|A hallmark of Costa Rica's Pacific coast is the abundance of rays--manta rays, mobula rays and marbled rays. Photography by Walt Stearns|
The two questions I have, after our first day of diving Costa Rica's remote Osa Peninsula, are these: Where did all the whales come from, and who the hell built that cell tower?
First, the whales. We're at a dive site called Bajo del Diablo no more than 10 seconds when a frenzied mob of leviathans practically leaps into the boat with us. "Balleena! Balleena! Balleena!" the captain yells as he spins the Island Hopper around and motors toward the humpback mother and calf breaching 70 yards off our stern. But just as he executes this whiplash maneuver, a pair of false killer whales arcs gracefully out of the water off our port side, prompting another ear-splitting "Balleena! Balleena! Balleena!" and a replay of the wrenching U-turn. Then, just for fun, a gang of spotted and spinner dolphins begins pirouetting in the hellacious wake we're kicking up. It's bedlam, it's "Cetaceans Gone Wild," and in the midst of it all, Iliana Esquivel, our divemaster, tears off her wetsuit and grabs a mask and snorkel. "Look!" she squeals. One of the false killer whales, an 18-footer, has moseyed up alongside the boat and is lingering there, just beneath the surface, as though waiting for a salsa partner. Iliana, more than happy to oblige, quickly slips into the water and disappears.
I'm still not sure where the whales came from, but I can confirm that the Osa Peninsula is Costa Rica's wildest, most pristine region, a factor no doubt bearing on all this uninhibited frolicking. The Osa, a boot-shaped spur of mountainous jungle jutting into the ocean not far from the border with Panama, contains the last stand of virgin rain forest on Central America's Pacific coast, much of it protected within the 104,000-acre Corcovado National Park, the jewel of Costa Rica's acclaimed park system. Save for one modest tourist town on Osa's gulf side, Puerto Jimenez, the peninsula remains basically undeveloped and a monster to access overland. There are no paved roads, nor beachfront hotels here. There's not even electricity. A handful of generator-powered lodges sprinkled about the jungle hosts a trickle of divers and assorted nature lovers at any given time. But that's it. What all this means, basically, is that critters here continue to do as they please, and you don't have to work hard to spot them. The Osa pulsates with life, mostly because there aren't enough humans to muck things up.
Which brings us to the cell tower. I notice it as we putter back from the dive, all cables and steel, poking high above the emerald jungle canopy near the village of Agujitas. It is the one thing in this wilderness not like the others, and it would appear to symbolize ... something. Exactly what though, no one around here seems certain of.
|In August, at the peak of the rainy season, dramatic downpours roll across the coast and the rain forest on a daily basis. Photography by BradleyIreland.com|
Long, Strange Trip
The cell tower isn't the only head-turning change on the peninsula. I'd come here to dive once before, in 1996, and back then, getting to Osa was a marathon event, a rite of passage packed with drama and suspense, like something out of The African Queen. I'd taken a 12-seater plane from San Jose to the tin-shack "airport" in Palmar Sur, trundled through a banana plantation in a wheezing VW cab, and snaked down the Sierpe River in a 16-foot skiff past yawning crocodiles and screaming howler monkeys. Spit out finally into the heaving swells of the Pacific, the skiff transported me across Drake Bay to my lodge, the Aguila de Osa Inn.
This time, I fly straight into Drake Bay, thanks to a 500-foot, red clay scar in the rain forest where someone has clear-cut an airstrip. The journey lacks the romance of my first trip, which is something Bradd Johnson, owner of Aguila de Osa, grumbles about upon my arrival. "I didn't want that airstrip," he insists. "I argued against it, but I lost that one."
I find Johnson just as I'd left him eight years earlier--lounging in his rocker, cocktail in one hand, plate of fresh fruit in the other and a sweeping view of Drake Bay before him. A lanky old salt from Rhode Island who made a killing in real estate, the guy dropped out of the rat race in 1991, plunked down in the rain forest and carved out the kind of exquisite, ecologically balanced lodge Costa Rica is famous for.
But now Johnson is tearing his hair out. The Osa, he explains, this Garden of Eden where animals run free, finds itself at a critical crossroads. All along the Pacific coast, the Cancun model of resort development is steamrolling the small-scale, tree-hugging approach that once earned Costa Rica its reputation as the cradle of ecotourism. Osa is one of the last holdouts. Its future largely depends on the village of Agujitas, the last town in Costa Rica without electricity. Politicians have promised the 250 families that power will come soon, a move that could trigger more development. Tourism officials recently released a study recommending that, when electricity comes, Osa increase its number of rooms for tourists from 142 to more than 700. "The people in the village should have electricity because they deserve it," says Johnson. "But there's a sustainable way to develop."
