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Cocos Island Trip Report

Cocos  Island, Costa Rica                               September 7, 2011

Departure:

The last time that I flew to Florida in November of 2010 the line-up at customs was horrendous.  In fact, they had to request passengers with a departure time preceding 10:00 a.m. to step out of line for an escorted priority through customs.  Even with that we were 45 minutes late departing while the plane waited for passengers to clear customs.  Consequently, I was not looking forward to this morning’s earlier departure. 

I awoke before the alarm, showered, dressed, ate breakfast and was on my way just prior to 05:00 a.m.  Although there was a fair amount of traffic on the roads at that time the early morning rush hour had not started and it was a smooth ride out to the airport.  I arrived at the Park ‘n Fly lot just as a bus was approaching the shelter and the driver was kind enough to wait while I unloaded all of my gear.  Within a few minutes we arrived at Terminal 3 and I braced myself for the interminable line-ups.  Imagine my surprise when I reached the ticket counter to find that there was only one person in front of me.  There were 3 ticket agents on hand so I immediately approached the counter.  My bags were checked through all the way to San Jose, Costa Rica and, even though both bags were overweight, I was only charged $31.50 for an extra bag.  Next, I had to pass through customs.  By this time the line-up extended to six people but it was only minutes before I was checked through, had my camera case inspected and was on my way to the final security checkpoint.  Once again, there was only one couple ahead of me and within a few minutes I was through the gate and on my way to the coffee shop.  The whole process had taken less than 30 minutes.  I had to pinch myself to ensure that I was not dreaming.  The only problem that confronted me now was how I was going to while away the next two hours prior to boarding the plane.  This was not a problem however since the plane boarded on time, departed on time, we enjoyed a smooth flight, and we arrived on time.

After disembarking from the plane I went in search of a restaurant for lunch and, after indulging my appetite, headed over to the departure gate.  Once again we boarded on time and although there was a slight delay in loading the luggage onto the plane due to a thunderstorm we taxied out onto the runway and were on our way to San Jose.  The San Jose customs and immigration should be held as a model for other airports.  Although two planes had arrived within minutes of each other and the line to immigration was quite long there were 25 customs officials in attendance and the line just kept moving until we had all been processed.  We were on our way to collect our luggage within about ten minutes.  I had not realized that it was necessary to reserve a spot on the shuttle bus to the hotel so instead waited in line for a taxi.  It was rush hour in San Jose and getting to the hotel took almost an hour.  Once I had checked in I again went in search of a restaurant.  There was a casino with a restaurant right across the parking lot that was recommended by the concierge so I enjoyed a Sea Bass filet in a rich, creamy cheese sauce.  On my return to the hotel I met Jay who informed me that the group would gather at 08:00 p.m. in the lobby for introduction and instructions.  Although really tired, I struggled to stay awake and went to the lobby at the appointed time.  Georgienne, Jay and several other members of the group arrived and we set out for a local pub.  A round of beer was ordered,introductions were made and we started to get to know each other.  Interestingly, there were a disproportionate amount of young women wearing very short skirts patronizing this establishment as well.  After a couple of beers some of us determined that discretion was the better part of valour and went back to the hotel to get some much needed rest.  Our wake-up call was for 06:00 a.m. with the bus leaving at 07:00.  I awoke before the alarm, made a pot of coffee, showered and joined the group in the lobby for a continental breakfast.

It may have appeared that we were mounting some sort of expedition by the number of bags and camera cases that were assembled in the lobby of the hotel.  Our bus and truck arrived and initially all of the delicate equipment was loaded into a special storage space on the truck.  Then the rest of our cases were loaded and we boarded the bus for the beginning of our journey.  With the new highway it only takes about 90 minutes to reach the Pacific coast but the journey takes up to three and a half hours due to the amount of time it takes to get out of San Jose during rush hour.  We had to make a stop at another hotel to pick up one of our group and then we were on our way.  We made a rest stop at a rather elegant gift shop/restaurant and then continued on to Puntarenas.  Another stop was made at a grocery store to pick up additional supplies and then we arrived at our home for the next couple of weeks, the Undersea Hunter.  Our gear was loaded onto the boat; we were instructed to make sure that we had everything and then we unpacked and assembled our dive gear.  Camera cases were unloaded, O-rings inspected and cleaned and cameras were installed inside their housings.  I am amazed at the equipment that is available here.  My Amphibico Phenom housing is dwarfed by the HD Amphibicam housing for the EX-3 camera which is further dwarfed by the enormous Amphibicam.  There are housings by Subal, Aquatica, Nautica, Light and Motion, Gates, Sea & Sea but Ikelite is not spoken here.    Once everything is set up we weighed anchor and were on our way.

