COCOS ISLAND - April, 2007

(Click here to see the pictures from this trip.)

If you're the superstitious type, you'd think twice about a trip that started on April Fool's Day and ended on Friday the 13th. But it was no joke and pretty lucky too as we had a fabulous time on the Okeanos Aggressor going out to Cocos Island, April 1-13, 2007.

Our group of eleven divers literally came from all over the globe. Di Krall, Kevin Brooks, Clayton Backhaus, and Michael Moore (no, not THAT Michael Moore) joined trip leader Ken Kurtis in leaving from Los Angeles. Debbie & Hartley Wess, who had met Ken 16 years ago in Fiji, came in from Albuquerque. Mark Bricker came in from Chicago. Marty Oatman & Julie Baker traveled from the Washington, D.C., area. And David Moore flew all the way in from England. So it was a geographically eclectic group.

Getting to Cocos isn't the hardest thing in the world but it's no picnic either. You start from San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica, and arrive a day early. We opted for a Continental redeye from LA to Houston, and then non-stop to San Jose, arriving a bit after noon. Then it was off to the Alta Hotel to chill.

We can't sing the praises of the Alta enough. It's a really nice, compact hotel, with 23 rooms on a hillside location that gives it a commanding view San Jose’s Valley of the Sun. Each room either has a patio or a balcony overlooking the pool and the valley. The place has an excellent restaurant, a small fitness center, and (my favorite) free Wi-Fi. We booked it directly through the Aggressor office and you can do it that way or directly on your own (

The Alta is also one of the two places (the other is the Marriott) that the Aggressor bus will pick you up the following day for the ride from San Jose to the coastal town of Puntarenas where the boat is docked. The trip takes about three hours (with a pit stop where you can see some butterflies and met Pinocchio the Toucan) and you'll most likely get Rudy as your driver and tour guide. He's very knowledgeable about Costa Rica and very proud of his country and also has a great sense of humor. So the whole way down, it's an educational experience as well as an enjoyable one. (The Sea Hunter & Undersea Hunter also use Rudy's company to ferry guests so chances are that if you dive Cocos, you'll meet Rudy.)

Arrival time in Puntarenas is based on the high tide because the mouth of the port is very shallow and the boats can only enter & exit a few hours each side of high tide. We arrived around 2PM for a 4PM departure but it will vary for every trip so make sure you check ahead of time (and the hotel also posts a sign) so you know what time you need to be ready at the hotel or when you need to be at the boat if you're getting there on your own.

I was on the Okeanos in November and since then, the boat had gone into drydock for some refurbishing. They had given me an outline of what they planned to do when I was on the boat last time and I must admit to being a bit disappointed at not seeing some of the things completed (digital media center and new carpeting stick in my mind) that they'd said they were going to do.

But one great thing that was done was they put in new engines. While this may not be readily apparent to you, you'll appreciate it when you realize that the Okeanos Aggressor is now making the 375-mile crossing to Cocos in about 30-34 hours instead of the previous 36-40. Getting to the island more quickly (and having a bit more time on the back end as well) means you get in an extra dive on the first day and an extra dive on the final day. We got in 4 dives our first day and 3 dives our last day, versus 3 dives our first day and 2 dives our last day on my previous trip. Given that last time we did 25 dives, that's roughly a 10% increase in the number of dives on a typical 10-day trip and that's significant and worthwhile.

The boat itself is comfortable and functional but by no means as well-appointed as some of the other Aggressors around the world (Palau and Tahiti-now-Fiji immediately come to mind). The boat holds a maximum of 22 divers (we had 18 on our trip) in 10 staterooms, one of which is a spacious quad. (It doesn't always fill up and if you can get the quad with just you and someone else in it, you've got a sweet deal.) 7 of the staterooms (including the quad) are on the lower deck (at the waterline) and three of the rooms (all doubles) are on the second deck.

Each stateroom has an upper and lower bunk (more on this in a moment) with a sink, storage closet, and a combo toilet/shower. When I say "combo" I don't mean that it has a bathroom with a toiler a shower stall. I mean it's a bathroom stall with a shower head in it so if you take a shower in there, you're going to get the toilet and the floor all wet. Not a big deal (especially since they have excellent showers out on the main dive deck) but certainly not the greatest.

The bunks are very comfortable but you need to be aware of which one you're booking in to. The Aggressor website lists all the rooms as having a double that measures 55" x 74" and an upper single at 30" x 74". This is simply not correct.

