Cocos Island: A Link to the Past
They say that Cocos was the model for the isolated jungle island where dinosaurs roamed free in Jurassic Park. Scramble ashore on a rocky beach and venture along the narrow trail to the basin of a towering waterfall, and you'll see why. Surrounded by primordial forest, it's easy to hear the bellow of T-Rex in the roar of falling water. High above the crest of the falls, frigate birds surf the thermals on long, elegant wings reminiscent of pterodactyls.
If dinosaurs ever roamed the island (there's no evidence they did), they are overshadowed by genetically refined predators even more physically impressivea€”sharks. The deep ocean water surrounding Cocos is swarming with 'em: packs of sleek and feisty silky sharks, lumbering whale sharks and schools of wary hammerheads. Modern sharks like these are the current version of prehistoric sharks that began evolving at roughly the same time dinosaurs began vanishing.
Coincidence? Nobody knows. What scientists and divers do know is that Cocos Island and its surrounding seamounts are awash in the Equatorial Countercurrent, which brings a rich array of pelagic marine life. In addition to sharks, there are giant Pacific manta rays, massive schools of jacks and a collection of Eastern Pacific reef fish to encounter as you explore one of the most pristine dive environments left on earth.
The catch: Cocos Island is located 375 miles off the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. You can only get there by live-aboard dive boat and the crossing takes 36 often bumpy, stomach-wrenching hours from the port of Puntarenas.
The Dive Profile - The boat moves around the cluster of islands, launching chase boats full of divers to specific sites (see "Cocos Legends," pg. 63). Depending on currents and conditions, you may drift or swim along or around the submerged base of islands or tuck in to the rocky face of a seamount.
Dive sites tend to be very deep, but the best marine life is found from 80 to 100 feet. Most boats limit you to a maximum of four dives a day (three day dives and an optional night dive). Divemasters may set depth limits and prohibit decompression diving. The restrictions are a concession to safety, considering you're days away from the nearest chamber.
Water Conditions - Open-ocean visibility ranges from 50 to 80 feet, depending on seasons. Temperatures range from 70F to 82F in the summer, colder if you hit thermoclines and upwellings, which the sharks seem to prefer.
Cocos Travel Savvy
- Even if you "never get seasick," the ride to Cocos can make you queasy. Bring something for motion sickness, just in case. And don't forget to pack an ample supply of anything else you might need from a drugstore, because the boat won't have it.
- Try a rebreather. All three Cocos boats have nitrox semi-closed rebreathers. That 36-hour crossing is just enough time to get basic rebreather training, and by going bubble-free, you can get closer to the hammerheads.
Gulf of Papagayo: From Beach to B&B
Located on the northern Pacific coast, the Gulf of Papagayo is Costa Rica's watersports boomtown. Centered around the fishing village of Playa Del Coco and including the neighboring bays of Playa Hermosa, Ocotal and Flamingo, the Gulf is a playground for tourists and Costa Ricans alike. Diving is a small, but fast-growing niche in the region where new restaurants, inns, resorts and B&Bs are cropping up all the time.
The Dive Profile - For divers, there are two-tank morning trips to 60 or so "local" dives in the bay, or day trips to two exposed island groups at the mouth of the bay. To the south, the Catalina Islands are awash in colder, plankton-rich currents that attract manta rays. To the north, the current-whipped Bat Islands are home to large, territorial bull sharks. The boat schedule is as laid-back as the local beach scene. Two-tank morning trips are offered daily with afternoon and night trips scheduled on demand. The reefs in the Gulf of Papagayo are of the low-profile, encrusted rock variety, heavy on cup corals with scattered patches of sponge, algae and barnacles. There is an abundance of Eastern Pacific reef fish, including small white-tip sharks, brown chromis, snapper, jacks, Moorish idols and moray eels.
Water Conditions - Current, visibility and temperature can vary from day to day, depending on the whims of Pacific currents and the tidal influences. In general, expect 30- to 60-foot visibility and water temperatures in the low to high 70Fs during the November to March dry season. Conditions improve slightly during the April to October rainy season. Expect visibility of 40 to 80 feet and water temperatures in the high 70Fs and low 80Fs. Don't let the term "rainy season" frighten you. The downpours almost always occur in the late afternoon and end by evening. Chances are you won't miss a day of diving due to rain.
Depth: 25 to 90 feet.
Skill Level: Intermediate.
A single rock pinnacle spirals up from 90 feet and is obscured by a haze of grunts, jacks, surgeonfish and parrotfish. Divers also find white-tip sharks, rays and turtles.
Big Scare (Bat Islands)
Depth: 80 feet.
Skill Level: Advanced.
Deflate your BC before rolling into the water, then kick for the bottom as fast as you can to beat the ripping current. Anchor yourself to a rock and wait for the parade of beefy 11-foot bull sharks. Need we say more?
