COZUMEL, Mexico -- It took only one dive into the blue Caribbean waters off the island of Cozumel for the late marine biologist Jacques Cousteau to declare the coral reefs among the world's greatest.
Even inexperienced scuba divers can tell they're drifting along something special when exploring the reefs of the island just off Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula.
The Mayan Coral Reef is the world's second-longest, trailing only the Great Barrier Reef off Australia's northeastern coast. Divided into sections including the Palencar, Columbia and Francesa, the reef showcases much of the vibrant life found in the Caribbean.
Diving here is instantly different from many other sites in one important regard -- it's drift diving, where the current takes divers hundreds of yards from their boats.
Cozumel's divemasters and boat captains are well versed in where the current carries divers, so there's little danger involved. Divers say the drift has its good and bad aspects.
''Drift diving to me is a little more cumbersome, because if you see something you want to see, you can't stop,'' says Jeannie Davis of Dalton, Ga., who has dived in Cozumel about seven times with her husband, Johnny.
''That's the disadvantage to drift diving,'' Johnny Davis says. ''The advantage is that you can go farther and see more. You don't spend as much energy, and you can stay down longer.''
Scientists say the current actually helps breathe life into Cozumel's reefs, healing broken coral and feeding nourishment to a dazzling array of aquatic animals.
Larger-than-usual angelfish in a variety of colors float majestically among the coral, while lobsters and crabs crawl mostly undetected along the sandy floor. Divers often spot nurse or even blackfin sharks, along with eels, barracuda and sting rays. The section of the Columbia reef known as Tortugas (Spanish for 'turtles') is aptly named.
John Damrell of King Wood, Texas, has dived all across the Caribbean -- Belize, the Cayman Islands, St. Martin, Jamaica, St. Lucia and other spots. But he keeps returning to Cozumel -- more than 50 times over the past 20 years.
''I think some of the places that are harder to get to are a little nicer,'' Damrell says, ''but I'd rate this right at the top for good dives and fun.''
The fun of the island -- which is also known for nightclubs such as Carlos 'n Charlie's -- goes all night long, as tourists' dollars sustain the economy of an island that was a commercial center during the Mayan era.
All-inclusive resorts dot the island's western, protected coast -- the side with the reefs. Good snorkeling and shore dives can be had from the resorts' white beaches. Landlubbers can sit by the ocean or visit the island's bounty of shops and restaurants, which draw three or four cruise ships for daylong portages during the busy season.
That season, longtime divemaster Rodolfo Soltero says, lasts from March to August. ''We'll work very steady all of August, and then in September, we'll dive 30 people,'' he says.
The drop-off doesn't occur because of the weather. The water in late August is at its warmest -- 82 degrees -- and diving in just a swimsuit and T-shirt is comfortable for many. But the water temperature never drops below 75 degrees, Soltero says, meaning wet suit diving is good year-round.
Soltero, a divemaster here for 23 of his 55 years, says an average day for his boat during the busy season is about eight people making two dives each.
Cozumel's popularity has increased sharply over the past two decades -- about a half million people dive here every year, Soltero says. But the crowds for his boat, ''The Anita,'' haven't skyrocketed in kind.
The reason? Whereas there were five dive shops operating about 25 boats when Soltero began his career, now some 80 dive shops run 300 or so boats.
The crowds, however, haven't detracted from the experience. The reef is long enough that groups don't bump into one another, and the current provides enough rejuvenation.
''Even with so many divers, there's so much life,'' Soltero says. ''They say -- the marine biologists -- that when your water starts getting contaminated, the turtles are the first things to go. And we see lots of turtles.''
Damrell remembers when the island was less popular and much cheaper. A Wednesday-to-Sunday dive trip cost about $500 a person, he says -- flight, lodging, food, diving and all.
The trip still can be made relatively cheaply and easily. Direct flights to Cozumel from the United States come only from Houston, but the trip from Cancun International Airport to Cozumel requires only a 45-minute bus ride to Playa del Carmen ($14 round-trip) and a 35-minute ferry ride to Cozumel ($17 round-trip).
The all-inclusive resorts can cost much more than $100 per person a night but often run promotions, especially for people booking a dive trip. Hotels just off the waterfront can cost as little as $50 per person, based on double occupancy.
Cozumel has a variety of restaurants, ranging from Italian and Chinese to traditional Mexican fare, but the main attraction is the seafood. The island's seafood restaurants offer sumptuous choices -- fried conch, ceviche (a traditional Latin American mixture of fish, shrimp, squid and octopus soaked with citrus juices, topped with red and green chiles and served in Mexico on toasted tortillas), sweet lobster tails, stuffed squid, grouper or shrimp -- for $20 and upward.
The diving is reasonable, too. Soltero charges $70 a day for two dives without equipment, $80 for those who need a breathing apparatus, BC vest and the optional wet suit. That's similar to prices among the other numerous dive shops, but dive trips often are included in package deals offered by resorts.
Jeannie Davis says the variety of sea life underwater makes the rest of the trip -- no matter how it's made -- all worthwhile.
''We've dived with three different outfits here and they were all superior,'' Davis says. ''I've never felt uncomfortable with any of them. They watch you, they know where you are.''
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