IT WAS ALWAYS GOING TO BE a mission. I had been given the opportunity to dive in the far south of the Yucatan Peninsula at Banco Chinchorro. The western hemisphere’s largest coral atoll, Chinchorro lies 36 nautical miles off tiny Xcalak, the oldest town on the Mexican Caribbean coast.
Arriving into Cancun on a direct BA flight, we headed to Cozumel, an island famed for its clear water and abundant marine life, for a few days’ R&R and a couple of shakedown dives before the long drive south.
My previous visit to Mexico had been six months earlier, when stormy seas, lashing rain and hurricane-force winds had heralded a very early start to the Caribbean hurricane season.
My dive trip to Cozumel had been almost completely spoiled by the weather, so I was looking forward to diving those sites that had been bombed out by the bad run-off caused by all that rain.
Heading down to Playa del Carmen for the short ferry-ride to Cozumel, I basked in the warm sun streaming through the windows. Blue sky with a few white uffy clouds was a perfect antidote to the drizzly, grey UK.

NEXT DAY, SPEEDING ACROSS the flat-calm ocean on Scuba Club Cozumel’s boat, my memory of the dark blue, oppressive ocean had been replaced by a vivid turquoise sea of tranquillity.
Foregoing my wetsuit in the balmy 28° water, I made a giant-stride entry above Santa Rosa wall, one of Cozumel’s most famous and beautiful dive-sites.
With hardly a murmur of the current for which Cozumel is famous, we headed down to around 25m and a coral wall interspersed with swim-throughs in visibility of well over 40m.
However long and narrow the swim-throughs, beckoning sapphire openings at their ends made for spectacular vistas. And the tunnels were encrusted with brightly coloured corals and home to lots of soldiersh, painted lobsters and huge crabs.
Along the walls, grey and regal angelfish danced around the sponges. A hawksbill turtle swam lazily while a great barracuda kept a watchful eye on me from the blue.
At Via Blanca we re-entered and dived to 20m, where the white sandy seabed was brightly lit from above. I cruised around, spotting southern sting rays shovelling their noses into the sand to unearth small prey. Interspersed with small coral heads covered in healthy seafans and sponges, the site looked like an explosion in a paint factory, all set off by the azure of the water.
A small outcrop of Halimeda algae, I discovered, was home to a beautiful little weedy pipehorse that swayed in the slight current. Nearby a longnose seahorse made some nger corals its home.
Spotting some tassels waggling about under a rock, our dive-guide called me over to show me a sh I had never seen before – a blue-striped toadfish. With its distinctive blue and yellow stripes and bright yellow fins and tail, this beautiful bottom-dweller darted out from under
a rock, seemingly drawn to the metal pointer I had placed in the sand to steady myself in the slight current.

OMINOUS CLOUDS BEGAN to build as we headed back to the Scuba Club for a late lunch. Jet-lag hitting slightly, we passed on the unlimited free and unguided shore-diving on offer, preferring to walk into town.
On our way back, the heavens opened. The power shower had us drenched within minutes.
Next morning we woke to dry but overcast weather. ”’It could be worse,” I thought, and unfortunately that was true. I was loading my kit onto the boat when the rain started again – and hardly stopped again for our entire two weeks in Mexico!
We completed a few more Cozumel dives in dark water at Playancar, and a couple of sh-lled night dives on Scuba Club’s house reef before returning to the mainland to continue our journey south.
I began the drive in our very basic hire car from Playa Del Carmen, hoping that the windscreen wipers would survive.
I had already contacted XTC Dive Centre, which was arranging the trip to Banco Chinchorro, to check the weather.
The current forecast was for the tropical storm to bypass it, cutting the corner of the Yucatan Peninsula, so we crossed fingers and toes, and slowly headed the 220 miles south to Xcalak.
At Tulum, some 90 minutes’ south of Cancun, the storm clouds I had watched in my mirror had caught up with us. Driving rain soon flooded the virtually deserted road.
We drove for 180 miles beside the huge Sian Kaan nature reserve. The road became more basic the further south we went until, 80 miles from our destination, tarmac gave way to compacted sandy track pitted with pot-holes.
As the tropical storm worked its magic, the pot-holes became more like sink-holes. Covered with water, we had no idea how deep or wide they were, so it took hours to drive those last miles.
The light was fading as we reached our hotel, 15 miles north of Xcalak. We had arranged to meet at the dive centre at 7.30 the next morning for the 3-4 hour boat-journey out to Chinchorro, so we grabbed as much sleep as we could.
As the howling winds and torrential rain broke at 6am, our spirits lifted a bit. The road had all but washed away many areas of the track, and the closer we drove to Xcalak, the more respect we had for the weather.
What would happen if we made it to Chinchorro, only for the storm to hit again We were meant to be spending three nights in shermen’s huts on stilts over the sea while diving with the American crocodiles known to inhabit the mangroves. We would have to take advice from Javier, the dive-centre manager.
Our research indicated that he was a very careful, safety-conscious dive instructor.

