Planning a diving or snorkelling-heavy trip to the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef countries of the Caribbean–Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras–and aren’t sure where to get the most bang for your buck?
What I’ve done in the below article is, I hope, something fairly unique. I’ve gone through Healthy Reef.org’s 2022 Mesoamerican Reef Report Card and extracted all of their Mexico and Cozumel-specific data, synthesizing it into something a bit more digestible for those interested in diving Cozumel.
I wanted to provide serious snorkelers and divers with a trustworthy resource backed by real (and recent) data and research. Too many casual snorkelling, diving and travel blogs have no idea what they are talking about or promoting when covering popular marine life destinations.
A stock image with someone wearing a full-face snorkel mask surrounded by sergeant majors or allusions to “colourful reef fish” and long sea turtles give the article away as completely uninterested in or ignorant to the objective and relative health/splendour of a marine environment.
I’m on a mission to find and document the absolute best of the best on a planet whose wild areas are, by and large, shadows of what they were prior to the 21st century.
Trying to decide on snorkeling or diving gear for an upcoming trip? Checkout my detailed breakdowns of everything from fins to BCDs to dive watches and more.
Table of Contents
First things first, what is Healthy Reef, and what do they do?
The Healthy Reefs for Healthy People Initiative (HRI) represents a collaborative, multi-institutional endeavor committed to the preservation and comprehension of the Mesoamerican Reef. Encompassing Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico, this initiative, involving 73 partner organizations, concentrates on the overall well-being of the reef ecosystem.
Over a span of fourteen years, the program has generated six comprehensive Mesoamerican Reef Report Cards, providing profound insights into the reef’s status. Additionally, four Eco-Audits have been conducted, assessing reef management efforts in each participating country.
The latest audit, released in 2022, presents a disheartening portrayal of Mesoamerica’s reefs, particularly the largest and most crucial one, the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef.
They have surveyed 234 sites across the major Mesoamerican Reef countries–Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras–rating them across four metrics: coral cover, fleshly macroalgae, commercial fish and herbivorous fish.
The conclusion that Healthy Reefs reached at the end of the 2021 (published in 2022) assessment was that the MAR had experienced “5 years of failing health after a decade of improvement”
In light of the deteriorating condition of the world’s reefs, making exceptional snorkeling and scuba diving experiences increasingly rare, I felt compelled to compile a list of the most remarkable snorkeling and diving locations along the Mesoamerican Reef—encompassing Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras.
As global warming and acidifying seas, coupled with persistent natural disasters exacerbated by climate change, along with diseases and invasive species like the red and common lionfish, wreak unprecedented havoc on Caribbean reefs, the world’s second-largest barrier reef faces substantial challenges.
I’ve spent a lot of time on Caribbean Reefs, from Mexico to Panama, Aruba to Colombia, snorkeling, diving and free diving, and it is profoundly distressing to envision a future where the Mesoamerican Reef, for the purposes of snorkeling and diving, no longer thrives.
The key takeaways across the above four metrics when it comes to diving and snorkeling quality
Below are the key takeaways from the Healthy Reefs assessment across all four evaluation metrics:
Metric 1: Macroalgae
Macroalgae cover serves as a crucial indicator of reef health, reflecting the delicate balance between various components of the ecosystem. Elevated levels of persistent fleshy macroalgae (FMA) often indicate nutrient pollution and low herbivory, posing a direct threat to coral growth.
Excessive macroalgae can outcompete corals for space and resources, hindering reef development, meaning that monitoring and managing macroalgae cover is essential for preserving the ecological equilibrium of the reef and ensuring a suitable environment for coral growth and biodiversity.
- MAR average: 22% persistent fleshy macroalgae (FMA).
- Improvement goal: 77% decrease for a ‘Good’ score.
Metric 2: Coral Cover
Coral cover is a pivotal indicator of reef health, representing the percentage of the seafloor covered by living corals. It reflects the overall condition of the reef ecosystem and its ability to support marine life. Beyond mere abundance, assessing coral cover diversity provides a nuanced understanding of reef resilience.
The shift towards weedy, non-reef-building species signals potential vulnerabilities, while diseases and bleaching events can impact the overall health of living corals, which is why monitoring both coral cover and diversity is essential for comprehensive reef health assessments and effective conservation strategies.
- MAR average: 19% living coral cover.
- Positive trend over 15 years, but diseases and bleaching pose threats.
- Shift towards weedy, non-reef building species observed.
Metric 3: Commercial Species (Snappers & Groupers)
Commercial species biomass, particularly of economically valuable fish like snappers and groupers, serves as a critical indicator for reef health. The biomass of these species not only reflects the health of fish populations but also indicates potential threats such as overfishing and habitat loss.
A decline in commercial species biomass suggests an imbalance in the marine ecosystem, with cascading effects on biodiversity and the ecological integrity of the reef.
- MAR average: 499g/100m² critical commercial fish biomass.
- Indicates overfishing, habitat loss, potential biodiversity loss.
- Improvement goal: 142% increase for a ‘Good’ score.