Lunch was served in the main dining room, more introductions were made and we all began to get to know each other.  Although the seas were relatively flat and calm the constant motion of the boat upset my equilibrium and unfortunately, for the duration of the crossing, I suffered from a bout of seasickness.  I was not physically ill but missed out on dinner on both of the days that it takes to arrive at Cocos Island.  A typical crossing duration is anywhere from 30 to 36 hours; we made it in about 32.  Cocos Island receives about 275” of rain every year, resulting in verdant, lush tropical rain forest and spectacular waterfalls that cascade down vertical cliffs hundreds of feet high but it also means that it is generally overcast and raining here.  Certainly it is not the place to go if you intend to work on your tan.  Once we reached our destination and anchored the boat I started to feel better and managed to get a good night’s sleep.  Breakfast was served at 06:00 a.m., followed by our introductory dive briefing.

Dive one:  Manuelita Coral Garden

The dive briefing was conducted in the lounge and we were notified as to which group we would be diving with.  Wetsuits were pulled on, dive gear and cameras were loaded onto the boat and we set off under overcast skies for the first dive of the trip.  Buoyancy checks were made and some of us needed to add weight.  Once everybody descended we set off on a leisurely tour of this reef in about 40’ of water.  Immediately Cocos delivered.  Within a minute or so of reaching the bottom an eight foot Galapagos shark swam by, numerous whitetip sharks either rested on the bottom or glided effortlessly about.  A pair of scalloped hammerheads approached but turned away before entering the range of the camera.  We were able to film a large green moray eel, a pair of black frogfish as well as numerous reef fish.  Another hammerhead put in an appearance before the end of the dive but once again was too far out of range.  Visibility is limited to less than 50’ which means that there is lots of action but getting good footage requires patience and the good fortune to be in the right place at the right time.  At the end of the dive we regained the skiff and after arriving back at the boat got out of our wet things and changed into dry clothes.  Our surface interval was relatively brief and in relatively short order we were gearing up for our next dive.

Dive two: Manuelita Outside

We descended to about 60’ and waited for our divemaster.  We were hoping to film scalloped hammerheads at a cleaning station but instead were treated to a trio of eagle rays that glided effortlessly past us and numerous marble rays, some just laying on the bottom, others swimming in formation around the rocks.  We encountered a bit of current at this site and although several hammerheads were spotted they were still too far away.  On completion of this dive we returned to the boat for our lunch break and afterwards were treated to a sales seminar for the submarine tour.  Several of our group will be taking advantage of the opportunity to dive to depths that are well beyond the range of scuba.      

Dive three: Manuelita Channel

Again we descended to about 60’ and waited on the wall for the entire group to assemble.  This time a large hammerhead approached a couple of times close enough for me to shoot some video.  When the action died down we descended to the bottom of the wall at about 110’ and there were several hammerheads swimming about just inches from the bottom.  Although I moved out towards them and shot some footage, the visibility was not that good and they would stay just out of reasonable range.  I stayed at this depth for several minutes hoping to get better results but when I turned around quickly realized that the group had already left.  It was not difficult to determine which direction they had taken since the current indicated their only possible route.  I rejoined the group within a couple of minutes and shot some footage of whitetip sharks amongst the rocks.  However, my time at depth had depleted my air supply so I ascended to begin my safety stop.  We were greeted back at the boat with cups of hot chocolate and freshly baked pastries.  This was to be out last dive of the day so we rinsed out our gear and headed for the showers.  While waiting for the dinner bell several of us engaged in a rather spirited game of, “Let’s Make a Sentence”, and Georgienne suffered the most from the aspersions cast upon her character.  For the first time on this trip I was able to join the group for dinner and afterwards Wilson lectured us on the appropriate way to dive with the hammerheads at a cleaning station in order to get close up and personal with these sharks.  Then it was off to bed to prepare for another day of diving.

Dive four: Dirty Rock 

At break of day we gathered in the dining area for coffee since we would complete our first dive before breakfast.  Our first dive was scheduled on the other side of the island at a location known as Dirty Rock.  The water was rough and there was quite a bit of white water and surge at the surface.  The dive protocol was to enter the water and descend immediately to the shelter of the rock at about 60’.  Once I reached this point I turned the camera on but it immediately started to record.  I shut the housing off to reset everything and turned it on again and, even though it would turn on, the housing controls did not work.  It was then that I noticed water sloshing around inside the port.  Realizing that significant damage had already been done and not knowing where the exit point was I continued the dive with a flooded housing.  Upon my return to the boat, the housing almost exploded when I opened the rear latches.  Both the camera and housing are most likely completely destroyed.  This was a rather inauspicious start to a nine day dive trip in one of the world’s most incredible diving locations.