The Point (Catalina Islands)
Depth: 75 feet.
Skill Level: Intermediate.
It's manta ray central on the exposed side of the Catalina Islands. Bundle up in your best neoprene to hack the cold, nutrient-rich waters that slam in from the ocean, bringing manta rays, eagle rays and even the occasional tiger shark.
Papagayo Travel Savvy
- The nearest airport is in Liberia. Daily commuter flights are available to and from San Jose. The airport also handles direct international charter flights.
- The airport in Liberia is about a 30-minute drive from the beaches and cabs are available, but most people rent a car. You'll want a four-wheel-drive SUV, and you'll need a valid driver's license. Drive with caution on the narrow, steep and twisting paved roads (and the dusty, rutted dirt ones) that connect the bays, and load up on all the extra insurance offered by the car rental agency.
- The Gulf region is close to some amazing topside attractions too, including the active Mt. Arenal volcano and the Monteverde Cloud Forest. Bring your boots and build in a few extra days. Your hotel can arrange tours for you.
Drake Bay and the Osa Peninsula: Welcome to the Jungle
In a world of fast food, 24-hour news and instant internet access, it's nice to know that places like tiny Drake Bay (pop. 300 or so) still exist. This tiny settlement on the Osa Peninsula is home to a handful of rustic eco-lodges where terrestrial eco-trekkers stay while touring the Corcovado National Park rain forest, but it's also the jumping-off point for the Cano Island Biological Reserve, home to the best visibility in Costa Rica.
Topside, the area is dense jungle where footpaths, horse trails and simple suspension bridges link lodges and campgrounds. There is one road into Drake Bay, but it's impassable most of the year, and you probably won't see a single car during your visit.
Dive Profile - Cano Island is located 10 miles off the peninsula and even in speedy boats, two tanks of diving is an all-day affair. Dives are split by a generous surface interval and picnic lunch taken beneath the palms of the beaches of Cano Island.
Water Conditions - Cano Island is affected by ocean currents and swells, but the biggest variables are currents and thermoclines. Water temperatures average 78F to 80F, but can drop sharply below thermoclines. Shallow depths make the diving accessible to divers of all skill levels. The only challenge is the occasional brisk current, which usually isn't a problem because the boat follows you.
El Bajo del Diablo
Depth: 25 to 150 feet.
Skill Level: Intermediate.
Named for the manta rays (aka devilfish) that are frequently sighted here, this towering rock pinnacle is covered with rocky mazes, peaks and valleys that let you sneak up on grouper, snapper, giant amberjack and plenty of white-tips. You may also see the occasional tuna, barracuda or bull shark.
Depth: 50 feet.
Skill Level: Novice.
The cave is located inside a pinnacle and serves as a virtual nursery for white-tips. Reef fish include Moorish idols, pufferfish, surgeonfish and the occasional stingray. In season, pilot whales and sailfish may also swim by.
Drake Bay Travel Savvy
- Adventurous travelers will enjoy the Osa Peninsula. Travelers accustomed to luxurious pampering will not. To get here, you fly a puddle jumper (beware of weight restrictions) into the town of Palmar, then take a cab or bus to the riverfront town of Sierpe. There, you board an outboard panga headed downriver to the sea. When you arrive at palm-lined Drake Bay and wade ashore, you'll feel as if you've traveled back in time.
- Bring insect repellent with a 30 percent (or higher) DEET concentration. Use it.
- All the lodges and the small settlement are within easy walking distance, but you'll need good shoes for the jungle trails and suspension bridges. If you plan to walk at night, you'll need a flashlight.
- Leave a day or two for topside tours, including bird-watching and waterfall hikesa€”and bring a camera to capture this beautiful scenery on film.
- Let the resort handle all the travel arrangements for you from San Jose to the Osa Peninsula. The journey isn't that hard, but the logistics take local knowledge to finesse.
Dive In: Costa Rica
Getting There - From U.S. gateways, LACSA, American, Continental and Delta fly to San Jose.
Getting Around - Most travelers will have to overnight in San Jose on the way in and out of the country. Live-aboards depart from the coastal town of Puntarenas, about two hours from San Jose by bus. The crew will arrange transportation from San Jose. Lodges on the Osa Peninsula can also arrange transportation for guests from San Jose.
Electricity - 110 volts, 60 cycles.
Language - Spanish, but English is spoken widely in tourist businesses and developed areas.
Money Matters - The Costa Rican col?n is the official currency, valued at around 322 colones to US$1. U.S. dollars are readily accepted, but must be crisp and unblemished. You may also have to accept a street exchange rate 10 to 20 colones below the official rates. Colones are needed for small purchases. Credit cards may trigger surcharges. At restaurants and bars, a 10 percent tip is automatically added to the bill.