I had noticed on my previous trip that some of the alleged double bunks seemed awfully narrow. So this time we decided to measure. The double bunks in rooms 3, 4, and 5 measured out at only 39-43" across. That's plenty of room for one person but an awfully tight squeeze to put two bodies into that. The double bunks in the other rooms (including the quad) all measured at 54-57" across, which should be plenty of room for two people.

So if you're going as a couple and sleeping together in the same bunk is important to you, don't book into 3, 4, or 5. Room 7 is the biggest double room (but also gets more engine noise), room 8 seems to get the coldest blast of air-conditioning, and room 9 is the only one with a nice big window - but it looks out over the second deck hanging-out area so it's not like you really get a view. Choose your room to match your needs.

The dive deck gets a little tight but not terribly so. Each diver has a small locker that easily holds mask, fins, booties, and small items like that. Wetsuits are hung on two racks (hangers provided by the boat) and your tank, BC, and reg will live in the dive dinghy to which you're assigned, so they're not taking up space.

There's a 3-tiered camera table so there was ample room on this trip for the 5 or 6 photographers and assorted boxes and accessories. The boat also has two camera-only rinse buckets, one by each gate, so cameras can get dunked right after the end of each dive.

With the exception of the very first checkout dive in Chatham Bay where you do a giant stride from the main boat (and where we saw Marble Rays, Whitetip Sharks, schooling Goatfish and Blue-and-Gold Snappers, and three Eagle Rays - so don't write this off as a boring checkout dive), all the diving is done from the dive dinghies. Both of the dinghies can accommodate up to 11 divers plus a DM. You simply put your fins on, they help you on with your tank, and you do a backroll into the water. It takes a little getting used to, but is not at all difficult. Getting back in the dinghy is fairly easy too. Fins off, up the ladder, ease into a tank slot, rave about your dive.

The other advantage the Aggressors dinghies offer is that they are big inflatable Zodiacs. Since we were always sitting on the side of the boat for the ride out, we came to appreciate , especially when the seas were a bit rough, the cushioning we got from the fact that we were in an inflatable. Although we joking called our dinghy "The Kidney Killer," the reality is that you're going to get a much rougher ride in a small rigid boat than you will in these.

The second advantage of this system is that the two dinghies rarely dove the same site at the same time. So this kept the dive sites, even when both the Sea Hunter and Undersea Hunter were there as well, uncrowded. One of our dinghies went to site A and the other went to site B for the first dive, then switched for the second dive. So everyone got to dive the same sites. The general plan was four dives a day, with dives at 8AM, 11AM, and 3PM, and a night dive at 6PM (with dinner following).

We were very happy to have Alberto Munoz (Beto) and Javier Garai (Javi) as our DMs. They alternate dinghies each day so each one dives with each group for the entire day. Beto is the captain of the Okeanos (Javi is the designated DM) and it's nice to see both of them diving regularly.

The rest of the crew is terrific, too, and took really good care of us. Meals from Douglas, Joel, and Charlie were always tasty and welcome, the skiff drivers (Luis & Animal) are very good at what they do, and Mauricio kept the engines and generators humming. Really good crew that will do everything they can to make your trip the best it can be and their attitude more than makes up for any shortcomings that I may be mentioning about the boat itself.

There's a lot of ground to cover here before I get to the actual diving but there are two big things I've always been asked about a trip to Cocos: the day-and-a-half ocean crossing, and nitrox. Let's deal with the crossing first.

I've heard horror stories about everyone on the boat being sick from huge seas and just thought of that prevents many people from even considering a trip to Cocos. Now granted, I've only done it twice. But both times the crossing have been easy. There may have been a little roll here and there, but I’ve had much rougher crossings going to Catalina than what I've experienced twice to Cocos. And I have other friends who report similar good experiences with the crossings. In fact, for our crossing on the way over, which I thought was just fine, Javi termed it "a little rough." So some of it may be a matter of degree.

In fact, I think the difficulty of the crossing is overhyped. I asked Beto and Javi, out of the 50-or-so trips a year they do (100 crossings), how many of them were really rough to the point where most of the people were getting sick. They said that it happened maybe 4 or 5 trips a year. (June & July seem to be the worst months.) So if you've been avoiding Cocos out of a fear of the crossing , that might be an issue you can rethink.

Now let's talk nitrox. It's available on the Okeanos (as it is on all Aggressors) and Cocos is also pitched as the perfect place for nitrox since most of the diving is in the 60-100' range. When I was there in November, I dove air the entire trip. The big question I got asked this time was: Are you going to dive it on nitrox?


Yes, I did. (Pause momentarily to see if the world is coming to an end. If it doesn't, keep reading.)

