Cozumel wreck offers crystal-clear look back at maritime war history

The sun rose from the calm tropical sea.

The small dive boat, occupied by six divers, drifted up to the dock in front of the hotel; I was greeted by a smiling divemaster who took my dive gear and underwater camera.

The boat pulled away from the dock and headed south along the west coast of the Mexican Island of Cozumel, a scuba diver’s paradise made famous by underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau in 1959 after witnessing the extent and beauty of the reefs and unusually clear water — with visibility often as great as 200 feet.

The boat pulled up to a mooring ball; the divers sat on the gunnel (upper side of the boat) and one by one rolled backward into the water.

Sinking toward the ocean floor, I saw the entire superstructure of a ship measuring 184 feet long, 33 feet wide and 40 feet high from keel to the top of the superstructure sitting upright in 82 feet of water offshore from Chankanaab Park (a water oriented nature park about 6 miles south of Cozumel’s main town of San Miguel).

Now at her final resting place, the USS Scuffle (AM-298) started life as an Admirable-class minesweeper built for the United States Navy during World War II. Born on May 4, 1943, in Seattle, she was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation and five battle stars for service, including extensive action in the Philippines during World War II.

Scuffle was decommissioned in 1946.

She was sold to the Mexican Navy in 1962 and converted to an Admiral-class gunboat and renamed and numbered as the Felipe Xicotancatl C-53 (named after Felipe Santiago Xicoténcatl, who was a general in the Mexican Army under President Antonio López de Santa Anna). The Felipe Xicotancatl spent 37 years (1962 to 1999) in the Gulf of Mexico and the Mexican Caribbean Sea participating in rescue missions and patrolling the region for illegal arms and drugs.

After a long life of service for two countries, she was laid to rest as an artificial reef in 1999.

The dive operator, Aldora Divers, supplied us with 120-cubic-feet, high-pressure steel tanks filled with a mix of 36 percent oxygen (most dives use 80-cubic-feet aluminum tanks filled with the regular 21 percent oxygen found in the air we breathe), which meant I had an hour-and-a-half to explore the wreck.

There was only a slight current. So, unlike dives on the wrecks in the Florida Keys — where using a mooring line usually is mandatory — I did not use the line to descend to the stern of the ship while adjusting my camera controls.

Reaching the sandy bottom of the ocean, I decided to fin completely around the ship before touring the interior, where a complement of 104 officers and sailors rushed to battle stations clearing watery minefields in the Pacific during World War II.

The ship is adorned with a healthy growth of colorful hard and soft coral and sponges.

Several ocean critters also claim the wreck as home including large schools of barracuda, glassy sweepers, moray eels, blenny, starfish, cleaner shrimp, grouper, surgeonfish and triggerfish.

I swam up over the bow and through the interior portions of the ship, which are easy to enter and exit through several large openings created for divers before the ship was sunk.

Loose wires, electronic equipment and doors have been removed for safety, but the ship largely remains intact with passageways, crew lockers, ladders and engine-room equipment.

Because no divers had been inside the ship before me that day to stir up sediment, the water was so clear inside one passageway that I was able to take a photo clearly showing the bow area more than 100 feet away.

And, of course, I swam into the bridge and imaged myself standing there hearing the sound of the claxon calling general quarters as the ship went into battle with Lt. Comdr. Erik A. Johnson in command and the machine guns, hedgehog anti-submarine mortar, and twin bofors 40-mm guns blazing away.

I took several photos. Most images that accompany dive stories show divers swimming next to or over the ship. I took a bunch of those but decided to stick with one of the propeller because it illustrates the beautiful color of the coral growing on the ship.

Divers who visit Cozumel go for the beautiful diving along the world’s second largest barrier reef system (the Meso-American reef system spanning almost 600 miles of ocean along Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras), which provides a safe and diverse environment for many species — including some not found anywhere else on earth.

The divers are rewarded with the sight of healthy ecosystems made up of amazing coral heads, colorful sponges and tropical fish; tunnels; caves; and steep walls that drop thousands of feet.

During one dive I drifted at 90 feet next to a wall that plunged into the abyss. I swam away from the wall to snap a shot of a spotted eagle ray and had the sensation of hovering in space.

What about wrecks?

Cozumel isn’t thought of a wreck venue. Ships that sank in rough waters offshore lie in great depths; wrecks in shallow waters are eventually destroyed by seasonal storms and hurricanes. But a few shipwrecks remain; one of those wrecks is the C-53 Felipe Xicotencat.

Diving on the C-53 doesn’t require a wreck diving certification or technical diving skills. But, it is not recommended for newly-certified divers. Currents can be strong and unpredictable and swim — through locations can be in overhead environments in water up to 75 feet deep. (New divers are restricted to 60 feet unless they have further training or supervised experience.)

Cozumel divemasters are very familiar with the wreck but divers should know basic scuba skills, have good buoyancy control and be especially mindful of their air consumption.

We are very fortunate in the Florida Keys. There are numerous opportunities to dive on wrecks.

Divers come from all corners of the globe to explore the fleet of historic sunken ships that inhabit the warm waters from Key Largo to Key West, including those accidentally sunk because of weather misfortunes or navigational miscalculations, or, more recently, intentionally scuttled to improve our reef system and offer exiting dive opportunities.

But if you happen to be in Cozumel, try a dive on the C-53 Felipe Xicotencat. It is a great opportunity to get initiated to wreck diving in warm, clear water at a relatively shallow depth.

The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary provides historical data, mooring buoy positions, site maps, and other information to aid divers learn about, locate and dive historical and intentionally sunk ships along a “Shipwreck Trail.” (http://floridakeys.noaa.gov/shipwrecktrail/welcome.html)

Several dive agencies offer wreck diving specialty courses. If you are interested you can easily find a dive center that offers the course.