THE name Yucatan is somewhat of a misnomer. When the Spanish conquistadors landed on the Mexican peninsula in 1530, they asked the locals what the area was called. They answered yucatan in their Mayan dialect, which means, We do not understand you. The name stuck.
The Yucatan peninsula is a fascinating area covered by dense jungle and swamps, criss-crossed with rivers and scattered with ruins from the Mayan civilisation. It protrudes like a giant thumb from the east coast of Mexico, dividing the Gulf of Mexico from the Caribbean Sea.
The Yucatan is rich in history and blessed with superb beaches lapped by the crystal-clear waters of the western Caribbean. It has sophisticated resorts and some of the best diving and snorkelling in the Caribbean.
The best established resort area on the peninsula, situated 115km west of Cuba, is the purpose-built enclave of Cancun on the northern tip. Offshore in the western reaches of the nutrient-rich Gulf Stream are three islands, the largest being the world famous diving destination of Cozumel. To the north lie Isla Mujeres and Isla Contoy. These islands form part of the second-largest barrier reef in the world, which stretches north from Honduras.
Cozumel lies approximately 30km to the south-east of Cancun. Shaped like a drop jewel, 47km long by 15km wide, the island must have more dive shops and divers than any other island in the Caribbean.
The drift diving along the south-western walls is superb. The clarity of the water is remarkable, averaging over 30m during the winter months.
Divers, particularly Americans, return here year after year, tempted by unlimited diving and an unrivalled abundance of marine life. The conservation policies now being enforced have helped to ensure that the reefs, walls and shoals - which were damaged by hurricanes in 1988 and 1995 - are well protected. Until 1988 there was little sign of a conservation policy other than a voluntary code undertaken by responsible dive shops and ignored by most operators who were only interested in making a quick buck. Although most of the locals now recognise the importance of conservation as a way of guaranteeing future tourism revenue, new dive shops are opening almost every week and some appear to have rather dubious qualifications. The on-board dive guides will plan your dive and dive time, but calculations tend to be aimed at the most inexperienced diver in the group, which may cut down your own bottom time. It is therefore advisable to do your own pre-dive planning.

A usual days diving consists of a morning deep dive to approximately 30m, followed almost immediately by a much shallower dive. Sadly, the tipping system is very much in evidence and some dive guides are rather unscrupulous. The quality of your next days diving may be dependent on the size of the tip your guide receives the day before.
Paradise Divers is the only shop I found that does a three-tank day dive, which is worthwhile, considering the distances involved. Tips here are only welcome at the end of your stay if you have had a great holiday.
There are a number of popular locations for night diving fairly close to the hotel centres. Unfortunately, most dive centres choose the same locations - the ones closest to their jetty - and it can get rather crowded.
Night diving from the dive boats is hard work because you spend most of your time following the guide and do not get a chance to study the marine life. There may be another six groups on the same reef, all with dive guides beckoning their sheep to follow. The alternative is to dive from the shore. There are some very good sites, a little barren but the fish life is exceptionally varied. There are one or two interesting fish to look out for, or, more appropriately, to listen out for - for example the toadfish. The name toadfish comes from the curious loud croaking that you can hear underwater. They live under hollows of coral that seem to magnify the sound.
Most of the diving in Cozumel is done by boat. The faster boats are quickly booked up as they can halve the travel time, which is important given that a number of dive locations are at least 90 minutes away. The slow boats are favoured by the cruise ship crowds and by those who have spent the night before at Carlos N Charlies consuming burgers and buckets of beer.
Palancar Reef is a name that divers always mention when they talk of Cozumel. It is massive, stretching over 5km, offering an amazing diversity of marine life and coral formations to suit all tastes and levels of diving expertise. Palancar Shallows is an easy dive on an interesting reef which rises to around 5m in some places, dropping in others to 18m. The site boasts many fissures and caves and offers numerous photographic possibilities. Black corals such as Antipathes pennacea are found in the deeper parts and huge stove-pipe sponges (Aplysinia archeri) stretch out from the reef. Butterflyfish, angelfish, parrotfish and damselfish are all prolific.
Further north is Palancar Horseshoe, which is a natural amphitheatre, clearly defined as it cuts into this stretch of the reef. This dive is better in the deeper section, where large gorgonian seafans stretch out into the current, surrounded by large numbers of fish, corals, invertebrates, and some huge barrel sponges.
Palancar Caves is classed as a deep dive but it actually comes to within 6m of the surface in some places. The reef slopes outward and has a deeply convoluted lip. Here the corals seem to take on a life of their own as they form spires and buttresses, caves, gullies and canyons. Deep fissures run under the corals and sand slopes plummet into the depths.
Palancar Deep is a heavily incised wall with many varieties of coral growth. Schooling fish including grunts and snapper are very much in evidence, and if you take your time as you exit the caves on the outer edge of the reef, you may catch a glimpse of a green turtle (Chelonia mydas) or spotted eagle ray (Aetobatus narinari).
Further north is the Santa Rosa Wall, which is really a continuation of Palancar. It is perhaps one of my favourite dives in Cozumel. It would be foolish to think you can cover it all in one dive, so it is best to split the reef up into three separate dives.
The reef profile becomes larger and more convoluted the further north you travel. The southernmost section is low-lying and ravaged by currents. The middle section has some very large tunnels that cut through the reef crest. The northernmost area has tunnels, caves, overhangs and some very steep sections of wall running to near vertical conditions.
On the steeper slopes there are numerous rope sponges (Aplysinia cauliformis; Niphates erecta and Aplysinia fulva). File clams (Lima scabra) can be seen in the recesses with their orange or white tentacles waving in the current. Many species of hermit crab can be found and there appear to be thousands of tiny gobies and blennies flitting around over the coral heads and sponges.
Barracuda can always be spotted along with large black groupers (Mycteroperca bonaci), which shelter in the overhangs on the reef crest. Spotlight parrotfish blend into the multi-coloured reef, but it is only when you use your underwater torches that the true beauty of the reef reveals itself. One of the most distinctive of the small reef fish is the fairy basslet (Gramma loreto), which has a brilliant purple colour on the front half of its body and a deep yellow/gold on its rear. They are instantly recognisable but very hard to photograph due to their constant motion.

