Back in Akumal
This time my brother wanted to go diving as well, so he took a PADI OWD-course
A year after my first foray into Mexico, I once again had the chance to spend Christmas there. The year before I stayed first in Cancun and then in Akumal (an hour south of Cancun), this time I went only to Akumal with the aim to get as much diving done as possible. My brother, who joined me and my parents in Akumal, was eager to learn how to dive, too.
Akumal Dive Shop
I knew from my stay the year before that the AKUMAL DIVE SHOP, one of the oldest dive outfits of the area, is located by the main beach of Akumal. It is quite small and the staff are extremely obliging towards their customers' wishes. I had contacted them before my trip and was well impressed, by how quickly and comprehensively my questions, e.g. about equipment or my brother's OWD course, had been answered.
Students get a roomy locker for free for the duration of their course, and everyone else can rent one for (at the time) $ 1 per day. Free storage space for wet suits etc. was also available. In front of the shop there is a blackboard where you can sign on for the next day's dive trips. For the actual dive you just turn up half an hour in advance, get your weights, bottle and whatever else you need, kit up, walk down to the beach and get on board the boat.
My brother and his instructor David after Oliver's first open water dive!
The dive shop offers several dive packages, which depending on the number of dives booked, reduce the price of the individual dives. I had decided to go for the 10 dive package, which offered excellent rates without the need to go diving three times a day. When I arrived and registered I put the $ 200 for that package on the counter. This baffled the guy at the reception desk - he said normal practice would be to just dive and accumulate dives. At the end of your holiday you then just check which package suits you best. This I found en excellent and extremely customer-friendly approach! Nevertheless I paid the money up front as I didn't want to have that much cash lying about at the condo.
Most of the dive spots are located just outside Akumal beach, so the trip in the (quite small) boat never took longer than 25 minutes. Prior to the trip buddy teams were put together, with the staff (not always successfully) trying to put together people with a similar level of experience. Under water the teams follow the guide
His first dive as a certified diver and he encountered 2 turtles and a stingray ...
who also keeps an eye on the less experienced divers, and checks their air supply. Although all my dives were guided ones, the buddy teams could explore the reef in a leisurely fashion (as long as they stayed within sight of the guide). The guides I encountered were keen to show us interesting or especially beautiful spots, but it was optional. If you looked at other stuff and fell a bit behind the group, that was ok, too. The group ascended together, always observing the safety stop. During the stops the guides demonstrated what it means to have perfect buoyancy control, Lupo, one of the guides, particularly impressed me: floating face up, relaxed and completely motionless, he blew one air ring after the other towards the surface. No mean feat since the sea was not exactly calm. Dive time and depth is strictly calculated with the PADI Recreational Dive Planer. Divers who are low on air are put together and sent to the surface, where they are collected by the boat. The dives were never hurried, always very relaxed. All in all I can say that the dives were really good, and the guides did their job very well, showing us the beauty of the reef without being obtrusive, always friendly and eager to help. I know that not everyone likes guided tours, but if you go on one, it should really be one like these.
If you don't like guided dive trips, it is possible to just rent the equipment and to go diving with a buddy directly from the beach. Since the bay is quite shallow (thus great for snorkelling) and the reef is quite a distance away, I never did this.
The buddy from hell
One piece of advice for divers without a permanent buddy, though: get to know your fellow divers at the dive shop prior to the dive. Talk to them, look at their equipment and watch them assemble it. Then ask someone who makes a good impression if they want to pair up with you. Don't wait until the guide matches up buddy pairs on the trip, otherwise you might end up with some complete idiot, like I did:
First dive this holiday: I was sitting in the boat and dive guide Moises paired me up with an American of about my age. I wanted to do the buddy check (German thoroughness at work) to which he answered: "What? You're joking, right?"; Moises checked all tanks, which is done by all guides and which I would quite dislike now - hands off my valves. But in this case it proved to be a good idea, since my buddy's valves were still closed. Short last briefing: 40min at a maximum depth of 20 meters, 3min stop at 5m. We jumped into the water, waited at the surface till everyone was in (as discussed). I turned round to my buddy - he'd gone, descending quickly. The rest of us descended together and met my buddy at the ground. As soon as we'd reached him he was off - dashing at breakneck speed through the reef. At first I tried to keep up, but after a while I thought better of it; besides, he had managed to scare away all the fish!
... and so did I!
