Cocos Island, Scuba Diving In Jurassic Park – Pelagic Paradise

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Remember the movie ‘Jurassic Park’? Well, Cocos Island was actually the inspiration behind the fictional Jurassic counterpart ‘Isla Nublar’ If you’ve seen the movie you’ll know that this means cloud forests, a spectacular green mountainous landscape, numerous waterfalls and wonderfully blue water.

While it may not have real dinosaurs (sorry to disappoint), it does have some monstrous diving. This was my first liveaboard where I expected more action than anywhere before, and it delivered in spades!

Where and what

Cocos is extremely remote and only accessible by boat, located 550km off the pacific coast of Costa Rica. After leaving the port it’s a good 36 hour sail to reach this extraordinary little island. I’d heard about Cocos but didn’t know much about it until I did my IDC in Costa Rica, where I heard tales of this shark infested Unesco world heritage site. I knew I had to go, by chance I’d chosen to do my course in the same country that would be the portal to one of the best diving spots in the world.

That tiny speck is the famous Cocos

I set about contacting the only 2 operators licensed to take guests to the national park, Undersea Hunter and Aggressor. Due to my flexibility at the time (April 2018) I was able to negotiate an excellent saving with Undersea Hunter, it’s amazing what deal you can get by simply asking. I would leave a few weeks after booking an couldn’t wait to get on board and start the day a and half trip across the pacific. Before departing I did have one minor concern with one of the species I would hopefully be seeing, the Tiger Shark. I had learned that in November 2017, just a few months before I was due to arrive, a woman had been attacked and killed by a tiger shark. These sharks were one of the biggest attractions for myself and others I’m sure, it was a shark I’d never seen during a dive and now I wasn’t sure how I’d feel if I did. I’d never had a reason to fear sharks and am an advocate of promoting the fact that they aren’t crazed killing machines as the media and certain movies would depict. However it’s wise to be cautious especially after a recent incident like this, I had been told the same shark was still around (she has a distinctive mark), I had mixed feeling about whether I wanted to see it or not.

First Impressions

As I boarded the ‘Sea Hunter’ the anticipation began to set in. The boats here aren’t like what you’d find in the Red Sea or the Maldives, they looked more like fishing boats. It was a little outdated on the inside but was still more than comfortable enough for me, I was there to dive. While boarding with the other guests I was made aware we had some Cocos Veterans in the group, one couple were about to embark on their 39th trip, while an older single diver was making his 23rd. If that doesn’t tell you something about a destination I don’t know what will, they joked that the couple had more a less paid for the boat in their years of loyalty.

Fortunately the 36 hour sail wasn’t as bad as it can be, it was rocky at times but I expected worse and was quite happy with how it went. We had left about midday, 2 days later I woke up and went outside to find we had made it to Jurassic Park! It was just as I’d imagined it, stunning, an untouched paradise teeming with life. During the transfer I had set up my dive gear and camera system and was ready to jump in, I had 8 days of diving ahead and was over the moon.

More Tiger concerns

We were informed there had been 1 or 2 further incidents regarding the female shark involved in the attack months beforehand, nobody had been hurt but she had shown signs of still being a potential threat. We were told before any diving that we would not be able to visit the site where the majority of tiger sharks are commonly seen, ‘Manuelita’. Thankfully, this decision was overturned (not sure exactly how but I do know some guests were displeased at the thought of not being able to dive one of the best sites).

Getting Wet

It was finally time to dive, I was hoping I’d be witness even just a fraction of what some of the veterans had seen over the years. The water here was the greatest shade of blue I think I’ve ever seen, shame it wasn’t the warmest, averaging over the week at about 26 degrees.

This was my first trip where the diving was all about action, not so much coral, more rocky bottoms, pinnacles and out in the blue. The first thing that struck me was the number of white tip reef sharks, I’d never seen anything like it, just scattered everywhere, as the week went on it seemed an average dive would yield 30 or 40 of them. Of course you don’t come somewhere like here for reef sharks, apparently watching them hunt in packs at night was a real spectacle. Everyone was there for the big guys, Galapagos, silky, scalloped hammerhead, tigers, whale sharks and dolphins.

The first sharky dive was incredible, lingering at 30 – 40m and just watching Galapagos sharks swim round in circles was a delight. Although being quite large and intimidating, some 3 metres and stocky, I began getting closer and closer as I saw other cameramen doing just that, they didn’t seem to be phased by it.

