Mexico: Scuba-Diving Paradise

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The country of Mexico is a paradise for scuba diving on its east and west coasts. Each area has its own personality and offers different photo opportunities. This is just a partial list of some of the beautiful locations that will appeal to and challenge the underwater photographer.

Above image: Nurse shark and moray eel under a ledge in Cozumel

Revillagigedo

Let’s begin our diving journey on the west coast. Revillagigedo is adventure diving at its best. This archipelago is 250 miles (402k) from Los Cabos, and always offers the possibility of giant manta rays, whales, dolphins and many species of shark. But this is not an aquarium; the only things guaranteed are water and rocks. The underwater image producer will want to use a wide-angle lens. The closer you are to your subject, the better your image quality will be. Fisheye lenses can be extremely useful.

Wide-angle lenses are best for large marine life.

The Nautilus live-aboard fleet now has three ships exploring this area, and the crew is very experienced in guiding divers in this region. One of their ships is the luxury live-aboard Nautilus Belle Amie. This 135' (41 m) ship is stabilized with a wide beam and deep draft. The vessel is very comfortable, even in rough seas. The friendly and helpful crew puts safety first, but also makes sure the guest are comfortable and having fun. The Belle Amie meets SOLAS safety standards—the same standards used by the large cruise ships. Ernie Brooks photographs decorate the ship’s walls and will inspire you to create great images.

Giant manta rays allow divers to get close.

The Nautilus live-aboards are very photographer friendly. On the main deck, there is a large camera table and charging station. Photographers leave their chargers, extra batteries, and ports on this table to power up. This is also the place to keep your camera and housing between dives.

The Belle Amie departs from Los Cabos, Mexico. The ship leaves Wednesday evening and arrives at the dive site Friday morning. Diving is done from large inflatable skiffs—the crew will be happy to hand your camera rig to you as you get on and off the skiff. Divers back-roll from the skiff in unison. Because the current can be strong, it is best to roll into the water while holding your housing. You can also hand your rig to a crew member before climbing the ladder back on board.

These are volcanic islands; the volcano on San Benedicto Island last erupted August 1, 1952. The island looks barren, but it does have a population of seabirds, so it is worth bringing a telephoto lens. You can always ask a crew member to take you out in one of the skiffs to photograph the birds around the island.

Bring a telephoto lens to photograph the birds.

“The Boiler” is one of the premiere dive sites off San Benedicto. This is a large pinnacle that comes within several meters of the surface. It is a volcano crater that has eroded away over the years. On The Boiler, it is common to have excellent interactions with many mantas at the same time. You could tell that the mantas are as excited to see the divers as the divers are to see the mantas. The mantas will approach divers and enjoy getting a bubble massage when a diver blows bubbles on their underside.

Giant Manta ray over The Boiler

“The Canyon” is another excellent site off San Benedicto. Here you can observe white tip sharks, midnight parrotfish, and a large school of clarion angelfish. Most of the clarion angelfish population is found in the Revillagigedo Islands area. These fish can be seen cleaning the giant manta rays. Clarion angelfish used to be collected from the Revillagigedo Islands for the aquarium trade but, since this is now a marine protected area, collection of these fish is prohibited. Tank-raised clarion angelfish can cost as much as $7,000!

Clarion angelfish are endemic to the area.

The island of Socorro is 30 miles south of San Benedicto. Even when sea conditions on the surface are calm, the current below could be ripping. The volcano on Socorro erupted in 1997. Sometimes, volcanic ash is in the atmosphere and floating in the water, reducing visibility. Here, when there is good visibility, you can observe white tip sharks on the ledges while silky sharks breeze by in the current.

Volcanic ash floating in the water will reduce visibility.

The most off-shore island is Roca Partida. This is a small pinnacle that is only 115' (35 m) above the water line and is 300' (91 m) from end to end. Underwater, the wall continues into extremely deep water. Here, divers might be greeted by a pod of dolphins. On the wall, there are many shelves and ridges. At 40' (12 m), there is a cave. White tip sharks line these ridges, many of them juveniles. There are schools of jacks off in the blue-water.

White tip sharks on the ledges

Revillagigedo diving is at its best when mantas approach from every direction and they are in an extremely playful mood. They will do spins, flips, and you might see two or three together doing acrobatics. Besides still images, you could capture some very entertaining video. It has been reported that a giant manta fin once breached the surface and appeared to wave good-bye to the divers. You just cannot make this stuff up!