Dive five: Punta Maria

It never ceases to amaze me just how much life you see underwater when you do not have a camera.  We descended down a line at this dive site to a crack between a rock and a ledge.  Marble rays glided effortlessly about us as we took our places on the ledge.  Large Galapagos sharks meandered past us and the occasional hammerhead also joined in the parade.  One Galapagos shark passed so close to me that I could easily have reached out to touch it but, alas, there will be no film at eleven.  We spent several minutes at this site constantly entertained by the sharks, the rays and a turtle cruising by.  There were numerous photo opportunities.  Eventually we headed out into the blue for our safety stop, regained the skiff and set off back to the boat.  Whole roast chicken legs, French fries and salads were served for lunch which was more of a dinner than a lunch and afterwards Jay and I took the housing port apart to drain it of water.  It appears as though the flooded housing may have been caused by water entering the port.

Dive six: Manuelita – the other side

We went back to Manuelita for our third dive of the day so that we could cruise about in the shallows.  Almost immediately I was confronted by a rather large lobster but the rest of the group was too far away to attract their attention so no pictures were taken.  All of the requisite reef fish inhabit this site along with several whitetip sharks resting on the sandy bottom.  We were fortunate to observe a frogfish free swimming across the sand.  He may have been a bit concerned by all the attention that was garnered from the photographers but did not seem to be in a hurry to settle down anywhere.  We also saw a couple of moray eels and generally took our time drifting across the reef.  Several marble rays took up positions in the sand and, although they can be approached quite closely they seem to have a predilection for the colder water below the thermocline.  Spending just a couple of minutes in this colder water was enough for me so I ascended to a warmer section of the reef.  After more than an hour at this site and, after completing our safety stops, we headed back to the boat for a hot shower and a selection of pastries and fruit.  There is a night dive scheduled for 06:00 p.m. but I am not sure how keen anybody is to participate.  Most of the divers on our boat declined the night dive and instead lounged about waiting for dinner.  Another sumptuous meal was served, this time it was salmon and shrimp, and after we were all satiated it was time for bed.

Dive seven: Alcyone

Although I had been awakened several times during the night by the sound of thunder, the morning dawned bright and sunny.  It was a welcome respite from the overcast skies that we have endured every day of our trip thus far.  We assembled for our dive briefing and then headed off to our dive site a fifteen minute boat ride away.  The protocol for this dive was similar to Punta Maria; grab the line before entering the water and descend down the line to the rocks.  Immediately after dropping below the surface the unmistakable shape of hammerhead sharks were spotted.  Once we reached the bottom at a depth of 90’ we were graced with the presence of several large scalloped hammerhead sharks at the cleaning station.  By observing the protocol of ducking your head when a shark approaches, the impression that you are more intimidated by them is created and they will approach even closer.  There were several incredible missed photo opportunities as we moved from place to place at this site; marble rays, leather bass and whitetip sharks assembled on the bottom, moray eels hide in cracks and crevices as the hammerheads lean to one side as they were being cleaned by the king angelfish.  The tiny Cocos barnacle blenny can also be observed peeking out of its barnacle home.  When we reached the 5 minute NDL we regained the line and started our ascent to the surface.  Federico, our divemaster, had instructed us to push off from the line and drift out into the blue.  Richard and Lisa, Jonathan, Erin and I, followed him and at a depth of 60’ were rewarded by swimming into a school of dozens of hammerhead sharks.  The more curious ones would approach closely to inspect us and then move off again out of sight.  Several times they returned making our ascent and safety stop a rather pleasant experience.  We disembarked, got out of our wet gear and breakfast was waiting for us in the dining room.

Dive eight: Submerged rock

We dove this site at low tide and the tip of the rock is just discernible at the surface, at high tide all that is visible is the white water.  The waves were quite high, buffeting the boat about so we took it in turns to enter the water, descend to 60’ and wait for the group to assemble.  There is a permanent thermocline at several of the Cocos sites and we encountered this one at about 80’.  It seems as though the marble rays prefer the colder water since they can generally be found just below the thermocline.  Several whitetip sharks were patrolling the perimeter of the rock as we made our way around to an arch that cuts right through the rock.  A lone crown of thorns starfish had taken up residence on the coral.  Schools of blue-and-gold snappers, bluefin trevallys, and numerous jacks occupy this opening which makes for some interesting photo opportunities.  We passed through the opening one person at a time and waited on the other side until everyone was through.  Then we passed through it again, finding it much easier to negotiate swimming with the current rather than against it.  We continued around the rock encountering several more whitetip sharks and, upon reaching our 5 minute NDL set out into the blue to await pick-up by the skiff.  Then it was back to the boat for lunch.

