Snorkel or SCUBA in Cozumel?
April 24, 2007 12:20 PM   Subscribe

Snorkel or SCUBA in Cozumel?

I have heard that Cozumel has the best coral reef for tropical fish-admirin' in the northern hemisphere (Great Barrier Reef for southern).

I'm not that keen on getting scuba-certified (and I don't want to do a possibly-cheesy at-the-resort certification). So is it worth it to go all the way to Cozumel to snorkel or should I just get scuba-certified, because it's so much better to dive?
posted by Pocahontas to Travel & Transportation around Mexico (19 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
How important is it to you to see the reef up-close, at length? I don't know that much about Cozumel, but I know that when I'm snorkeling, I can dive down a fair distance (like, maybe 15 feet max) and look around for a few seconds before surfacing, and I'm not in particularly good shape. If you want to swim over the reef, with the option to drop down and look around every now and then, that's cool, and you'll probably see a lot of nifty stuff with a snorkel and a very minimal investment of time and energy.

SCUBA Diving is (as I'm sure you know), a much more expensive and involved process. I'm Open Water certified and I love it, but there's certainly a fair bit of effort that goes into it. You'll need to memorize and familiarize yourself with a fair bit of gear and procedures, and your life seriously will depend on that knowledge. That said, it is absolutely incredible to dive on just about anything. I love the sensation of sort-of-flying, completely untethered.

If you're going specifically to see the reef and you really want to see it up close, I'd go for the SCUBA certification. If you're going to do 30 other vacation-y things too and seeing the reef is just an extra, or you're not interested in getting certified, you'd probably have plenty of fun with a good snorkel.
posted by Alterscape at 12:43 PM on April 24, 2007

I spent a week SCUBA diving in Cozumel in January '05. It was less than spectacular. It may have been the time of year, but for the entire week the visibility in the water was not that great, and there were pretty strong currents at a lot of the dive locations, so it was hard to relax and take our time while underwater because we were constantly drifting along.

Mind you, it wasn't BAD, but it wasn't mind-blowing. As my stepdad likes to say "SCUBA diving is a lot like sex. Even when it's not that great, I still have a pretty good time doing it". While those words bring up some bad mental imagery for me (Hi Mom!), I think he's actually right.

I got certified as a teenager in the Turks and Caicos Islands. Now THAT was an awesome first SCUBA experience.
posted by adamk at 12:47 PM on April 24, 2007

I can't speak to SCUBA, but we went snorkling in Cozumel and it was quite magnificent. It was a four or five hour trip at three different reefs, and I have no complaints about it, whatsoever.

We used the dive shop at our hotel (the InterContinental) and they actually seemed pretty good. They also offered number of SCUBA classes and dives, but their beginner classes were too time-consuming (4-days, 4-hours/day) for us to bother.

If I went back, I'd probably get certified in advance, then take the underwater photography classes, and go on some of their advanced dives.
posted by Tacos Are Pretty Great at 12:52 PM on April 24, 2007

Some clarification - are you saying that you want to go somewhere to either snorkel or scuba and you are thinking of Cozumel? Or are you saying that you are definitely going to Cozumel and you are wondering if it's worth spending the time and money to get certified there rather than just snorkeling?

If the former, listen to luriete above. I've snorkeled on Cozumel and investigated the scuba options (I got certified at home and then went on several excursions - Caymans, Belize) there and I'd say for a destination trip solely focused on scuba, your money is better spent elsewhere - Bonair, Turks/Cacoas, Caymans. I also think there is better snorkeling available in the other Caribbean islands. Luriete's suggestion is excellent.