Dive site map

Over the week we saw 2 or 3 whale sharks, a very welcome addition to the log book sightings. With so much going on in the depths here it’s easy to forget to look up, as big as they are they are good at slipping by in your blind spot. Another common way to end the dive would be with silky sharks, very inquisitive and bold, they will come and circle very close to inspect what you are. These guys are known to bump into camera ports during their probing and are always fun to have around during a safety stop.

Another big hitter here is the wall of hammers, a sight that can only be seen at at handful of locations worldwide. An event that never really gets old or boring, I don’t think we had the biggest number but a couple dozen at least. Other spots with hammers, the key was to get low on the sand and try and produce as fewer bubbles as possible, they are very difficult to get close to and take some extra effort. This is where I tried a tip given by another guest in which you look away with the camera until they become confident to come closer and then you quickly turn and shoot. The results came back inconclusive !

The diving here was quite samey, the norm would be to go deep, find a rock to cling to and patiently observe. Usually as a diver I like to be moving but many of these sites are cleaning stations so you have to be low to not scare off the wildlife. Gloves are recommended I chose not to use gloves but soon realised the little crabs that live in the pores of the rocks will continually come and give you a nip. The other hazard is the notorious ‘Cocos Tattoo’, urchins, there are LOTS, impaling yourself on one of these or even a slight touch will give you a sharp sting and a dark blue black stain for the next few days.

Over the course of the week I commonly saw many of the sharks listed, rays, frogfish, huge schools of jacks, very big tuna, small pods of dolphins and more. The top dive sites included Alcyone, Dirty Rock and Manuelita.

Highlights

The whole trip for me was one big highlight, what I seem to remember most vividly was the 2 brief sightings of tiger sharks and a bait ball. I was disappointed I didn’t get to see one of the big boys up close or for more than a few seconds.

The bait ball was my greatest memory, it was towards the end of the dive and the sound of dolphins began to echo around, one of my favourite sounds. They were out in the blue so we peeled off away from the pinnacles to end the dive with them, as we got closer we realised we had stumbled across a bait ball mid feast! Dolphins and silky sharks were frantically chasing around the huge school of small fish, darting in all directions. We all watched in awe, soon some tuna turned up and joined in, great big powerful fish propelling themselves like rockets trying to get a feed. The action was sensational, a natural marvel, I didn’t want to surface. As we were encouraged to end the dive I was the last but one to get back on the boat, never again, after waiting a couple of minutes for the last guest to come up, only to hear I’d missed a Marlin come along and get involved in the frenzy.

A real testament

Another thing I’ve always remembered is that although I thought this was an amazing 8 days diving, the old veteran actually DISAGREED… He told me that week had ranked in the bottom 5 of his 23 or so trips, all I could try and do is imagine what his top 5 were like. If I didn’t see Cocos best then it must be something very very special, for that reason I will return one day without doubt.

Cocos Island, Scuba Diving In Jurassic Park – Pelagic Paradise

Remember the movie ‘Jurassic Park’? Well, Cocos Island was actually the inspiration behind the fictional Jurassic counterpart ‘Isla Nublar’ If you’ve seen the movie you’ll know that this means cloud forests, a spectacular green mountainous landscape, numerous waterfalls and wonderfully blue water. While it may not have real dinosaurs (sorry to disappoint), it does have […]

One On One Encounter With A Giant — Morgan’s Ocean Images

One of the things I love most about scuba diving is the opportunity to interact with animals that show signs of intelligence and curiosity. Some special encounters leave me wondering what they are thinking, why are they reacting the way they are, what are they gaining from this social behaviour. In 2018 I had my […] […]

One On One Encounter With A Giant

One of the things I love most about scuba diving is the opportunity to interact with animals that show signs of intelligence and curiosity. Some special encounters leave me wondering what they are thinking, why are they reacting the way they are, what are they gaining from this social behaviour. In 2018 I had my […]

One On One Encounter With A Giant — Morgan’s Ocean Images

One of the things I love most about scuba diving is the opportunity to interact with animals that show signs of intelligence and curiosity. Some special encounters leave me wondering what they are thinking, why are they reacting the way they are, what are they gaining from this social behaviour. In 2018 I had my […]

One On One Encounter With A Giant — Morgan’s Ocean Images

One On One Encounter With A Giant

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One of the things I love most about scuba diving is the opportunity to interact with animals that show signs of intelligence and curiosity. Some special encounters leave me wondering what they are thinking, why are they reacting the way they are, what are they gaining from this social behaviour.

