SOME TIPS ON HOW TO PICK THE COZUMEL DIVE SHOP THAT IS PERFECT FOR YOU!
Traveling to Cozumel many times with different groups of divers at a variety of skill levels, friends, family, alone and with clients, I soon realized that not every dive operation and resort is right for every diver. When I got heavy into photography, choosing the right dive operator became even more important. Over the 30 years I've been traveling to Cozumel there have typically hundreds of active dive shops that come and go. A handful of bigger ones, and tons of individuals that rent a six-pack fiberglass hull and a motor and start up another dive shop.
Choosing the correct Cozumel dive operator for your trip is pretty simple if you keep YOUR own priorities in mind. What's important to you, might be insignificant or even offensive to someone else. There are many things that differentiate dive operators. Here are several thing you might want to consider:
- how long they have been in business (options range from a couple of weeks to 40+ years).
- how many boats they have. This could be important if they have boat problems. Having a backup insures you'll be diving.
- how big their boats are and how many passengers they put on each boat. Fast boat vs cattle boat
- most big boats carry more divers, but many are equipped to do so. They typically divide the divers up into two or three smaller groups and take them to different areas of the reef. Watch out for the dive operators who pack thirty divers onto a boat and dump them all in the same spot.
- how experienced and reliable their boat captain and crew are. Some of the boat captains there have been picking divers up for over 40 years. That's experience!
- how experienced the Divemasters are. Was he out partying the night before?
- how enthusiastic the Divemaster is about showing you a good dive. Some dive guides just float alongside the group and don't make any effort to find and point out critters. A good Divemaster will take an active interest in the dive and will point out things you would not have found on your own. On the other hand, too much tank-banging by the DM will make you crazy!
- how well-maintained the boats are.
- do the boats have heads? Not everybody pees in their wetsuit and heaven forbid, if those beans you ate last night start acting up and your closest option is overboard!
- does the boat have a safe and secure place to keep your camera at all times?
Fast Boat vs Slow Boat
You'll see a lot of chatter online about fast boats vs slow boats. This is another area of confusion, manipulation and inaccuracies because the crappy little dive shops with junk boats really push the "fast boat vs cattle boat" story. Most new divers don't know what the difference is and how it affects them. There are many kinds of boats and the speed plays only a small part in the kind of boat you'll end up diving on. Big boats can go fast, small boats can go slow. The term "fast boat" is used loosely in Cozumel and generally means a small boat, under the 39' size required to be a "big boat".
The size of the boat is important. If the port closes due to the threat of an incoming storm. Many times the Harbor Master will close the ports to small boats, but let only the big boats go diving. If you want to reduce the risk of having your dive day cancelled, go with a dive operator that has a big boat. In most cases, when the port opens its to the big boats first, then small boats later.
There are also many small dive ops that pack 8 divers on a small boat, leaving little room to move around. They are typically the ones that call the big boats "cattle boats", when in fact you might have more room per person with 10 divers on a big boat.
Being on a fast boat doesn't mean you're going to get a comfortable ride. In some cases these boats do not have shade from the sun, do not have a head, and definitely do not have a safe place to keep your camera.
The advantage of being on a fast boat is that you'll get to the reefs 15 minutes sooner than the bigger boats, but in some cases this is pretty insignificant and a hefty price to pay if you are a bit more into comfort, than speed.
Another thing to consider is if the weather kicks up while you're diving, the boat captains on the big boats have a much better vantage point for picking up divers because they are much higher out of the water. They are more likely to see divers that have surfaced and can pick them up more quickly and safely.
This doesn't mean that ALL fast boats are uncomfortable. The Belinda (Chili Charters) and Mestizo (Mestizo Divers) are two of the most comfortable fast boats I've ever been on. They both have protected areas to get out of the sun and wind, have a head, have a secure area to store your camera, and have rinse tanks.