Dive nine:   Isla Pajara

After lunch the desire for an afternoon nap becomes overwhelming.  I was awoken by the bell which signified that it was time to get ready for another dive.  A short boat ride brought us to the far side of Isla Pajara and we descended to the bottom in about 90’ of water while several hammerheads glided effortlessly back and forth just a few feet from the sandy bottom.  One or two would approach for a closer look but generally they remain just outside camera range. A slight current took us around the rock into a reef of hard corals where numerous guineafowl puffer fish and spotted boxfish take turns biting into the coral.  Several enormous moray eels are discovered hiding in the crevices and the obligatory whitetip sharks either rest on the bottom or swim casually about the reef.  The nice thing about the whitetip sharks is that they are anything but shy.  It would be nice if some of their behavior rubbed off on the larger pelagics.  Schools of yellowtail snappers and panamic porkfish congregate near the bottom.  This dive is a really leisurely drift and we take our time circling the island.  After the dive the boat approaches the shoreline so that pictures of the nesting red footed boobies can be taken.  There is a flurry of activity when we get back to the boat since some people want to go over to the Argo to take pictures of the submarine while others are going on a boat tour around the island.  I opt to stay on the boat and soak up the warming rays of the late afternoon sun.  After dinner we watch a National Geographic special on the “Island of the Sharks” and then it is off to bed.

Dive ten:  Manuelita

We awoke to another bright sunny morning and Wilson is going to be our divemaster today.  We set off to the cleaning station at Manuelita and descend to a depth of 100’.  Several eagle rays are feeding on the bottom and a few hammerheads glide by but there is not a lot of action.  A marble ray follows us as we traverse to the second cleaning station and a scalloped hammerhead approaches Richard and I very closely for inspection.  Of course neither of us has a camera.  There are a few sharks at the next cleaning station but visibility is only about thirty feet so it is a challenge to get any shots.  We ascend a bit up the wall and, although we wait patiently, there are no more sharks.  As we drift off into the current to begin our ascent to the surface we encountered a large school of morley snappers.  Then it was back to the boat for breakfast.

Dive eleven: Alcyone

The seas were flat calm as we returned to this site and there was very little current present when we entered the water.  We dropped to the rocks behind the cleaning station and gradually worked our way into a viewing position.  It did not take long for the hammerheads to show up.  I had positioned myself behind a rock adjacent to a channel that cut through between two mounts and the sharks would glide aimlessly past laying slightly to one side as the king angelfish picked away at their parasites.  Several of the female sharks showed signs of mating scars and the angelfish gave specific attention to these wounds.  It was an almost continuous parade of sharks passing by, some within an arm’s length reach, and then I was graced by a dozen hammerheads swimming together in formation through the channel.  What a missed photo opportunity!  When we were within a few minutes of our NDL we regained the line and began our ascent to the surface.  Since there were no waves it did not take the skiff very long to return us to the boat.  After we had dried off and changed our clothes Wilson took a few of us out to a tree on the island where red-footed boobies were nesting.  There was one nest with a young chick just peering out from beneath its mother’s breast.  Several larger chicks, still sporting their white down, were in nests higher up in the tree.  After several minutes we returned to the boat, took some pictures and then it was time to come aboard for lunch.  After lunch a nap just seems to be so appropriate.

Dive twelve:  Manuelita

Erin awoke me from a sound slumber to ensure that I did not miss the next dive.  The plan was to go back to Dirty Rock but when we arrived at the site another dive boat was already there and the divers had only entered the water ten minutes previously so we turned around and headed back to Manuelita Channel.  There was a solitary hammerhead swimming through the channel at depth but apart from the one encounter there was not much to see.  We were escorted around to the other side of the rock by a marble ray and although the visibility was good there was not much action.  We continued at a rather leisurely pace along the wall and just as we reached our NDL a pair of hammerheads drifted slowly by.  All in all a relaxed and pleasurable dive even if there was not much going on in the water. 

Before dinner the other group set out for the night shark dive.  We will have to wait a couple of days for our turn to witness this incredible spectacle.  During dinner Wilson informed us that we would be moving the boat to a different anchorage early in the morning.  Upon awakening and while enjoying coffee on the stern deck a lone manta ray swam past the boat just inches below the surface.  The divemasters released the skiffs and we left our anchorage to the new location.  The regime was altered this morning in that we enjoyed our breakfast prior to our first dive of the day.

Dive thirteen:  Punta Maria

From our new anchorage it is only a few minutes ride out to this site and once again we descended down the line to a horseshoe shaped cut in the rock.  There were a few Galapagos sharks idly gliding by but not a lot of action.  After several minutes we left the cleaning station to allow time for the sharks to return but, although they came back, there was still not very much going on.  Next we swam across to another pinnacle and Wilson motioned for us to descend.  He had found the motherlode.  At a depth of 110’, well below the thermocline, was a group of seven or eight Galapagos sharks actively involved in the hunt.  They approached us quite closely and photo opportunities were in abundance but we were only three minutes from our NDL so the excitement was short lived.  Even as we ascended the Galapagos sharks continued to circle around us and we were also joined by a lone hammerhead.   We completed a slow ascent and safety stop and then it was back to the boat where sandwiches and slices of fruit awaited our arrival.

