COZUMEL - Three weeks is not enough!

Outer Bamnks diving on the Great Escape Southern California Live-Aboard Dive Boat

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Posted by Jim on August 29, 2008 at 06:20:43:


We talked Jesús into taking us back to Tormentos Reef to look for a pipehorse we saw seen the previous week. In preparation, I housed my camera to shoot macro, with a 50mm lens and 1.4x teleconverter. [One drawback to housed dslr cameras is the inability to change lenses once underwater. To paraphrase a country western tune, you must dance with the one you brought. I think you can see where this is going…]

Tormentos was to be the second dive of the day; the first dive site was Dalila Reef. On our way to the dive, to the joy of the passengers on board, a couple of dolphins joined us riding the boat's bow wake. Cool! While not rare in Cozumel, dolphins are unusual sights on the surface; you never see them underwater. The ancient Greeks believed dolphins were harbingers of good luck. Yeah, right!

I opted not to carry my camera on the first dive, thinking it's set up for macro and I can't shoot anything bigger than a couple of inches in size anyway. As I stepped off the swim step, the boat's captain, Henry, shouted, "They're under the bow!" What? Where? Once under water, I turned to face the bow and to my amazement and chagrin, the two dolphins did not swim away, but stayed to play!!!!!!! This wasn't happening to me! This was a bad dream, a nightmare! The opportunity of a lifetime, an under water encounter with wild dolphins in Cozumel of all places, and I didn't have a camera with me. Even worse, the camera on the boat was set up for macro, so it wouldn't do me any good to go get it. All I could do was watch in horror as Margaret photographed the evil beasts. Surely, the dolphins knew, through some sort of mysterious psychic powers, that I couldn't take any pictures. I hate dolphins!

To make matters even worse, during the dive we saw turtles, a sleeping nurse shark, a huge grouper, and lots of colorful fish; each one allowing me to get up close and personal; I could hear them yelling, "Hey guys. Look, Jim doesn't have a camera. Get close to him and pose." I hate fish!


Every cloud has a silver lining. My nephew, James, opted not to do the first dive and stayed on the boat. After we jumped in, the captain told him to get his fins and mask, the dolphins were still under the boat. He got to snorkel with them for about ten minutes! Wonderful!

The pipehorse (Acentronura dendritica)

Earlier this year Deborah finally capitulated, "OK! Enough already! Stop your whining. We can go to Cozumel for three weeks." Don't you just love a sweet talking woman? No sooner said than done. I called Debbie Lanham to book the room and then called Continental to make our plane reservations. In hindsight it was a good thing, too, because the airlines announced shortly thereafter that they were going to start charging for checked bags and airfare went through the roof as gasoline prices spiked.

August 2, we did the usual "red eye" from LAX to Houston, connected with a flight into San Miguel, and arrived at Scuba Club Cozumel in time for lunch.

Scuba Club Cozumel

Scuba Club Cozumel

Sofia graciously greeted us as we went to the front desk, "Welcome home, Jim and Deborah." It was good to be back once more at our favorite dive resort in the whole wide world. Scuba Club Cozumel is wonderful. We have stayed there, once or twice a year, for almost twenty years. The hotel is a semi all inclusive – room, diving, and meals; drinks are not included. The rooms are a mixture of interesting architecture, the staff is like family, the food is great, and the diving is superb. They have unlimited shore diving – take a tank and go. All the dive boats have marine heads, carry Oxygen, and are shaded. I've talked about SCC in many of my my previous trip reports. If anyone has any questions, I would be happy to correspond with them.

I'll keep the narrative to a minimum and the pictures to a maximum.

After the "divers' special" lunch of chicken tostadas, we unpacked our gear, set up the cameras and went for a long shore dive. The water was 84 degrees and you could see, what seemed like, forever – at least 100 feet; just like California…only different.

Under the pier, in front of SCC

The pyramid is still there. It used to be in front of the Hotel Cozumel. They placed it offshore a couple of years ago.

The next day we were off on the first of our two-tank boat dives, destinations, Dalila Reef and Paradise. Let's see, nurse sharks, black-tip reef shark, turtles, and lots of tropical fish…not too bad a start.