In 2018 I had my favourite ever one to one with a colossal whale shark. A huge but harmless creature that lives a peaceful life, slowly cruising and filter feeding across the vast ocean. Ever since my dive master training in Mozambique I’ve had huge adoration for these gentle giants, seeing them regularly while on ocean safaris was a privilege. However, there is a big difference between seeing them and ‘seeing them’, having a true interaction, 2 of natures very different creations trying to comprehend the other.

Alone in the Blue

That is exactly what happened in Galapagos not so long ago. I had found myself diving solo towards the end of the dive (not recommended), it was around the 50 minute mark so I knew the group would be on the way up anyway if not already. It was common to end dives ‘in the blue’ here, meaning away from the rocks or any sign of the bottom, just water in every direction.

As I ascended to 5 metres to make a safety stop I couldn’t see a single thing in sight, just 20 metres or so visibility. I tend to have some minor concerns when I’m completely alone in the blue, on top of the typical concerns of equipment and air supply. You can’t help but feel more vulnerable, the term ‘strength in numbers’ comes to the forefront of your mind and you begin to wish you had at least a buddy in the vicinity. After all this was the Galapagos, known for an abundance of wildlife, who knows what else could be drifting through the water column at this particular moment.

To keep an eye out for anything in the water I tend to rotate in these situations, covering my back as best as possible. After a minute or 2 I just accepted I was alone and would have to surface soon. I spent a few extra seconds looking in one direction trying to make out some sort of dark shape before it seemingly disappeared from view. As I turned a few degrees in my rotation strategy, nearly completing 180 degrees, I let out a huge gasp, I’d been ambushed by a gigantic whale shark of all things. It was coming straight at me head on, showing no signs of manoeuvring around me, did it think I was a huge bit of plankton? Could it even see me? I could already make out it’s beautiful bespoke pattern of white lines and dots, such an attractive specimen, it was big too, I guessed at 10-12 metres from the size of its head.

Making Friends

It felt like being on a collision course with a train, as shocked as I was I had to remove myself from it’s chosen path, although stubbornly refusing not to swim either side of me, it was moving very slowly which allowed me to quickly fin to one side. Anyone that has dived or snorkelled with these mesmerising gargantuans will know it is difficult to view them head on as they will avoid this in most situations by changing direction. As it drew closer it slowed down completely, almost stopping dead in the water, it seemed as if time itself had stopped. In that moment I looked into it’s comparatively small eye (compare to it’s body), it moved it’s eye to focus back at me, for those few seconds it was as if we were communicating with eye contact. It was just me and the largest fish in the ocean, visibly checking each other out, wondering what the other was thinking, I remember a real sense of mutual respect, as if it was accepting me as a ocean dweller. I’m sure I took more from this moment than him/her, whale sharks have rather small brains in relation to their size, but who knows.

I was close enough to touch it and managed to get a super wide angle shot of it’s whole body. There was something about being alone with it that made it as special as it was, maybe it wouldn’t have approached a group and changed course. It believe it certainly wouldn’t have come to a halt to share a glance with me unless I was alone, it just felt as if it chose to make that interaction happen, we don’t give animals enough credit for this.

After getting a few photos it slowly continued on its journey and I watched as its huge blue dotted tale vanished into the big wide ocean. I got picked up by the boat and joined the rest of the guests. I mentioned it to a few guests but didn’t make a big deal out of it at the time, it felt like a little secret between me and my big blue friend.

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Galapagos and Why it's a Divers Must

It wasn’t until recent years that the Galapagos Islands were really put on the map as a world class diving destination. Nowadays, thanks to the world renowned and the very popular BBC series of ‘Blue Planet’ and later ‘Galapagos‘, awareness and appreciation of this archipelago was delivered to the masses. Ever since listening to Sir […]

Manado Muck Diving – It's Not All About Lembeh

Many divers out there may be familiar with Manado, north Sulawesi’s capital, as the gateway to the world famous Lembeh strait. While Lembeh is world renowned and often referred to as the ‘macro capital’ or the ‘mecca of muck diving’, nobody tends to talk about what’s happening on the opposite side of north Sulawesi. A […]