Dive fourteen:  Dirty Rock

We go back to the scene of the crime and descend behind the shelter of the rock.  Making our way to a depth of 115’ we are greeted by several hammerhead sharks.  They swim around for a bit but, once again, are just out of reasonable camera range.  My computer indicates that I have reached an Oxygen partial pressure of 1.43 so I ascend a bit to alleviate the situation.  We move further around the side of the rock and are rewarded with several hammerheads passing by very closely.  Now this would have made for great video.  We are entertained for several minutes and then swim across to another pinnacle.  A lone hammerhead that is being cleaned by a king angelfish allows me to approach and swim alongside for a bit.  Within a few minutes we have reached our NDL and begin to surface.  Wilson hands me the safety sausage because a couple of our divers are still at depth so he swims down to get their attention.  We get back to the boat and after a hot shower change into dry clothes and it is time for lunch.  For the past few days we have been blessed with clear skies and hot sun.  It is a real treat to be able to dry off on the stern deck and soak up some of the sun’s rays.

Dive fifteen:  Viking Rock

A short ride on the skiff took us out to Viking Rock and we descended to about 90’.  Three hammerheads glided effortlessly past and several marble rays swam about us as we drifted around the rock.  We saw a few whitetips but there was little else of any interest on this dive.  The challenge with diving at Cocos Island is that it is all about the sharks.  They are omnipresent and sometimes in large aggregations but most often they remain just beyond our view. The coral formations are mostly plate coral with a few sea fans thrown in for good measure and there are numerous small reef fish but the environment does not offer the variety of even a Caribbean reef dive.  By the time that we began our ascent to the safety stop several of the divers were feeling the effects of the cold water.  When we reached the boat the skies had become overcast and we had lost the warming effects of the sun.

Dive sixteen:  Dos Amigos

Once again we awoke to sunny skies but cloud cover in the distance indicated that we may experience a change in the weather later in the day.  We ate breakfast before our first dive and then set off for Dos Amigos, a dive site quite some distance away.  We had not been able to access this site previously due to the swells.  Once we arrived at the site the boat positioned us in the white water surf adjacent to the rock and we were instructed to descend immediately to a depth of 50’ or more to put us beneath the surge.  Jonathan immediately set himself up in a cleaning station where three hammerheads were enjoying the ministrations of the barber fish. We continued around the rock at a depth up to 100’ and, although there were hammerheads present they remained just outside of the range of good photo opportunities.  A few marble rays and the obligatory whitetips kept us amused as we ascended to shallower depths.  The surge at 60’ was sufficient to cause George to crash into me and my regulator hose got tangled up in his equipment resulting in a few anxious moments.  As we reached the other side of the rock a school of nine hammerheads circled us a couple of times and even came close enough that some of the photographers were able to squeeze off a few shots.  We continued out into the blue for our safety stop and immediately after Randy had turned off his strobes and shut the camera down a solitary hammerhead rose from the depths for a much closer inspection.  It was perhaps the best photo opportunity of the dive but nobody managed to capture the image.  By the time we surfaced it had started to rain.  They take their rain very seriously at Cocos Island and it was difficult to determine whether we were wetter in the water than out of it.  There are numerous cuts in the tropical foliage created by the many waterfalls on the island and, after a rain, all of these waterfalls start running again and present an awesome spectacle as the ribbons of white water cascade furiously down hundreds of feet to the sea.   The effect of driving the boat into the rain was like being stabbed by thousands of tiny needles into every square inch of exposed skin.  It was a welcome relief to get back onto the boat, out of our wetsuits and under the warm water of the showers on the boat deck.

Dive seventeen:  Punta Maria

By the time we had completed our surface interval the rain had ceased and the sun was shining once again which makes an incredible difference to the comfort level to be warmed by the sun instead of soaked by the rain.  We reached Punta Maria and descended down the line to the assembly area.  A solitary turtle swam past us and a lone Galapagos shark was observed at the cleaning station but neither of them hung around for very long.  After moving to a better viewing position we observed a hammerhead shark but it almost immediately swam off into the blue and out of sight.  We continued around the pinnacle until reaching a cut through the rock.  You could feel the colder water current being forced through this area and there was quite a congregation of fish in the nutrient rich water.  This action excited the photographers and immediately their strobes were firing in a cacophony of flashing lights.  Numerous whitetips circled about in a continuous swirl of activity but we were not able to determine the cause of their agitation.  There were also quite a few spotted moray eels and another turtle maintained the interest of the photographers.  As we reached our NDL Wilson led us out into the blue against the current.  I kept wondering why we were swimming against the current and this continued for quite some time until air supplies were becoming depleted and then Wilson reached for the line where the boat was tethered.  This was an amazing feat of underwater navigation, being able to return the group to the starting point of the dive in limited visibility against a current and without a compass.  Awesome!  Lunch was an amazing affair of steak smothered in cheese and a slice of ham with rice, roast vegetables, salad and fresh baguettes of bread.  Also awesome!