I have always contended that the appropriate use of nitrox is as a bottom-time extending gas that, when dived on nitrox tables (which is how you get the extra time) gives you the same relative risk of decompression sickness as diving on air with air tables. Saturated is saturated. I think the safety argument has been way overblown and oversold by our industry. I also think the oxygen toxicity issue has been too causally dismissed.

But with all that said, I do think nitrox has some value. Specifically for this trip, I wanted more time down on Alcyone, the place where you most likely see the schools of hammerheads and where you're likely to spend most of your dive at 90' or so. On air, I was only getting about 12-15 minutes at these depths. On nitrox, I could get 20-25. That's a significant difference and one that, when shooting photos, provides you with a very tangible advantage. So I went with the nitrox.

Now I did hedge my bet a bit and built in a safety factory by running my computer at slightly less than the mix I was diving. The Aggressor pumps 32% (they blend it) and the actual mixes ranged anywhere from 30% to 34%. I had my computer set at 28%. So my computer was accounting for more nitrogen (and giving me a slightly shorter bottom time - but still much longer than on air) than my body was actually absorbing. So in that sense, I did get the benefit of longer bottom times with a better safety margin (plus I still did 3-5 minute 15-foot safety stops).

For the record, I did not feel "less tired" although I did take fewer naps over the course of the trip. (And for those who contend nitrox, peps you up a bit due to the higher O2 content, I kept telling people on the boat that the last thing you want ME to be is MORE peppy.) I didn't feel less narced at depth but I don't feel narced on air at similar depths. My air consumption seemed about the same.

One interesting thing I did notice was that every night that I was on nitrox, I had incredibly vivid and detailed dreams. The day we stopped diving and I stopped breathing nitrox, I went back into my normal dream mode. I have no idea if the two are related but it was an interesting coincidence, if nothing else. (Anyone else had something similar???)

With that out of the way, let’s talk diving.

Water temp was a pleasant 84º. That is, pleasant until you hit the thermo cline, which dropped it down to 77º. The depth of the thermo cline changed from site to site and from day to day. And the mixing of warm and cold water produced a “shimmering” effect that made it very difficult to shoot in. But what really got our attention was the second thermo cline, when the temp dropped to 72-74º. Both Javi and Beto said these types of temps were very unusual for Cocos. Luckily, I had a 3mm hood with me which I wore the whole time. Too much for the warmer water, but make the journeys into the cold water more bearable. Visibility was 30-100 feet, varying by site and by day.

You go to Cocos for Big Animal encounters and the place simply does not disappoint from the moment you enter the water. And the great thing is that you never know what might be coming by so it always pays to be looking off into the blue, above you and behind you. On one dive, I missed five hammerheads swimming over the top of me because I was looking at Marble Rays below me. By the same token, I was the only one who saw a Marlin strike at a school of jacks because I happened to be looking in the right place at the right time.

Cocos is also well-known for having strong currents. We had a fair amount of current during this trip, unlike our experience in November. On a couple of dives at Alcyone, the only way to reach the top of the area was to pull yourself down hand-over-hand (which took close to five minutes). But there were other dives where the current was mild or non-existent. Most of the time, you're drifting with the current anyhow, so it's not really an issue. And as for fear of the currents carrying you away, the general rule of thumb is to always be within visual contact of the reef and if you're not, abort the dive and surface lest you drift off.

Cocos is well-known for weather and I don't mean that in a good way. You should be coming here for animal encounters, not to work on your tan. It's going to rain, Get used to it. The place gets 360 inches (that's 30 FEET) of rain per year. That's an average of an inch of rain per day. So it's going to rain while you're there. But, the weather will also change quickly. We had mornings that started out sunny and ended up rainy and vice versa. There are almost always clouds hanging around somewhere and that's just the way it's going to be. Remember, think Big Animal Encounters.

The most obvious of those are the Scalloped Hammerheads. We saw at least one or two on almost ever dive site. We saw literally multiple hundreds (see the accompanying pictures) at Alcyone. We also ad fairly good success at Manuelita Outside on the portion where you go reef-on-the-right, not reef-on-the-left (even thought Javi insists that's the better dive).

In fact, on Manuelita Outside Reef-Right, you get about two-thirds of the way through the dive and the reef becomes a steep wall. Take a look at the long cracks that run through them. They are loaded with lobsters. (And no, you can't take them. Cocos is a preserve.) I don't think I've ever seen so many lobsters in a single place in my life. In one of the pictures that I've got posted as part of this trip report, I counted over 50 lobsters in that one shot alone. And that only represented about 1/5 of the length of this crack.