How to snorkel with a crocodile and live to tell the tale

Okay, maybe no need for such a dramatic title but it was certainly not for the faint-hearted and something I will remember for the rest of my life. During a liveaboard in Cuba, I was able to float nose to nose with El Nino the American crocodile, something I never thought I’d do. As an […]

Galapagos and Why it's a Divers Must

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It wasn’t until recent years that the Galapagos Islands were really put on the map as a world class diving destination. Nowadays, thanks to the world renowned and the very popular BBC series of ‘Blue Planet’ and later ‘Galapagos‘, awareness and appreciation of this archipelago was delivered to the masses. Ever since listening to Sir David Attenborough describing the stunning location and it’s magnificent abundance of life, it shot straight to the top of my diving wish list.

How could it not? With the BBC showing scenes of walls of hammerheads, marine iguanas, huge bait balls and so on, I knew I had to visit what looked like one of the best kept secrets on earth. It offered so much potential and would be completely different to any other diving trip I had embarked upon. When the opportunity came I could not resist, I always feel like I have to do things when I’m in the right ball park on the globe. In 2018 I was in Central America and started playing with the idea, after lots of time online I knew in myself that there was no way I could return to the UK without going. I managed to find a discounted liveaboard trip on the right dates and that was that, click, BOOKED..

Image result for map of galapagos

Getting there

As far as destinations go, this isn’t one of easiest. Depending on where you’re coming from it may take a number of flights as you need at least one to Ecuador and then another to the Islands themselves. Either way, in my opinion it is totally worth it, even if I wasn’t able to cutout a long flight departing from the UK. Once you arrive you will know that it was all worth while, the islands have a real sense of uniqueness, as if you could be on another planet. I spent a couple days on the island before boarding my new home for 7 days of diving, it was easy to see why this was also very popular for land tourism as well as diving. I plan on writing about this in a future blog.

All Aboard!

After a couple days exploring the island of Santa Cruz it was time for the main event, I was about to sail out to some of the sites where the BBC filming had taken place. I was ecstatic at the thought of seeing these same scenes unravelling in front my eyes and not though a TV screen. I was mostly excited for Wolf Island and Darwin’s Arch, my prior research had confirmed these were the 2 most thrilling dives, where the concentration of whale sharks and hammerheads were. I would recommend only booking a liveaboard that will reach these islands, they are further north and so many do not visit here even though they are considered the best of the Galapagos. A true trip to the Galapagos should not miss these, for most visitors it is a once in a lifetime trip so why regret not seeing the best of the best.

My own private whale shark encounter

Bucket List Ticks

This place makes it easy to tick off dive related bucket list items, just stepping foot here is already a big fat tick. I had so many first encounters here I began to lose track, mine included snorkelling with a humpback whale(with dolphins joining in!), tracking down and photographing marine iguanas, taking in the spectacle of playful sea lions, finally seeing a mola mola and more. Enjoying a hot tub after a dive with the untouched islands as a backdrop was also something special. I had my favourite ever encounter with a whale shark here, it eclipsed anything before, mostly because it was a true one to one, a truly humbling experience as we looked into each others eyes with nothing else in sight.

Guaranteed Action? Whale shark highway

Every other liveaboard I’ve been on, the briefings were always conservative, using phrases like “if we see….”, “hopefully we will see” or “if we’re lucky we might see”. Not here, the dives at Darwin’s Arch were as if everything there was on cue, every dive was spectacular. I was there in September which is considered more whale shark season, they got that right. During the briefing the dive guide used the phrase “when we see”, I noticed this instantly and can only assume they really are as close as guaranteed here as they can be. After hearing this I was confident that the seals and marine iguanas were also included in this assured sightings line up.

Highlights Video

The first dive at Darwin there’s so much to take in, although the dive is based around whale sharks there is so much more going on. A constant aquarium of hammerheads, Galapagos sharks, turtles and many colourful fish all goes seemingly unnoticed as the majority of divers look out to the drop off for passing giants. The idea here is to stay low so the huge whale sharks don’t see the group and divert off route.