What will happen here? Johnson refuses to make predictions. But he does let me in on another change: "The mobula rays are gone." It's like a sucker punch to the stomach. The mobulas are the reason I've returned. Eight years earlier, I experienced one of my all-time perfect dive moments when I looked up from 50 feet down at Bajo del Diablo and watched a huge flock of rays soaring near the surface, 30 to 40 of them perfectly backlit by the sun. "El Niño, 2001," explains Johnson. "Ran 'em off, the big groups, anyway."
|The reefs of the Osa Peninsula pulse with a diverse blend of marine life, from schooling jacks to playful cetaceans. Photography by Walt Stearns|
Riding the Caño Carousel
|With canyons, grottoes and pinnacles, the rocky reefs surrounding Caño Island are a playground for divers. Photography by BradleyIreland.com|
We creep over a volcanic ridge and spy the neighborhood heavies below, whitetip reef sharks, a half-dozen of them, patrolling the sandy bottom and keeping the locals in line. We're 60 feet down, exploring a site called El Barco, "The Boat," a curious name, since there's no wreck amid this patchy sprawl of boulders, just a lineup of tough guys. The green morays are especially quick to flash their bridgework when we edge close to their dens in the coral. Ditto the zebra eels. On our safety stop, a tornado of hefty barracudas swirls around us, hundreds of them, all canines and cuspids.
Surfacing, we find our bearings by locating Caño Island, the focal point for divers coming to Osa. This dreamy dollop of jungle and sand 11 miles west of the peninsula attracts a profusion of marine life, including monster schools of fish, patrolling sharks and rays, eels and the resident rock stars--pilot whales, false killer whales and five species of dolphin. Caño is also the world's only calving ground for two different migrations of humpbacks.
After El Barco, we putter out to Bajo del Diablo, "Depth of the Devil," Caño's premier site. With a pair of towering, 150-foot pinnacles and a canyon in between, as well as intricate mazes of peaks and valleys to the east, west and south, Diablo is actually four or five sites in one.
We plunk down 70 feet into the canyon, and, almost immediately, a powerful current launches us on something resembling a drift dive. A blur of color sweeps by my mask: Yellow and blue cup corals, green and pink sea fans and cottony-white gorgonians, all of it splashed across rocks, walls, ledges and cliffs. We fly over a riot of reef-hugging creatures, yellowtail damsels and rainbow wrasses, barberfish, hawkfish, flag groupers and king angels. A sudden thermocline reduces the 79-degree water seven or eight clicks. We round a corner, and finally, the current wanes. I slow down, get oriented. We then rise slowly through the water column, past swarming schools of Pacific creoles, past two- and three-foot-long amberjacks, real fatties, lumbering through side channels. Atop the column, a wild, silvery twister descends on us, a force much larger than the barracuda whirlwind at El Barco. Hundreds of big-eye jacks, maybe thousands, swoosh round and round us, faster and faster, like a carnival ride gone berserk. We can't get off.
|From April to November, heavy rains turn the only road to Drake Bay into an impassable mud pit--and help keep development at bay. Photography by BradleyIreland.com|
"Be very quiet," Gustavo whispers. "Don't move." It's a strange request. We're deep inside Corcovado National Park, and I'm concentrating on a white hawk through the scope the biologist has set up for me. But when I glance up from the scope, I see what has my guide concerned. There, on the trail 20 feet before us, stands a pack of wild tusked pigs, white-lipped peccaries to be precise, two dozen of them, snouts high in the air and sniffing frantically. Fortunately, we're downwind of the beasts, but they suspect something, and they register anxiety by slamming their jaws together--chomp! chomp!--an unnerving sound, to say the least. "Stand completely still," urges Gustavo.
We'd been slogging through the mud since early this morning, and the jungle wasn't giving us much love. Already, a bunch of spider monkeys had pelted us with avocados, a gang of howler monkeys had realigned our boxers with a murderous shriek, and, most ignominious, a troop of capuchin monkeys had tried to piss on us from 60 feet up. As for the hairy black pigs that now want us dead, Gustavo and I had been tracking them for about two hours. Rather, we'd been tracking the jaguar that had been tracking the pigs. The story kept repeating itself in the fresh mud--a flurry of cloven hoofprints followed by the large outline of a feline paw.
As we followed the tracks beneath the sun-blocking canopy of towering trees, my biologist guide often stopped at the faintest twig snap. Then he'd set up the scope and have me peer through it: A shaggy three-toed sloth, dangling from a secropia tree. A squirrel-like agouti, rummaging about the undergrowth. A spectacled owl, surveying the forest floor from on high. Other denizens didn't require the scope: Iridescent blue morpho butterflies fluttering before our faces, and white-nosed coatis, cousins of the raccoon, crunching nuts in an almond tree just above our heads.
