Scuba Diving in Cozumel: Fantastic All Year

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Living and diving here year-round, I’m spoiled by Cozumel’s consistently clear visibility and very warm water 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 the consistent quality of Cozumel scuba diving, for me.  

So if you’re wondering if this place is good for diving, rest assured, it’s not just one of the top destinations for diving in the Caribbean, it’s truly one of the best places to scuba dive in the world.

Cozumel is a fantastic place for scuba diving all year, due to its incredibly high visibility in the water, warm temperatures, and safe and easy drift diving. Divers love the great variety of dive sites in Cozumel, including deep walls, mountainous coral pinnacles, colorful coral gardens, and the rich biodiversity of large and macro marine life that flourishes among them. 

Prices for dive excursions (including tanks and rental gear), accommodations, and local food options are very reasonable, as well, making Cozumel an overall great value for a top-notch diving destination. 

Cozumel is a Must for any SCUBA Diving Bucket List

The beautiful marine life includes various sea turtle varieties, nurse sharks, spotted eagle rays, moray eels, loads of colorful tropical reef fish, barracuda, ocean triggerfish, and more.

Cozumel is also fantastic for macro marine life and underwater photography, with tons of flamboyant cleaner shrimp, sea snails, and sea slugs leading the pack, as well as some bonafide nudibranchs for serious eagle-eyed divers.

Perhaps the most special critter of all is Cozumel’s endemic “splendid” toadfish (sanopus splendidus),  found only among local dive sites (see more about this special fish below). 

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

Playa del Carmen – just a short 40-minute ferry ride away – is also home to the Yucatan peninsula’s famous series of fresh-water cenotes, so you could easily take a day trip to experience guided cenotes cavern diving at any time of the year.  

A Note on Cozumel’s Own Cenotes Diving

Cozumel has numerous natural cenotes (subterranean fresh-water caverns) throughout the island, but most are not considered safe for recreational diving. They are tucked away and not promoted as good dive spots, given their small size, far less clear water, and relative danger. Some very experienced tech divers on the island are known to explore a few of Cozumel’s cenotes, but it is not at all common (nor generally recommended).

However, visiting divers who are fans of cenote cavern diving can scratch that itch with an easy day trip.

The well-known Chac Mool cenote cavern in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, a good beginner cenote for divers.
Sunbeams Breaking Through the Surface in Chac-Mool Cenote, Playa del Carmen, Mexico

For good, accessible cenotes diving, it’s Mexico’s mainland series of cenotes between Playa del Carmen and Tulum are much larger, safer, and a better quality diving experience.

Find a good local shop to show you the ropes (literally) and guide small groups through some of Quintana Roo’s famous cenotes, like Chac Mool (pictured above). I went with Yucatek Divers and had a great time. (Yucatek also runs good excursions to snorkel with the whale sharks from July – August, approx.).

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

Plus, the island is relatively inexpensive and super fun. 

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

Superior Diving Conditions All Year

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 of your dive trip budget.

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 own real-life examples from when I traveled all the way from Mexico to Australia, but alas, we could only go when it was just a few weeks off the best season for these animals. 

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 here is fantastic all year round, and for all levels of experience.

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

Consistently Warm Caribbean Waters

First of all, Cozumel’s blue and turquoise water is warm and clear all year round.  

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

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

Then diving water temperatures go down just a touch to about 78F/25C in the coldest few months of the year – usually February-March.  

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

Some divers here on the north-eastern coast of Mexico are comfortable diving in just shorts and a rashguard, though the thermal protection of a full wetsuit is the norm.

As a general rule, the best wetsuit for scuba divers traveling to Cozumel for vacation is a full 3mm wetsuit, or a “shorty” style wetsuit with a full dive-skin or rashguard garments, underneath. Divers who do a lot of repeat dives or just tend to get cold faster usually opt for a full 5mm wetsuit in the colder season, from December through March, and will often layer in a light hooded vest.