Patiently waiting, after not long at all, a shape begins to emerge, then…Bang bang bang, the guide is hitting his tank to alert everyone now is the time. It’s then a bit of a race at an upwards diagonal angle to get close enough to see it in all it’s glory, while keeping distance being respectful of it’s space. They have BIG whale sharks here, I’d seen many small ones snorkelling and a couple mid sized on scuba but not like this, the guide estimated some to be 12 metres or more. The astounding animal would then continue it’s journey and we would wait for another to pass by. This was essentially the dive plan for the hour and rightly so, some dives here we saw upwards of 6 different individuals. The other sharks, rays, turtles were just a glorious sideshow to take in while waiting. Even if there were no whale sharks here it would be an amazing site, I spent a lot of time trying to get close to hammerheads for a photo, they are definitely one of the more timid species.

Sea lions and Marine Iguanas

After all the excitement of the whale sharks we still had 2 more events in store, meeting the iguanas and sea lions. With the iguanas, I got the impression timing was key to seeing them in the water and if we didn’t get it right they would already be up on the rocks taking in the sun. This was like an Easter egg hunt, we all got into a shallow rocky bay and then were free to set off in search of one of these peculiar creatures. Focusing so much on searching made it easy to turn into a solo diver, there was no set path or particular area you would find your prize. After 15 minutes or so I had found only rocks and fish, interesting but not what I was there for. A few more minutes passed, popping my head up to see if I could see any surface swimmers, I did set off in the direction of one or two but nothing came of it. Then a glimpse of one munching on some algae, unfortunately a buddy pair had already began taking pictures and observing. I carried on searching until there it was, I spotted one swim down and clamp itself onto a algae covered rock. Fascinated, I watched as it sat there and ate, looking up at me wondering what I was so interested in. After eating it swam up to the surface and headed over to land. I managed to find and shoot a couple more before they all started to head away from the water, watching them eat, swim and climb was a lot of fun.

The seal lions were also very entertaining, twisting and turning in every direction before darting off like a rocket. I’d never dived with sea lions or seals before and what better place to do it than here. They really put on a show and are such curious and playful animals. I think we only had 1 dive with them but I could have repeated it a few times with no complaints.

I cannot recommend this place highly enough, I plan to one day have visited Socorro and Malpelo to make a comparison. Cocos Island was also stunning and will feature in a blog in the near future. I just hope the increased tourism of the Galapagos is controlled and doesn’t become detrimental to one of earth’s most unique destinations.

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Bunaken Marine Park – Turtle Haven

In 2019, I was fortunate enough to spend a good length of time in Manado, the capital of North Sulawesi. During my stay I was privileged enough to visit the amazing Bunaken Marine Park dozens of times. I remember before deciding to visit North Sulawesi, the only time I had heard or seen the word […]

Intro to Blackwater diving and photography

So, you may or may not know what blackwater diving is, to many, it sounds just like a regular nightdive, it’s dark (black), and you’re in the water, right? Wrong, it is an entirely different way to dive, personally I feel it is more exciting and thrilling than any other dive. Although I had known […]

Diving in North Sulawesi

Welcome all to my first blog, I hope to provide some useful information and insight on any topics, experiences, or dive destinations I deem worthy. I hope it may be of use to anyone reading or at the very least an interesting read, we shall see! For the second half of 2019 I was fortunate […]

Manado Muck Diving – It's Not All About Lembeh

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Many divers out there may be familiar with Manado, north Sulawesi’s capital, as the gateway to the world famous Lembeh strait. While Lembeh is world renowned and often referred to as the ‘macro capital’ or the ‘mecca of muck diving’, nobody tends to talk about what’s happening on the opposite side of north Sulawesi.

A mere hour driving in the opposite direction to the strait, you will arrive at the west coast of Manado. It is actually shorter directly to the coast but I was staying at Murex Dive Resorts which is an hour south east from the airport.

Just sand?

Within half an hour of the resort you can reach an array of sites, not all muck diving, plenty of coral sites as well including the esteemed Bunaken marine park. Most of the sites were a mixture of sandy bottom and coral garden which makes them more appealing to some, personally I can glide over sand for a whole dive as long as I know there are macro critters to be found! I enjoy the searching and the feeling of finding rare or very well camouflaged creatures. However this is not for everyone, sandy bottom dives can be risky if expectations are not met, understandable of course, which makes them all the more rewarding.

Snake Eel at City Extra

What can I expect to see?

After diving these spots for some time, it became clear that some were definitely better for particular critters than others. The 3 sites that stood out as the best muck dives were City Extra, Bethlehem (or Bethelem as the guides would joke, meaning ‘better-than-lembeh’), and Circus.