Sleeping nurse shark (Ginglymostoma cirratum)

Bearded fireworm (Hermodice carunculata) on gorgonium

After lunch we went for a long shore dive in front of the resort. Many divers get in the water and don't see anything worthwhile on the seemingly barren rubble and sand. But we go slow and look for little stuff, "muck diving" Cozumel style. There's a lot to see and photograph.

Squat anemone shrimp (Thor amboinenesis)

Sailfin blenny (Emblemaria pandionis)

Peacock flounder (Bothus lunatus)

We dove off the Reef Cat for most of the three weeks we were there. Captain Henry, Victor and Manuel took great care of us. Thanks, guys. We were lucky to have our favorite dive guide and friend, Jesús, for all but a few days; we have been diving with him for many years.

Chain moray eel (Echidna catenata)

Red hind (Ephinephelus guttatus)

Our dear friend, Betsy, flew in from London the next day and was put into the room next to ours (thanks, Sofia and Tim!). We first met Betsy and her husband, Tim, in the Seychelles on the Indian Ocean Explorer; they also went on our first trip to Indonesia last year. Tim was off on a five-month hike through Spain, so Betsy decided to join us in Cozumel. Unfortunately, the airlines neglected to tell her that her flights had been changed and she missed her connecting flight in Toronto. The airline put her up for the night and she was able to get on a flight the next day through Dallas. Thank goodness she was staying with us for two weeks and only missed a day of diving.

Mating flame box crabs (Calappa flammea)

Two hawksbill turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata)

Day two of boat diving took us to Colombia Bricks and then to Villa Blanca. The reefs have recovered nicely since the hurricane swept through several years ago. Lots of new sponges and healthy coral to been seen, especially on VB. Jesus found a pleurobranch (related to the nudibranchs) we had not seen before. There's always something new to surprise us, no matter how many times we return. Oh, would you believe two batfish on Villa Blanca – we've seen them only a few times and never before in a pair.

Warty sidegill slug (Plleurobranchus areolatus)

Pair of batfish (Ogocephalus parvus)

Shore dive – found a yellowhead jawfish (Opistognathus aurifrons) with eggs in his mouth! You can see the babies' eyes inside the eggs.

Once in a while, the jawfish will spit out the eggs to aerate them. I just missed getting the money shot.

Sanddiver (Synodus intermedius)

Time was flying by. I was glad we were there for more than one week. We went to Palancar Caves and then to La Palma. Several turtles, two eagle rays, a huge grouper, and the usual cast of characters entertained us.

School of margates (Haemulon album)

French angelfish (Omocanthus paru)

Seahorse (Hippocampus reidi)

The afternoon dive turned into a two hour plus dive. We each had our cameras and spent long periods of time playing with the little stuff. There's a large banded jawfish that I've been photographing for four years; I will be sad when I can't find him/her anymore. After many years, the bigeye under the ladder in front of the hotel is no longer there, probably swept away by the hurricane. That evening was Fiesta night, with tacos al carbon, taquitos, quesadillas, nachos, guacamole, tostados, etc., followed by a piñata.

Banded jawfish (Opisthognathus macrognathus)

Reef scorpionfish (Scorpaenodes caribbaeus)

Female sailfin blenny ( Emblemaria pandionis)

Jesús had taken some time off to visit his family in Campeche, so we dove with Manuel ("Free Willie") who is a pleasure to dive with. Manuel loves to dive and it shows. We did Colombia "Deep" on the first dive in a mild current and great visibility – another black tip reef shark, turtles, groupers, etc. The second dive was Punta Tunich in a strong current. We flew the reef, past some turtles, large angelfish, and super male parrotfish. Better than Mr. Toad's ride at Disneyland any day.

Wide angle on the deep reef

Super male rainbow parrotfish (Scarus guacamaia)

Betsy and I did a shore dive in the afternoon. We located another banded jawfish and another yellow headed jawfish with eggs in his mouth; this one was a little skittish and at one point disappeared into his hole and pulled a rock over the opening!