In fact, the lobsters are so used to not being molested, that when you creep in to take a better look, the march out to take a peek at you. That simply doesn't happen in areas where lobsters are taken as game. Amazing.

And that’s the other great thing about going to Cocos. The animals are sometimes as curious about you as you are about them. And when they have no fear of being hunted by humans, their behavior changes (for the better). You see the same thing in the Galapagos.

In fact one of the more unusual animal encounters we had had nothing to do with being underwater but played itself out on the sundeck of the Aggressor every single day. And it involved a small bird.

This bird basically adopted our sundeck. (Perhaps feeding him chips also had something to do with it.) But he claimed the deck as his own, marching around the carpeted area, occasionally hoping up on a chair, but also chasing off any other bird who also tried to land on the deck. He generally had the area to himself. He was wary of humans and kept a little bit of a distance between him and us, but he was there throughout most of the day. (And since the boat doesn’t move too much - the high-speed dinghies are ferrying you from the boat to the dive site and back - he became a fairly permanent fixture.)

For reasons I can't quite fathom, they took to calling the bird "Ken" because of the way he tried to dominate all the other birds. And so every day between the dives, we'd go up and relax and watch the soap opera of Ken the Bird play out. Sort of interesting actually.

We also had another bird encounter that goes under the heading of Good Deed of the Day. I like shooting from underwater birds who are floating on the surface. To me it's an interesting shot and usually produces a cute picture of an animal from an unusual angle.

At the end of a dive at Pajara Island, I was the last one up (gee, what a surprise) and spotted a bird bobbing on the surface. I started shooting and gradually got closer. Usually when I'm doing this, eventually I have to exhale, the bubbles rise and hit the bird, the bird spooks and takes off, and that's the end of it. Not this time.

I shot and shot and got closer and closer. Eventually I surfaced just a few feet from the bird, who just stared at me. I could see it was a small booby and, from the amount of white downy fuzz still on him, a young one who may have not quite yet fledged. I assume he might have fallen from the nest. As I drifted even closer to him, he didn’t move. And that’s when I saw some blood coming from under his left wing. He had some sort of a puncture wound, looked a bit tired and thin, and probably was floating in the water because he couldn't get back up the steep side of the rocks on Pajara.

At Midway Island when this happens to the young boobies and the albatross, that's when the Tiger Sharks move in to pick them off like floating snacks. I decided this wasn’t going to happen to this guy.

So I wanted to see if he'd let me help him and he was fairly calm as I cupped my hand under him and lifted him up slightly. He flapped a little bit but basically sat in my hand. From my logbook notes: "Did my good deed of the day at the end of the dive when I came up under a young booby who may have fallen into the water but regardless, had some injury under his left wing. He sat in my hand and, after the dinghy came by and I handed off my camera, I swam the bird back to the rock and put him on dry ground. May have just made him an easier target but the thought was there."

Another animal encountered regularly at Cocos are Marble Rays. Now these are BIG rays, some with a disc-span of 6-8 feet. They’re very graceful, will generally allow a very close approach, and you see them on every dive site. We were also fortunate to witness a number of mating attempts where you'd see a very large female cruising by followed by three or four smaller male suitors in her wake. Sort of like the Cocos equivalent of a pick-up bar where every guy is hitting on the only woman who walks in.

Speaking of mating . . .

Javi shot a phenomenal (X-rated) sequence of Whitetips mating at Alcyone. We had seen this general behavior going on a couple of times out there with the Whitetips, who are normally laying on the bottom, schooling up fairly high in the water column. A male (or males) will literally bite a female on the pectoral fin and hold her close to him, despite the fact that she may be struggling, and sometimes rather violently. He will then try to pin her in such a way as to be able to insert one of his claspers into her and attempt to fertilize her. Although I saw the prelude many times, Javi got it all on video (and make it part of our official trip video). It was truly a National Geographic moment.

The other amazing thing that happens with the Whitetips (who you see EVERYWHERE on the daytime dives) is the nightly gang-feeding they do at Manuelita Inside. This happens every single night. No one knows why. But they seem to gather there in hordes and, as the sun goes down, they start roaming the reef in small packs, sticking their noses into cracks and crevices and looking for small fish that are hiding in fear of their lives. We had seen this when I was there last year and we saw it again the first night we were at Cocos. But nothing prepared jus for the second night we did this dive.

There must have been 10 times the number of Whitetip sharks that are normally there. There were simply everywhere. And where usually they hunt in packs of threes and fours and fives, this night they were in packs of ten or more. And since they will sometimes use the diver's lights as a guide, they would generally stay close to us. I have one shot up on the wesbite where I counted 20 Whitetips in the shot, all moving about semi-frantically, and all looking for a meal.

