I don't know about loaves, but he's definitely done the trick here multiplying the fishes. That's what occurs to me as I fin around the towering bronze statue of Christ that commands the waters of Cozumel's Chankanaab Park. A thick school of Bermuda chubs have been tailing me and my dive buddy since we entered the water. The pudgy silver fish swarm around our masks with the intent looks of street punks accustomed to handouts.
"Start casting some bread upon the waters, Bub," their eyes seem to say.
When visiting Chankanaab and looking for some face time with fish, there's a veritable sea full of options. This national park on the west coast of the Mexican island, 15 minutes south of the capital, San Miguel, operates more like a water park – with sizable crowds at times. But that doesn't mean you can't find a peaceful patch of ocean in which to commune with the critters. And it's a foolproof beach-snorkel-play day for families.
Chankanaab means "little sea" in Mayan, referring to the gorgeous, clear-blue lagoon that lies inside the park, fed by ocean caves. Lush trails lead through a recreated Maya village and botanical gardens that are crawling with burly iguanas. Hiking around the lagoon, you can watch fish dart in and out of the limestone caverns, but to protect the ecosystem, visitors are prohibited from swimming or diving in the lagoon itself. Fortunately, the warm waters of Cozumel's leeward shore beckon just a few yards away.
Chankanaab's dolphin programs shuffle as many as 1,000 people a day through various levels of interaction. Dolphins are definitely people pleasers, and the encounters are unfailingly popular with the cruise-ship crowd. But depending on how you feel about the capture and working of marine mammals, you may want to skip this; there's no shortage of other ways to spend a day at the park. Snorkeling here is easy. A seawall protects Chankanaab's wide beach, and you enter the ocean via steps that lead directly to the ironshore reef, so you begin to see fish as soon as you lower your face into the water.
My buddy, Edith, wanted to sample a mix of diving options offered by Chankanaab's concessionaires while I decided to stick with scuba. First she did a "bikini theater" version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, donning a bubble-front hard hat for a Sea Trek. The weighty helmet allowed her the unique experience of strolling along the sandy bottom as if on a moon walk, and though there wasn't much scenery, her guide kept things lively by attracting plenty of fish.
Next came Snuba, in which Edith was given a 15-minute introduction to hookah diving – air fed from a kayak on the surface - and was then guided out into the park's open water. Watching her gracefully swimming 20 feet down among the Bermuda chubs and French angelfish while wearing just a bathing suit as I lugged around a scuba tank, weight belt and buoyancy vest, I began to feel covetous. Right then Christ appeared in the blue water, as if to remind me to just keep watching the fish.
Open daily 7 to 5. Check the park's website for latest rates.