Permit (Trachinotus falcatus)

Underwater photographers try to avoid pictures of fish butt. (Sometimes, rules are meant to be broken.) Southern stingray (Dasyatis americana)
and Deborah.

We went back to Dalila. In a blowing current, we dropped in near the end of the reef. More nurse sharks, lots of turtles and big groupers. I can remember years ago when they were feeding the groupers and they were always in your face. Now they've stopped feeding them, you can hardly get near them with a camera. The second dive was Tormentos with barracuda, spotted drums, a huge lobster walking on top of the reef. Too soon we had to go up for our safety stop and return to the boat. The afternoon dive was back to visit the jawfish and try and catch them with their eggs in their mouths.

Hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata)

Eagle rays (Aetobatus narinari)

The Reef Cat had the day off, so we were put on the Observer. Manuel was our dive guide once more. Santa Rosa Wall never fails to disappoint. The swim throughs and lots of fish action make this one of my favorite dives (actually all the dives are my favorites). We repeated Villa Blanca, finding one of the batfish again and a couple of seahorses.

Batfish ( Ogocephalus parvus )

Pederson shrimp (Periclemenes pedersoni)

A group of friends from California and Bonnie Pelnar's photography group arrived at SCC on Saturday. Everyone jumped in the water off shore for a weight check. We jumped in for our normal afternoon dive with our cameras.

Pistol shrimp (Alpeus spp)

Sergeant major eggs (day one) (Abudefduf saxatilis)

Sgt major eggs (day five)

Spotted moray (Gymnothorax moringa)

Palancar Horseshoe is always a crowd pleaser – turtles, black tip reef shark, and lots of swim throughs. We moved on to Paradise for the second boat dive – squid, schools of fish under ledges…you gotta love Cozumel

Spendid toadfish (Sanopus splendidus)

Spotted spiny lobster (Panulairs guttatus)

Afternoon – Jawfish must go through a four or five day cycle on the eggs. The male that had eggs up near the pyramid was now egg-free. I located another group of jawfish and found a new male with eggs. I watched him for several days in a row to confirm the short cycle time on egg incubation.

Gray angelfish (Pomacanthus arcuatus)

Nassau grouper (Epinephelus striatus)

Bonnie (underwatercolours) met with the photo group and handed out goodies to everyone. I got to meet Jen from D2D; Ellen (ornatewrasse); and Scott Nielsen, who gave me a wonderful Christmas tree ornament – a bejeweled spotted eagle ray! Thanks, Scott.

Red hind (Ephinephelus guttatus)

Lobster (Panulirus argus)

Midnight parrotfish (Scarus coelestinus)

A woman walked by Bonnie and me as we stood talking waiting for the dive boats. "Are you father and daughter?" "No. but I wish…" Do I really look old enough to be Bonnie's dad? Don't answer that; I don't want to know.

Leslie Harris (the worm lady at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum provided the identification of this worm. "This belongs to the family Oenonidae. Pictures of it are commonly id'ed as Oenone fulgida which was described from the Red Sea. Whether there's really one species which exists in tropical & sub-tropical waters world-wide or a group of sibling species would make a nice master's thesis. Anyway, it's a specialized predator on molluscs which simultaneously smothers & paralyzes its prey with mucus containing paralytic agents. Size of the prey doesn't matter - they'll go after a small snail just as eagerly as they'll go after a tridacna."

The large banded jawfish had disappeared! Hopefully, he moved to a better place where he will live a long and peaceful life. More attempts to find jawfish with eggs – no joy. The cycle is a few days, so it's a matter of luck, catching the male with large eggs. They also were getting shyer when they were with eggs.

Nudibranch: brown doris (Discodoris evelinae)

Little hermit crab (Calcinus tibicen)

Spray crab (Percnon gibbesi)

Sailfin blennies are a hoot – hard to photograph in full display. Imagine lying still for thirty minutes, popping image after image in hopes of catching the little buggers in full display. Thank God for digital cameras and large capacity memory cards.

Sailfin blenny ( Emblemaria pandionis )

My youngest son, Tom, and his wife arrived to spend a week with us. Yippee!

