COCOS ISLAND - April, 2007
(Click here to see the pictures from
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 (www.thealtahotel.com).
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.