Dive eighteen:  Manuelita

We returned to this dive site and, finding another skiff already there with divers in the water, proceeded to the far end of the rock and descended in the hopes of finding sharks swimming by.  There may not have been any sharks but there were hundreds and hundreds of chocolate chip starfish, a solitary frogfish swimming about and several moray eels including a starry moray which I had never observed previously. There were large schools of yellowtail snappers, goatfish, bluefin trevally and black jacks cruising the reef along with the requisite whitetip sharks resting in the sand waiting for someone to ring the dinner bell.  The thermocline started at about 50’ so I opted to drift across the reef just above it.  This was a relaxing dive although there was not too much to see and very little action until near the very end of the dive.  A large, pregnant Galapagos shark came in for a close look and once Wilson saw it he took off after it to shoot some video.  Initially the shark swam away but then, realizing that it was quite a bit bigger than Wilson, turned and chased him away.  I did not realize that Wilson had turbo chargers implanted in his fins but he took off like he was being chased by a rather large shark.  Once back on the boat we all had a good laugh about this encounter. Rain started falling again as we sped back to the boat and a hot shower was a welcome end to the day of diving.

After dinner Geogienne brought us all up to date on the status of Bill AB376 that has passed the legislature and the senate before being signed into law by the governor of California.  This is an important bill because it will make the possession of shark fins a crime in California and, since most of the fins are exported from California ports, it bodes well for the shark populations in the Pacific.  She also advised us of the status of efforts being undertaken at Cocos Island to protect this magnificent marine ecosystem.

Dive nineteen: Manuelita outside

The rocking motion of the boat during the night indicated that the weather had taken a turn for the worse.  The divemasters moved the skiffs and the captain returned the boat to our previous mooring location so that we would be more protected from the waves.  We were treated to a spectacular double rainbow and, even though it was raining, several of us went out on deck to take photographs.  After breakfast we assembled for our dive briefing and since the water was still a bit rough elected to go back to the far side of Manuelita.  We descended to the cleaning station at about 60’ and encountered several hammerheads.  They remained with us for several minutes, circling in and out of our vision and occasionally approaching quite closely.  Once the action died down we moved out into the current and proceeded around the rock.  Within a few minutes the current carried us through a group of divers from the Aggressor boat and then, a couple of minutes later, we swarmed a second group of their divers.  After reaching our NDL we set off into the blue where an enormous school of jacks surrounded us.  They encircled us again and again, following us up to our safety stop at 20’ when a large school of hammerheads passed beneath us.  All in all an amazing dive with perhaps the most action that we have seen so far.

Dive twenty:  Dirty Rock

Although the seas were still a bit rough we returned to this site and picked up from where we left off on the last dive.  We were dropped into the white water surf and swells and immediately descended into a large school of jacks.  At 60’ the cleaning station was occupied by perhaps a dozen or so hammerheads.  I obtained a good position behind a rock out of the current and spent several minutes being entertained by the continuous circling of the hammerheads.  After a while I checked back over my shoulder and realized that I had been abandoned by the rest of the group so I left my perch and re-joined them a little further along the rock.  Then, they all proceeded to swim back to where I had been located previously.  However, by this time the hammerheads had already swum away and the current was ripping into us, tugging at our masks and regulators.  We continued around the rock to obtain some respite from the current but it seemed to be strong wherever we were.  It was a challenge just to stay with the group and, as my air supply dwindled, I ascended to complete the safety stop.  Once back on the boat we warmed up beneath the hot showers on the boat deck and, after changing into dry clothes, it was soon time for lunch.

Dive twenty-one:  Manuelita Coral Gardens

The weather and waves dictate that we go back to this site since it is offers its own shelter and is not too far away.  As we assemble on the boat deck for our briefing a pod of orcas is spotted swimming into the bay.  The regulations at the island prohibit approaching marine mammals so we wait until they have moved away.  Imagine our surprise when, upon arriving at the coral gardens, the orca family is directly beside our skiff.  We eagerly enter the water in anticipation of an incredible encounter but nobody sees any of the orcas.  We swim along the edge of the coral gardens hoping for a glimpse of the orcas but all we see is a Galapagos shark swimming furiously away from the shallows.  As we begin our return I notice an eagle ray feeding in the sand so swim out to take a closer look.  It allows me to approach, more concerned with getting something to eat than being wary of my presence.  I stay with it for several minutes but when it leaves and I turn around there are no bubbles to be seen anywhere.  I continue against the current moving ever closer to the shallows and eventually see Des off in the distance.  He is following an eagle ray across the coral and I join up with him and we continue the rest of the dive together.  We see Georgienne and Jay filming in the shallows and then begin our ascent for the safety stop.  After dinner Wilson opens the Undersea Hunter Boutique where he is proffering goods so that we may acquire them.  Unlike many other dive operations their goods are reasonably priced so we all acquire souvenirs.      