Now, after posing like statues for three minutes, the peccaries finally bolt off the trail and cut a wide swath around us. I curse. Gustavo doesn't. "It is the jungle," he proclaims, completely unfazed.
A Blessing of Mud
It's August, middle of the wet season, and there are two particularly satisfying results of the torrential downpours that roll through every night--the drama and the muck. The drama takes form in the pounding rain on my cabin's tin roof, along with lodge-rattling peals of thunder that ricochet between massive, old-growth trees. The muck shuts down the dirt road from Rincon to Agujitas from April to November. It's the only road connecting Drake Bay to the outside world, and it's used mostly by illegal loggers. The Osa refuses to be tamed easily.
"You couldn't have a better place as an example of ecotourism," Johnson argues over coffee on my final day. "There's nothing here. You're starting from scratch. They could make this place a model of how to develop wisely."
Johnson, other lodge owners, environmentalists and residents of Agujitas are certainly pushing for that. They're improving the water system in the village and planning a municipal dump. They're raising money to offset the cost of having electricity cabled underground to Agujitas rather than transmitted over wires, which is cheaper but requires clearing trees. There are other hopeful signs as well. The Corcovado Foundation, a nonprofit Johnson works with, is buying up land in the critical buffer zone outside the national park and hiring guards to monitor for poaching and illegal logging.
Johnson is wrong about one aspect of his assessment, however. It's something I don't realize until my final dive, on the south side of Bajo del Diablo. Iliana and I wind through deep, meandering trenches formed by volcanic walls, swimming through busy schools of yellow snapper and steel pompano. We're about to go stalking more whitetips when a pang of nostalgia suddenly strikes. I roll over, peer up at the surface and see the mobula rays. There are 40 of them at least, flying in formation, sunshine streaming down through the group. It's not a mirage. It'll take more than El Niño to scare these creatures away.
Elsewhere on Osa
Unlike Bajo del Diablo and El Barco, Caño Island's other two popular meeting spots for whitetips and mobulas deliver on their names. Cueva del Tiburon (Shark Cave) features a seven-foot-high, 40-foot-long cavern that also provides shelter to diamond stingrays and boxfish. Los Arcos (The Arches) has a collection of arching volcanic swim-throughs buzzing with colorful tropicals. Caño's fifth primary dive site, Paraiso (Paradise), consists of five rocky mounds frequented by thick schools of horse-eye jacks, blue-striped snappers and barracuda.
Like Caño, other uninhabited islands off Costa Rica's Pacific coast serve as busy pelagic way-stations. In the north, 10-foot bull sharks prowl the volcanic pinnacles and arches of the Bat Islands in the Gulf of Papagayo, not far from the border with Nicaragua. In the same gulf but two hours south, the Catalina Islands lure mantas, whitetips and nurse sharks. Check out both spots during the rainy season (May to September) when visibility improves (50 to 60 feet) and the blustery Papagayo winds die down, making island access easier.
The mother of all uninhabited Costa Rican islands, however, is Cocos Island, arguably the greatest big animal dive spot on the planet. The submerged volcanic canyons, cliffs and spires here form a playground for hammerheads schooling in the hundreds, soaring eagle rays and trolling whale sharks. Cocos sits alone in the open Pacific 300 miles west of Osa, and accessibility is limited to three live-aboards: the Sea Hunter, the Undersea Hunter (www.underseahunter.com) and the Okeanos Aggressor (www.aggressor.com). Contact Costa Rica Dive, www.costaricadive.com, to arrange trips to any or all of these islands. Water Conditions > Caño Island is affected by ocean currents and swells, but the biggest variables are currents and thermoclines. Water temperatures average 78 to 80 degrees, 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.
Electricity > 110 volts, 60 cycles.
Language > Spanish, but English is spoken widely in tourist businesses and developed areas.
Currency > The Costa Rican colón. U.S. dollars are usually accepted in tourist areas, but you may 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.
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.
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.
Dive Operators > Aguila de Osa (www.aguiladeosa.com) offers a full range of scuba gear, a 30-foot dive boat and two-tank trips--including palm-shaded lunch on Caño--for $110. Other Osa lodges with full dive service include: Jinetes de Osa (www.drakebayhotel.com), Pirate Cove (www.piratecovecostarica.com), Drake Bay Wilderness Resort (www.drakebay.com) and La Paloma Lodge (www.lapalomalodge.com).
For More Information > Costa Rica Tourist Board, www.visitcostarica.com.