What's Not Important
A pretty store. Whether or not they sell dive gear doesn't have anything to do with YOUR dive trip. You can buy dive gear anywhere and doing it in Cozumel is the absolute most expensive way, due to the import taxes these dive shops must pay to get the gear there. There are many dive operators that have no store at all. This is not a big deal and not having a store does not mean that they are not a good dive operation.
Looking For Referrals?
Scuba message boards and forums are loaded with plenty of individuals who know everything there is to know about Cozumel (including me ;-p). Take what you read on these boards with a grain of salt. Most the message boards do not require that the person behind the online name show their real identity. Its possible that "missy", "big joe diver", "divemommy", and "singlediver" are all the same person who will login under different names and correspond with themselves, making it look like there are a whole bunch of experienced people who just LOVE the ABC Dive Shop. Since the message boards pride themselves on how many members they have, as opposed to the quality of their information, they do not discourage this practice*. You might find this prevalent on boards that sell a lot of banner ads. So if you've got five people who jump in to recommend a particular dive shop before you tell them what your needs are, proceed with caution. What's right for someone else may not be right for you. You wouldn't let your 14-year old daughter take advice from a total stranger online, why would YOU do it when asking about a life-support sport like scuba diving? Some of the boards are not well-moderated and are overrun by dive operators and their friends trying to recruit business.
The best way to get advice on which dive shop to choose is to talk to your experienced diving friends, people you've met face-to-face who have been there. Even better if you have dived with this person, so you know where they rank. I personally have read trip reports sent to Undercurrent that were written by people from dive trips I've been on, and scratch my head wondering where they were coming from. At the same time they are looking at my pictures saying "we didn't see any of that".
You can talk to your local dive shop. Many of them have taken groups to Cozumel. If they have experience with many different operators they'll be a good source of first-hand knowledge.
Travel agents can be a good source of info too, but remember that they will likely send you to the operator that pays the highest commission, not always the best dive operator. At the end of this article is a list of travel agents that I have had first hand experience with and know they st ear you in the right direction. With your list of priorities in hand, ask them tough questions to find out if the dive shop they liked or disliked will work for your needs. Make sure you talk to people like yourself, that have had similar needs and requirements.
*Wetpixel.com is an exception. They do not allow multiple identities and will suspend an account in the event a member gets abusive. The information here is generally of very high quality and commercial posts are ONLY allowed in certain threads designed for that.
Never dive with a Cozumel dive operator that:
- Does not carry O2 onboard. Ask the DM or crew if you can see it and ask him when was the last time he used it. The point is, you want to make sure the canister is full and operational in the event YOU need it.
- Does not ask for your C-card. You don't want to be on the same boat as others who are not certified or who hasn't dived in 10 years.
- Does not have fresh water onboard.
- Does not hand you the Marine Park bracelet. Some dive operators don't hand them out to guests, so you pay them, but they never pay the Marine Park.
- Does not have a marine radio.
- Has a DM or captain with alcohol on his or her breath, even if it is from the night before.
Location, Location, Location
Location of the dive shop will undoubtedly play a part in your decision. If you're staying at a resort, most have on-site dive shops, but do also allow other dive operators to pick up at their piers. There are some exceptions, but in most cases it because that particular resort has its own dive shop on site. An example of this is Scuba Club Cozumel, a dedicated dive resort and the dive shop owned and operated by the same people. It makes sense for them to only offer diving with their dive shop. The dive shop at Scuba Club is one of the best on the island, so this should not be a deterrent. They also have their own private pier, which means you won't be trampled on by groups from 15 different dive shops.
If you're staying at a hotel in town, you'll probably dive with one of the many dive shops in town. Most of them pick up divers at several piers downtown so things can get crowded when all the boats are loading up in the morning. Best to choose a dive shop that is flexible on their departure time so you don't have to be tripping over a hundred other divers as you're trying to board the boats. An exception to this is Aqua Safari, who has their own pier right in front of the dive shop, so all you have to do is walk across the street and you're onboard. They too are a fine dive operation and can boast being one of the first dive operators in Cozumel.
