The week after we book non-refundable tickets to Cozumel, a category-five hurricane slams into the tiny island, battering the residents with 140 mile per hour winds for over 24 hours. By the time Hurricane Wilma finally exhausts her temper, Cozumel is left in a state of utter destruction. Hotels and businesses are completely demolished, roofs are ripped off homes; flood waters sweep a jumble of cars, twisted metal, glass and trees into swirls of debris.
“I lay in my hammock for two days, suspended above a two-foot high tidal surge flooding through my house, nibbling on saltine crackers and sipping on water,” Jorge tells us. “We were trapped. There was no place to go. No higher ground.” We listen incredulously. As we perch in a small dive boat, bobbing gently in a calm Caribbean sea, the sky bright and cloudless, it’s hard to imagine the ferocity of such a storm.
Jorge is a handsome, slight-built man with coffee-colored skin and captivating dark eyes. An experienced Dive Master, he is a marvel to behold. He dives without a wetsuit or a weight belt. He can control his buoyancy with only his breath. He wears a nylon belt around his waist with a single 2-pound lead weight. I ask him if that’s all the weight he needs.
“No,” he explains, “I don’t need any weight. I just bring it in case one of my divers needs a little extra”. I shake my head in wonder as I load my weight belt with 16 pounds.
A hurricane is a tourist-dependent county’s worst nightmare. As a result of Hurricane Wilma, people are trapped in hotels for days, or crammed into rescue shelters, all outbound flights cancelled for the foreseeable future. The Mexican government and emergency aid agencies demonstrate admirable efficiently in handling the catastrophe. Stranded vacationers are found alternate transportation home, including buses and boats, until outbound flights are rescheduled. All victims of the disaster, residents and tourists alike, have free access to three hot meals a day, plenty of fluids and sleeping blankets.
Following the news from the Yucatan, we are impressed with the speedy and competent response by the Mexican government, as well as from local business and international corporations. Everyone is determined to get the area up and running again very quickly. We discuss our upcoming trip with our dive-buddies. We realize the town of San Miguel might not be completely rebuilt, and expect that the reefs will be badly damaged. We call the condo and confirm that the complex is still standing and inhabitable. We phone Dive Paradise, the scuba-diving operator, and ask about the reef. They confirm that the shallower dive sites are indeed damaged from the huge waves, but the deeper reefs have survived fairly intact. In the spirit of helping support the reconstruction efforts, we confirm our trip.
We later learn that the scuba divers are the first tourists to return after the hurricane. Their passion for the area, love of the reefs and support of Cozumel drive them to pressure airlines to resume flights as quickly as possible.
“Scuba divers, in general, are a hearty bunch, very comfortable with remote locations and rustic facilities, in order to gain access to the best dive sites,” explains Mario Hernandez, a local dive operator.
As we fly into Cozumel, I can see the trees are completely stripped of their foliage, bare limbs stretching defenselessly against the blazing tropical sun. The taxi ride to the condo parades us past the progress of repair. Many areas are mosaics of rubble and rebuild; a pile of concrete and twisted steel juxtaposed against freshly painted buildings open for business. There are lingering signs of flooding, with mounds of debris swept against roadside berms, and high water-marks still visible on buildings. But the streets are freshly paved, borders planted with bright, festive flowers and mariachi music floating out into the breeze.
From the dive boat, Jorge gives us the signal and we fall back into the water, clutching our masks to our faces. We descend slowly into the liquid blue, dropping down towards the reef.
At first glance, it looks like it’s snowing underwater. The reef is blanketed in sand, and the off-shore currents are sweeping up the golden grains and carrying them along, as if riding the wind. I realize I am watching nature at work, cleaning up after the storm, restoring everything to its rightful place. It is just a matter of time.
The shallow reefs are badly battered and broken. The colorful soft corals have been snapped off and swept away. It will take many years before they can grow back to their full glory of rainbow shades. But the hard corals remain, and so do the fish; schools of every color and size, darting nervously under ledges and into crevices. Stingrays hide in the sandy bottom, emerging suddenly in a cloud of sand, their gray wings rippling majestically through the water. Reef sharks roam the perimeters or shelter under an overhang of coral.
Jorge leads us through a forest of coral spires and arches, towering like skyscrapers in a city skyline. I swim between two coral columns and find myself floating out past the precipice of the island’s shelf. The sea-cliff plunges below me into unfathomable depths of inky blue. At 90-feet below the surface, I feel heavy and dense, sinking lower along the craggy coral ledge. I inhale a deep lung-full of oxygen. My body gently rises. I float past a giant green sea turtle, tucked into a cave, sleeping peacefully. My spirits soar. Looking up, I can see the bottom of the dive boat, gently bobbing on the surface. In the depths of the ocean, life goes on.