After I booked non-refundable tickets to the dive destination of Cozumel, Mexico, a category-five hurricane slammed into the tiny island, battering the residents with 140-mph winds for over 24-hours. By the time Hurricane Wilma finally exhausted her temper, a path of utter destruction trailed in her wake. Startling images; of collapsed buildings, shorn-off roofs, snapped trees, shattered glass and bedraggled people huddled in shelters, paraded across the news channels. The world watched in horror as flood waters swept a jumble of cars, twisted metal and trees into swirls of debris.
“I lay in my hammock for two days, suspended above a two-foot tidal surge flooding through my house, nibbling on saltine crackers and sipping water,” Jorge tells me. “I was trapped. There was no place to go. No higher ground.”
Jorge Muñoz is a handsome, slight-built man with coffee-colored skin and captivating dark eyes. An experienced Dive Master, his scuba skills are impressive. He dives without a wetsuit, buoyancy control device or weight belt. He can descend and control his buoyancy with only the air in his lungs. He carries a single 2-pound weight tied to a nylon rope around his waist. I ask him if that’s all the weight he needs. “No,” he explains, “I don’t need any weight at all. I just bring some in case one of my divers needs a little extra”.
A hurricane is a financial catastrophe to a tourist-dependent country. Hurricane Wilma trapped people in hotels or cramped rescue-shelters for days. The Mexican government quickly activated costly state-of-emergency plans. Stranded vacationers were found alternate transportation home, including buses and boats, until outbound flights could be rescheduled. All victims of the disaster, residents and tourists alike, were given free access to three hot meals a day, plenty of fluids and sleeping blankets. Local businesses and international corporations labored tirelessly to get the popular vacation area back in business as quickly as possible.
As I planned for my trip in early 2006, five months after Wilma’s destructive visit, I realized that the town of San Miguel on Cozumel might not be completely rebuilt, and expected that the reefs would be badly damaged. I called the condo and confirmed that the ocean-front complex was still standing and inhabitable, and then phoned Dive Paradise, the scuba-diving operator, to ask about the reefs. I could hear the grief in her voice as Renee “Apple” Applegate, owner and manager of Dive Paradise, described the destruction inflicted by the huge waves pummeling the shallower reef sites during the intensity of the storm. With optimistic fortitude, she happily reported that the deeper reefs had survived intact and the plethora of sea creatures remained. In the spirit of helping support the restoration efforts, I confirmed my trip.
I later learn that the scuba divers are the first tourists to return after the hurricane. Their love of the area, passion for the reefs, and support of Cozumel, drove 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.
Flying into Cozumel, I glimpse trees completely stripped of their foliage, stretching bare limbs out against the blazing tropical sun. The taxi ride to the condo offers a peek at the patchwork of repair. A jumbled mosaic of rubble and rebuild; juxtaposed piles of twisted steel and concrete against freshly patched and painted buildings. Muddy debris lodged against roadside berms and high-water marks trailing along stone buildings still linger. But the streets are recently paved, borders burst with brightly-colored flowers and mariachi music floats festively out onto the breeze. I can sense the resilient spirit of this little island as it celebrates its journey towards recovery.
Floating in a small dive boat with Jorge, looking out over a tranquil Caribbean sea under a cloudless sky, it’s hard to imagine the ferocity of such a storm. Jorge gives me the signal and I roll back into the water, clutching the scuba mask to my face. I descend slowly into the smeared prisms of a watery world. Grains of sand waft by like underwater snow. Off-shore currents sweep up the sugary drifts blanketing the reef, and carry them along, as if riding a wind. I realize I am watching nature at work, cleaning up after the storm, restoring everything to its rightful place.
The shallow reefs are battered and broken. The colorful soft corals have been snapped off and swept away. Growing at a mere 6-inches a year, it will take decades before the polyps can grow back to their full spectrum of rainbow shades. But the hard corals remain, and so do the fish; silvery schools of brilliant color, darting nervously under ledges and crevices. The sharp jaws of a green Moray eel protrude, rhythmically chewing the water for air, laying in wait for unsuspecting prey. Eagle rays burrow in the sandy bottom, bursting out in a sudden shower, as their gray wings ripple majestically through the water. Nurse sharks roam the perimeters of the reef or shelter under an overhang of coral.
Jorge leads me through a thick forest of coral spires and arches, towering like skyscrapers in a city skyline. I swim between two crusty columns and find myself floating out past the precipice of the island’s coralline limestone shelf. The sea-cliff plunges below me into unfathomable leagues of inky blue. At 90-feet, I feel heavy and dense, sinking lower along the craggy coral ledge. I inhale deeply, my regulator hissing in the vastness. My body gently rises. I float past a giant green sea turtle tucked into a cleft. It watches me drift by with languid eyes. My spirits soar. Looking up, I can see the bottom of the dive boat, gently bobbing on the distant surface. In the depths of the ocean, life goes on.