CANCUN boasts some interesting dive sites, some with higher concentrations of fish than you will find around the more popular Cozumel. The land is rather uninspiring - overall, the vegetation is rather scrub-like and there is little break in the topography. However, the beaches are superb and the coastline south of Cancun along the Akumal/Tulum Corridor is virgin territory for divers, with very little tourist activity and some fantastic shallow reefs.
Along this coast, you will also find some exciting and challenging cave diving in the spectacular limestone sink-holes known as cenote. The diving here is world class - the Yucatan is quite rightly listed as one of the top diving destinations in the Caribbean.
In the north-west part of Cancun most of the dive boats are small and fast, but travel time is still around 30-45 minutes to many sites. The sheltered sites in Cancun Bay are preferred by the dive operators as they are easy dives with moorings, and good for teaching. Here, surprisingly, you can find some of the largest concentrations of fish. I came across some of the biggest schools of snapper and grunt I had ever seen in the Caribbean.
The sites to the east of Cancun in open water are all drift dives for the more experienced diver. You can reach anything up to three knots as the dive boat holds station over your bubbles. There are lots of sheltered places to hide in the low strip reef, but unfortunately these dives are led by guides who like to cover as much area as possible, which makes photography difficult.
Possibly the most popular site is Manchones, a series of small low- lying reefs about thirty minutes by boat from Isla Mujeres. This diving and snorkelling site comprises a series of coral bommies and the marine life is prolific. There appears to be a larger than average number of queen angelfish (Holacanthus ciliaris) of all sizes and ages, and small red-spotted hawkfish (Amblycirrhitus pinos) which dot the reefs, their comical stance attracting the divers attention.
Dive guides tend to take you on a rather circuitous route around the coral formations. If you dive here at night, the true colours of the Caribbean Sea are revealed under the glare of your torch. Hermit crabs, arrow crabs, octopus and toadfish all come out to wander around the reefs. As it is quite a shallow dive, there is always plenty of in-water time.
Further down the coast from Cancun, the Yucatan has some superb reef diving, although this is somewhat limited to the summer months. Between September and February there is a fair chance of hurricanes, and the coast is very exposed to the might of the Caribbean swell.
This inclement weather has created a classic spur and groove reef where hills and valleys of coral stretch out perpendicular to the shore. Some areas have spectacular coral formations with thousands of caverns and ravines. Mexico also boasts the largest true coral atoll in the northern hemisphere, Banco Chinchorro, which could fit the island of Cozumel inside its lagoon.
It is difficult to single out any specific dives on this stretch of coastline, but the diving between Puerto Venturas and Kumal is probably the most explored and most accessible. Narcosis Ridge is well named - a long spur of coral extending well out into the blue and dropping to 37m before rolling over beyond 45m. This dive is not for the faint-hearted.
The crest of the reef is at 18m where you find large sea fans, barrel sponges, rope sponges and some very large specimens of star and boulder corals. As you descend, the coral forms are more low-lying and encrusting, and the more predominant growths are sponges. There is a very good chance of seeing sharks, turtles and rays.
Looking up along the reef, there is a moving fringe of creole wrasse (Clepticus parrai) permeated with blue chromis (Chromis cyanea). Amid the coral and sponge branches you will find hamlets, basslets, parrotfish and moray eels.

