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The corals of Cozumel

Pamela LeBlanc explores the underwater world at Cozumel, where its 60-foot spires of coral inspired the great deep-sea explorer Jacques Cousteau.
We're docked at a weathered wooden pier on the south end of Cozumel, soaking up some sun as we listen to our dive master, Polo, reminisce about the days when Jacques Cousteau explored the coral reefs here.

Cousteau declared Cozumel a diving paradise in 1962, when he first saw Palancar Reef, with its 60-foot spires of coral and thick forests of sponges and sea fans. In the years following, his boat, The Calypso, could be spotted skimming the warm turquoise waters around the island.

Today, it's easy to see why he came. The reef still looks as if a painter emptied his supply kit here, drizzling giant tubes of purple, mustard yellow and red over a garden of coral and marine life.

In recent years, hordes of cruise ship passengers have descended on the 33-mile-long island's only town, San Miguel, stealing some of its rustic charm. Avenida Rafael E Melgar, the thoroughfare that runs along the city's nine-mile waterfront, is swamped with tourists and chain restaurants like the Hard Rock Cafe. But despite what the cruise ship crowd might believe, the town isn't the draw.

The real attraction lies underwater. And thanks to a marine park created in 1996, the spectacular coral reefs here are in remarkably good condition.

Cozumel - just a two-and-a-half-hour non-stop charter flight from Texas - is one of the top dive destinations in the world. Experienced divers know that two things are a given here - visibility of 120 feet or more and a stiff current that whisks you over an incessant canvas of fish, coral and invertebrates.

The water is so clear that diving is more like flying than swimming. You soar over an underwater mountain range, zooming over craggy peaks and swooping down into coral-studded crevices. Along the way, spiny lobsters wave their tentacles, anemones undulate their neon-coloured fingers and queen angelfish, with their vibrant blue and yellow spade-shaped bodies, glide past. It's a buffet of marine life that includes Hawksbill turtles, nurse sharks, crabs, squid and tiny snail-like creatures called flamingo tongues.

Cozumel Reefs National Marine Park extends along the southwestern third of the island's coast, covering 67,133 acres. Touching coral is forbidden within the park's boundaries, as is fishing, feeding or disturbing the marine life. Every tourist who dives must pay a $2 daily fee to help finance scientific research and monitoring of the reefs.

We spent four days diving with Deep Blue, one of dozens of dive shops on Cozumel. It uses a fleet of small, fast boats that carry groups of six or eight divers at a time. (Trust me - you don't want to be on one of the island's infamous ‘cattle car' dive boats, which carry two dozen or more divers at a time.)

If you're not certified to scuba dive, you can get a taste of what it's like by snorkelling off the beaches. You won't see the main reefs, but you will glimpse creatures you probably have only seen in aquariums. You'll also want to come back to dive.

The dive masters we met were all veteran divers with an obvious passion for the sea. Polo, with his curly hair and sun-baked skin, regaled us with tales of long-distance swims and beach-side barbecues.

I've logged more than 70 dives since I took up the sport five years ago, and I still can't resist the lure of Cozumel. Some divers avoid the island because of the crowds, but people flock here for a reason: stellar diving that's easily accessible from the United States.

But the diving is not easy. That brisk current can toss and turn you if you're not prepared, and it makes maintaining just the right buoyancy tricky for beginners. It also makes anchoring a dive boat impossible, so boats drop divers into the water and follow their trail of bubbles until they're ready to be picked up.

The payoff is worth it. In a span of 45 minutes, you can see everything from sea horses and porcupine puffers to one remarkable creature - the splendid toadfish that's not found anywhere else. And the two main reefs here - Columbia and Palancar - are teeming with life.

Like many dive shops on the island, Deep Blue emphasises the importance of protecting the reef. Safety is also paramount. Before every dive, a dive master fluent in English briefed us on what to expect - how deep we'd be going, for how long, and what we could expect to see.

More than 60,000 divers visit here annually, diving in waters whose temperatures hover between 78 and 82 degrees year-round. Cozumel also has three decompression chambers at the ready to treat divers who get into trouble.

We started our morning with a dive at Palancar's Horseshoe dive site, where Cousteau first dove in Cozumel. Palancar Reef, which has been called the Mount Everest of the Caribbean, is divided into sections - Palancar Caves, Palancar Deep, Little Horseshoe, Big Horseshoe, Palancar Gardens and La Francesca.

On one dive, we encountered something I'd never seen in years of diving in Cozumel and Roatan, Honduras. At 60 feet, our dive master tapped his knife urgently against his tank to get our attention, then motioned at something hulking and white in the distance. But this was no great white shark. As we approached a submarine, we saw tourists inside, snapping pictures of us. We smiled and waved and took a few shots ourselves.

We found out later that Atlantis Submarines (www.GoAtlantis.com) takes tourists on two-hour excursions along the reef, giving people who can't - or don't want to - dive a way to glimpse the beauty of the underwater world. The vessels carry up to 48 tourists.

Between dives, Deep Blue shuttled us to the beach, serving us sodas and fresh-cut wedges of canteloupe and watermelon, a treat not all shops provide. One day, our dive master entertained our group by weaving a four-inch grasshopper out of a palm frond.

After an hour or so of ‘top time' to let nitrogen levels in our blood return to safe levels, we headed out for another dive. This time, we paddled through winding canyons, across sand-swept underwater dunes and into coral-crusted swim-through arches.

With every discovery - a trunkfish using its fins to blow sand from the ocean floor, a three-foot grouper with its mouth wide open so a smaller fish could clean algae off its scales - the magic became clearer. No wonder Cousteau was fascinated. © New York Times

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