Isla del Coco, Costa Rica

Latitude 5.55349°N Longitude 87.04216°W

Saturday, November 16, 2002

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Diary:

We have just spent the last six days on the live-aboard cruiser Okeanos Aggressor at the fabulous diving location of Cocos Island, 300 miles off the coast of Costa Rica in the Pacfic Ocean. And we have had the diving adventure of a lifetime.

Cocos Island itself has a fascinating and mysterious history. The only means of access is by boat; from Puntarenas it is a thirty six hour passage. The isolated volcanic island is completely uninhabited except for a tiny National Park ranger station where a few wardens live. The wild natural beauty of the island is apparent in the first glance. Steep cliffs rise dramatically from the ocean and reach up to two thousand foot mountainous peaks. The island is completely covered in lush green tropical jungle, wild and untamed. Spectacular waterfalls cascade directly into the sea. Frigate birds, sea eagles and boobies continuously circle the high peaks.

The whole ambiance of the island conjures up images of pirates and buried treasure. It has been suggested that this is the treasure island Robert Louis Stevenson had in mind when he wrote his famous novel Treasure Island. The island was also filmed for the opening sequence of the movie Jurassic Park, and it does not take too much imagination to believe that deep inside the island fearful prehistoric creatures still roam wild and free.

The earliest record of the island dates back to around 1525, discovered by an off course Spanish ship. Throughout the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries it was used as a safe haven by buccaneers who looted the richly laden Spanish galleons that sailed these seas. Notorious pirates such as Edward Davis, Benito Bonito, William Thompson and Sir Francis Drake all dumped their booty on the island, buried in hidden locations. Despite several genuine treasure maps having been found over the ages, it is believed that very little treasure has ever been recovered. It is estimated that over USD$100,000,000 in silver, gold and precious jewels is still hidden in various locations on the island! Many have visited the island primarily for treasure hunting, but now the season is permanently closed. The government is no longer issuing treasure hunting licenses.

Apart from the lure of buried treasure, Cocos Island is also home to some of the best diving on the planet. With access only by sea, it has remained remote and unaffected by tourism. Having also been declared a World Heritage Site in 1997 with a surrounding 25km marine "no catch" zone, the abundant sea life has been protected from uncontrolled commercial fishing. Consequently, the waters off the island are teeming with sharks, rays, dolphins, massive schools of pelagic and reef fish, turtles, eels, starfish and some rare species only found in Cocos.

We had heard a lot about Cocos Island from the various people we had dived with so far on our trip. However we did not have much information on how to get there, so, after we had finished with the cloud forests of Santa Elena, we decided to travel to the capital of Costa Rica, San Jose, to visit some travel agents and learn more.

What we learned was that Cocos Island could only be visited on one of three live-aboard cruisers specially outfitted for scuba diving: The "Sea Hunter", the "Undersea Hunter", and the "Okeanos Aggressor". A typical visit was from nine to twelve days, three of which would be used purely for travel to and from the island, devoting the remaining six to nine days to intensive diving - up to four dives per day. We learned with dismay that these cruises are usually booked up to a year in advance, and due to their limited capacity, fill up very quickly. However, luck seemed to be on our side. Not only was the Okeanos Aggressor embarking on its next cruise in two day's time (perfectly fitting our schedule), there had been a last minute cancellation and two berths had become available. We immediately jumped at the chance and secured our passage to Cocos Island on the Okeanos Aggressor, departing Saturday November 9th from Puntarenas and returning nine days later on Monday November 18th.

A few days later we set sail from Puntarenas just as the sun was setting behind the Nicoya Peninsula. The boat had a full complement of twenty divers, comprised of a group of twelve from Colorado (Jerry, Marty, Ed, Steve T, Steve F, Bill, Denise, Greg B, Greg L, Mark, Jay, Stephanie), another group of four from England (Paul, Tricia, Dean and Alan), Ron and Marilyn from Arizona, and Keiko and I. We had a thirty six hour passage ahead of us, and as we left the protected waters of the peninsula and headed out into the ocean, the swell picked up and passenger's faces gradually started turning pale green as motion sickness started to take hold. I had never been seasick on a boat before so when I started to feel nauseous it caught me completely by surprise. Soon everyone was gobbling down motion sickness pills or applying dermal patches and retreating to their cabins below deck where the rolling was less pronounced. The next day was not much better - I was feeling really sick by now and could not hold down any food. When we finally arrived in Cocos and anchored in the relatively sheltered water of Chatham Bay, we all heaved a huge sigh of relief - a welcome change from heaving our meals.

For the next six days our routine was Dive, Eat and Sleep, all induced Pavlovian style by rings of the ship's bell. We dived at various sites around the island: Manuelita Island, Dirty Rock, Punta Maria, Viking Rock, Submerged Rock, Lone Stone, Manta Corner, Alcyone, Ulloa, Dos Amigos Pequeño & Grande and Isla Pájara. We dived up to four times each day: 8am, 11am, 3pm and a night dive at 6pm. The diving was predominantly deep (below 100 feet) at almost every site, and together with the presence of treacherous undersea and surface currents, made for intermediate to advanced skill ratings. Despite only having had twenty dives under her belt before coming to Cocos, Keiko handled the challenging conditions with enthusiasm and confidence, and we both were rewarded with some of the most unbelivable underwater spectacles we'd ever witnessed.

The highlights of the week were close encounters with countless whitetip reef sharks, schools of huge scalloped hammerhead sharks, the occasional silky and blacktip shark, marbled rays, spotted eagle rays, gigantic manta rays, moray eels, lobsters, sea turtles, tuna, snappers, an immense school of hundreds of large bigeye jacks swimming in formation, and the rare rosy-lipped batfish (surely one of the strangest looking fish in the ocean). One group even sighted a rare whale shark, the largest of all living fishes in the sea. (In accordance with Murphy's Law, we were not in that group.)

