones, as seen in the picture.  

spotted cleaner shrimp in hot pink anemone

Other types of marine shrimps common to Cozumel diving include the sun anemone cleaner shrimp, the scarlet cleaner shrimp, and the squat anemone shrimp. 

Sea Snails, Slugs & Nudibranchs in Cozumel

One of my favorite groups of macro life is the category of sea snails, and their related sea slugs and nudibranchs.  

Sea snails, like the very common flamingo tongue snail (cyphoma gibbosum), seen below, have shells for protection, and often feed on the branches of gorgonian corals. These corals are also where they then lay their eggs, in neat orderly rows.  

flamingo tongue sea snail with bright yellow spots and black stripes

In Cozumel, flamingo tongue sea snails are plentiful.

Sea slugs and nudibranchs, on the other hand, are beautifully colored slugs without any protective shell. 

The most common sea slugs in Cozumel are in the “Elysia” family, namely two favorites, small brightly colored painted elysia, and the pretty elysia crispata or “lettuce slug” (a.k.a. “lechuga” in Spanish) seen here. 

elysia crispata, or "lettuce" sea slug
elysia crispata

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For more on Cozumel macro and tips for finding common hiding spots for macro marine life in Cozumel, visit my guest article on Mozaik UW Camera store’s blog. 

Night Dives in Cozumel – octopus, basket stars, eels, king crabs

Finally, those of you who love night dives will be really happy to try one in Cozumel.  

Most dive shops can rustle up at least one weekly boat dive at night, if they have enough people, or depending on your dive shop, you can just do your own shore entry night dive.  

There are several shallow Cozumel reefs your shop might choose for a night dive, especially Paradise Reef (formerly a common dive, but now often reserved for night diving, since the newer cruise piers effectively closed it for day diving), Yucab, San Clemente, or Cedral Pass.  

Night dives in Cozumel are easy (as long as the current is not unusually strong), and again, the visibility here is great, making it an ideal place for first-timers or new divers to get used to diving in the dark.  

In fact, a common method is to do what is more accurately known as a twilight dive, gearing up and entering the water just as the sun is setting. This allows you to ease into the darker environment as your eyes adjust. 

It’s also a great chance to see the neat changes that occur as the sun is setting.  Some “day shift” critters get ready for bed (or get themselves tucked away and hidden), while the “night shift” of large crabs, lobster, big green morays, and octopuses come out to hunt around.   

Caribbean octopus flares out on reef in Cozumel

Night dives in Cozumel are the perfect chance to try and find giant basket stars and witness their nocturnal feeding behavior.  Unfurling from their daytime, balled-up posture, these long-limbed echinoderms stretch out five branched arms and filter feed in the Cozumel current.  

For more information on Cozumel’s basket stars, and other local sea stars, see this related post, here.  

Some special sights at night may also include a full view of a Cozumel splendid toadfish (see above) out of its hiding spot. At night, splendid toadfish are more likely to be exposed when they’re out on the prowl for food, with the cover of darkness.  

Cozumel’s Diver Safety

Cozumel’s Experienced Local Dive Professionals 

It’s hard to imagine a population with more divers, divemasters, and dive instructors, nearly all of whom have trained in diving first aid. 

[Heck, even my dentist is a diver, so she knew just what I meant when I was nervous about getting an air pocket (and potential “tooth squeeze.” ouch!) in my new filling replacement.  She’s also a great dentist, so no such air pocket was made.]

All Cozumel boat captains and dive guides maintain current training with rescue techniques, as well as DAN’s (Divers Alert Network) diving safety and first aid courses, oxygen administration, hazardous marine life first aid, and training to spot the signs of anyone who might need post-diving hyperbaric treatment or any other medical attention.  

All local Cozumel dive boats should carry a DAN oxygen kit, and there are strong networks and cooperation among local captains and on-shore beach club pier managers, so if an emergency were to arise, help will be on the way as quickly as possible. 

These are basic safety precautions, and any worthwhile dive operation should make it clear to you that they follow all of these procedures, and be more than happy to answer questions about their supplies, training, and emergency methods.  

Definitely ASK these dive safety questions before you book with a new dive shop!  

Cozumel’s Hyperbaric Chambers and Dive Medicine Expertise

Cozumel, itself, is also lucky to have multiple hospitals, both public and private, that staff bi-lingual specialists in diving medicine and hyperbaric medical science. 

Cozumel has at least 3 fully functioning and staffed hyperbaric chambers on this one small island.

There are small teams of doctors, nurses, and even many fellow divers who train as volunteer “chamber handlers” who are trained in dive medicine and recompression treatments. 

This all makes any chance nitrogen “hit” or case of decompression sickness, a.k.a. the bends, much easier, faster, and more comfortable to treat. Fast and effective examinations and chamber treatments make diving Cozumel just that much safer.  

Cozumel is Great For Dive Education 

For all of the above reasons, Cozumel is a wonderful place for beginners to try an introductory “discover scuba” class, or do their open water certification, advanced certification, or any of a number of specialties. 

There are numerous dive sites in Cozumel that are suitable for beginners, advanced divers, and tech divers, alike. 

Cozumel is also an excellent place to consider doing your divemaster or instructor training, especially if you plan to go on to a busy career in diving and dive instruction.  

Cozumel welcomes divers of all skill levels throughout the year. Divemaster candidates here that take an internship or apprenticeship approach get great exposure – not only to warm-water and drift conditions and a good variety of dive sites and marine life – but also to a diverse international clientele that comes for recreational diving, as well as all the various courses and training.  

In-training divemaster candidates and assistant instructors in Cozumel typically get lots of opportunities to assist in live classes, and daily “on the job” training for what it really takes to lead a busy life as a divemaster and instructor in a lively, active market of customers from different countries.   

Cozumel’s deep walls, partial caverns, and shipwreck sites also make it a good environment to pursue the fast-growing craze of “tech diving.”  Many local shops offer Tech 40 and Side Mount instruction, and some others, like Cozumel Marine World, are staffed to provide the more advanced technical curriculum classes.  

Deep walls and sites like Maracaibo and Devil’s Throat can be done by advanced recreational divers, but tech deep students will also have a good introduction, as well as some practical applications to put their new tech skills to real use. 

Cozumel’s Fun Dive Community

Cozumel is a beautiful, charming island full of beautiful, charming, hardworking, friendly, and funny people.  It’s just a great hang.  

As you can see above, it’s also a great spot for diving. It’s no wonder that diving is the lifeblood of the island, in many many ways. 

If you poke around the rest of this site, you can also learn more about Cozumel’s awesome foodie scene, the many fun things to do on dry days, and other ideas for how to spend your time here.  

Bottom Line: If you’re contemplating your first dive trip to Cozumel?  Don’t hesitate. You won’t be sorry.  

 

Rachel Schreck

Rachel is a writer here at CozInfo, when she's not diving and taking underwater photos. After decades of project managing some mighty fine exhibition design projects in NYC, she took an adult gap year to pursue her divemaster training in Cozumel...and never made it back.