WE REACHED THE OLDEST and southernmost town (more like a village) in the Yucatan Peninsula, and could see that the water in the lagoon wasn’t too rough. In the distance, a white line marked the fringing reef.
The wind had picked up again, however, causing the huge palm trees lining the beach to sway and groan, and the rain had started to spit.
Javier walked slowly towards us, shaking his head. He had been tracking the storm, and what should have passed us a hundred miles west had been pushed towards Xcalak when it merged with another tropical storm hitting Mexico from the Pacific.
It seemed we were in for a Mexican stand-off between two tropical storms. Javier could get us out to Chinchorro but it would be a very long, rough and uncomfortable journey.
He voiced our worries about getting caught out in a remote and unprotected area, surrounded by crocodiles, and possibly unable to make it back.
We decided to stay at the dive centre overnight to see if the weather improved and, as we were at a loose end for the rest of the day, Javier suggested he take us to see the “last dive-sites in Mexico”.
We were only a couple of miles by sea from the Belize border, a journey that would take four hours by car.

ALTHOUGH DISAPPOINTED about Chinchorro, we began to get excited as Javier told us of the dives he had planned for us. We kitted up on the beach, loaded our kit and cameras into the small powerboat and skimmed across the lagoon towards the fringing reef.
Our rst dive would be on the outer wall at the Chimney. The reef wall was spotted with swim-throughs and holes, and the Chimney was a series of caves.
We would enter at around 25m and swim towards the top of the reef, exiting from one of the large holes.
The fringing reef formed part of the world’s second-largest barrier reef after Australia’s GBR. Boats could cross safely to the outer reef only in a couple of areas, and Javier’s very skilled captain took his time, studying the waves and swells.
What we thought had been fairly calm conditions proved very rough beyond the lagoon. Revving the engine, the captain made a run for it, trying to cut through the swells quickly, but it soon became clear that we weren’t going to make it.
Instructing us to hang on for dear life, he timed a turn broadside to the swell to try to head back into the lagoon.
The boat was picked up like a piece of driftwood, and I thought we would tip over and spill into the roiling water, but with impeccable timing the captain yanked the boat round just at the last second. The wave took us surng into the relative calm of the lagoon.
My heart lurched into my throat as we moved to another spot and made another run for the outer reef, but this time we just made it, and Javier quickly instructed us to back-roll into the water.
Meeting at 10m, I looked up but saw no sign of the boat. The captain had decided to surf back in and spend the duration of our dive in the lagoon.
Slightly worried that he wouldn’t be able to get back out, I gave Javier a boat sign and a shrug. He reassured me with a pat on my back and a big grin and OK sign. They had done this before!
The water movement had taken its toll on visibility. Down at a soupy green 10-15m, we stuck close to Javier as he led us to the entrance to the cavern system.
The reef seemed alive with colour and movement. I could only imagine what it would look like on a clear, calm day.
Today we were met with strong surge, dark cloudy water and little ambient light.
Entering the caverns, I could see holes in the reef surface and imagined the sunlight streaming through, making it look cathedral-like and painting the coral-crusted walls like stained-glass windows.
A huge school of jack swam around the inside of the largest cavern, while a few barracuda hung out in one of the openings. I could see some huge fish in the distance out in the green, and made a note to ask Javier what they were.
The depth and the conditions soon ended the dive. Surfacing in the increasing swell, I was so happy to see our boat only a few metres away.
A frantic struggle ensued as we all tried to get back aboard as quickly as possible. As every couple of divers exited, the boat had to back away, circle and make another bid to pick us up without being pushed against the reef. Finally, all back on board, we whooped as we surfed quickly back into the lagoon.
Taking advantage of our hour’s surface interval, Javier instructed the captain to take us down to where the southernmost mangroves of Mexico almost touch the northernmost mangroves of Belize.
Cruising along the 25m channel between them, we spotted egrets and pelicans on the mangrove branches. Where the channel narrowed even further, we decided to snorkel. Though wary of the crocodiles known to inhabit these channels, the fresh, cola-coloured water made a cooling contrast to the earlier waves and swells.

