Isla del Coco & Isla Malpelo 4/13/2005 to 5/5/2005
“Get in the water quick Jeff” urged Yosy, “you might see the dolphins.” I rolled back instantly, grasping my mask face with my left hand and the mask strap with my right. I kept tightly bunched with my knees against my chest until I sank to a safe depth, then I unwound, kicking purposefully downwards, spiraling, searching for the dolphins. They were there, coursing to the bottom and back to the surface rapidly, four or five of them, screeching maniacally, swimming in their jerking style at a cadence far beyond play.
Only seconds before, I had anticipated a peaceful encounter with gamesome, bottle nosed dolphins (Tursiops truncatus), what appeared before me was mayhem. The pod had pinned a school of amberstriped shad (Decapterus muroadsi) a small (20 cm. / 8 inch) baitfish, to the bottom and were annihilating them down to the last soul.
I had the first three minutes to myself, and then the other divers hit the salt and began to descend into the chaos. Mixed into the marauding dolphins were 45 kilogram (100 lb.) yellowfin tuna (Thunnus albacares) doing their best to beat the mammals to the morsels. We wedged ourselves into the cracks of volcanic boulders for protection, as the gruesome scene played itself into a second act. A score of 3 meter (10 ft.) galapagos sharks (Carcharhinus galapagensis) arrived on stage, accompanied by stout, 2.5 meter (8 ft.) blacktips (Carcharhinus limbatus).
Maimed and crippled shad littered the bottom and some survivors had sought refuge at the base of rocks. The sharks gathered into a tight, whirling vortex. Twisting like a tornadic wind, they spun to the bottom picking off the helpless. Joining the ravening pack of dolphins, tuna and sharks were mullet snappers (Lutjanus aratus) and rainbow runners (Elagatis bipinnulata). Each time a predator grabbed a bait, the other members of the cadre of killers would swarm about its head, contending fiercely to snatch the food from the victor’s mouth before it could be swallowed. Carnage and rapacity reigned, and dolphins were no better than sharks or tunas. It was a brawl where the quickest thief prevailed and the most ruthless instincts won.
Once again, that notorious little corner of the shark diver’s world known as “Outside Manualita” had become a killing floor. The unrelenting slaughter lasted a full forty minutes as the protein passed into predator’s guts. In the end, all that remained of the shad school were a few silvery scales temporarily suspended in the current.
When the action ceased we launched ourselves in unison from the protecting crevices and swam into the blue water beyond and towards the sunlight above. We paused for a safety stop, drifting in the open sea 6 meters (20 ft.) below the surface. An inquisitive green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) paddled in to investigate. Then, as if obeying some silent command, a flight of 2 meter (6 ½ ft.) silky sharks (Carcharhinus falciformis) appeared at the edge of visibility. Their sleek bodies and low dorsal fins distinguished them from their brethren. A hundred open ocean sharks eased in, enveloping us, surrounding us on all sides except over head. The silkies circled slowly, their eyes locking on to ours. We drifted together in the blue, human and shark. Each species was apprising the other. There was no panic or haste as we climbed back into the skiff. The silkies, although numerous and aggregated, were not considering us as food, they were simply curious.
Once aboard, the small boat buzzed with chatter in three languages. The tart taste of the unexpected is always the preferred cocktail of shark divers. The quest for excitement is the abiding reason we spend our time and treasure in the pursuit of sharks. We had traveled from Israel and England, Colorado, Costa Rica and Colombia, France and Florida in pursuit of that one overwhelming episode --- that one precious event that will stick in our minds forever. We now had that occurrence secured. No matter what else happened on this trip we had the game won. Now we could relax and run up the score as high as we pleased.
The magnitude of what had just happened began to sink in when the owner and the crew of the “Sea Hunter,” veterans of years of Cocos diving, said this was a exceptional experience by any measure: the scene, the ferocity, the duration, the size of the animals, the climaxing of the swirling sharks and the afterglow with silkies had all conspired to make this a highlight of these professional adventurers lives.
There were many other memorable moments in the trip. We dove in the night with swarms of whitetip reef sharks (Triaenodon obesus) so dense that the bottom was hidden from view. When the whitetips began to feed, they literally moved rocks as they burrowed into the bottom competing for prey. There were eagle rays (Aetobatus narinari), batfish and barracudas, and vast shoals of jacks. We had pilot whales (Globicephala sp.) on the surface and table sized marble rays (Taeniura meyeni) when we dove.
From the deck of our vessel we saw sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) at sunset, sea turtles at noon and jumping sailfish (Istiophorus platypterus) at daybreak. There were double rainbows, and sea arches, and waterfalls too numerous to count. Jacques Cousteau claimed that Isla del Coco is the most beautiful island in the world. Robert Louis Stevenson made it immortal in literature when he named it Treasure Island. I first visited Coco in January 1989. I doubt that there have been many days since then that the Wet Paradise has not dripped its warm, addicting allure into my thoughts. For shark divers, Coco is the place of destiny and fulfillment, a bastion for elasmobranchs, a stronghold for the class in a world where their number is under unrelenting attack for ego, food and profit.
We dove locations where handsome silvertip sharks (Carcharhinus albimarginatus) came peacefully to be cleaned of parasites by resplendent reef fish. We clutched onto barnacled boulders in stiff currents as schools of scalloped hammerheads (Sphyrna lewini) effortlessly played in the same torrent an arms length away. We snorkeled with dolphins and had mobula (Mobula sp.) rays pass over head. There were sharks on all 32 dives and rays on many of them. I can’t realistically say how many sharks we saw, but “many hundreds” is an estimate that would not cause even the slightest debate.
Fortunately the country of Costa Rica, which claims stewardship of this storied place, has made a commitment to preserve it. Sharks are without a doubt on the minds of Costa Ricans; their 2,000 colon note, the equivalent to the US $5 bill has a hammerhead engraved on it. It is my fondest hope that the Costa Ricans have the resolve to keep up the fight in the face of pressure to exploit this World Heritage Site.
Sadly, I do not possess the communication skills necessary to describe this crown jewel of the elasmo kingdom adequately. Words and pictures do it no justice.
With time, Cocos becomes more a personal emotion than a place. The island twines itself into your soul and lovingly lingers there, asking only to be remembered when the world around you becomes more than you can bare.