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Wild Cocos – Dreams in the Eastern Pacific

October 25th, 2011 by Andrew Sallmon | No Comments »

This July, I was fortunate enough to lead another trip to Cocos Island, Costa Rica aboard the dive boat Undersea Hunter. This was my 6th trip to Cocos and I was anticipating lots of close contact with scalloped hammerhead sharks (Sphyrna lewini), possibly whale sharks (Rhincodon typus), Cocos batfish (Ogcocephalus porrectus), and Marbled stingray (Taeniura meyeni), not to mention other sharks, dolphins, sea turtles and even large frogfish. Needless to say, I was very excited and had my cameras and my rebreather all ready for some great big animal action. Our trip was successful, even though this was probably the worst weather that I’d seen here. Adding to that, the visibility had taken a turn for the worse, 20-40′ on average.  This was a far cry from the typical 70-100′ I’d experienced on all of my other trips. Undaunted, we did our best, and we found a large assortment of pelagic animals, some that I’d never seen here before. As for the hammerheads, they remained relatively deep (about 120-130′) in the colder water, leaving us very short bottom times to see them. Above the deep water thermocline, we encountered some of the largest galapagos sharks (12 feet) that I have ever seen. The murky visibility made it difficult to see them coming, but when they came in close, it was like watching a truck drive past! A host of other characters were on hand as well, and large marbled and eagle rays seemed to be everywhere. As one marbled ray swam past, I noticed a large cresecent-shaped bite mark out of his trailing edge. Ouch! It looked to me like a tiger shark bite, but I couldn’t be certain. We caught a glimpse of a tiger shark on a dive between Manuelita Islet and Cocos Island itself on a site called Manuelita Inside. This narrow passage has provided many great encounters over the years, this time a tiger shark. We also dove another site that I had been to only once before, the anchorage at Manuelita. For this dive, we followed the mooring line down to a very large anchor. On top of the anchor was what appeared to be a family of frogfish. There was a large one, (the mother) and three smaller (3-4″) “frogs”. They were lying on the anchor, perched precariously close to the heavy, swinging anchor chain. I wanted them to move for fear that they’d be crushed. As if reading my mind, they jumped off of the anchor and came for me. Apparently they liked my black wetsuit or the lack of bubbles from my rebreather so much that they glombed right onto me.

A few days later, we were caught off guard just a few minutes into a dive at a site called Silverado. We heard the motor of our skiff revving up and down as our skiff driver Pepe tried to get our attention, so we surfaced to see what all the commotion was about. Pepe told us to get aboard, that he’d sighted a humpback whale and calf. We didas he said and motored over to their last sighted position. Without warning, we heard a sudden “whoosh” of air as the mother let out a long exhale right next to the skiff.  It was so close that we couldn’t resist, so we dumped the rebreathers, “snorkeled up”, and went for the whales. It was a great opportunity, but once mama whale saw the eight eager intruders, that was all she wanted to do with us. She diverted baby, and away they went. No chance for a picture. Still, the image of the two of them, just a few feet away, is recorded in our minds forever. You just never know what will show up at Cocos Island.

I love the anticipation of wondering what will come at me next. At Cocos, that could be just about anything. Scalloped hammerhead sharks are, of course, the icon of this lonely place, but there’s much more. Whale sharks, manta and mobula rays, galapagos and silky sharks, even tiger sharks the past few years, all frequent Cocos Island. Why? No one really knows for sure, but it is postulated that due to the islands remote position in the eastern Pacific, it is a stopover or “crossroads” of sorts.  To me, Cocos is like a dream come true. It is so diverse, one of the most magnificent places that I have ever been to, sitting in the middle of nowhere and shrouded in mystery, both past and present, its secrets forever unfolding in front of me. It’s a place where raw life comes at you every day.

Trips to faraway outposts, like Cocos, have become one of my specialties now. Difficult-to-get-to places are always more pristine. I guess it’s the price one must pay to get a view of life the way it once was. From year to year, the marine life at Cocos changes, bit by little bit. Fluctuations in oceanic currents and water tempertures ensure that no two trips will be exactly alike. I like this! It’s like going to the same place again and again, but never knowing what will show up. Its familiarity lures me in, only to surprise me at every rock. Of course that’s the way it is when you follow marine wildlife. Once you dive a few times at Cocos Island, it becomes apparent why the pelagics seek this place. Its deep and dark, and there’s a lot of water movement, both in the form of current and surge. Schools of scalloped hammerhead sharks can be so large, into the hundreds, that they block out the sun as they swarm overhead. The schools swirl in from deeper waters and disperse around the many seamounts and islets that form the backbone of most Cocos diving. Cleaning stations are abuzz with both yellow barberfish and white-barred, yellow-tailed king angelfish, at the ready to remove parasites and skin anomalies from their pelagic clients. It reminds me of a car wash. The large animal enters one side “dirty” and comes out the other side “clean”.

Before my first trip to Cocos in 2006, this far-away island had only been a dream of mine. Working as a freelance UW photographer, and selling UW photo equipment in the dive industry had never afforded me the chance to go. Finally, after years of listening to fellow divers and underwater photographers and watching film footage of this place, I was asked to lead a trip for Reef & Rainforest Dive Travel (www.reefrainforest.com). I have been lucky enough to return 5 times now. In all the trips since my first one, in 2006, one theme remains the same though, Cocos is truly wild!

Note: Cocos island is located roughly 330 miles southwest of Punta Reinas, the Costa Rican port where the Sea Hunter Group departs from. It’s a long boat ride and takes about 33-36 hours to get there, but can be well worth the wait, as it is one of the last untouched bastions of pelagic activity in the Eastern Pacific ocean.

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