If you are already going to Cozumel, and the scuba/snorkeling is one of your options for entertainment while there, I think your decision comes down to how much time you have and money. It might be well worth it to take the quicky certification course if you have the time so that you can actually get out on the reef. Snorkeling is great fun but actually getting down there under the water right next to the reef like a fish is a mind blowing experience. You'll remember snorkeling for sure, but you will be raving to your friends about scuba and re-living the experience with jaw agape for months, not to mention itching to go it again. Really, even if you do it once in your life, it's worth it as far as I'm concerned.
posted by spicynuts at 1:00 PM on April 24, 2007

i am open water certified, and just want to concur that snorkeling has its own place, and is not just some lame activity for people that aren't scuba divers. snorkeling has a lot of advantages over scuba--its lightweight, you can stop and start when you want, it can be combined with chilling on the beach, its not life threatening, it costs less, and ummmm you can do it on your own, you don't need some asshole divemaster telling you what to do....
that's just off the top of my head. Don't get me wrong, scuba is totally unique, but don't go thinking that snorkeling isn't a totally legit activitiy on its own. its well worth going to a great tropical location (I've never been to Cozumel, so I'm not vouching for that), as a snorkeler only.
posted by alkupe at 1:02 PM on April 24, 2007

their beginner classes were too time-consuming (4-days, 4-hours/day) for us to bother. this standard these days? My first scuba experience was in Hawaii when I was 16 (20 years ago). We got certified in the morning through a 1 or 2 hour class and were out in the water by noon. If it's going to take 4 days, by all means go snorkeling.
posted by spicynuts at 1:02 PM on April 24, 2007

I wanted to mention that among my fellow divers, people mostly agreed that Belize was the best diving in the North American area (I can tell you for a fact that the Red Sea is bar none, without argument, the best diving in the Northern Hemisphere).

Snorkeling is fun, and it's not like you're going to see the most incredible stuff in the universe, so go for it.
posted by mckenney at 1:20 PM on April 24, 2007

Definitely go snorkeling.

Also, if you want to try your hand (er, lungs) at scuba, you don't need to get fully certified to do a supervised shallow dive. (Spicynuts, this is probably what you did.) I'd recommend this -- it's quite a different experience than snorkel.
posted by desuetude at 1:30 PM on April 24, 2007

Go scuba diving.

On our honeymoon, my wife and I were in Cozumel and were in the same situation you describe: not certified, not all that interested in becoming certified, but wanting to go diving while we were there.

I searched around and found these folks, Eagle Ray Divers, and they were great. They offer a $75 dollar course that includes basic lessons and a dive, and isn't geared towards certification. It was perfect, and I'm really glad we did it.
posted by Gamblor at 1:37 PM on April 24, 2007

I've gone diving in Belize, though never in Mexico. However, I did snorkel in Isla Mujeres, which is like Cozumel's little sister island. Perfect white sand, turquoise water, teeming with fish---which is why it was so awful. They made us wear these enormous orange inner tube/life vest horrors. That meant no diving down, no swift flippering through the water. Coming from Belize (where laws are a little more lax), it was such a surprise. The moral: ask about the vests before you book a snorkel tour.
posted by changeling at 1:43 PM on April 24, 2007

Do both. I went down there with my gf at the time and had a blast.

Neither of us had a scuba certification, but we did a little Intro To Diving tour from a little scuba shop ("Playa Scuba", IIRC) in Playa del Carmen. Well, shit, here it is: Resort Course $75. (Gear rental may have added a little to that.) It was just a 30 min open-water dive, maybe a half-mile off shore and 25 feet down, but I was shocked and amazed by the reef life beneath the surface. (You hear about "save the reef"? Means something real to me now.) You really can't go to Cozumel without scuba diving.

Snorkeling in the cenotes was great as well, kinda like caving but, um, swimming. Very cool. We didn't use Hidden Worlds, but some smaller outfit run by locals. A guide came with us and explained the various formations, history, etc. One thing: you might bring a shorty wetsuit, as we both nearly froze our asses off (me in shorts, her in bikini) despite it being 95F+ outside. You can't go to the area without snorkeling the cenotes, either.

Seriously, do both if you have the time.
posted by LordSludge at 1:45 PM on April 24, 2007

I have not been to Cozumel, so can't comment on that. But on snorkeling vs SCUBA, I'd say that they are really different animals. It's sort of like asking, I am considering a trip around Europe, either by bicycle or by motorbike, which is better? Both snorkeling and scuba are fun, and both are in the water, but otherwise they are really different.

