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September 2009    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 24, No. 9   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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MV Sea Hunter, Cocos and Malpelo Islands

bad weather, strong currents and low viz make sharks harder to spot

from the September, 2009 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver:

My trip started badly, with cloudy skies, rain showers and an unnecessary hassle over the release form. After years of taking divers out to see sharks at these two islands, youd think the Sea Hunter Group would know by now how to gracefully get their customers to sign their lives away. But when I was picked up at my San Jose hotel for the ride to Puntarenas on the coast, I was presented with the form, of course after the trip was fully paid for and not refundable. Not wanting to be the one to hold things up, I just signed it. But my fellow divers included three lawyers -- Carl, Donna and Bill -- who objected to the release and the timing of its presentation. They were willing to release the boat operator from liability for the inherent risks of diving, but resented the terms about releasing and indemnifying for gross negligence because they believed that invited carelessness by the crew and excused Sea Hunter from dereliction of responsibility. As we all waited in the hotel lobby, the lawyers altered their forms, scratching out some clauses. When they were told that was unacceptable, they signed a clean form but added a statement that it was being signed under protest. Only then did the three-hour drive past coffee plantations to Puntarenas get under way; the tension eased as a local member of the Bri Bri tribe came along as tour guide and gave a great lecture about Costa Ricas history and diversity.

The Sea Hunter Lowering a Dive Skiff

The Sea Hunter Lowering a Dive Skiff

While the waters around Cocos and Malpelo Islands are ideal for shark-viewing in good conditions, I came in July, smackdab in the middle of Central Americas rainy season. After a monotonous 42-hour boat ride to the bare rock outcropping of Malpelo, with clouds quickly rushing in, things were literally looking gloomy.

MV Sea Hunter, Cocos and Malpelo IslandsThe Malpelo dive briefing was all about deep diving, raging currents, strong surges, the necessity for staying in a group, keeping the divemaster in sight, and the importance of surfacing together. Each diver was issued a safety kit with an extra-long orange sausage, flashlight, whistle and an electronic tracking device in case he was swept away in surface current. Good precautions, but with a storm threatening outside, I felt uneasy. I wasnt even disappointed that there are no night dives at Malpelo, just three dives a day at 8 a.m., 11 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. My checkout dive was in waters with the visibility of pea soup. My first morning dive at Virginias Altar was worse, accompanied by pouring rain and dark waters. After peering through gloomy waters and seeing nothing but murk, I can say the best part of that dive was coming back to hot croissants and fresh fruit.

However, I finally did get a taste of ideal Malpelo diving. At Fridge, a cleaning station for almaco jacks and hammerheads, I was instructed to descend quickly, hit the bottom and hide, meaning get behind a rock and sit, and the sharks would come to me. And they did -- dozens of silkies and hammerheads, jostling each other for position at the center of their enormous schools. I sat at 60 feet for 50 minutes, and the show never stopped, but heavy surge made it hard to keep from being pushed into the needles of large black urchins nestled in the rocks. Also, limited visibility affected photo and video contrast. In between the shark schools were bumphead parrotfish, yellow and brown trumpetfish, numerous green morays, and an abundance of small gray and brown sea fans. Water temperatures at both Malpelo and Cocos averaged 80 degrees, with several thermoclines around 74 degrees.

Wonder if the lawyers made it onto the boat? It was touch and go at first. The tension was as thick as the rainclouds when we got to the dock. Divers and bags were loaded on a small barge to take us to Sea Hunter, anchored farther out. The boats rep called Carl, Donna and Bill aside and told them their under protest statements wouldnt be accepted. Discussion ensued for 30 minutes, with the rep on the phone to company owner Yosy Naaman, who was already on Sea Hunter. The reply: No one would get on board until the matter was resolved. It was more of a macho standoff than a logical discussion, until finally the boat rep said the lawyers could write their statements on a plain piece of paper. The lawyers did so, and we finally headed to the boat. Of the 18 divers, one was from Israel, another from England, a third from Scotland, the rest were Americans. Release-form fiasco aside, an attentive crew of nine went out of their way to meet divers needs, particularly Colombian divemasters Edwar and Wilson. Edwar, doubling as videographer, was quiet and methodical. Wilson was talkative bordering on annoying, but he was consistently pointing out marine life in the murk and always monitoring us divers.