Bethlehem would be great for tiny juvenile frogfish, cuttlefish, seahorses and Costasiella nudibranchs (Shaun the Sheep). This was very much like a Lembeh dive, typical sandy slope topography. I recall one dive here we must have found 6 or 7 juvenile frogfish, from the size of a half a fingernail to maybe an inch high. There was also a patch here around 20m with some seagrass where it was common to find seahorses, I remember this because usually I never made it here due to focusing too long on everything else I had found previously, a great sign for any dive.

City Extra was usually the ideal spot to nightdive, usually with many octopus moving around under the cover of darkness. Creatively named after the restaurant is sat in front of, this spot was very similar topography to Bethlehem, starting with flat seagrass at a few metres before slowly sloping off. This was one of the guides favourite spots because he would always find something new.

Circus, I believe named after all the strange findings there was a bit more of a coral garden/sand dive, which gave it a nice variation and made it acceptable to those who refused to dive in just sand. The entry point would guarantee at least a handful of blue and black sea slugs, no idea why, they were just always there traversing the sand without fail. With Circus you could go left or right (known as Circus 1 and 2) both having their unique findings. This site was excellent for various pipefish, mantis shrimps, snake eels and usually a resident giant frogfish could be seen with a little detour over some coral. It was also not uncommon to find flamboyant cuttlefish shuffling around, these were always welcomed by divers and are a much sought after find.

Shaun the Sheep with eggs at Bethlehem

So Manado is better than Lembeh?

In a word, no, it’s different, while it may not have the same concentration of critters as Lembeh, it still has a lot to offer. It is also very quiet by comparison with far fewer divers. Another benefit is the ability to combine this with Bunaken or other close by islands like Bangka to really see everything north Sulawesi has to offer.

How to snorkel with a crocodile and live to tell the tale

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Okay, maybe no need for such a dramatic title but it was certainly not for the faint-hearted and something I will remember for the rest of my life. During a liveaboard in Cuba, I was able to float nose to nose with El Nino the American crocodile, something I never thought I’d do.

This was with the dome of my camera just inches away, those teeth!

As an experienced diver I am familiar with being in the presence of sharks, from reef sharks to larger more intimidating sharks. Diving with large sharks in numbers with the odd close encounter, you begin to see how they behave and their reaction to you as a diver, being this foreign species that was not born to be an ocean inhabitant. After a few sharky dives you develop a trust and understanding, learning how to conduct yourself around sharks becomes second nature, they become a familiar and welcome sight.

The unfamilair

Crocodiles, on the other hand, are far from a familiar sighting and not even thought about when it comes to diving. When I saw this was a possibility at a location I was looking at booking, it really did seal the deal, then the countdown began.

Where??

Where in the world is this possible you may ask, while I’m sure similar encounters can be found elsewhere, mine took place in Cuba, in ‘La Jardines De La Reina’. The Gardens of the Queen, as it’s otherwise known, is a huge reef system on the south side of Cuba, with pristine reefs, plenty of sharks and beautiful surroundings. It really has to be the best of the Caribbean, being well preserved by limiting visiting diver numbers to the hundreds per year.

El Nino posing

The Anticipation

The days leading up to the liveaboard I was very excited, not only to see such a beautiful location underwater but about my future encounter and how it was going to play out. On board our boat the prospect of being in the water with a croc didn’t seem to be much of a talking point, however, for me it was going to be the highlight of the week.

After a few days diving we were moored in mangrove territory and I knew the introduction with Nino was drawing closer. We were told we would alternate so the other group would head out in the morning first thing and we would go after our morning dive. During the dive I was mostly wondering what was happening in the mangroves and whether the other group seeing him first would mean he would disappear after having his fill of human interaction for the day. Other thoughts would be wondering if crocodiles were like sharks in the sense you have a better chance of meeting them early morning.

As we returned to the main boat the others had just got back and were still standing around the dive deck, I was looking for excited, smiling faces of joy and achievement but saw none. It turns out El Nino had evaded them and was not to be seen after searching for the best part of an hour. Now I was nervous our chance to have this once in a lifetime experience was slipping away. I think the decision was made to wait a while before heading straight back out, and I’m glad we did…….

