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October 1999 Vol. 25, No. 10   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Diving From Costa Rica's Mainland

hit or miss magic on the Bat and Catalina Islands

from the October, 1999 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Divers:

I’m sure they named it “Rainbow” for the colors: white gorgonian coral; anemones from palest lemon to deepest saffron; octopi turning pistachio green, then ice blue; volcanic rock deepening from dark, rusty red to ebony. Of course, I didn’t know that before I backrolled into the water off Costa Rica’s Catalina Islands. I just bobbed there like an apple in a bucket, waiting till all the divers had splashed in. Steve, the dive instructor taking out divers from Rich Coast Diving, led us in a languorous descent through the 85° water, past the top of the wall at 40', through a thermocline at 70', and down into the chillier 68° to 70° water. We stopped at 85', though the wall itself stretched down past the limits of the 40' visibility. At the base of some rocks, two 10' black tip reef sharks lay on a sand patch. Since there was no coral to damage, I stretched out on the rocks and watched them. They were motionless except for the occasional lazy circle. After 5 minutes a colossal 12' southern stingray swooped in, making a beeline for the sharks. It divebombed the duo, slapping at them, then circled for another pass. The big fellows never budged.

Continuing past the corner of a rocky point, a stronger current pulled me past a stretch of rock garnished with orange and yellow sea anemones. Nearby, an octopus spotted me and flushed mint green. I moved again, and he darkened to ice-blue before swimming off. In the distance, a murky shape slowly came into focus: a 15' manta at 30', so slow it reminded me of a big grazing cow. Steve used his octopus to give its belly a bubble massage. It slowed, luxuriating in the bubbles till Steve’s declining air finally forced us to 15' for our safety stop.

Hardly sounds like a budget dive vacation, does it? Yet this junket to Costa Rica’s Playa del Coco, an inviting, horseshoe-shaped bay pinched between two rocky points, was a belt-tightening trip on the cheap: a bare-bones, cold-water room at the 6-unit Cabinas de Catarino ran a measly $5.50 a day. It had the basics, like clean sheets, ceiling fans, and private bath, though the shower was a pipe sticking out of the wall, the windows empty squares that had never seen glass, and the walls concrete blocks with holes, backed by netting to keep out bugs. For more dinero I could have had some ambiance: rooms at Luna Tica and Anexo Luna Tica, right on the beach, were $8-12/night. They weren’t bad: hardwood floors, walls all the same color, tile baths, and hot water. Coughing up $30-$90 gets a/c, television, and a swimming pool at Puerta del Sol and other Playa hotels. Undercurrent subscribers with more upscale tastes often bed at the El Ocotal Beach Resort, just up the beach at Playa Ocotal, which oozes all the luxury-resort amenities from restaurants to nightclubs to adventure and ecotour excursions.

Pinching pennies at dinnertime hardly meant bread and water. I ate great seafood, Italian, and Mexican nightly. A true gourmet, Louisianian Bob Williams is culinary artist-in-residence at Papagayo Seafood, a local eatery where $7 garnered me grilled yellowfin tuna with pineapple-rum sauce, pesto pasta, zucchini, and Caesar salad. Inexpensive breakfasts were offered up and down the main drag (or I should say the only drag, since the road you’ll take if you drive or take the bus into town widens into the main street). At night there are a few dance spots and lots of beachside bars for studying the sunset. While it’s helpful to speak Spanish, English gets you by just fine, and Costa Rica’s so safe and friendly that I never felt uncomfortable wandering back to my room at night.

The one place I wasn’t skimping was on diving. I did as much as I could squeeze in with Carol and Skyler Chapman’s Rich Coast Diving, a first-rate operation run by a couple whose dive history runs back past their underwater wedding. Jokes fly here, and there’s an informal, family atmosphere. Sunburnt Skyler has blond hair, a blondish mustache, and a super-friendly disposition. Brown-haired, blue-eyed Carol is just as outgoing. Dive instructors Steve and Keelie, a couple of Victoria, B.C., expats in their early 20s, round out the staff. Steve’s serious but lively (that black goatee gives him a dignified air), while Keelie’s reserved and laid back. Most of the divemasters are locals, often former hookahdiving fishermen who grew up on local sites. After years spent combing sites at the end of an air hose and compressor, they know them like the back of their hand.