AS you travel past Puerto Aventuras towards Akumal and Tulum, you will come across signposts for cenote diving. More than 250 million years ago the entire Central American continent was underwater, and during the last ice age the sea level dropped, ultimately leaving a shallow raised plateau of soft porous limestone. This bedrock composition is susceptible to erosion, and the severe tropical rainstorms over the centuries have created huge underground caverns. A cenote, or sink-hole, is created when the roof of one of these vast caverns collapses. It was only recently discovered that the majority of these wells and caverns are interconnected, and much of this subterranean landscape is still unexplored. The great Mayan cities were all built around cenote and the Maya regarded them as sacred. Many of the wells were offered gifts and sacrifices; the great Cenote Sagrado at Chichen Itza yielded up great wealth and is now off limits to diving. In the south of the country, near Chetumal, is Cenote Azul, the deepest cenote in the world with a depth of over 100m. The most famous is Nohoch Nah Chich, discovered in 1987, with over 50km of cave passageways.
There are about 50 cenote along the Akumal/Tulum corridor, 100km south of Cancun. Most are now well-mapped, but still not completely explored. If you are considering a diving holiday between November and March, I strongly recommend diving these freshwater dive sites. During the spring and summer, there is a profuse algae growth which reduces the visibility to that of pea soup in the upper layers.
There are now three registered centres in the Yucatan where you can train in cave and cavern diving. This very specialised course comprises over 12 hours of lectures and a minimum of 14 cave dives with double tanks. Subjects include accident analysis, stress management, psychological aspects, dive planning, air management, guidelines and reels, guideline techniques and protocol, equipment configuration and emergency procedures.
All of the cenote diving takes place on private land, owned by descendants of the Maya. Some sites have crude changing huts or simple platforms at the waters edge. You pay about US$5 per person per dive to the landowner, plus a small tip to the man at the gate.
Although Nohoch Nah Chich is the most famous, other sites such as Ponderosa, Dos Ojos and Car Wash are easily accessible, but for sheer scale El Grande Cenote is superb. This huge circular hole is a collapsed cavern over 60m across with the centre completely filled in. You enter 6m down a set of rickety steps made from rough-cut branches, and the bottom is rather treacherous when you are negotiating the perimeter wall wearing full diving gear.
You enter the water in the deeper section and dive around the perimeter, where the cavern system extends beyond natural daylight to eventually connect with other cenote. There are stalactites, stalagmites, flow stone and many other formations. The entrance to the cenote has a carpet of lilly pads which makes for some interesting underwater photography.
One word of caution: you must wear a protective suit and hood at all times as the freshwater temperature is about 10*C cooler than its saltwater counterpart. The freshwater mollies and tetras are rather ferocious and may take chunks out of your skin like miniature piranhas.
The strongest currents are located off Cancun and around the most northerly and southerly points of Cozumel, and surge conditions are always a problem during the winter months. Cozumel is definitely the preferred location, where most of the diving is undertaken along the sheltered west coast.
Cancun and the coastline to the south suffer from periodic winter storms, resulting in a long low swell that makes boat trips rather uncomfortable. This is when diving in the cenote really comes into its own. These pools and underground rivers are always crystal clear with a visibility of over 60m during the winter months.

  • The Dive Sites of Cozumel and Yucatan by Lawson Wood, published by New Holland. Available from September, price£15.99. 0171-724 7773.

  • FACTFILE

    GETTING THERE: Two hours from Miami to Cancun and Cozumel. For further information contact Mexico Ministry of Tourism, tel 0171 734 1058.
    ACCOMMODATION: Many hotels and condominiums along the coastline from Cancun to Tulum, and to the north and south of San Miguel on Cozumel. Most have sports and dive facilities, and offer complete packages including flights from the US. Fiesta Americana Cozumel Reef Hotel, tel (001) 52 987 22622; La Ceiba , (001) 52 987 20844; Plaza Las Glorias, (001) 52 987 22400; Ocean Club de Golf, tel/fax, (001) 52 988 832200; Club Lagoon Marina, (001) 52 988 31111.
    WEATHER: Rainfall April - May, and September - January, when temperatures and humidity soar. Hurricanes in September and October. Water temperature rarely below 27°C. Air temperatures in summer rise between 30-40°C and rarely drop below 20°C during winter.
    VISIBILITY: Generally excellent but can deteriorate along the Yucatan coastline during the long oceanic swell.
    SIGHTSEEING: Ancient Mayan ruins, of which there are some 14,000 recorded locations in Mexico. Tulum: a modest coastal city 129km south of Cancun with two major temples. Chichen-Itza: 120km east of Merida, two cities displaying a mixture of Toltec and Mayan architecture - one of the largest and best preserved archaeological sites in Mexico. Coba: 170km south of Cancun and 42km west of Tulum, includes a 42m-tall pyramid and a nine-tiered castle.
    DIVE OPERATORS: Dive Paradise, tel (001) 52 987 21007, has arrangements with many hotels. Dive House, (001) 52 987 21953, works with the Fiesta Americana on Cozumel. Cedam Divers, (001) 52 987 35129 and Aquatec, (001) 52 987 41271 are your best bet for cenote diving around Akumal in the Yucatan.
    LOCAL CURRENCY: 1= 4 Pesos. US$ are widely accepted in all tourist resorts. Do not take£ as you will lose 30 per cent in the exchange. Tips are expected.