JAVIER HAD DECIDED that our next dive would be at the actual last dive-site in Mexico, La Poza. This was situated between two horizontal spits in the reef, forming a chute where tarpon (the big fish I had seen earlier) were known to aggregate in large numbers to enjoy the nutrient-rich waters funnelling through.
He warned us that the current could be ripping, but that the stronger it was the more tarpon we were likely to see.
I wasn’t looking forward to the boat running the gauntlet again, but the tarpon prospect spurred me on. Javier briefed us extremely thoroughly and we were warned to follow his instructions to the letter.
This could be a very dangerous site, both for the boat positioned in the swells between two reefs and for the divers.
The captain made short work of the swells – he must have balls of steel! I kept my head down, held on tightly and prayed.
Javier got us into the water quickly and efficiently, and we met at 10m as planned. Vis was marginally better, but not much.
Following him down to a white-sand bottom at 19m, we hung onto rocks, as instructed, to resist the ripping current.
Beppo, our other dive guide, was new to this site. He kindly hooked me in with his current hook (I had left mine at home, not expecting to need it on this trip).
I looked up to see a huge silvery shape approaching out of the murk. It was a 2.5m tarpon swimming effortlessly in the current. Its bony head, with slanting jaw and huge eyes, made me keen not to get in its way. Tarpon have been known to knock out fishermen as they jump into boats as their lines are brought up.
More 2-3m tarpon followed, interspersed with huge schools of jack and a few giant barracuda.
Tiring of clinging onto the rocks, the others signalled that they wanted to go with the current. Beppo unhooked me and we drifted along the chute, seeing seemingly hundreds of tarpon.
The group separated as a couple of divers tried to chase and lm a monster tarpon. Javier started gesticulating towards the others, and I remembered his explicit instruction that we stay together as we sped down the chute.
We needed to cross the 30m from one side to the other at a certain spot to meet a pinnacle rising to 5m. We could do our safety-stop there without getting carried further down the reef. This would make it easier for the boat to pick us up, especially in these surface conditions.

WE HUNG AT THE PINNACLE beyond our safety-stop time until our air threatened to run out, while waiting for the other group to join us. Eventually the frantic Javier surfaced, swearing and gesticulating as only a Mexican can.
The boat pick-up was even hairier than on the rst dive, with the boat having to reposition for every diver to board. Once our group of three were up, we scanned the sea for any sign of the others.
This really was the last dive site in Mexico – there would be no other dive-boats for at least 100 miles, at San Pedro on the Belize island of Ambergris Cay.
Finally, 20 minutes after we had surfaced, the captain spotted the divers surface with Beppo, who had chased after them. They were near the first reef edge.
Getting as close as he dared, the captain and Javier shouted for them to swim for their lives. The swells were pushing them back even further towards the reef, where the waves were crashing thunderously.
After 10 minutes of erce ghting with the ocean, the four divers were on board. As, subdued this time, we surfed into the lagoon, Javier vented his wrath on the group with all the fire of the hottest chilli.
The sobering thought that no photo or video is important enough to risk your life for those of others for passed through all our heads that afternoon. The last dive-site in Mexico could very easily have become their last dive-site, period!
The weather and sea conditions had taken matters into their own hands. The tropical storms turned into hurricanes. There would be no Chinchorro Bancos for us this time round.

GETTING THERE Fly direct into Cancun with BA or via major US or Canadian gateway cities with Virgin, Delta, United or Air Canada.
Diving & ACCOMMODATION Scuba Club Cozumel, XTC Dive Centre, www.xtc Almaplena Eco Beach Resort near Xcalak,
WHEN TO GO Hurricane season is July-November, but Mexico is rarely affected. Water temperatures 26-29°C (Jan-July). September and October are the rainiest months.
MONEY US dollars and Mexican pesos.
HEALTH No vaccinations needed. Mosquitos are a problem only during rainy season.
PRICES Scuba Club Cozumel offers a “soft” all-inclusive five-night diving package for around £500pp. One-week all-inclusive dive-and-stay packages can be arranged by The Scuba Place from £1295pp,