I dove off the operation’s three boats: the comfortable 35' trimaran Tahonga, used for both dive and sailing trips; the 21' fiberglass boat that seats 6 divers on two side benches for the 20-minute runs to local sites; and a 25' fishing vessel they rent for 1.5 hour trips to the Bat Islands or hour trips to the Catalinas. The smaller boat doesn't have a head, and the Tahonga is the only boat with a ladder (although someone was always ready to help me up on the others). None have camera dip tanks or tables. Trips to the distant sites require a three-diver minimum, although they'll take two provided they pay for a three-tank trip.

It’s a relaxed dive program. There’s no checkout dive, but one eye’s kept on new divers till the divemaster sees they know their stuff. Most of my dives had a 100' limit, but with mantas between 60 and 80', I didn’t go deeper during my dives, which lasted up to an hour. Things ran on schedule, so I could squeeze 3-4 dives into a day (I did 25 in 9 days). Though the water ranged between 70 and 88°, where we’d find what temperature was anyone’s guess. I swam through scads of vertical and horizontal thermoclines with serious temperature changes. Visibility varied with the thermoclines, sometimes 100' and sometimes only 10, though 40-50' was average and there was often better vis just a couple feet up or down. (Bring or rent a full-length suit; some dives have hydroids in the first 10-20 feet, and the suit fends off the stingers.)

On the ride to the sites, Steve or the divemaster pointed out shore diving spots a good swim past anchored fishing boats. Briefings were thorough, and divemasters were always in the water enthusiastically finding critters. Computer users dove their own profiles. On trips to local sites, snorkelers came along, and they’d be in the water while we divers relaxed on the boat for our surface intervals. Diving From Costa Rica's MainlandRich Coast also makes separate snorkeling trips as there’s good snorkeling around the local sites.

My night dives were unimpressive compared to my trips to Honduras or Cuba. With few hard corals (no elkhorn, staghorn, or brain coral), there aren’t many daytime hiding places for night denizens. Fish were fewer, though I saw octopus, arrow crabs, and lobsters through the bioluminescence. My only hassle with Rich Coast stemmed from their broken compressor. Tanks were being filled up the road at Ocotal, so there weren’t spares lying around for impromptu trips.

My dives on the Bats and Cats were top notch. At Viuda and Tetas on the Cats I watched mating turtles on the surface, then savored the colorful, healthy corals clinging to striking pinnacles and walls. At 50' I swam with mantas ranging from 10' wide to 25'+ giants so big my outstretched arms couldn’t span them eye to eye. The Arches’ 7'- wide natural volcanic chimney looked like a silver waterfall with its large school of grunts, while my dives at Shark Alley usually landed 5 to 10 resting black tips. The Bats’ Big Scare was mostly volcanic rock scantily covered with corals and anemones. Many small octopi and reef fish mingled with schools of rainbow runners, grunts, and chainlink, snowflake, and green morays. But the highlight was lying on the bottom at 65' watching bull sharks. On each of my five dives here, I saw at least five 6-12 footers. Often a dozen swam together within 15' of me.

Yes, diving here is unpredictable, wild, and at times impaired by low visibility and rough water. The Bats and Cats aren’t always accessible. Often it’s a hit or miss situation, though summer is generally the calm, wet season, while winter’s dry and windy with rougher seas. If you hit it right you’re in for a diving treat. And if you hit it wrong? Well, Costa Rica is an incredible ecotour destination. The surfing, sailing, and snorkeling’s good at Playa del Coco, and Costa Rica’s hot springs, volcanoes, and white-water rivers are only a couple hours away. If you miss out underwater, you’re bound to score topside.

— P. G.

Diving From Costa Rica's MainlandDiver’s Compass: Rich Coast Diving: 506-670-0176, 506-391-4980; fax 506-670-0176; e-mail; website El Ocotal Resort reservations: 506- 670-0321; fax 506-670-0083; e-mail; website Rooms from $62 US/std. room low season to $186 US/ocean suite peak season; meals $25 US/day MAP; $52 US/day FAP; dive packages available. Puerta del Sol: phone 506-670-0650; e-mail; website and Continental have direct flights into San Jose, 4 hours away by car, or take a commuter flight to Liberia, 45 min. away...good side trip for trips to Malpelo or Cocos...c-cards checked, log books not...aluminum 80s, 3000+ psi, Nitrox available...oxygen, first-aid equipment on board...well-maintained rental equipment available, no camera or video rentals, some repairs possible...E-6 processing in Liberia (45 min. drive), camera table in shop...air temps 85° day, 70° night...few bugs...often moderate currents, some drift dives offered...air temps between 60°

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