Photos by Janice Strayve
Matt Feeney relaxes in the disability-friendly underworld.
Immersed and weightless in the warm Caribbean water, I’m drift-diving, riding the current that runs along a colorful coral reef teeming with sea life that unfolds in front of me as I flow by. The amazing water clarity gives a dreamy flight-like quality to the dive, complete with being able to “think” where I want to go — a breath in from the regulator and I slowly ascend, exhale to descend, and a gentle wave of webbed finger gloves provides propulsion.
I had joined six other participants with Adaptive Adventures — a nonprofit that offers a wide variety of adaptive recreation programs ranging from skiing to scuba diving — at the second annual scuba trip to the island of Cozumel, held December 5-12.
Cozumel is a mecca for divers who love the clear warm water, rich coral and marine life, but are primarily attracted by “drift diving.” On a drift dive, the dive master and your group exit the dive boat, descend to the reefs and drift with the underwater currents, which can range from mellow and meandering to exciting and swift. The result is effortless diving that feels akin to flying, or taking a breath to rise over a mound and exhaling to swoop down into a valley or canyon. The dive boat follows the group’s bubbles and is waiting when you surface.
The operation we dove with is Dive Paradise, and our boat accommodated five wheelchair users with room to roll around. Some of Dive Paradise’s dive masters have been trained by the U.S. nonprofit Diveheart to work with adaptive divers. On each dive, our dive master and his crew would assist us to the swim step, hold us as they strapped on our gear and ease us into the water. Upon exiting, they would remove our gear in the water and lift us to our chairs.
The island of Cozumel is laid back and tropical and the main areas are accessible, including our all-inclusive accommodations at Hotel Cozumel, located right across from the dive shop and boat dock.
Divers in our group ranged in experience from John Nousaine, a single leg above-the-knee amputee who has over 1,500 dives and has been certified since 1974, to Jim Munson, a T10 para, and Rich Cunningham, a T12 para, both of whom had recently earned their scuba certifications. Both Munson and Cunningham made their first ocean dives on the Cozumel trip.
Because you are weightless underwater, scuba diving is a great equalizer and adaptive sport — and can be practiced by people with higher injuries, including mid-level quadriplegics.
When asked about their favorite memories of the trip, the same answers came back — doing the night dive and seeing larger sea life — including large sting rays, nurse sharks, and sea turtles. But the top of the list was hanging out with friends and making new ones. Adaptive Adventures will be making this a yearly trip, and everybody agreed they will return.
The dive master assists Bob Vogel into his gear and onto the swim step.
Suited up and happily drift diving, Vogel waves at the camera.
Jim Munson looks for lobster in a coral nook.
These drift divers flow with the water, controlling their ascent with a breath and their descent with an exhale. Gently waving their hands is all that’s necessary for them to navigate their accessible underwater environment.
Among the many cool creatures seen by the divers on this trip were spotted eagle rays like this one.
John Nousaine, Axel Doerwald, Bob Vogel, and Matt Feeney drift over reef.
John Nousaine spears a lionfish for the group’s dinner — once the poisonous “feathers” are removed. Although beautiful, this is an invasive species.
Jim Munson checks out a sea turtle.
The divers relax, letting the water hold them up.
The group gathers for a night dive.