During the next twenty minutes I only occasionally saw my buddy as he rushed about, not once checking if his buddy was alright. Then, slightly under 10 minutes before it was time to ascend, something grabbed my tank and started shaking it. I turned round and of course it was my buddy who indicated that he had just about 30 bar left and wanted to quickly get to the surface. I was tempted to signal him that he can kiss my neoprene-clad butt, but then remembered my duties as a buddy, went to the guide, impressing on him that we would ascend now and followed my buddy who had decided to start the ascent without me and was already half way up. I signalled him that I still had lots more air and we should do the safety stop, but was ignored. I decided to do his for him and extended mine to about 6 minutes. I guessed it would take a few minutes for the boat to locate us and with fairly high waves I preferred to spend as little time as possible on the surface. When I surfaced I got yelled at: why didn't I surface with him, after all a safety stop is not necessary if you ascend before the guide tells you to (interesting thought ;-) Besides, he'd tried to signal the boat to come and collect us, but due to the waves he hadn't even managed to see the boat. Good thing I had my stab buoy with me (after inflating it, the boat came within a minute); besides, there is a rope attached to it - ideal to strangle your buddy while waiting to be picked up (Seriously, your Honour, he got entangled all by himself ;-)
There were, of course, repercussions
Back on board my buddy complained about me to the dive guide! He especially stressed that I had not surfaced directly, but had instead done the safety stop. The guide then turned to me and asked me about my side of the story and I explained to him about my buddy's sudden ascent while I was still informing the guide. Thus my buddy got a good telling off from the guide for abandoning his buddy. Dead mad he went and complained about both me and the dive guide to the shop manager. The result of this was that he got banned from there. I couldn't help to have a feeling of good old German "Schadenfreude"!
About the Buddies
Generally I observed the following concerning buddies:
Buddy checks were practically never on the agenda. When I wanted to check my buddy (mostly to see where my buddies hid their octopus, e.g. between their backs and the jacket!) I was seldom laughed at, but often had to hear comments like: "... only wimps do that", "... haven't done one since I took my course", "... I already checked myself so what do you want?", "... Buddy check? What buddy check??" The only diver who didn't say anything, but proceeded with the check was a professional fire brigade diver from Pennsylvania.
All in all I was a bit shocked by the diving skills (or rather lack of them) displayed by my fellow divers - and I myself would have classified myself as a novice at the time. Buoyancy control was extremely low, the 3 minute safety stop at 5 metres proved to be too difficult for most of them. The absolute low point was a diver who got out his diving knife when we encountered a turtle and started to wave it about in the approximate direction of the turtle. When quizzed about his behaviour later on, he stated that he felt threatened by the turtle! OK - good thing we didn't encounter one of the dangerous killer seahorses :-)
I was very glad to be able to dive with my brother once he got his c-card and not have to rely on other buddies anymore.
The Grand Cenote
Personally, the absolute diving highlight of this holiday was a cavern dive in one of the cenotes. The Yucatan peninsular has one of the biggest cave systems in the
world, only a small part of which has been explored so far. During my previous visit I had already snorkelled in some of the cenotes (even that can be highly recommended) and this time I was set on doing a proper cavern dive. Akumal Dive Shop offers these, fortunately. Cenotes are quite dangerous and you shouldn't go diving without either proper cave-diving qualifications or a qualified guide. Many divers have died in the Yucatan caves, but practically none of them were proper cave divers, according to our guide Scott Bonis, a veteran cave diver.
Understandably, the briefing took a lot longer than the usual briefings for dives at the reef. There are only four (qualified) divers per guide, who has to have a full cave-diving qualification, although the actual dive is only a cavern dive, i.e. the divers are
always within sight of the exit to the surface. After the briefing (the greatest part of it concerning safety precautions), we drove to the Grand Cenote. We were divided up into two groups which were to dive about 5 minutes apart from each other. While Cory (one of the guides) ran the guide rope, Scott Bonis, emphasised once again the importance of diving along the line and constantly checking our buoyancy. About 5 minutes after the first group had gone, we followed Scott and started out dive into the cave - one after the other along the rope. It was fantastic!
I had never been able to quite fathom the fascination of cave dives before - now I could. The water was crystal clear, even at the point furthest away from the entrance (about 60m) you could still see the little fishes swarming around the ladder. When the diver in front of me didn't exhale it looked as if he was floating in the air. Turning on my back I watched the air bubbling on the ceiling of the cavern like mercury. The stalagmite and stalactite formations were bizarre and impressive. Looking back to the entrance, the water shone in deep turquoise. It was a breathtaking experience and a real test of our buoyancy skills.
We were supposed to dive (as slowly as possible) about 1/2 to 1 meter above the ground along the line. The wrong buoyancy resulted in sediments being disturbed and visibility dropping instantly. If you plan to do a cavern dive like this, your control of buoyancy should be excellent, otherwise you'll spoil the dive for yourself and your buddies. Scott watched over us with eagle eyes and pointed out especially interesting rock formations. During the briefing, the dive and afterwards he proved to be an excellent guide, with great knowledge and many interesting dive anecdotes!
I can only recommend a cenote dive like this (especially one led by Scott), but have to remind readers once again that diving there without guidance or the proper qualification can easily terminate your diving career!
All in all a fantastic holiday with excellent dives. Akumal Dive Shop gets 10/10 points for friendliness, competence and service. I hope to come to Mexico again in the not too distant future - if possible I would love to go diving with the Akumal Dive Shop crew again.
This is the website of the Akumal Dive Shop.