El Nino – The Encounter

After hoping and praying Nino would now be less busy, or more sociable and willing to be found by us, we set off on our hunt through the mangroves. After a few minutes of nothing but silence and the beauty of the mangroves, I was starting to feel hopeless again. We went round in a few circles and the crew started their chanting, “Nee nee ooo, nee nee ooo”, a tune I’m sure they had rehearsed together. Another 10 or 15 minutes went by with us singing Nino’s symphony, no sign of movement, no ripples, nothing…

We finally conceded unwillingly and started to head back to base, when just then, like some miracle, out of the middle of the mangroves comes the star of the show, it was El Nino! There he was, propelling his fine Jurassic self towards our boat, in that swaying motion these amphibians do so well. He was an American crocodile and a good size, between the 2.5 to 3 metre mark, not nearly as big as some crocs but for everyone on the boat, easily big enough! The time was now….

Trying to get a shot from underneath while having a hand on the boat

Everyone on the boat cheers and there’s a look of relief in captain’s eyes, we were about to do the unthinkable. It was a similar feeling to what I’d had before any potential life threatening activity like a bungee or parachute jump. It suddenly sinks in that we CHOSE to do this and were in the here and now, there was a crocodile within a metre from the boat and we were about to get into it’s domain for fun, thrills, photo ops, overcome some fear, all manner of possible reasons.

We get our snorkel gear on and camera gear ready, we are advised to slip into the water quietly on the other side of the boat. We get to witness Nino being lowered in some chicken and get first row seats watching as his huge powerful jaw snaps up the chicken and swallows it in an instant. While I don’t agree with feeding wild animals in this way, I was naive to think this kind of activity can happen any other way. As the first guest slips in, camera in hand, it becomes apparent none of the crew would be accompanying us to supervise what was about to happen. This was a little unsettling at first but in some ways reassuring, assuming it meant there was really zero chance if anything going wrong. Fortunately we were a small group, I was second in and soon had my solo interaction with Nino. It was a strange mix of feeling safe, with the crew being so nonchalant, while remembering that this is still a wild animal that by no means has to mimic it’s previous encounters by being relaxed, trading it’s being there for portions of chicken. As I dare to get closer, which in the end was very close, I think at one time I had my camera dome no more than 4 inches from his jaws. When you see the teeth from a snorkelling pov you really appreciate how big and intimidating they are, beginning to wonder what would happen if Nino decided he wanted to try something other than chicken. As I held onto the side of the boat, I could see others had now entered the water, no doubt this made me feel safer, after all this was unknown territory, I didn’t know what to do or not to do around these creatures. It was surreal being so close to him, especially with portions of chicken being lowered between us, thankfully his jaw-eye co-ordination was spot on.

It became a struggle holding onto the boat, a surprising amount of current ripped through the mangroves, trying it’s best to loosen my grip and wash me straight into Nino’s awaiting jaws. As he stayed in the same spot for the most part (where the chicken was being delivered), I felt the need to rotate for someone else so come into my position, but I could have stayed there for hours taking it all in. As I moved round to his side I could now see a new angle, his long muscly body and tail, a real life dinosaur. A few more minutes passed before it was time to get back on board, by the end we got to see him swim around a little, getting a little jittery whenever he came in close. We climbed back up onto the boat fully intact and waved Nino goodbye as we headed back to our larger vessel.

The experience with Nino was exceptional, I would have loved to go back another time and see him, he was a gentle giant. Although the rest of the diving was outstanding, this half an hour was a huge highlight of the trip and something truly unforgettable. Amongst all the excitement and moments of fear I was able to come away with some great shots too. Happy days!

Bunaken Marine Park – Turtle Haven

In 2019, I was fortunate enough to spend a good length of time in Manado, the capital of North Sulawesi. During my stay I was privileged enough to visit the amazing Bunaken Marine Park dozens of times.

I remember before deciding to visit North Sulawesi, the only time I had heard or seen the word ‘Bunaken’ was seeing it on a last minute specials holiday website a few years earlier, the name stood out but I never looked into it (even the heavily reduced price was a lot for me at the time!). When I was in talks about coming to Sulawesi it became apparent this would be where I would be doing a lot of my diving and photography, only then I began to ask Google what this place was all about, I began to get VERY excited.

A short video compilation

The Island

Situated near the centre of the coral triangle, the small island of Bunaken is 1 of 5 that make up the Bunaken Marine Park, along with Manado Tua, Nain, Matehage and Siladen. In 1991 it was declared one of the first national parks by the Indonesian government, primarily because of it’s high bio diversity of marine life. Since that decision the ecosystem has flourished, with many agreeing the number of fish has greatly increased and that species are being seen that were previously known to be there. A true marine conservation success story for Indonesia and Asia, it is no wonder divers and snorkellers flock to this magical spot from all over the world.