Health - Assume tap water is unsafe to drink and stick to bottled water. Food is generally safe if you follow standard precautions, eating only cooked food and fruits or vegetables you peel yourself. The Centers for Disease Control recommends chloroquine as a preventative measure against malaria. For more information, call (888) 232-3228.
Safety - As Costa Rica has grown as a tourist destination, so too has the crime rate. Use the same precautions you would back home.
Documents - U.S. and Canadian citizens need a valid passport for an automatic 90-day tourist visa. U.S. citizens over the age of 17 may be able to get in with a valid photo ID and a birth certificate, but a passport is best. For more information, contact the Costa Rican Embassy at (202) 328-6628.
Just in case - There are no reliable recompression chamber facilities near major diving destinations.
For More Information - Call (800) 343-6332.
by Stephen Frink
From Aug. 19 to Aug. 26, 2001, Rodale's Photo Director Stephen Frink joined Wayne Hasson of the Aggressor Fleet and a diverse group onboard the Okeanos Aggressor for a special charter to Costa Rica's famed Cocos Island. Goal: To celebrate the ship's recent refurbishment and have fun. Among notables on board were actor and producer David Hasselhoff, marine artist Wyland, and Rodale's publisher Dane Farnum. The following are a few of the dive site descriptions from Frink's trip log. Read 'em and weepa€”with envy.
Manuelitaa€”As soon as I get in, I see a giant school of bigeye jacks and manage to hold position in the current long enough to take lots of pictures of them. Other photos include schools of blue-spotted jack, very large schools of blue-striped snapper (Lutjanus viridis), marbled rays, and white-tip reef sharks. After 10 or 15 minutes of fighting the current, I deduce this is pretty dumb and drift. Lots more white-tip reef sharks and, at the end, a very cooperative turtle.
Dirty Rocka€”We drop down along the side of the rock and then proceed to a couple of little pinnacles where the hammerhead sharks congregate. The sharks are definitely here, but so are marbled rays, snapper, leather bass and plenty of other reef creatures.
Alcyonea€”A submerged pinnacle that tops out at about 80 feet. This dive is all about hammerheads a€” my best hammerhead encounters of the trip. The hammerheads of Cocos are sleek, powerful, impressive and inspiring. Getting decent images does not come easily. It takes strategy, skill, stealth and a little luck as well.
Dos Amigos Pequenoa€”One of several small islands just offshore of Cocos. First group returns absolutely raving about their close hammerhead encounters. My luck was poor: By the time my group got there, the current blew us away.
Silveradoa€”Notable for silvertip sharks that come consistently to a cleaning station along a shallow rock cluster in just 35 feet of water. So long as all the divers settle into the sand and are patient, the silvertips come in and stay. Some very close encounters here.
Manuelitaa€”A night dive. I rig my cameras for the close-up and macro subjects typical of night dives, but the really fascinating subjects tonight are the masses of white-tip reef sharks that flock to our lights. Our lights give the sharks an opportunity to spy their dinner, and they inevitably come to the divers on night dives here. Not threatening to us at all, but interesting. And the shark's success ratio was not so high that we felt we were sacrificing fish to their predation.
Submerged Rocka€”A large swim-through tunnel absolutely jam-packed with gray snapper, blue-lined snapper, and a few white-tip reef sharks scattered about for good measure. Sensory overload for sure. Best shots: Clusters of white-tip reef sharks on small rock plateaus that were seemingly more approachable than I had seen elsewhere on this trip.
Costa Rica's Big Animals
There's no better place than Costa Rica to find the big animalsa€”sharks, manta rays and whale sharksa€”that really get the boat buzzing.
| Whale Shark (Rhincodon typus)|
Size: 18 to 50 feet long.
Habitat/Behavior: Occasionally spotted throughout Costa Rican waters, usually filtering out plankton in the top layer of water.
Reaction to Divers: Generally indifferent, although diver bubbles or attempts to ride the shark may cause it to move away.
Size: 5 to 14 feet long.
Habitat/Behavior: Found schooling on submerged seamounts off Cocos Island. The rocky pinnacles seem to serve as reference points for nocturnal hunting. Schooling behavior at Cocos facilitates mating.
Reaction to Divers: Wary to inquisitive while milling about in small to large schools. Hammerheads are often spooked by diver bubbles.
Size: 3.5 to 6 feet long.
Habitat/Behavior: Found throughout Costa Rica, often resting under ledges.
Reaction to Divers: Unaggressive, largely indifferent.
Size: 22 feet wide (maximum).
Habitat/Behavior: Found throughout Costa Rica. Most often spotted at moderate depths in open ocean, or near the surface in coastal waters.
Reaction to Divers: Often curious when not directly approached.
Size: 6 to 11 feet long.
Habitat/Behavior: Most common in the open ocean. Often sighted at Cocos herding and feeding on "bait balls" of small silver fish.
Reaction to Divers: Cautious to possibly aggressive. Should be regarded as potentially dangerous.