Cozumel diving Cozumel diving

Cozumel Wreck - Felipe Xicotencatl

Story by ZJ Prochazka
Photos by Bonnie Pelnar

As the ship materializes in the current ahead, I finally stop messing with my new (and so far free-flowing) regulator and kick toward the bow. A large ship underwater always seems to halt my bubbles for a moment and I stare at this massive structure that once rode atop the waves and now sits beneath them. I swim to the side and read "LARRY" in giant letters on the superstructure. "Bob" comes into focus a little to the left. Undoubtedly, these two are now sitting over margaritas on the main strip, congratulating themselves on their passage into history. That is, until the wreck manages to recover the delicate growth to hide the graffiti scratched onto its side and erase their names forever. We’re not allowed to penetrate the wreck as the dive operators do not yet have clearance to take groups inside. I float around its decks and peek into the windows where new settlements of tiny blue tang stare back at me.

 

The new attraction lies in the clear Caribbean waters off the Yucatan peninsula with the name Felipe Xicotencatl still visible on the transom. It is 184 feet long, 33 feet wide, sits in about 80 feet of water and since it’s the only one of its kind here, it can only be referred to as the Wreck of Cozumel. The armed ship C-53 sits on a sandy bottom between the popular dive sites of Tormentos and Chankanaab on the western side of Cozumel Island, in the state of Quintana Roo.

She sits upright with her bow pointing toward the beach, and she is literally moored to the bottom with long chains and cables which make sure this great hulk doesn’t move even if a hurricane should cross the area.

 

She didn’t get here by accident or as a victim of heavy weather. She was in fact, donated by the Secretary of the Navy of Mexico to be deliberately sunk and serve as an artificial reef.

The wreck is working hard to cover itself with a variety of plant life and to make itself a hospitable condo for a growing number of species of underwater organisms. The plan behind its intentional sinking was to create an alternative dive site to help alleviate the already heavy visitor traffic on nearby reefs. Structures such as oil platforms and ships have been used all over the world to increase colonization of areas of low biological diversity. Intentional wrecks create ideal hard surfaces for a variety of marine organisms, which attach themselves and eventually attract schools of ornamental as well as economically important species of fish and other creatures.

The sinking of the Cozumel ship was a spectacle that of course, did not lack for controversy. On one side was the national marine park, established on July 19, 1996 for the protection of the reefs, which have great ecological value as well as significant economic importance to the area as tourist attractions. Park management argued to add an artificial reef to the already spectacular natural formations including Punta Sur, Santa Rosa, Planacar and many other diving favorites. The point was to create a diversion for divers and to lighten the load on the coral structures. A variety of pending research projects were also cited such as the creation of an underwater laboratory to study the process of colonization and the establishment of a species and to understand the impact of sunken structures and their development as artificial reefs.

On the other side were some individuals and dive operators who felt that the addition of a "greasy" wreck to the natural splendors of Cozumel was unnecessary and posed a pollution risk to the delicate coral. Furthermore, the wreck was viewed as a man-made intrusion into what is a natural, underwater Garden of Eden. Right or wrong, it’s clear to see who won the argument as many boats filled with divers now head directly for the large buoy, which is attached with heavy chain to the metal deck below and marks the location of the ship.

The sinking was no small affair and demanded months of preparations most of which were done in the port of Tampico, Tamaulipas. All floating or non-biodegradable materials, such as wood, mattresses, stuffing and plastics were removed from her four decks and interior spaces. The tanks were flushed and cleaned. The entire boat was scrubbed and large openings were cut into the decks, hull, and interior corridors in order to allow divers to enter and leave freely. She was then towed to Cozumel where, under the supervision of "sinking experts" during an appropriate weather window in June of this year, her through-hulls were opened and the hold flooded. She settled perfectly upright onto 540 square meters of sand with little trouble except that one of her huge rudders came loose and now lies about 20 feet behind the wreck.

Like all good ships, this one has an interesting history. She was built in Tampa, Florida in 1944 by Wilson Marine and was commissioned for the US Navy as a minesweeper under the name "Scuffle". She was eventually deactivated and then donated to the government of Mexico in 1962 when she began a varied list of duties including work as an anti-drug patrol boat, a search and rescue ship, a troop transport and finally as a training vessel for cadets of a naval academy. After 55 years of service, the ship was retired on the 10th of June 1999.

The coastal waters of Quintana Roo have remained very healthy despite the crossing of Hurricane Gilbert, the near miss of Hurricane Mitch and the unusually warm waters of El Nino. It would be a safe guess that the wreck will not disturb the delicate ecology of the nearby reefs, and that in fact, it will eventually serve its original purpose of alleviating diver traffic on the coral reefs and providing a new home to many creatures. As long and the wreck gets a fair chance of attracting marine life, the ship will likely blend in and add to the already world-class diving of the island. I hope that Cozumel’s dive masters will be able to manage the Larry’s and Bob’s and keep them from attempting to make themselves "immortal". I’ll know when I return in a few months to see how the Xicotencatl has progressed.

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