It has been ten years since I went to Cocos Island, so when friends, Jim and Steve Valetta and friends from Phoenix, organized the expedition from last year, I was eager to go. When people ask me where is my favorite place to dive… I say, “Cocos Island”. I have been on six previous expeditions from the early 1990s to 2002. Most of these expeditions were on board the Madam/Hooker during which time we spent each day fishing for 7 hours and would squeeze in three dives per day. Very full days! The Harvey berets were going full blast!
Cocos is about 300 miles off the west coast of Costa Rica accessible by long range dive boats or sport fishing boats. The only residents are a number of rangers who try to protect the island and marine park from the constant barrage of illegal fishing vessels, mostly Costa Rican. Currently, the no fish zone is 12 miles out from the island.
In the 1990s, the no fish zone was 5 miles from the island; so much of the island shelf on the east and south side was still fishable. The main species was the striped marlin, which averaged 200#. There were also lots of blue marlin and sailfish, plus a few blacks, so every day you had a shot at a grand slam.
The last dedicated dive expedition was aboard the Aggressor Fleets’ “Okeanos Agressor” with owner Wayne Hasson together with Kent Ullberg and my daughter Jessica, then 12 years old. We had a full boat with friends and staff, and had a great time. Cocos is like a mini Galapagos with all the same species, except sea lions and penguins. Jim and Steve booked us on the Undersea Hunter flagship, the “Argo”, a very comfortable and spacious 130 foot vessel that also carried a submarine operated by Deepsee.
Jessica and Alex were on board, plus George Schellenger who was going to shoot the expedition. This was Alex’ first time to Cocos, same for George. Jessica was going to host the TV production we planned and for the first time in 11 years of shooting my TV fishing shows and natural history documentaries, I was passing the baton to my very capable daughter.
It takes 30 hours to get from Puntarenas to Cocos and during the crossing, we enjoyed the beauty of the open ocean passing turtles, dolphins, a pseudo orca and we watched as red footed and nasca boobies dived on the flying fish pushed up by the bow of the Argo. We got to know the captain, officers and crew well during this time. Master divers Manuel and Pius briefed their teams, we fortunately were allocated to Manuel, whose sense of humour was hilarious. We were also briefed about the operation of the Deepsee submarine by Smulik Blum and team Ely, Felipe.
We anchored at a mooring next to the islet of Manuelita. With four stabilizers out the Argo was a stable base from which we were going to do four dives per day on 32% nitrox. The first couple of days diving were poor due to rough weather and low visibility at Manuelita and in Chatham Bay. The major change from ten years ago was that there were tiger sharks—yes tigers. In all the dives we had done in the nineties, no one ever saw a tiger shark or met someone who had. There were several individuals that cruised the channel between Manuelita and the island. They were hunting marbled rays and turtles. In fact, I did not see a single turtle at Cocos except for the last dive. The tigers had taken their toll. The silvertip sharks at Silverado were also gone, perhaps they had been driven out by the tigers or they had been caught. The reef fish were in abundance, but only a few hammerheads were seen. When we ventured out to iconic dive sites such as Dirty Rock and to Halcyon, the action picked up.
George had the brilliant idea to leave Go-Pro cameras on the various dive sites after we left and recover them on the following dive. Apart from our first dive at Halcyon with the current strong and lots of hammerheads, we saw relatively few hammerheads at the seamount, most were swimming well above the bottom where we hung in anticipation of close encounters. This worked well and showed just how the hammerhead sharks left the cleaning stations as the divers came down and then reappeared once we left. Amazing!
A change at Halcyon for me was to see a massive school of mullet snapper hanging high in the water column above the seamount. We would conduct our safety stops in amongst these vast schools. Their numbers and swirling motion were mesmerizing. There were often rainbow runners and bigeye jacks mixed in. This school rivaled the size of the mullet snapper school that lives at Pinas Reef in Panama.
At Dirty Rock there was a huge school of bigeye jacks hovering above the deep reef, again it provided an exciting way to spend your safety stop. The blue jacks prowled the reef occasionally taking a shot at the creole fish that sent them all surging towards the rocks for cover. A school of rare cottonmouth jacks also showed up at Dirty Rock. Often we saw big aggregations of hammerheads at the edge of visibility, but as we swam closer, they melted into the blue haze.