Malpelo is 270 miles off the coast of Colombia, so the nearly two full days of motoring there were filled with plenty of naps. Probably would have been a nicer ride if the sun was out but when theres nothing to look at but gray, boredom can set in pretty quickly. The Sea Hunter is a stable, steel-hulled, 115-foot motor vessel. MV Sea Hunter, Cocos and Malpelo IslandsI suited up easily on the wide dive deck. Tables were spacious enough to fiddle with my cameras, with conveniently placed air hoses and adequate storage space for photo gear. Up top was a broad, partially shaded sundeck with lots of lounges and chairs. When I did have a chance to relax there between dives, the frequent smoke from some passengers and crew members assaulted my nostrils. The roomy salon has been newly updated with fresh upholstery and carpet, and it offered an always-filled candy bowl and cookie containers, board games and videos, flatscreen TV, and a mini-fridge with soft drinks and beer. There was a paucity of information at orientation, so I didnt know until trips end that laundry, Nitrox, beer and even my canned vodka tonic drink were free.

My forward cabin was comfortable and clean, with paneled walls and a porthole. It was too cold because forward cabins shared the A/C system and the temperature was set by democratic vote, which I lost. There was adequate storage space, and the bathroom had sufficient towels. For the nine diving days of the 14-day trip, cabins were cleaned daily; towels were changed only every two days or when requested.

Once divers unpacked and set up gear, our tanks were moved to two skiffs, where they remained for the trip, as did our masks and fins. I always dove with the same group of nine, eight of whom used Nitrox and were equally experienced. Scott, the only diver using air, sucked it up quickly and was always the first back up. Skiffs, manned by drivers Pepe and Reyner, carry 10 divers and are in good condition with sturdy ladders and shade cover but space is tight. Fortunately, rides to dive sites are less than 10 minutes. Pepe, who has been with Sea Hunter for more than 10 years, is a gem -- smiling, friendly and attentive to everyone, especially one grey-haired lady diver, whom he always called Mama (she loved it), taking her tank before she climbed out of the water.

Of the 10 Malpelo dives, most were the same -- waiting on barnacle-covered rocks for sharks to show themselves in poor visibility, currents and surge. The boat only does Malpelo six times a year between March and August, and I suppose I should count myself lucky that I came when I did - - crew told me that 2009 may be the last year Sea Hunter dives here, as fees for entering Malpelo National Park have become prohibitively expensive. The best dive was one where I didnt see any sharks. At Monster Face, named for the eye-and-nose-like caves in the rock above water, a thick school of pelican barracuda surrounded me, while hundreds of yellow goatfish swam with yellowand blue-striped snappers in amazing 80-foot visibility and 80-degree water. The sheer joy of seeing marine life in clearer water made my peculiar breakfast of tuna sandwiches and scrambled eggs delicious.

The buffet-style meals prepared by chef Luis and his assistant Pablo were good but not gourmet. Fresh fruit was at every meal. Lunch and dinner featured creative salads and crisp vegetables, and the entre was fish, beef, pasta or chicken, with soy products for vegetarians. Desserts were mini candy bars for lunch, and mousse, cake or ice cream at dinner. Yosy alone had wine with dinner most nights, but no one told us that wine by the bottle could be purchased; they only pulled out the wine for the farewell dinner. The Swiss-made coffee machine expertly turned out espresso, cappuccino or regular coffee with steamed milk. Steward Javier was especially helpful. When I returned to the boat in heavy rain, he met me with hot chocolate, an empanada and a smile.

It was another 40 hours of motoring to Cocos, 300 miles west of Costa Rica, covered with lush foliage and waterfalls cascading off its sides. Cocos gets 21 feet of rain a year so I knew not to expect much sun. It did come out for my first two dives but my mood darkened again when I experienced 15-foot visibility, surge and only a few sharks. A hefty sea turtle as long as a scuba tank kept me interested. Every heavy downpour created new waterfalls, all carrying mud into the ocean, evident in the brown wake created by the skiff on the way to the closest dive sites. The visibility never lifted.