Betsy on the reef

Manuel with anchor near Colombia "bricks":

Nurseshark ( Ginglymostoma cirratum )

We opted to do the C-53 wreck one afternoon. I'm happy to report the wreck is still upright and whole despite rumors to the contrary. She did buckle a little in the middle during the hurricane, but she wasn't moved to shallower water nor turned in any way. I talked to someone who dove on the wreck earlier during the week, lots of big groupers and schools of glassy sweepers were present, but the big fish were absent on the wreck for our dive. Ah, the changing ocean.



C-53 window

"What kind of camera is that?"

"An Olympus E-330 in an Ikelite housing with dual Ikelite DS-125 strobes. Zuiko lenses: 50mm, 7-14mm, 14-54mm."

Deborah on Villa Blanca

Deborah took second place in Bonnie's photo contest with her picture of a Thurdilla picta nudibranch! She overheard someone say, "There are no nudibranchs in Cozumel," and decided no one else would have any slug images to compete with hers. She also was awarded an Honorable mention. I got three HMs. Did I ever mention that I taught Deborah everything she knows about u/w photography?. She's getting better and better with that little Olympus SP-350. I'd better watch out.

Deborah's winning image:

Scott Nielsen placed first with a wonderful shot of a jawfish, also taken with an Oly SP-350.

Link to all the winners: August 2008 winners

Betsy and the second-week group left on Saturday; the third-week group arrived the same afternoon, my sister, brother-in-law, nephew, George (regtek), Susan, et al…the party continued. Maybe three weeks wasn't going to be enough.

Turtle with Deborah

Rock beauty (Holocanthus tricolor)

The currents were mild in the first part of our trip, but turned ugly one day. Not only was the current very strong, but was squirrely, changing direction periodically. We unfortunately had opted to dive Punta Sur and had a hard time even finding the reef in the poor visibility caused by blowing sand. The second dive at Paso de Cedral was very exciting, an E-ticket ride with too much sand and current to take any good pictures. The next few days were back to normal with mild currents and fantastic visibility. Note: the day after the very strong currents, the water temperature had dropped to a chilly 80 degrees from the previous 83/84 degrees before and after. I was comfortable in my 3/2 wetsuit for all the dives, YMMV.

Pair of lobsters (Panularis argus) – reminds me of the Volkswagen emblem

Deborah in window

From a night dive on Villa Blanca in a screaming current:

Octopus (Octopus briareus)

Clinging crab (Mithrax spinosissimus)

Our dear friend Margaret (senioraweeb) celebrated a milestone on this trip - she is now, officially, OLD! She claims that birthdays celebrated outside of the U.S. don't count. As Margaret doesn't like cake, the kitchen made her a flan "cake". Happy birthday, Margaret, and many more!

Some more pictures from the trip:

Barracuda (Sphyraena barracuda)

The last thing many fish see! Goldentail moray (Gymnothorax miliaris) – reverse color (rare)

Fileclam (Lima scabra)

White speckled hermit crab (Paguristes punticeps)

Neon goby (Gobiosoma oceanops)

Banded coral shrimp (Stenopus hipidus)

Boxcrab (Callapa gallus)

Jesús (aka "El Guapo") demonstrating how to slow yourself in a current by dropping down behind any structure on the reef. Warning, this requires excellent buoyancy control.

"Go away!" Roughhead blenny (Acantemblemaria aspera)

Black grouper (Mycteroperca bonaci)

Scrawled filefish (Aluterus scriptus)

Pair of yellowhead jawfish

Tang being cleaned (Acanthurus coeruleus)

Hogfish (Lachnolaimus maximus)

Trunkfish (Lactophrys triqueter)

Blue parrotfish (Scarus coeruleus)

Sagassum triggerfish (Xanthichthys ringens)

Moon jelly (Aurelia aurita)

Octopus (Octopus vulgaris)

Lesser electric ray (Narcine brasilensis)

Flying gurnard (Dactylopterus volitans)

White grunts (Haemulon plumierii) with isopod parasites on their faces.

Male peacock flounder displaying. ( Bothus lunatus)

Flying queen angelfish (Holocanthus ciliaris)

Three weeks was not enough! Deborah, how about a month next time?

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