Before we went diving on our third day, I spotted a young whale shark about 18 feet long doing circles around the Argo. Just amazing! We all went in and snorkeled and dived with the beautiful shark before it headed back to the deep. The whale shark made another appearance later that day around the Argo.
Night dives in Chatham Bay were always exciting. I had the new Mangrove lights on my Gates housing as did George, so it was like having car headlights down there. We lit up the reef. The white tip reef sharks were active as usual, but I couldn’t get over the monster black jacks that followed us for the entire dive, all dives. They were so quick, had such good eyesight and gobbled up small goatfish, squirrelfish and cabrillas. Even in the day time at 90 feet with cloud cover the Mangroves lit up the fish and colourful substrate. They were worth their weight in gold on this expedition.
One of our best dives was consistently at Punta Maria on the west side, on the way towards Dos Amigos. Here a cleaning station catered largely to Galapagos sharks. These were a larger version of a reef shark, beautifully coloured, bronze and grey, big dorsal fin and tail, a slow swimming large animal, capable of great speed which I saw in the Galapagos when I witnessed one chasing young sea lions. At this site, we also saw a huge female marbled ray being escorted by several dozen ardent males, all piled on top of each other, like a bunch of huge spotted pancakes tossed from a basket.
Again George left the Go-Pro cameras on the site and this was very revealing. Not only did a lot of Galapagos sharks show up but several black tip sharks as well. We repeated this procedure a few times revealing cleaning behavior and returns by the same sharks several times.
The highlight for those who went was to dive in the Deepsee sub to 400 meters. Jessica went with George piloted by Felipe on one dive and had an exciting experience looking at the geology and creatures of the deep sea. Loaded with camera gear and towed out to the drop off the sub took several minutes to reach that depth. On the way down they saw mobula rays and deep sea sharks. At the bottom they saw groupers, spider crabs, and scorpion fish. So much life…so deep.
Alex and I went on a shallow dive to 100 meters piloted by Smulik on the outside of Manuelita to a site called Everest. Here beneath the hazy thermocline there were still swarms of creole fish hunted by almaco jacks and yellowfin tuna, while above them scalloped hammerheads passed in silhouette. The acrylic dome of the sub allows you to see 360 degrees and you don’t feel hemmed in by the dome. It feels like you are actually in the water at that great depth.
During the end of the trip at a dive on Halcyon a humpback whale came by. Very cool! I had seen humpbacks there on previous expeditions in July. They are southern hemisphere whales that oscillate from Antarctica to have their calves in the warmth of Cocos’ protection. Similarly, when fishing out of Tropic Star Lodge, Pinas Bay, Panama in June, July and August, we see many of these southern hemisphere humpback whales close to shore, often frolicking.
Some of our dives were focused on the reef life. Most of the substrate at Cocos is volcanic rock covered in sharp barnacles. In certain places like Chatham Bay, there was a fair amount of healthy coral. One of my favourite dives was at Isla Pajara just around the corner from Chatham. Here, in the channel between the rock and the island was a large expanse on Montastrea-like coral and amongst it were schools of creole fish, yellow tailed goat fish, blue and gold snappers, Moorish idols, cabrillas, soldier fish, Mexican hogfish, trumpetfish, wrasses, damselfish, parrotfish, guineafowl puffers and boxfish. Frogfish were numerous. Several peacock flounders were seen courting females in amusing displays. While your head was in the coral, a Galapagos shark, squadron of yellowfin tuna or manta ray would pass close by. What a great dive!
Coming back from Halcyon on our last day, we saw that the Costa Rican Coast Guard vessel (that had been at anchor in Chatham Bay for a couple of days) finally stuck its nose outside and apprehended a Costa Rican commercial fishing boat caught fishing inside the 12 mile no fish zone. We wondered what would become of the crew, vessel and the fish they surely had on board.
The crossing back to Puntarenas was smooth and I made use of the time and calm conditions to complete an acrylic painting of a Galapagos shark being cleaned at Punta Maria. After thanking the excellent crew and leaving the ship we went into Jaco for the day to do some zip lining, check out some storks and macaws, see massive saltwater crocs sunning on a river bank and take a lovely mountain trail back to San Jose to round off the perfect Costa Rican experience.
I’ll be back!
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