And amazingly, like last year when I was there, they don't bother the lobsters at all. The lobsters are out and about walking around like there's nothing going on. And sometimes you'll see a Whitetip approaching a lobster and you’ll think "This is it" but at the last minute the shark turns away from the lobster. It would be an easy meal, but they simply don't take it. Go figure.

There are certainly dozens of stories to tell about the diving at Cocos. But I’m already at 4000 words and I don’t want to make this into “War and Peace.” So I’m going to leave you with one final written story and a promise that if you want to give me a call, I’ll regale/bore you with many more. But this was probably the most incredible thing that happened to us and it made for a simply unforgettable two hours in the water.

On our final day at Cocos, we were heading for Alcyone for our second dive of the morning, having been there three hours earlier. That first dive was particularly rough, with a 2-4 foot swell, choppy seas, and a moderate current at the site. (In SoCal, we probably would have called the dive. But this is Cocos.) As we approached for the second dive, the seas had calmed somewhat and a lot of the chop was gone. And what enabled us to see the birds.

If you’ve seen “Island of the Sharks,” you know that birds are frequently a tipoff to a baitball happening. For those unfamiliar with the term, a baitball forms when predators start surrounding a large school of small fish. The school gets higher and tighter and the predators try to drive the school shallower so as to pin the fish up against the surface of the water.

And that when the birds pick up on what’s going on and start dive bombing into the water to pick off fish from above. And that’s what we saw going on as we approached Alcyone. And we decided to swing over and take a look. What a sight.

The fish were Bigeye Scad, slivery and about 4-6 inches long. They were bobbing and weaving through the water, swimming in a big circle. On the outer edges lurked five or six Silky sharks and what we thought were one or two Galapagos sharks. We all slid in the water to take a look but I was the only one who put on my tank (and camera) to do so.

Now once we got in, things changed a little bit. For one thing the fish huddled under the boat to take the birds out of the equation. The other thing that happened was as I dropped down a few feet to shoot, the fish decided that I could offer them shelter and started circling around me. Good photo op, bad idea if the sharks (or a Marlin) start making runs through the school. Fortunately (or unfortunately) that didn’t happen. We stayed for about ten minutes watching the drama unfold and eventually the sharks moved off and we moved on to dive Alcyone (which was really nice with individual hammers and small schools of hammers, as well a the mating Whitetips an gliding Marble Rays).

Since I had used up about 500 psi on the baitball shoot, I came up from Alcyone early because I was low on air. Our dinghy driver Luis, who speaks very little English, looked at and motioned to where the baitball still was and said, “Dolphins.” And we could see that dolphins had now joined in the hunt.

Since this was happening close by and no one else would be coming up for another five minutes or so, I motioned for Luis take me over there. As we got close, I slid into the water with just mask and fins. Since I didn’t have a snorkel with me, I didn’t take my camera because I though it would be too hard to shoot and I didn’t want to drop my D200 into water too deep for it to be recovered. Too bad I didn’t have the camera, though the “images” will forever stay in my mind.

To start with, as I approached the edge of the feed, not one, not two, not three, but FIVE dolphins came over to check me out. And they took a good look at me, circled me, looked again, and then went on their way. As they moved off, five or six Yellowfin Tuna, each weighing many hundreds of pounds, streaked by below me to join in the feast. And top it all off, what I think was a Marlin cruised underneath me at the edge of the visibility to try his luck. This was an unusual encounter, to say the least. I got back into the dinghy and we went back over the Alcyone.

Once we had all the divers back on board, we asked Beto if we could take more look as a group at the baitball, now that there were dolphins there. He obliged us. And as we dropped excitedly into the water, the dolphins once again came over to check us out. They swam away once, we could hear them echo-locating, and then they made a slow pass by again. Now Beto ran the dinghy around and picked a bunch of them up on his bow wake and drove them right towards us.

And that’s when this group of dolphins came to us and one of them basically went right up to Debbie Wess and practically gave her a kiss on the nose. Simply amazing.

And where else but a place like Cocos could you even remotely hope to have encounters with Hammerheads, Whitetips, Marble Rays, Yellowfin Tuna, Marlin, a baitball, others sharks, AND dolphins . . . and all in the space of one extended dive.

Cocos is a wonderful place to dive and experience the ocean life like you never have before. It’s not for everyone and it takes a bit of work but the effort is absolutely worth it. Will we go back again? Sure, why not? Let us know what your schedule’s like and let’s start planning it.

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