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Handi-Divers Drift In Cozumel  

When the opportunity to experience drift diving for the first time came up, I knew it was something I wanted to try. When the location advertised was Cozumel, I knew it to be one of the top reef diving destinations in the world. Several of my local diving friends told me that these drift dives were fairly advanced and the potential challenge drove my imagination to desire a spot on this upcoming trip.


Securing a spot on this trip was quite easy. Being the only wheelchair user interested in a trip conducted by a group specializing in serving all manner of disabled divers, I would have been an easy candidate to accept even if they were already booked. I could tell that this group leader wanted me, specifically because I was a wheelchair user who was also an experienced diver. The fee was also reasonable. Perhaps because it was run by a group, perhaps because it was only a few days of diving instead of a whole week; either way the $600 price tag was easy to accept.



Upon arrival at the Cozumel airport, members of my group met me at the cab stand. They paid for the hotel transfers, as advertised and there I was- beginning a beautiful dive holiday. The hotel was good, even from a wheelchair user’s viewpoint. I hadn’t been to Mexico in years and never had I been so far south in Mexico.


Still with my new friends in this group, we had lunch and unpacked our dive gear in preparation for the afternoon dive. This dive was a checkout dive, mainly for each diver to verify their weighting, in accordance with recommended Handicapped Scuba Association procedures. Since I had just been diving on the Majuro/Honolulu trip, I thought for sure my gear was ready.


As it turned out, the check out dive was a good thing because my new buddies began to suspect that I was either over weighted or my Buoyancy Compensator (BC) was leaking air out. I too noticed something not right but I couldn’t tell what.


The next day of diving was a big revelation in more ways than I have time to describe. Drift diving for a Handi-Diver really is an advanced type of diving; especially for a Handi-Diver used to using a scooter (aka Dive Propulsion Vehicle) for the past eighty dives. With only webbed gloves, that swift current can be more than a little disconcerting. I stay fit by going to the gym three days a week and I was definitely using up more air than usual trying to keep with my buddies. At times it seemed there were currents having a family feud with me caught in between. My buddies going in one direction and me going further out. Luckily there was nothing even close to any type of unsafe situation. The folks in my group were watching me like a dozen mother hens, keeping sure I was within the bounds of staying with the group. They assisted me when they thought I needed it, as was sometimes the case due to currents wandering. This is something I am highly unaccustomed to. I haven't been in a situation where I needed to be pushed in years. Having to be pushed through parts of this dive was a lot of humble-pie to choke down; very disconcerting to say the least.


It is precisely this lack of independence which makes drift diving a highly technical type of diving for Handi-Divers. As wheelchair users, Handi-Divers participate in scuba to become more independant. Having to depend on a buddy for anything decreases the level of independence. With only webbed gloves to manuever, the current easily grabs hold of the diver instead of the other way around. Having experienced similar swift currents in Hawaii while using a scooter, I can say with certainty that for Handi-Divers who want to be superior divers, a scooter is required equipment even in drift dives.


Important New Hand Signal

For Handi-Divers

That first, swift drift was also when my buddies and I became more aware of the leaks in my BC. With the conclusion of the first dive, we were back on the boat discussing what transpired. We discussed how to better communicate and how to better plan subsequent dives. We worked out exactly what our hand signals would be. For example, we determined that when I want or need one of them to kick for me, it is best for me to make three separate signs:

1)    The sign for “You”

2)   Then the sign for “Kick” (also used to indicate "Diver")

3)   Then the sign for “Me”.

This is especially easy for Handi-Divers because it only requires one hand and is exactly clear on what is being requested.


The second dive of that first day was easy by comparison to the first; as all the other dives would also be. After that exhilarating morning of diving we pulled back in for lunch. At this time I decided to refrain from the afternoon dive to give myself a chance to inspect and repair my BC as well as to reflect on this new style of drift diving. Of course, being at one of Mexico’s top resorts, my friend Captain Morgan helped me ponder the new experiences that accompany drift diving.


The next morning, I eagerly greeted the second day of diving con mucho gusto, which means “with much appreciation” or “gladly” in English. The best part about this trip was the people in my group. Yes, the recreational reef diving is certainly world class, and my new friends were an appropriate match. Together with the willingness of the dive operator and boat crew to accommodate my concerns and requirements, I knew this second day of diving would be extremely rewarding, and it was. Handi-Divers can and should do drift diving in Cozumel if they desire to challenge themselves with the advanced conditions not found elsewhere in the Caribbean.