Snorkeling, most of your time is floating on the surface, with occasional dives down to look at something more closely -- mostly you are moving on a two-dimensional plane. The waves bob you up and down, and you need to be really careful about sunburn. You don't need to mess with gear, and you can do it totally independently -- no need for guides, groups, or other paraphernalia. And it is cheap -- most resorts have snorkeling gear to borrow, or you can buy a basic set online or in any sporting goods store.

SCUBA is more like flying, less like swimming -- you can move in all three dimensions, and once you are under the surface the waves don't toss you around. At the same time, you have to fuss with a bunch of equipment, you have to always keep your eye on the clock, and if you are in a big group there is always two irritating guys who are comparing penis size gear, and someone else who uses up all their air and needs to be escorted to the boat, and so on -- unlike snorkeling, you are not on your own or with just a friend, at least the way beginners dives at tourist places usually work. You are also much more dependent on the judgment and safety record of the people running the dive shop -- most of them are very good, but there are some jokers out there, and as a newbie it can be hard to tell them apart.

I don't know what your finances are like, or how long you will be staying there, but if you can afford it, and you will be there long enough to take in a few dives, I'd say get the certification and see if you like it. But also make sure you spend time at the cenotes -- they are an amazing feature of that area, and it would be a shame to miss them.
posted by Forktine at 2:02 PM on April 24, 2007

I have been to Cozumel and have done both, but my advice is to plan on snorkeling.
If you get the bug, there'll be someone around that'll be happy to show you the difference of scuba. I'm a very comfortable diver, but scuba is more tinkering with things and being technically interested in how you exist underwater and less time and energy spent on fish-watching.

Cozumel is like swimming in an aquarium, and to a large extent, the coolest fish and things are in the top 15 feet.

Spend the money on a -good- exposure suit, because you want protection from stinging things and sun. You'll appreciate it lots, plus, you can spend more time messing about.

Also, El Cid has the best on-site snorkeling, right out in front of the hotel. We were there in late 2003 before the hurricanes hit, and from what I hear, reef health has improved, so the biodiversity that you want to see will be there.
Email's in the profile if you want to hear more.
posted by lilithim at 2:03 PM on April 24, 2007

As others have said, you can probably see most of the same stuff snorkeling as diving. SCUBA is just a lot more fun.
posted by walla at 2:32 PM on April 24, 2007 this standard these days?

The guys at the Intercontinental seemed really professional, and had a long conversation with me about what all they would teach, what we'd end up certified for, and what was entailed.

I've had other resorts offer significantly shorter training, but I always got the feeling that they were following "International" safety standards. After all, if you die while in vacation in Mexico or Aruba, your family won't be able to sue the dive shop/paragliding operator/etc as they could in the US.
posted by Tacos Are Pretty Great at 4:02 PM on April 24, 2007

Ok, take this with a huge grain of salt, because I thought there was conventional wisdom about Cozumel which isn't reflected in the posts above.

I got certified on Maui, where I had a great time diving but also really enjoyed snorkeling. I've been to Cozumel twice, and was told/thought it was generally accepted that the fish and reefs are (generally) too far down for snorkeling and that people who wanted to snorkel might find a better place. The diving was amazing, and far more beautiful than what I saw in Hawaii. YMMV.
posted by carterk at 5:38 PM on April 24, 2007

I was in Cozumel earlier this year and did a "Discover Scuba" thing with a local dive company. I had never been and didn't need to be certified. Basically, they went over basics with me on the boat and I went about 30 ft down. It was designed by PADI if that matters to you.

The company I went with was great! It was a small boat so we had lots of personal attention and got to know the other people on our boat. We were only there for the day but others were there for multiple days. My dive instructor was awesome and extremely patient with me and stayed by my side the whole time. If you change your mind on certification they do that as well.

It sounds like you've never really done this before so that might be a good option for you. It was really great and the perfect way to experience scuba without committing to the full-scale certification.
posted by ml98tu at 6:55 PM on April 24, 2007

This is a fantastic thread full of absolutely great advice and first hand experience. OPP should favorite some of these as reference for future enthusiasts.
posted by spicynuts at 7:25 AM on April 25, 2007

Sorry, should have read the thread more closely and seen Gamblor's response. Well, that makes two votes for Eagle Ray Divers.
posted by ml98tu at 7:48 AM on April 25, 2007

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