Underwater Photographer's Guide to Cozumel, Mexico
Underwater Photographer's Guide to Cozumel, Mexico
Cozumel, Mexico's largest island, is located in the Caribbean near the Yucatan peninsula, a few miles southeast of the resort, Cancun.
Cozumel offers a unique combination of convenience, affordability, safely, and abundant marine life that attracts many underwater photographers to its warm, clear waters. Yes, there are better destinations for taking pictures of big animals, wrecks, and exotic critters, but the lee side of Cozumel is a fully protected marine park, home to many colorful fish and creatures, both large and small. The opportunities for wide angle, fish portraits, and macro photography are endless.
Drift diving is the norm in a current that generally runs from the south to the north. All diving in the marine park is guided. Dive boats drop groups of divers and their licensed dive guides off and pick them up when they surface at the end of the dive. Reefs farthest to the south consist of huge coral formations, the size of apartment houses, with walls that drop off into a blue abyss. The farther north you go, the shallower the reefs become, the smaller the coral heads, and the more abundant the fish life. A few resorts offer shore diving but the main coral reefs are only accessible from a dive boat. On the other hand, shore dives offer the opportunity of muck diving for smaller, macro subjects and the opportunity to spend lots of time playing with the camera.
Palancaris too long of a reef to do in one dive and, so, is divided into named sections: Palancar Bricks, Palancar Horseshoe, Palancar Caves, and Palancar Gardens. Jacque Cousteau made this reef system famous in the 1950's when he brought Calypso to Cozumel and filmed his team of divers on the reef for television. Large coral formations are bordered on the east with sand and on the west with deep water. Scuba dives are normally done along the drop off with the possibility of some penetration of the wall via large swim-throughs. This is the ideal place for wide angle images of divers against the wall and huge, colorful sponges. Palancar is also where you are very likely to encounter numerous hawksbill turtles.
El Paso del Cedral,north of Palancar, can be dived either along the wall or shallow. The wall offers large fish, nurse sharks, big parrotfish, and turtles feeding on sponges. The main reef is intermediate in size and has an amazing tunnel system through the reef. This reef is the best bet to find a large green moray eel, and is home to a large school of residentporkfish (Anisotremusvirginicus).
Paradise Reef is the other end of the spectrum and the northern most portion of the marine park. Here, the reef is shallower and full of many, colorful tropical fish. The coral heads are smaller than on the reefs to the south. Paradise is a popular second dive site after diving on a deep reef to the south or as a night dive. The dive guide may point out a colorful splendid toadfish (Sanopussplendidus) in its den, a colorful purple and yellow fish found only in to Cozumel's waters. This is also a great reef to photograph the beautiful queen angelfish (Holacanthusciliaris). Some dive guides like to take photographers onto the turtle grass area to look for seahorses. The grassy area is a wonderful place for muck diving, Cozumel style.
A few hotels and dive resorts offer shore diving off the iron shore in front of their locations. Here, an underwater photographer can dive without a guide and find many interesting macro subjects to film. Shore dives are fantastic opportunities to play with a camera and capture images not possible on the reefs during a drift dive.
The "trifecta" - nurse shark, turtle, and green moray eel.
Larger fish - groupers, parrotfish, permits, jacks, barracuda. Protection in the marine park means there are many large fish often absent in places where they have been overfished.
Intermediate fish – grunts/snappers, angelfish, eels, butterfly fish, et al.
Macro subjects – shrimps, crabs, pipehorses
Nearly all the fish and creatures described in Paul Humann's guides to Florida, Caribbean, and Bahamas are found in Cozumel's waters.
While a point-and-shoot underwater camera can capture some great images, more serious photographers will want to bring a good DSLR or one of the newer mirrorless cameras with interchangeable lenses.
I recommend packing at least three lenses when going to Cozumel: WA, portrait, and macro. A wide angle or fish-eye lens (~15 mm) is appropriate for deep, wall dives; a portrait or intermediate zoom lens is best for pictures on the shallower reefs; and a good macro lens (105 mm) is an absolute necessity for shore diving. In short, bring them all!
Videographers are finding GoPro cameras to be fantastic for underwater shooting. It is best to use orange filters for wide angle and available, flip macro diopters are convenient for little stuff where you will want video lights to bring out the color.
Photo tips and techniques
If you are going to Cozumel, you should have good buoyancy control and be comfortable diving in a current. Since you won't have much time to spend with each photo opportunity, think about your camera settings in anticipation of getting that award winning image, you may only get that one chance. Periodically, take throwaway pictures of the water and underexpose for dark blue backgrounds.
Drift diving can make macro photography challenging. This doesn't mean it can't be done, but it requires dropping out of the current and taking only a couple of shots before moving on with the group. Once again, anticipate, preset exposure, etc. on a rock before you shoot the critter. Photographers may also want to carry a "muck stick" to aid in stopping and to avoid touching the reef.
Taking pictures of fish hiding in holes, like the splendid toadfish requires using a long focal length lens or setting, moving the strobes in close to the lens and pointing straight forward in order to get light into the hole.
From the United States, Cozumel is very easy to get to. American and United Airlines offer daily flights from several gateway cities. English (with a Texas accent) is widely spoken and American dollars are accepted everywhere.
What is the best time of year to visit Cozumel? All year long, but keep in mind winter is the high season, the water is cooler (high 70's F), and there is the possibility of a "norther" storm that may close the port for dive boats. But, winter is also the best time of the year to see spotted eagle rays. Summer is the off-season, water is warm (low to mid 80's), and you run the slight possibility of a hurricane.
Where to stay? Cozumel offers a full range of accommodations and amenities from upscale to inexpensive, from room-only to all-inclusive, the choice is yours.
Popular with scuba divers: Scuba Club Cozumel or Blue Angel
Upscale resorts: Cozumel Palace, El Presidente
Budget accommodations: many to choose from
Many, many others.