Virgin of Guadelupe

During an afternoon break, one of the other divers and I decided to explore a part of the town I discovered as a result of the online research I’d done in preparation for this trip. It was my desire to continue learning about the local culture to satisfy my religious and spiritual thirst. Jim Whaley and I decided to find and photograph a temple dedicated to the Virgin Mary. In Cozumel, there is a Catholic shrine of great history called the Virgin of Guadalupe (not to be confused with a similarly named shrine, Shrine of Guadalupe, in Mexico City.) Because this shrine is important to all Catholics in Mexico, the people of Cozumel are especially appreciative and honored to host the home of this shrine.


As the enchanting Caribbean sunset ushered in the evening, my new friends again congregated around the buffet back at the hotel. Sharing the usual tips on what each diver has experienced that day, we engaged in amicable conversation. What I also found rewarding was how easy it was to make friends with so many other groups of divers. I soon found myself wheeling from table to table as various new friends drew me in to share their stories and jokes.



The group responsible for hosting and organizing the trip conducted quite a bit of training. Being there just to evaluate the dive conditions and hotel accommodations, this was not part of my experience. I could not help but notice how the candidates for rescue diver and dive buddy were being repeated tested and challenged. At each point in their varied and extensive exercises, each of these candidates exhibited the tenacious fortitude that springs not from an external need to meet criteria, but from an internal drive to WANT to be a dive buddy for a Handi-Diver.


Dive Operator

This was not the first time this dive operator has had wheelchair users as customers, but I would not have guessed it based on the treatment I received. I am fairly fluent in speaking Spanish and I have been diving in Mexico before but communicating with this boat crew was a real chore because it seemed they had no interest in actually listening to me because I used a wheelchair. They made it apparent to me that they thought I was not capable of basic dive decisions, like how much weight I needed or how to set up my gear. At nearly every point of communication, it was as if one of my able bodied dive buddies would have to give the crew permission to acknowledge one of my questions or requests. This was less of a problem as the week wore on but I definitely felt a form of discrimination that I had not felt in years. For a specific example in how this put my safety at risk, please view my page on Boat Transfers.


 Having traveled all over the world (by myself) as a paraplegic wheelchair user, I am accustomed to dealing with hotels that are nowhere close to meeting the Architectural Guidelines of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Hotels in Eastern Europe and the far Pacific come to mind when thinking of places I've enjoyed exploring. Usually the hospitality of my hosts makes up for architectural obstacles and this hotel is no exception. The staff was always prompt and courteous when addressing my requests and concerns. While not able to completely solve several problems, at least I did feel like they were actually concerned with ensuring my comfort as best they could. This hotel was a little more than marginally accessible. I was able to use the necessary facilities and explore nearly every service the hotel offered. With two exceptions, most of the hotel had a relatively open floorplan.


The massage room was not accessible. Being in a manual wheelchair, my cordial dive mates and hotel patrons were able to lift me up the stairs, but had I been in an electric wheelchair, this would not have been possible. The weightroom was also off limits to mobility impaired persons because of multiple steps. Since I regularly do like to use exercise equipment as part of my fitness regiment, this was disconcerting.


The bathroom in my hotel room did have a roll-in shower, though the floor space was not quite large enough to get my wheelchair as close as I would like. While not actually unsafe for a person of my ability level (I am a T-4 para) I think that in most cases, a low level quadriplegic probably would not be able to make the transfers as safely as I was able to; thereby resulting in a fall if done without assistance.


The hotel sometimes served breakfast at the restaurant across the street, which was not easy for any wheelchair to use. Steps blocked the way on both the interior and exterior sides of the entrance. The kitchen did have a service ramp that I was able to use, but I did not know about it until the last day of my trip.


The sidewalks leading to town were mostly passable with my lightweight, manual wheelchair; an electric wheelchair or scooter probably would have had to use the street in more spots than I did. Considering how hectic the traffic can be in such popular tourist destination, this was not what I consider a safe option.


Once in town, the shops and restaurants were mostly accessible. So too were the cabs. As stated previously, the friendly manner of both my hosts and fellow tourists was enough to get me through whatever mission I happened to be on.


As all dive trips do, this one quickly drew to a close. As we washed, dried and packed up our gear, I began to wonder how to summarize what I had witnessed. I began to write what I experienced. These notes are by no means complete because I have yet to include details of the hotel, restaurants and most importantly, the dive operator and boat crew, but suffice to say that this trip was a success. .


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