When I gear up in February with socks, cozy hood, and my 5mm Henderson thermoprene-pro (which is, btw, the MOST comfortable wetsuit I’ve ever worn in my life), I sometimes get teased by folks who’ve just arrived from the snowy lands of the Northern US or Canada. Understandable!

But then again, so be it! There’s no shame in wearing the proper thermal protection – just the opposite, in fact, if you recall your training… I just want to make sure I stay warm – and free from discomfort and any distractions – so I can thoroughly enjoy each and every 60 min.+ dive. 

But again, most divers in Cozumel are very comfortable in a good 3mm full suit, or a shorty with a long skin to protect arms and legs from sun, and also from the occasional underwater brush with fire coral or microscopic jellies that might be in the current (not common, but…you never know).

The overall air climate on the island is pretty much always 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 with you in case of short showers, and also to block some of the local breezes, especially when you are out on the water. 

See my full guide to wetsuits in Cozumel post, for help choosing the right wetsuit(s), thermal layers, and other essential boat garments you’ll likely want to pack.

High Water Visibility All Year

Perhaps the most noteworthy benefit of diving in Cozumel is the consistently clear visibility. 

Most dives in the national marine park boast visibility of at least 100ft+ (30+meters), and more like 200 and beyond. 

Of course, there are a handful of random days when the current is strong and things get churned up a bit.  But that is definitely not the norm, here. 

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.

Dive Training Magazine

In Cozumel, the odds are in your favor to be on the shimmering and glorious side of things.  Again, of course barring the occasional weather event.

Cozumel’s Fun 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 this practice of diving along with a steady ocean current. And I’ve seen our local 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 on a day-to-day basis.  

Most Cozumel dive sites have a gentle drift, carrying you along the dive 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 indeed far more difficult, though, so be aware of some of the basic strategies for managing yourself and your buoyancy in a current.  

All Cozumel dives are guided, and your divemaster will always deploy a marker buoy before the group ascends, so your boat captain can easily find you, but you might want to visit your local dive shop or browse Amazon for a good personal surface marker buoy (SMB) – a.k.a. safety sausage – on a spool.

Divers should get to a point where they are comfortable deploying it underwater or once you safely ascend, just in case the currents pull you away from your group.

If you never get out ahead of your divemaster and pay attention to sticking with your group, though, you will be completely fine.

The easiest ways to manage your buoyancy control while diving in a current

  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 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. 

High Biodiversity and Incredible 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, nurse sharks, 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 marine park, and move on from there.  

Cozumel’s Endemic 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.  

Vibrant blue and yellow Cozumel Splendid toadfish out of its whole body exposed.

The splendid toadfish is endemic to Cozumel, meaning it was originally only found along the reef sections here, and nowhere else in the world.  Finding your first splendid toadfish here 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 this wonderful local fish, including a video capturing its odd mating call, please read this related feature article.  

Spotted Eagle Rays

Spotted Eagle Rays are Cozumel’s most majestic large 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 yet 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 the ocean 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 – more so in nearby Playa del Carmen – bull sharks.

The vast majority of sharks found at our common 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 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 Are Abundant in Cozumel

Diving here you’ll see a beautiful array of colorful reef fish that reside here. 

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

Foureye butterflyfish swimming in Cozumel

Macro Photography 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 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.

If you’re into – or want to get into – taking your own diving photos, be sure to check out the full list of recommended underwater photography gear I use throughout this blog, just at the end of this post.

Subscribe to our monthly newsletter, above, for alerts to new posts featuring our coolest macro marine life. 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.  

Large blue and red spotted cleaner shrimp in arms of a hot pink sea anemone.
See the end of this article for my favorite and EASY macro camera setup.

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

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 lay their eggs, in neat orderly rows.  

flamingo tongue sea snail with bright yellow spots and black stripes

Flamingo tongue sea snails are plentiful, here.

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 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 – octopus, basket stars, eels, king crabs

Finally, those of you who love night dives will be really happy to try one here, and it’s one the best place for first-timers, too.  