Dive twenty-two:  Alcyone

They are moving the boat again in the morning and, although it is not raining there is a swell that causes the boat to list from side to side, not the most pleasant sensation.  However, the sun is shining and there are patches of blue sky but the wind is quite strong.  We set off for Alcyone and, once we are out of the lee of the island, it starts to get bumpy.  When we reach the buoy we all enter from the same side of the boat with a firm grip on the safety line. We pull ourselves down to the bottom and proceed to the cleaning station.  The visibility is dramatically improved and we can see anywhere from 50’ to 100’.  There is a large school of jacks right overhead and dozens of hamereads milling about the cleaning station.  The hammerheads are not the least bit concerned by our presence and some of them approach so closely that it would be possible to reach out and touch them.  We do not have to change our position for the entire time that we spend here, the action is simply non-stop.  There are large tuna and trevallys joining the jacks and, on several occasions, a school of more than a dozen hammerheads glide silently past us.  This most definitely qualifies as a missed photo opportunity.  Even on our safety stop three hammerheads come by to give us a close inspection.  Richard and Lisa have been to Cocos seven times and describe this as the best dive that they have ever enjoyed here.  Now I can appreciate what all the hype is about the diving at Cocos Island.  By the time that we return to the boat the sun is shining but dark clouds loom on the horizon.

Dive twenty-three:  Manuelita

The sun was still shining as we entered the water and descended.  There were perhaps twenty to thirty hammerhead sharks in attendance at the cleaning station and the visibility was the best that we have encountered at this site but this dive paled in comparison to our first dive.  The sharks stayed around but only one or two approached us closely.  After spending several minutes here we swam around to the near side of the rock but there was little else of consequence to see.  We got back to the boat, dried off and got ready for lunch.

Dive twenty-four:  Manuelita channel

We dropped in right at the cleaning station and right on top of our other group of divers.  There were only a few hammerheads here and the visibility had deteriorated to what we have been experiencing all week.  By keeping the rock to our left we swam into the channel.  A solitary hammerhead swam by and then was followed by several more but they were too far away for anyone to get any good shots.  There is a large rock in the middle of the channel and a group of three eagle rays were gliding past it.  We approached them and they passed slowly enough to provide good photo opportunities.  We gathered on top of the rock and within minutes these rays were joined by several more.  They hovered about us in the current and Lisa was able to approach one quite closely and squeezed off several photos.  We swam back across the channel to the coral gardens and watched as a large female marble ray skimmed over the sand followed closely by two male suitors.  As we neared the end of our dive we were entertained by schools of snappers and goatfish along with all the other myriad reef creatures which populate the coral.

Dive twenty-five:  Manuelita Coral Gardens at night

Each boat is allowed to run two whitetip shark feeding dives throughout the course of the trip.  Tonight was our opportunity to witness this spectacle. We descended to a couple of meters above the reef and each diver shone their lights on the same rock.  The whitetips use the light to locate prey and swarm around in a frenzy in search of food.  However, they are either extremely picky eaters or extremely poor hunters.  Apparently they do not eat lobster, soapfish, or pufferfish but we did see one devour a squirrelfish.  During the day they are generally docile, calmly resting upon the sea floor but at night they come out in packs, from the very small to the quite large to feed.  We spent more than forty minutes with them and then ascended and went back to the boat.

The crew had arranged a barbeque for us on the top deck, complete with entertainment.  We enjoyed a t-bone steak dinner complete with wine, baked potato, corn on the cob and salad.  Then we were entertained by Melina and Buz, followed by the crew in full Mardi Gras regalia.  Liquid refreshments flowed freely and merriment and mirth continued well into the night.

Dive twenty-six:  Dirty Rock

The morning dawned with a heavy, overcast sky and windswept waves upon the sea.  This is our last day of diving and we can only hope to encounter conditions similar to yesterday.  By the time that we reached Dirty Rock the sun was shining but the wind was whipping the waves up quite a bit.  We descended to 60’ to wait for the group to assemble and then continued down to 110’ at the cleaning station.  Visibility was restricted to about 50’ and although there were several large hammerheads in attendance they remained just beyond the range of the cameras.  We spent several minutes here and then, as we ascended, a lone hammerhead cruised through the cleaning station less than a few feet away from me.  Another great photo opportunity had eluded me. We ascended up the rock to a depth of 60’ and then set off out into the blue.  I think that we were in search of a school of jacks but all we saw was water, lots and lots of water.  By the time that we reached the surface we had swum a long distance from our original start point.