Metric 4: Herbivorous Fish
Herbivorous fish play a pivotal role in maintaining reef health by grazing on macroalgae, preventing its overgrowth, and creating space for coral growth. The biomass of herbivorous fish, such as parrotfish and surgeonfish, serves as a key indicator of the reef’s resilience to macroalgal competition.
Insufficient herbivory can lead to macroalgae dominance, inhibiting coral growth and compromising the overall health of the reef ecosystem.
- MAR average: 1,843g/100m² herbivorous fish biomass.
- Essential for grazing down macroalgae and promoting coral growth.
- Improvement goal: 49% increase for a ‘Good’ score.
The good news: Cozumel diving still offers something special
Of all the 234 reef sites surveyed throughout the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef countries, the only site to receive a “very good” rating was Cozumel.
The report concludes that this is largely due to the fact that the marine protected area surrounding Cozumel for decades, making diving in Cozumel still very worthwhile.
Some of the standout findings from the Healthy Reefs survey includ:
- Grouper and snapper biomass is more than five times greater than the regional average.
- The highest amount of reef (35%) is under full protection, despite the 25% live coral cover decline due to stony coral tissue loss disease (SCTLD).
- Highest fish biomass
- Active participation of the local community in surveilling the reefs and controlling illegal fishing.
Diving in Cozumel continues to outshine its Mesoamerican Reef counterparts in many ways thanks to its five protected areas, three of which are reef-specific conservation zones. These include Cozumel Reefs National Park, protecting the most visited of the island’s reefs.
The vast majority of the diving and snorkeling in Cozumel happen here.
There is also the Cozumel Island Flora and Fauna Protection Area–a 38,000-hectare swathe of reefs, seagrass beds, lagoons, wetlands and islands–as well as Chankannab Natural Park.
The best dive sites around Cozumel
Here are some of the best dive locations around Cozumel. Along with each spot, I’ve included a recent YouTube video (no more than two years old) so you can see what the conditions would be like if you decided to dive them tomorrow.
I tried to choose the best video for each site that was also recent enough so as not to be misleading. This limited my choices, so the videos are of varying quality. Some are far more amateur than others, but I think they all give a fairly good impression of what the site would be like.
- Southeast of the island, 2 km/1 mi. from the coast.
- Over 5 km long with four sections: Palancar Gardens, Palancar Caves, Palancar Bricks, and Palancar Herradura.
- Giant coral formations, colourful and large.
- Suitable for drift diving, deep diving, and snorkeling.
- High visibility (over 60 m/200 ft) and moderate current.
Santa Rosa Wall
- Divided into Santa Rosa Shallow (6–15m/20–50ft) and Santa Rosa Wall (15–40m/50–130ft).
- White sandy bottom in Santa Rosa Shallow, suitable for underwater photographers and night diving.
- Wall extends to 3000 ft/915m, ideal for multilevel diving.
- Abundance of marine life including damselfish, giant groupers, coney, honeycombed cowfish, and more.
- Located before the San Miguel cruise ship dock.
- Depth of 8–12m/25–40ft, suitable for beginners.
- Rich marine life, including parrotfish, triggerfish, angelfish, Cozumel splendid toadfish, manta rays, and seahorses.
- Moderate current, ideal for night dives.
- Located at Cozumel’s southern tip, versatile reef with different diving opportunities.
- Columbia Shallow (5–11m/15–35ft) for stunning night dives.
- Columbia Deep (15–27m/50–90ft) offers an impressive drop-off with caves and coral tunnels.
- Barrel sponges, fans, and large coral formations.
- Sandy reef with a natural lagoon, like an aquarium made by nature.
- Divided into Chankanaab Shallow (10–27m/30–50ft), Chankanaab Balones (18–21m/60–70ft), and Chankanaab Caves (10m–35ft).
- Abundant marine life including Cozumel toadfish, scorpion fish, surgeonfish, triggerfish, rockfish, and snappers.
- Relatively shallow dive between Palancar Reef and Santa Rosa.
- Depth: 12–20m/40–66ft.
- Garden of sponges and gorgonians, ideal for macro photography.
- Marine life includes butterflyfish, schools of grunts and snappers, queen angelfish, and drums.
Villa Blanca Reef
- Suitable for shore diving, depth between 12–37m/40–120ft.
- Multilevel diving possible, but proximity to the coast and cruise ships requires caution.
- Well-nourished schools of fish and eagle rays.
- One of the longest reefs in Cozumel, approximately 1000m/3280ft long and 20m/65ft wide.
- Profuse marine life, including nudibranchs, barracudas, turtles, various fish species, and corals.
- Easy dive suitable for all levels, depth: 15–18m/50–60ft.
- Gentle to moderate current, offers views of seagrass, eagle rays, Caribbean barracudas, and nurse sharks.
Why the rest of the MAR (Belize, Guatemala and Honduras) is doing so poorly by comparison
Based on the findings of the 2022 Healthy Reefs report, Cozumel appears to offer the healthiest overall reef ecosystems for serious snorkelers and divers interested in seeing the best the Mesoamerican Reef.