On one occasion, after a dive, a school of dolphins intercepted us on the way back to the Okeanos. We all donned our fins and snorkels and jumped in to swim with these wonderful creatures. At one point I counted five dolphins cavorting all around me chattering and clicking and whistling in their curious language; the experience was unforgettable. We were also graced with the company of dolphins on our passage to and from Cocos Island. On several occasions we were entertained by small schools of bottle nosed dolphins racing us just off the ship's bow. Every now and then they would speed ahead then make spectacular aerial jumps, or playfully roll over on their sides. They were such powerful swimmers it seemed effortless for them to keep up with us. For some reason, the dolphins really seemed to love playing this game of "lead the boat" and would frolic with us for a long time, always keeping just inches ahead of the bow where it parted the waters in a continuous spray of surf. Ultimately, though, they would lose interest with us and end their game, and we were always sad to see them go.

The night dives were conducted near our boat whilst moored in Chatham Bay, or at nearby Manuelita Island. The numerous whitetip reef sharks, which mostly slept on the bottom during the day, came alive to feed at night. On one dive Keiko and I sat on the sandy bottom with our underwater lamps while literally hundreds of whitetips swarmed around and between us, restlessly circling searching for food. They appeared to benefit from our lamps to help locate their prey. On one occasion our beams of light fell on a hapless fish which was immediately snapped up before our very eyes by a passing shark. At night the shark's pupils were wide open as they searched for food. As in our shark dive in Roatán, we felt amazed that the sharks did not decide to attack and eat us, as it surely would have not presented any difficulty to them at all. However, this species of shark, like the Carribean grey reef shark we swam with in Roatán, is well understood to not attack humans unless harassed. After spending some time with these creatures we built up the courage to touch and caress the sides of the sharks as they flicked past our face masks; they did not seem to mind the attention. Their skin was smooth and taut, with a slightly rough abrasive feel. They are truly wonderful and awe inspiring creatures.

On another occasion, near the end of a dive I happened to glimpse our dive master, Randy, suddenly start swimming furiously towards Keiko brandishing his Nikonos V underwater camera. When he had positioned himself underneath Keiko he began to shoot film like crazy. Keiko looked down at him and waved, completely oblivious to the monstrous manta ray that had appeared out of the blue and was slowly passing over the top of her. When I finally looked upwards to see what Randy was shooting, my regulator almost fell out of my mouth in shock. This creature was so huge that it blocked out the sun as it passed slowly overhead. It was just like a scene in Star Wars or Independence Day where a gigantic space ship slowly fills the entire frame from overhead. Keiko still had not figured out what the commotion was all about until the manta's shadow fell across her. Then she flipped over just in time to see the ray pass directly over her. At such a close distance, it was easy for us to see the manta was at least three or four times the size of her body. It must have measured over 20 feet across. Manta rays are very shy and gentle creatures and we were not in any kind of danger. But as the rest of the divers all frantically tried to get closer to it, it abruptly banked and swam away into the blue, never to be seen again.

One our last day of diving we returned to Dirty Rock, hoping to spot the school of bigeye jacks that frequents that dive site. This time we were rewarded; the school was present in full force. Hundreds and hundreds of these large, silvery fish were swimming at 60 feet below the surface, forming fantastic shapes as they flowed through the water. We rose until we had reached their level and stuck our faces right in the midst of them. The effect of so many identical fish moving in circular twisting patterns was quite hypnotizing, not to mention completely disorientating. At one point as the school swirled around my head in a figure-eight pattern I was not sure who was actually moving - me or the fish! The fish were such perfect copies of each other that as they swam by me in both directions I was immediately reminded of some of the tesselated artworks of M. C. Escher. Before our heads got too dizzy with all the motion we dropped down a few feet and watched the school flow away into the deep blue sea.

When the time finally came to up anchor and head back to Puntarenas, everyone on the boat started coming down from the exhilaration of the week's diving and prepared to face the reality of everyday life again. Most would be returning to their jobs, others were going to spend a little more time in Costa Rica. Keiko and I were envied (read: despised) by everyone as we made plans to continue our journey into South America. As we said our goodbyes at Puntarenas we too were sad the experience was over. It was truly a vaction from our around-the-world holiday, and it felt very strange, if not downright immoral and wrong, to not be going back to work ourselves. Never the less, we mentally started preparing ourselves for life on the road again as we made our way to the local bus terminal.

P.S. All underwater photo credits go to Patricia and Paul from England, who very generously shared their images with us. Thanks also to our incredible dive masters Randy and Alberto, who apart from exuding irresistable sealife-attracting vibes, shot wonderful video and 35mm slides of some of our underwater encounters. Sadly, getting their images digitized and on our website will take some time...


Photos: (click on images to see full size)

Isla del CocoNico demonstrates a very necessary
scuba decompression procedureThe live-aboard cruiser "Okeanos Aggressor"Randy with sea turtleWhite-tip sharks dozing on the bottomGorgeous orange cup coral comes alive at night
Spotted eagle ray at Manuelita IslandA typical scene on the Manuelita night dive: White-tips in feeding frenzyThe school of Bigeye Jacks at Dirty Rock
(and they're all named Eric...)Like an M. C. Escher print... Bigeye Jack trafficKeiko and Dean getting cozy with a huge marble rayWhitecheek surgeonfish
Abundant sea lifeScalloped hammerhead sharks approach to check us outDolphins sometimes frolicked at the ship's bowOur incredible dive masters: Captain Alberto and RandyThe Gang of TwentyAnd they lived happily ever after...
Alberto and Randy give Keiko an affectionate farewell hug


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