Cozumel for the Underwater Photographer
Photographers carrying large housed cameras and video cameras need to be especially careful about who they choose to dive with. We have spent a lot of money on our gear and protect it with our lives, so its nice to find a dive operator who has Divemasters and boat crew that understand and have experience with handling expensive camera gear.
Avoid the small dive shops with six-pack boats. These boats don't have a safe place to keep the cameras while your in transit to the reefs. Storing cameras under your seat or in the bow of the boat is the worst place you could put it. The constant beating of the bow will quickly knock the life out of your expensive gear and you won't be taking any pictures at all. Most these boats don't have fresh water rinse tanks at all. If they do, its usually a 5-gallon bucket which is not large enough to dip a housed SLR with a dome port and two strobes. If your camera does fit into a bucket, DO NOT leave it in the bucket while you are in transit, because you will very likely end up with a flood. The o-rings in your camera housing are not compressed at the surface and this is the most likely place a flood will occur. If you do end up on a six-pack boat with that many divers you are also at risk that someone will drop a weight belt or tank on your camera, so the best place would be to hold the camera and housing on your lap during the entire trip to and from the reefs. Better to avoid these small boat completely.
What if you come in on a cruise ship?
This is where I don't have any experience. I'm the last person you will ever find on a Caribbean cruise ship, so I am not aware of their schedules, or how much time it takes to move thousands of people on and off a ship. Your best bet is to check with the cruise lines on what they recommend.
Many friends ask me for recommendations, so here are my favorites, and the reasons why..
Favorite Dive Operators - I've dived with 14 different dive ops in Cozumel, but would not recommend some of them because the experience wasn't always something I would want for my friends. Hung-over DMs, crappy boats, no O2 on board, horrible organization, sleeping boat captain, inattentive DMs when divers were at the surface, no dive briefings, DMs who get out of the water before the guests do, etc.
Mestizo Divers - Freddy Contreras was one of the first people I met in Cozumel and I consider myself a very lucky person. He was a freelance scuba instructor who worked for Aqua Safari. I have done my Advanced Open Water with Freddy and later did my Divemaster certification. I've always believed that Freddy is the best dive instructor I have ever met in 22+ years of diving. Now he has started his own dive operation. He's got one of the nicest small boats in Cozumel (a 27' Baha with a GM 7.4 L, 320HP inboard engine). Its new, clean and is immaculately maintained. His boat captain is Enrigue, who has a lifetime of experience in Cozumel. He grew up there. He caters to small groups of no more than six divers.
Deep Exposure Dive Center - The dive op is relatively new to Cozumel, but the staff has been there for much longer. They have a beautiful 39' Conquest dive boat and offer a higher level of quality service to their divers. All dive trips include large, fluffy towels, "hands free" gear service, healthy food and drinks, aluminum or steel tanks, private fresh water shower, clean head and sink, gear rinse tanks, camera rinse tanks, camera table, and both sun-bathing and shaded areas.
Scuba-Cozumel - This is the in-house dive operator at Scuba Club Cozumel. They have a fleet of seven dive boats of all different sizes and speeds. The staff is efficient and friendly and these guys know how to handle cameras! The bigger boats have beautiful multi-level camera tables and large rinse tanks dedicated for cameras. If you prefer a smaller group you can get one of the smaller boats for a group of four to eight divers.
"I VERY MUCH appreciate your insight on this and the extra help you provided in your email. I asked a question on Scuba Board about who to dive with and nearly got trashed first, then spammed to death to dive with their 'BEST ON THE ISLAND' dive opp. So bad I decided not to dive with who they all recommended. Ended up diving with Freddy at Mestizo Divers and it was perfect for me and my family."
"Thanks for the great advise. I'm in Cozumel now. Been diving with #### Diving but hated the small, crappy boat. We moved over to Aqua Safari and loved the diving experience. The big boats are kind of old with more divers but we got on Belinda and will come back here again."
"You've done a very excellent job of addressing a big issues for unsuspecting divers who don't have much experience in Cozumel. Nobody else has broken it down quite like this. I and my family appreciate your viewpoint."