The Caribbean is normally warm, clear and calm. In the Summer, the surface can seem like a sheet of glass. Very little tidal action is observed. Water temperatures average 28C/82F in the Summer and 25C/77F in the Winter... we're talking averages. Sometimes it gets as high as 29C/85F in the summer! The excellent visibility often exceeds 30m/100ft. The island of Cozumel provides a natural buffer to the open sea. Leave the surfboard at home, except maybe a couple weeks in March, or during unusually stormy conditions.
Playa del Carmen shares much in common with nearby Cozumel, only 16k/10m away across the Yucatan Channel. Apart from the Splendid Toadfish, which is endemic to Cozumel, the two destinations host the same selection of marine life. Both areas are formed from limestone rock created from millions of years of reef activity. Like in Cozumel, most diving in Playa is drift diving.
Given the normal northbound current and the distance from the shore, ocean diving in Playa is almost always done from a boat. Sometimes training is done onshore in the shallows and at times at Chunzumbul reef in front of Coco beach. Have a look at learning to dive for more on local training options and advice.
In general, moving away from the beach finds the drop-off very gradual with a white sandy bottom. In the depth range of 7m/22ft to 23m/75ft patch reefs dot the area, providing excellent shelter and feeding grounds for a vast array of Caribbean life. It should be noted that Playa del Carmen offers an excellent opportunity to check out sea turtles. The author has dived one particular site hundreds of times with a perfect record of seeing at least one turtle on each dive. It can be easy to lose count of the number of turtles seen on a given dive.
South of the Playacar mega-resorts and north of Xcaret park is an area of mostly craggy rock limestone shore mixed with sandy patches. The shallows here are well populated with coral encrustations. A couple hundred meters off shore is a nice combination wall slope with plenty of caves and several swim-throughs formed when the sea level was lower. Maximum depth here is around 15m/49ft. Heading out a few meters deeper from here is prime for turtle and tarpon spotting.
Beyond about 23m/75ft, a drop-off is encountered in many areas. This change in contour takes on a very nice wall form just north of town. Currents are hard to predict, but often the quickest ones are found along these walls at this depth range. Normally this works out just fine as the currents tend to flow parallel to the wall, providing a great zero-G spacewalk feel as the scenery moves by. There are some caves and a couple of large arches for excellent scenery. This is a favorite area to look for sharks when the water is colder. Check out our dive tips for suggestions on drift diving. South of town, this drop-off is more rounded in most areas. Just south of the Inah inlet at this depth is considered to be one of the prettiest areas in Playa.
Moving farther from shore, the bottom gradually falls away until reaching the Cantil. As its name implies in Spanish, this is the edge of the shelf. Or at least the first edge of the edge. Depending upon your location, this entrance to the depths can take the form of a steadily dropping curved bottom or a steeply inclined vertical wall with cut-backs and overhangs. The depth of this dive also varies, but normally lies beyond the realm of recreational diving. There is a nice area just a couple minutes north of town where the wall lies within normal published sport diving depth limits. Further north near Punta Maroma the edge again creeps within tempting proximity of the surface. Strong, unpredictable currents are possible, and should always be expected and anticipated. All diving is serious. Diving deeply is doubly so. The Cantil is only for accomplished and comfortable divers with adequate training and preparation.
The wreck of the Mama Viņa sits upright in about 30m/96ft of water, ever defying the prevailing current with a turn in to the port side. This steel hulled trawler was intentionally sunk in 1996 after having suffered extensive damage while running aground during a hurricane. Located just south of Xcaret, the sunken vessel is often host to barracuda, jacks, and other schooling fish. The current here can be quite strong at times. While the Mama Viņa makes an excellent introduction to wreck diving, recreational divers not trained in overhead environments should avoid entering the open foreward pump bay and central corridors. Although the wreck has only spent a few years on the sea floor, coral and stinging hydroids have quite effectively covered most all surfaces. Gloves and a long wetsuit are highly recommended. This is not a difficult dive, but given the depth, potential for current, overhead environment, and possibility of entanglement or separation, it should be considered an advanced site.