The surge did subside, however, so I got lucky at Piedra Sucia, or Dirty Rock, a deep dive with the best viewing at 110 feet. I saw six-foot hammerheads, a few big Galapagos sharks, even an elusive silver-tip. At Alcyone, I descended to 98 feet on a line, then swam against heavy current and settled on a ledge to watch action at one of Cocos well-known cleaning stations. But the yellow barberfish had closed shop for the day, so few hammerheads were swimming in for a cleaning. Visibility was no more than 25 feet. My computer was registering caution so I ascended early, but not before I observed seven five-foot white-tips in a reunion on the bottom, unfazed by my camera just a foot away from their heads. The short dive made me wonder why the two morning dives are scheduled so close together; time was usually tight between dives. It made more sense to dive at 7 a.m. and switch breakfast to 8:30 to extend the surface interval. At least a night dive was added at Cocos, starting at 6 p.m.

Shark viewing aside, there was plenty to see during shallower afternoon dives. At Lobster Rock, I saw something new -- a bed of hundreds of imperial urchins lined in formation, hugging each other on the sand. The water was murky but it was filled with white tips, marble rays, lobsters, a school of Jordan snappers and a ball of oddball, big-eyed fish with black blotches just behind the gills of their greenish- grey bodies. Wilson said they were new visitors to Cocos and called them Pacific puffers, although they didnt look like any puffer Id seen. I looked in the fish ID books but couldnt spot them. Silverado and Manuelita Coral Garden had good sightings too, like a 17-foot manta, a slithering tiger snake eel, an orange frogfish the size of a dinner plate and a rosy-lipped batfish, a curious creature endemic to Cocos, flitting along the sand with pouty, bright red lips.

Seeing all that in less rain is why I enjoyed the Cocos half of my trip much more. The only unpleasant aspect of the afternoon dives was trying to stay away from Scott, the solo air diver aboard who flailed around, struggled with buoyancy and was oblivious to the fact that he was bumping into divers. Unfortunately, he never passed up a dive. Another diver, who was celebrating her 25th dive, also had lots of problems. Sea Hunters Web site says nothing about how much experience a diver should have to go on this trip, but those two are perfect examples of why there should be. With changing weather and strong currents, Malpelo and Cocos diving is challenging, to say the least, and I cant stress enough that its not for inexperienced divers. Because most dives are deep, between 80 and 120 feet, you should get Nitrox certification to extend dive time. Despite horror stories Id heard about rough ocean crossings, the three long hauls turned out to be smooth and easy. And at least above water, we all got along; Carl, Donna and Bill were clinking wine glasses with Yosy at the final dinner. Even lawyers can let bygones be bygones when they come face-to-face with real sharks.

-- S.M.

P.S.: Our writer didnt experience unusual weather; according to Reader Reports from other divers whove been to Cocos and Malpelo, rain and currents are the norm. Dont plan on getting a suntan, says Tom Lopatin (Lake Hopatcong, NJ) who was on the Sea Hunter last November). But he did have shark sightings. Great hammerhead action, and the white-tip night dive at Manuelita was spectacular. Sleeping whitetips and mobula rays scattered about on nearly every dive. Brent Barnes (Edmond, OK), who dived Cocos from the Okeanos Aggressor last August, said the stronger the currents, the more pelagics he saw. When there was a nice current at Manuelita, we would see small groups of eagle rays, mantas or groups of hammerheads. If there was no current, we would see much less. Silverado is a cleaning station for large silver- tip sharks but if theyre not there, the dive is boring. We spent 57 minutes at Silverado with no sharks, literally passing the time by playing tic-tac-toe in the sand. Only after a few divers surfaced did two silver-tips show up and spend 15 minutes swimming closely between us. It appears you never know what to expect at Cocos Island. Nearly everyone warned about the island crossings. If youre prone to seasickness, bring the correct medication, says Lopatin. The seas can rock and roll pretty good.

MV Sea Hunter, Cocos and Malpelo IslandsDivers Compass: No question, this trip is expensive; I paid $6,740, which included Malpelo and Cocos park fees, and a San Jose hotel at each end of the trip . . . Consider waiting until the last minute to get a good deal; a month before my trip, four places still not booked were offered at a $2,000 discount, so some of my fellow divers got a bargain . . . I sprang for business class on Continental to San Jose via Houston, which cost $902 and permitted an extra 20 pounds per bag with no checked baggage fees . . . Once aboard, ask what is free and what costs extra, as they dont mention it at orientation; oddly, the boat charges an extra $15 a day for diving with steel tanks but not for aluminum 80s . . . Text-messaging at sea was available at $3.50 a minute; the excellent trip video cost $85 . . . Bring diving gloves, as they are essential, and Nitrox divers need to bring their certifications . . . Sea Hunter Web site: www.underseahunter.com

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