While there are a handful of still-impressive spots throughout the MAR, everywhere else is diminishing quite rapidly.
While Belize continues to offer wonderful snorkeling and diving opportunities
Belize’s Reef Health Decline
- RHI declined from 3.0 to 2.0 (fair to poor), marking significant fish declines.
- Coral cover increased by 1%, but the composition raises concerns, particularly the loss of larger reef-building species due to Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease.
- Fleshy Macroalgae, though slightly decreased by 1%, remains in ‘Poor’ condition.
- Pandemic-related factors, including reduced enforcement and increased fishing, contribute to diminished fish presence on the reef.
Conservation Efforts in Belize
- Over the last 15 years, Belize implemented protective measures such as full parrotfish protection, expanded MPAs, revised the Fisheries Act, and introduced Managed Access.
- Challenges include enforcement and compliance issues, financing difficulties, high personnel turnover, and safety risks.
- Technological advancements offer alternatives to enhance efficiency and reduce risks in conservation efforts.
Impact of COVID-19 on Belize’s Fisheries
- COVID-19 led to movement restrictions, a tourism industry shutdown, and widespread job loss in March 2020.
- Economic decline pushed many towards the fisheries sector, resulting in increased fishing for livelihoods and subsistence.
- Challenges in deploying enforcement officers and budget reductions affected response effectiveness.
- WCS study in the South Water Caye Marine Reserve (2020–2021) revealed significant shifts in average catch sizes during the pandemic, including decreased lobster and conch sizes.
- Larger species of snappers were often caught below their reproductive length.
Guatemala has the smallest share of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, with just 150 km of Caribbean coastline.
Despite good coral cover (the bedrock of a healthy ecosystem), Guatemala is also home to the least healthy portion of the MAR.
Guatemala’s Reef Health
- RHI decreased from 2.0 to 1.8, the lowest national score recorded.
- Fleshy macroalgae surged from 19% (2018) to 30% (2021), demanding urgent water quality improvements.
- Commercial fish biomass dropped to a critical 185g/100m2.
- Herbivorous fish biomass, which rose post the 2015 parrotfish ban, declined to 488g/100m2 in 2021, potentially due to unsustainable fishing practices and pandemic-related fishing regulation suspensions.
- To rebuild fish populations, there’s a need to enforce fishing regulations, including the protection of Cayman Crown reef.
- Coral cover remains ‘Good’ at 28%, providing essential structure for species diversity and fisheries support.
- Concerns are raised about the location and availability of fish in Guatemala’s waters.
After Cozumel, Honduras, and particularly some reefs around Roatan and Utila, appear to be faring the best out of the MAR countries.
Reef Health in Honduras
- Roatan has the second-highest herbivorous fish biomass in the Mesoamerican Reef (MAR), following Cozumel.
- Utila and Guanaja show ‘Good’ and ‘Fair’ scores for herbivorous fish biomass.
- Roatan emphasizes enforcement, while Utila and Guanaja implement community-based Replenishment Zones.
- Biomass decreased by half since 2018 but increased everywhere except Roatan.
- Urgent need for more fully protected and enforced Replenishment Zones, involving the Navy, fisheries department, and Army in patrolling and enforcement.
Honduras’ Reef Health Overview
- Honduras’ RHI decreased from 2.5 to 2.3, primarily due to the ‘Critical’ East Coast subregion, while all other subregions increased.
- West Coast subregion boasts the highest live coral cover in the entire MAR at 47%.
- National average declined from 27% to 24%, with Utila having the lowest living coral cover at 16%.
- Stony Coral Tissue Loss disease (SCTLD) impact evident in all Bay Islands but not yet along coastal reefs.
Challenges in Reef Conditions
- Fleshy Macroalgae worsens to ‘Critical’ condition due to nutrient pollution (sewage and agriculture) and reduced parrotfish biomass.
- Advances in sewage treatment, such as Polos Water in West End, Roatan, showcase how improved local management leads to positive outcomes.
Diving in Cozumel is the best of a bad situation
In the realm of deteriorating reef conditions, Cozumel emerges as the highest performer on the Healthy Reefs report card.
Still, as the report notes, some 70% of groupers and 52% of snappers are now smaller than 20cm, posing a significant threat to their reproductive capabilities. What’s more, while large grazers like parrotfish are crucial for controlling macroalgae, a staggering 80% of surveyed parrotfish fall short of the 20cm mark.
Mexico’s share of the MAR, as a whole, has witnessed a distressing 25% decline in live coral cover, largely attributed to Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease (SCTLD), with heartier and smaller species (non-reef-builders) accounting for much of the coral cover. Further exacerbating the situation, Fleshy Macroalgae (FMA) and turf algal sediment mats now blanket 24% and 25% of the seabed, posing a significant threat to coral health.
Cozumel, while holding the title of the best performer and certainly among the most impressive snorkelling and diving destinations in the entire Caribbean region, continues to be a beacon in a troubling sea of declining reef health.