Juvenile white tip shark uses a large moray eel as a pillow

La Paz

Just a three-hour drive north of Los Cabos is the capital city of Baja California Sur: La Paz. This city has a small-town feel and is on the Gulf of California coast. La Paz literally means, “The Peace.” Isla Espíritu Santo is an island that is a two-hour boat ride from La Paz. This island is protected, and is part of the Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO. The highlight for divers and snorkelers is the large sea-lion colony to the north of the island.

Sea lions frolic on the surface
Mother and pup affectionately playing

From just under the surface to about 60' (18.29 m) of water is a playground for male, female, and baby sea lions. It is not unusual for the sea lions to come over and look divers in the face. The pups compete for the attention of the photographers. It is heartwarming to see the way the pups and cows affectionately play with each other. The huge bulls swim by just watching over this frenetic scene.

Sea lion seeing his reflection in a dome port
Sea lions playing hide and seek
Sea lions and sardines

Yucatán Peninsula and Cozumel

On the east coast, the Yucatán Peninsula and Cozumel Island are close to each other. While Cozumel has the largest reef in the northern hemisphere, the Yucatán Peninsula has some of the best cavern and cave diving in the world. These underwater wonders feel as close to being on another planet as possible, while still being on Earth.

Caverns and caves

Pro Dive International is a PADI 5-Star Dive facility and Career Development Center that runs the scuba concessions in several resorts in Cozumel, Playa del Carmen, and the Dominican Republic. With an experienced supportive staff and well-set-up dive centers, they are the perfect operation to guide your dives.

In Cozumel, the center is set up for recreational diving and training. Advanced specialty courses are offered. Dive boats get divers to the sites fast, due to their proximity and the boats’ speed. The rental gear is in superior condition, nitrox is free, and Pro Dive can arrange excursions to Playa del Carmen for bull-shark diving, whale sharks, sailfish runs, and cenotes.

Bull sharks come close to shore in Playa del Carmen in the winter.

Allegro is a resort with locations in Cozumel and Playa del Carmen from which Pro Dive operates. These resorts offer an all-inclusive program and conveniently sit in front of a beautiful beach. Besides diving, other water sports offered include windsurfing, body-boarding, sailing, snorkeling, fishing, and kayaking.

There is plenty for your non-diver travel partner to do, but these resorts takes scuba diving seriously. Besides catering to experienced divers, non-divers can try diving in the hotel’s pool with one of Pro Dive’s instructors.

Non-divers try scuba diving in the hotel’s pool.

The Island

Cozumel, Mexico’s largest Caribbean island, is on the other side of the Yucatán Channel, opposite Playa del Carmen. The Mayan people called the island “Ah Cuzamil Peten,” which means “the island of swallows.” Besides diving, there are several Mayan ruins in Cozumel to explore. El Caracol (the snail) is a small ruin located in the Punta Sur Eco Beach Park, along with the Faro Celerain Lighthouse, with its charming nautical museum, and Laguna Colombia. Visitors can take a boat ride through the lagoon to observe birds and crocodiles.

El Caracol (The Snail) is a small Mayan ruin, located in the Punta Sur Eco Beach Park.

Diving Cozumel

Cozumel was named by Jacques Cousteau as one of the top 10 dive spots in the world, in 1961. Most of the diving takes place in the Cozumel Reefs National Marine Park. This protected area was created in 1996. The park is home to some 26 types of corals, with more than 100 subspecies. More than 500 fish species live in the park.

Cozumel Reefs National Marine Park has lush sponges and coral.

Many of the dive sites are walls swept with currents that can be strong. This is drift diving, at times; it is difficult to stop and smell the sponges. On the walls, it is possible to get to a sheltered area out of the current. On the flat reefs, divers are exposed, and it can be challenging to get out of the current to take photographs. Many photo opportunities can be missed as one drifts with the current, as a variety of marine life swims by effortlessly.

Barracuda swim in the current effortlessly.

Some of the most popular dive sites include the Santa Rosa Reef, Palancar Gardens, Palancar Caves, Cedral Wall, and Paso Del Cedral. These healthy reefs have dazzling coral tunnels, overhangs, steep drop-offs and swim-throughs. Here you can observe barracuda, lobsters, moray eels, grunts, sea turtles, and different species of angelfish. The splendid toadfish is a species endemic to Cozumel.

The splendid toadfish is a species endemic to Cozumel.

Macro, wide, and fisheye lenses are useful at every dive site. It is best to do multiple dives at each site, changing lenses for each dive. Point-and-shoot cameras do allow you to change wet conversion lenses on a dive, but this is not the best workflow. Macro and wide-angle shooting requires a different mindset. You will get better results if you concentrate on one setup at a time.

