Life in the Lost World

Oct 2001, by Stuart Westmorland SKIN DIVER
© copyright by Skin-Diver
Two lonely outpost perched on the empty blue field of the Eastern Pacific, Malpelo and Cocos Island draw pelagics in from hundreds of miles away. The Westmorlands set out these far away islands on the ultimate live-aboard trip.

It was the perfect prelude to an adventure. The Annual Explores Club Dinner in New York City was an exotic affair, with wine-marinated, rose hair tarantulas daintly offered as canapés to such luminaries as Sylvia Earle and Neil Armstrong. Mingling with diners dressed in a bizarre mixture of formal black tie and traditional native garb, we were there to celebrate “The Greatest Explorations of the Twentieth Century.” As fellow guest fumbled with barbecued scorpions and sautéed mealy worms, we pondered the current age of exploration. Scuba divers are one of the few groups of people who can visit somewhere utterly new on a two-week holiday. And we were just about to set off for two islands where exploration is still part of the diving experience.


Our cruise departed at noon from the industrial port of Puntarenas, Costa Rica. An hour after sunset, Bottlenose Dolphins frolicked before the Sea Hunter{s bow. It was pitch-black, and we had to grope our way along the rail. Riding the bow wave were a dozen seven-foot dolphins leaping, splashing and leaving bright trails in the bioluminescent water. The acrobatic cetaceans slapped their strong tails, sounding off sonic explosions and creating ethereal flashes of green light with little sparkles of sea fairy dust. It reminded us of the Fourth of July.

Malpelo/the Island of Bad Hair

Almost two full days after departing, we arrived at Malpelo in time for sunrise. The island, which is nothing more than a big rock about 900 feet high and twice as long, loomed through a haze of fog on the horizon. A primeval mood civilization. The outline of the island resembled an old man’s head as if he was lyong on his back: heavy brow, hooked nose and lower lip fallen to a shapeless chin. For such a barren rock, it seems odd that the name in Spanish means “bad hair.” Perhaps it’s a reference to the sparse grass and lichen that manage to eke out a meager existence there.

Even though we’d arrived on calm seas, the synergy of forces that coverge at Malpelo create formidable diving conditions. Long swells that barely make a ripple on the open ocean meet the vertical rock cliffs of Malpelo and are converted into shifting swells and unpredictable currents. There are dozens of large caves and swim-through arches that have to be completely avoided because of the dangerous vortices, down-currents and surge. The shallow rocks are covered in baseball-sized, razor-shark barnacles; sea urchins vie with giant moray eels for the remaining real estate. The diving conditions are not for the faint-hearted.

With reef names like The Freezer, Monster Rock and Shark Place, the site of our first dive at Malpelo sounded relatively benign – Virginia’s Altar. After struggling into several layers of neoprene in the tropical heat, it was a relief to finally get in the water.

Cruising just above the thermocline were hordes of Scalloped Hammerheads, apparently smart enough to stay in the warmer water. Hundreds of moray eels occupied every noon and cranny in the sloping wall. Easing back into the warm but murky water, we found that the swell had intensified. It was easiest to do what fish do – Just go with the flow. We were back in the pack of Bluestripped Grunts. Among them were trumpetfish that seemed to be the size of tubas. We had been told that every thing at Malpelo is unusually large.

Only the hardiest individuals can survive the long trip from the nearest reef hundreds of miles away, so this ocean oasis offers premium examples of natural selection. There are more large Green Morays at Malpleo than any where we’ve ever seen. They are so numerous that space is hard to come by, and legions of morays can be seen undulation over the reefs, often stalking prey.

In true exploratory fashion, we got to dive a virgin site that had been mapped the last time the Sea Hunter visited Malpelo. It turned out to be one of the best dives of the trip. It required a difficult descent in a ripping current to reach the trop of the mount at 90 feet. Two orange-red Tassled Scorpionsfish, looking like blocks of molten lava, squared off on this current-blasted rock, which had never before been visited by divers. Octopi prowled the rock’s surface, while large groups of leather bass and snapper fed in a frenzy on small cardinalfish that hid among sea urchins. Colorful Pink Encrusting Sponge and vivid Orange Cup Corals covered much of the mount.

Whitetip Reef Sharks cruised the perimeter, alongside squadrons of Green and Island Jacks. Bluefin Trevally bulleted through the tightly-packed schooling fish, testing the shoals for a straggler to snack on. Even hanging on the anchor line for our safety stop proved fascinating as planktonic octopi the size of my thumbnail drifted by. The site was duly named Hugo Rock, after our captain, who originally pinpointed it on the depth finder.

Our last dives on Malpelo were memorable for the quantity and size of Hammerheads we encountered. We saw colossal pregnant females that must have been nine feet long. Our best shark encounters took place near the numerous cleaning stations. And if you kept still in a rocky hiding place, held your breath and timed a brak in the slamming surge, you would usually be rewarded by an impressive broadside of Scalloped Hammerheads. They were stacked dozens deep and drifted into viewing range only to disappear when we exhaled. The dive ended on a high note: A school of Spotted Eagle Rays circled in what appeared to be a farewell salute.

Before heading off to Cocos, we tried in vain to find the fabled Rivadeneyera Seamount. Local fishermen tell tales of massive schools of sharks boiling in its waters. But, it remains a mystery for the next trip.

The Legenday Cocos

Arriving in the wee hours at Cocos Island, the first dawn view was one we’e never forget. The steep emerald cliffs were striped with dozens of spectacular waterfalls that cascaded for hundreds of feet. About 13 miles in curcumference, Costa Rica declared Cocos a National park in 1978 and a World Heritage Site in 1997. It now houses a small group of park rangers-mean and women present on the Island since 1993, who have devoted themselves to the study and protection of this uniquely wild place. A deep green rain forest blankets all but the steepest cliffs in dense jumgle vegetation. Cocos was the inspiration for Michael Christon’s Jurassic Park and also provided some of the dramatic footage shown in the blockbuster movie.

With the lush topside topography of Cocos contrastic so obviously with barrent Malpelo, we wondered what its underwater environment had in store ofr us. Our morning dive at el Bajo Manuelita brought a round of post-dive applause. A few Hammerheads were sighted, but they looked like babies after the bulky giants of malpelo. It felt quite strange to be suddenly diving in warm, clear water with only gentle surge, although we knew that conditions could change quickly. The sea life was similar to Malpelo in terms of prolific schools of fish. But unlike Malpelo, Whitetip Reef Sharks and Marbled Rays can be seen all over the reefs. There are also a great many lobsters, which crawl around in the open or cluster together in crevices in groups of up to 20.

The best dive site of Cocos – and possibly the best in the Pacific – can be seen at a legendary seamount known as Alcyone. Names after the Cousteau Society boat that made the visit in 1987, it can be a testing dive. The most shallow portion of this craggy and irregular seamount is about 90 feet deep. Currents can be extreme, but the fish life is always awesome. Only one dive per day is allowed because of the depths involved, so we returned there on four successive mornings. Highlights included: A Whale Shark that circled the seamount five times; the best Hammerhead encounters of the trip six Mobula Rays swimming together near our ascent/descent line; mating Whitetip Reef Sharks; courting behavior with groups of Marbled Rays; monstrous Yellowfin Tuna; and giant schools of jacks and grunts.

Who would have guessed that two lonely remote islands could be home for such and underwater community.

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