Map of Bunaken dive sites

The park charges foreign visitors the option of a daily entrance fee of IDR 50,000 ($4), or an extended yearly pass for IDR 150,000 ($12). The money made from these passes goes back into the conservation of the area and the villages that make up the park. Be sure to bring this along as the rangers are quite often seen and will board your vessel like pirates, to check your pass and sometimes have a photo with you which is fun.

Getting there

If you wanted a true taste of island life it is possible to stay on Bunaken or Siladen with a good selection of resorts to choose from. I did not have the chance to stay nor do I know if the other islands have options for accommodation.

Staying on the mainland meant enduring a gruelling 25 minute boat ride, often across some of the bluest, glassiest water I’ve seen and nothing but your island destination and the horizon in sight.. It’s a hard life…. During this journey, if you’re lucky, you may be blessed with the presence of some marine fauna. On a few occasions we came across pods of dolphins who would love to come and play with the moving boat, effortlessly matching the speed of the hull and completely visible through the clear blue water, a real treat before you even start gearing up! We also had sightings of Pilot and Sperm whales very close the the boat too!

Another clip including the friendly dolphins!

The Turtles!!!

During my stay the word ‘turtle’ became synonymous with the diving at Bunaken. I would tell guests doing their first dives they should expect to see a lot of the curious aquatic reptiles, yet time after time, they would surface in complete disbelief.

Bunaken hosts a large number of resident Green Sea Turtles and this becomes evident almost instantly without even getting wet. Float around in the right spot and you will see one after the other coming up for a breath of air before heading back down to munch on some coral or find a quiet ledge to get a few ZZZs. Seriously though they are everywhere, some dives I think we counted nearly 50 individuals, ascending for air, descending, swimming along the reef top, sleeping on a ledge, lazily dangling on soft coral or hilariously head first in a sponge, EVERYWHERE… It’s safe to say I got ample photo opportunities, I remember how the crazy number really occurred to me one time when I was able to fit 8 of the clumsy swimmers into a single frame. Although the vast majority of the turtles seen are green turtles, you can also find hawksbill turtles here, you know, in case you get bored….

Diving and Snorkelling

Bunaken is a phenomenal location for divers and snorkellers alike. The wall diving is suitable for all levels from beginner to tech, the coral is extremely healthy from the top of the reef coral gardens all the way down to 50m plus. The coral gardens start from 3 or 4m which is perfect for snorkellers and freedivers, while being a fantastic place to spend a safety stop in the sunshine taking in all the colours and mind blowing diversity of fish.

For the more advanced divers, most walls drop down to 30m or more, some refer to certain parts as the ‘giant walls’ of Bunaken, because they extend down to nearly 2000m!

Currents do vary between sites but it was never too strong for me personally. The great thing is because the walls are so long, if you decide you’d rather not fight the current you can simply drift along trying to dodge the turtles. Some sites also have sheltered areas along the way which are handy if you are fighting the current to take a little rest and a mosey around.

In general I never felt like the area was crowded, some days you would see many boats out but during a dive I don’t recall crossing over more than one or 2 groups. The number of sites, length of the walls and the cooperative efforts from dive operations ensure that everyone gets to enjoy their dive in peace.

Bio Diversity (What will I see)

As I’ve said the diversity here is astonishing, both coral and fish. For example, here you can find 7 out of the 8 known species of giant clams worldwide. There is over 50 genera and sub genera of coral species embedded into the walls, a whopping 7 times that of which can be found in Hawaii. Incredibly, the park is known to be home to around 2000 species of fish and is claimed to have more than 70% of all known fish species in the Indo-Western Pacific. Safe to say there is always something new and exciting to find here.

Common sighting include multiple species of butterfly fish, angel fish, trigger fish, snappers, trevally, barracuda, jacks, puffer, wrasse and plenty more.

For those looking out to the blue or a delving a little deeper, you may be rewarded with some bigger game fish like tuna, reef sharks, giant barracuda or in extremely lucky conditions a Mola Mola (we had some guests see a small one).

Check back soon to my Dive Locations part of my site where I will be putting together info on locations like Bunaken, providing best times to go, best sites, conditions, likely sightings and more.