Dive twenty-seven:  Alcyone

Although the sun was shining the wind had picked up promising big waves once we left the protection of the island.  By the time that we arrived at the site all of us were soaked through from the spray given off by the waves.  We donned our scuba gear and, once again, entered the water individually with one hand on the safety line.  We dragged ourselves to the descent line and assembled at the rock near the bottom.  Then we made our way over to the cleaning station.  The visibility was dramatically reduced from the previous day but the sharks were there in abundance.  Dozens of them cruised by as we settled into our positions below the thermocline at a depth of 110’.  The hammerhead sharks at Alcyone are not particularly concerned with our presence and many of them approach very closely to us.  We did not have to move from our original positions for the duration of the dive as the hammerheads continued to swim below us, above us and around us. As we neared our NDL we set off into the blue and, even then, several hammerheads approached us for a closer look.  It was quite a struggle to get back on board the panga since the waves were even higher at the end of the dive than they were at the beginning.  Only a few hundred meters from the Undersea Hunter we came across a pod of dolphins feeding.  A flock of boobies were also taking advantage of the school of fish that the dolphins had brought to the surface so for several minutes we watched as dolphins broke the surface from below while boobies dove from above.  Once back on the boat I rinsed out my gear since my preference would be to have Alcyone as my last dive.

The rest of the group went back to Manuelita for their last dive and, though they did see a manta ray, there was little else of significance to report.  Jay and Georgienne left to spend a few days on Cocos Island with the park rangers while everybody else rinsed out and stowed their gear. The skiffs were hauled out of the water and secured in preparation for the return trip.  Then, after dinner, we weighed anchor and set sail for Puntarenas.

The skies were heavily overcast the following morning and the waves created a gentle rocking motion of the boat although, on this crossing, they did not affect me at all, perhaps because I did not take any pharmaceutical precautions.  We enjoyed breakfast and then a few of the photographers shared their photos from the trip.  The remainder of the crossing was rather uneventful.  Several of us watched so many movies on the big screen that I am surprised we do not require rectangular glasses.  Then again, apart from packing your gear, eating and sleeping there was little else to occupy us for the 30 plus hours duration of the trip.

Upon reaching the dock it was everyone’s responsibility to ensure that all their gear was packed and tagged appropriately for whichever destination it was headed.  I joined the group going back to the hotel while another group went zip lining and crocodile hunting in the jungle.  We all gathered back at the hotel at 06:00 p.m. for one last dinner together and Erin was gracious enough to treat all the boys to a beverage at the bar.  Then it was off to bed in preparation for a 04:30 a.m. wake-up call and a 05:10 a.m. trip to the airport.  To add insult to injury I was charged overweight baggage for my housing on the return trip.  Costa Rica is only a 2 hour time zone difference from Toronto but 16 hours of travel time still takes it out of you.  I arrived home about 09:30 p.m. ready for a good night’s sleep in my own bed.

Synopsis:

Cocos Island easily justifies its status as the “Island of the Sharks”; they are simply everywhere and on every dive.  The one dive that we made at Alcyone with the good visibility was absolutely incredible, perhaps constituting one of my ten best dives ever.  However, when the visibility is restricted to 30’ or so the sharks stay about that far away.  It seems that if they cannot see you clearly they remain out of harm’s way which makes it very difficult to get good shots.  The visibility issue is a double edged sword since the nutrient rich water which reduces the visibility also attracts the fish which attract the sharks.  So, if you have good visibility there is a strong possibility that you will not have many sharks.  There is a lot of rain at Cocos but we were also able to enjoy three days of sunshine which certainly makes a difference to the relative enjoyment.  The Undersea Hunter is a first class operation.  The boat is the nicest liveaboard that I have ever enjoyed and the crew is absolutely top notch.  This trip was a last minute opportunity for me with only eight days to prepare but it is probably advisable for photographers to determine when the best photo opportunities are likely to present themselves prior to making a booking.

 

 

 

Katyk BriceƱo
"Amazing!!! Beautiful!!" 
 
Daniel LaFrance  
"Beautiful, akin to an underwater spiritual experience of sorts."
 
Walter Marshall   
"Whenever I watch your videos I am just taken away." 
 
Shaun Diaz   
"Well done, very well done. Mysterious, gorgeous and deeply inspiring... The best part is I am not naming any of it. It is nature in its most perfect and beautiful form." 
 
Christie Lopez  
"David...the video is beautiful and so is the music!! I love the music!!!!" 
 
Brian Dodd
"I just wanted to thank you for the moments of peace and beauty these clips brought to my hectic life."