Most dive shops in Cozumel 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 reefs your shop might choose for a fantastic night dive.

Particular favorite night diving sites are Paradise Reef (formerly a common daytime 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.  

Our local night dive spots are relatively easy (as long as the current is not unusually strong), and again, the visibility here is great, making it an ideal place for 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 also 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 current.  

For more information on our local basket stars, and resident sea stars, see this related post, here.  

Some special sights at night may also include a full view of a splendid toadfish (link to feature article) 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 and Diver Safety

Trained and 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 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!  

Multiple Hyperbaric Chambers and Dive Medicine Expertise

The islandl is well-equipped with 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.  

Ideal Destination for Dive Education and Divemaster Internships

For all of the above reasons, this island 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. 

This 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.  

This island is visited by divers of all skill levels throughout the year.

Divemaster candidates flock here to take internships or the apprenticeship approach to training, and are rewarded with loads of great training and exposure.

Exposure not only to warm-water and drift conditions and a good variety of dive sites and marine life, but also – and more importantly – to a large, diverse international scuba diving client base that comes for recreational diving, as well as all the various courses and training.   

In-training divemaster candidates and assistant instructors here 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.   

Our best dive sites include 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 now offer Tech 40 and Side Mount instruction, and some others, like Cozumel Marine World, are staffed to provide the more advanced technical / tech-deep curriculum classes.  

Deep walls and infamous 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. 

Large, Friendly and Fun Dive Community

Cozumel is a beautiful, charming island known for many things – perhaps especially for being full of beautiful, charming, hardworking, friendly, and funny people.  It’s just a great hang.  

Non-divers, couples, and families can have an awesome vacation here, too, rain or shine.

As you can see above, though, it’s an incredible destination 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.  

CozInfo’s Recommended UW Camera Gear

If anyone wants to get started with underwater photography and dive photos, here’s all my favorite UW camera gear I use on every dive (*includes affiliate links).  

This dive photo kit of parts is easy and relatively inexpensive, and can also fit in your carry-on bag – a big consideration these days.   

This is the exact same setup I’ve used for years (including all the underwater images you see on this website), and the same setup I’ve seen being used by thousands of Cozumel divers over the years.  

It’s accessible and simple when you’re just starting out, but it can grow with you if you really get into the hobby – both through some manual controls, and compatible accessories, lights, etc.  

My Tried and True Dive Photography Kit: 

  • Olympus TG-6 compact camera
    Olympus’ “tough” series is inherently waterproof and dust/dirt proof, so it’s also great for other outdoor activities, or as your everyday point-and-shoot camera for weddings and events.  Small but strong. 
  • Olympus PT-059 Marine Housing. 
    Olympus’ own marine housing allows the camera’s on-board flash to operate without additional cables or added strobes. This is important.  The housing is needed for diving, but not for snorkeling or swimming depths. 
  • 64GB Memory Card. 
    I’ve used this exact card for years, and it hasn’t failed.  I bought a backup, but haven’t needed it, yet. 
  • Memory Card Reader. 
    I find this memory card reader a dead-simple way to save my photos to my MacbookPro at the end of each dive day.  I don’t want to rely on wifi during dive trips, and while I’m using the card in the card reader, I can be recharging my camera for the next day.  
  • Camera lanyard!!!!! 
    I’m not kidding – if I had a dollar for every time someone posted on social media about losing a camera on one of Cozumel’s dive sites, I’d have…hundreds of dollars.  Plus, I’ve lost my own camera and housing…TWICE!  Lesson learned.  Now I never go in without this simple coiled lanyard clip that attaches to a D-ring on my Cressi BCD, and give me plenty of range of motion, yet the security of knowing I won’t throw another camera and housing down the drain.   The best 20 bucks you’ll spend on this hobby. 

    *These are my honest opinions on products I use every day. The links above are affiliate links, where I may receive a commission on referred visits and purchases.

Rachel

Rachel runs and writes CozInfo.com when she's not diving, taking underwater photos, or trying a new local restaurant. 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.