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.
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.
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 It was a little outdated on the inside but was still more than comfortable enough for me, I was there to dive.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).
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.
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.
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.
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