Wide-angle lens used for shooting a large turtle

The Felipe Xicotancatl C-53 wreck is an artificial reef outside the Marine Park. The ship sits intact and upright. The propeller in the sand is now covered with marine growth and is a great place to photograph a model. The deck still has machinery and some cabins that divers can penetrate and explore. Barracuda and other marine life now live on this wreck.

Diver exploring the deck of the Felipe Xicotancatl C-53 wreck

Riviera Maya

While Cozumel Island is one of the top dive destinations in the world—you should not forget about the underwater wonders to be found on the mainland.

This area of the Yucatán Peninsula is a porous limestone platform. Millions of years ago, this area was a reef under ocean water. During the last ice age, the ocean level dropped, exposing the reef to air. The coral died, and jungle grew over the mile-thick limestone platform created by the dead coral.

The Yucatán Peninsula is a porous limestone platform.

Cave systems were formed by gradual dissolving of the highly porous coral limestone. These caves are called “solution” caves because they were formed by acidic rainfall that dissolved the alkaline limestone. Since these caves were not filled with water during this time, formations such as stalactites, which hang from the cave's ceiling, and stalagmites, which extend upward from the cavern floor, formed. Sometimes they joined together to create columns. When the Ice Age ended, 18,000 years ago, the climate of the planet warmed up, and the caves flooded as sea levels rose. These cave formations are frozen in time, since they cannot form underwater. These stalactites and stalagmites can be used to create spectacular photographs.

Stalactites and other cave formations are frozen in time.

When a cave ceiling collapses, a cenote is formed. The word “cenote” is derived from the Mayan word “ts’onot,” which means “sacred well.” Cenotes were the only source of fresh water for the Mayan people and they considered them sacred. The Mayans believed that cenotes were the entrance to the "underworld," or "Xibalba," where their gods lived and the human spirit resided after death.

Diving in the cave zone where no light exists requires special training. To create the best images, one should use off-camera lights to light up the background and other areas in a cave. You should not attempt cave photography until you are completely comfortable and experienced in this overhead environment.

Cave diving requires special training.

The cenotes are in the cavern zone. Taking a cavern course is a good idea, but these areas can be dived by all open-water divers if accompanied by a properly trained guide with an official cenote guide certification. Cenote Ponderosa, Cenote Chac Mool, and Cenote Kukulkan are just a few of the spectacular cenotes to explore.

Pro Dive’s cavern guides are fully certified cave divers.

The visibility can be more than 100' (30 m), and the water temperature is around 72-75°F (22-24°C) all year round. Besides the formations in the cenotes, another interesting phenomenon one can observe is the light. Natural sunlight filters through the porous ceiling, creating a magnificent light show that is worth photographing.

Visibility in the cenotes can be more than 100 feet (30 m).

It is best to use wide-angle lenses and get close to your subjects. Using a model will add a human element to the image and show scale. Pro Dive’s cavern guides are fully certified cave divers with good trim. They are accustomed to being underwater models.

Shooting in manual-exposure mode and setting your exposure for the ambient light will capture nature’s lightshow. Strobes attached to your housing should be used to add detail to shadow areas and to light up your model. Set the strobes on low power. This way they will not overpower the ambient light.

Expose for the ambient light, use strobes to light up your model.

Besides caverns and caves, there is ocean reef diving, whale-shark snorkelling in the summer, and sailfish snorkelling in the winter. Bull sharks come close to the beach from November to March.

Photographing the sailfish offers a different set of challenges. The offshore boat ride is long and bumpy as the crew tries to spot large flocks of birds close to the waterline. The birds will be feeding on a bait ball of Brazilian sardines. Usually, you will find sailfish feeding on the same bait ball underwater. Once spotted, with mask, snorkel, fins, and camera, you need to jump into the water fast. Remaining near the surface, sailfish dart around you as fast as 60 mph while the Brazilian sardines try to use you as a shield to avoid becoming a sailfish meal. Because of the speed at which this takes place, it is best to leave your strobes on the boat. Using ambient light only it is possible to capture some action-packed images.

Sailfish feeding on Brazilian sardines

Many divers travel to the other side of the world to see exotic marine life. But a short flight to our neighbor to the south offers world-class underwater photo opportunities. Just pack your underwater camera gear and head to Mexico!

3 Comments

Great article and pictures Larry! Thank you. 

What a great article. And as always, stunning photos to make up want to go there!  Thanks, Larry!

great description/photos - what camera/housing you've been using?

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