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  • 2000-08 The Wilds of Costa Rica
    Norbert Wu
    Cocos and the small islands around it offer only a few dive sites, but these are worth months of diving. My first dive was off tiny Manuelita Island. Rising from a bottom of 120 feet, Manuelita Island towers above the water’s surface, covered by mangrove trees and bird’s nests. The mangroves on this island are unique because they reach to the top of the island, at least 100 feet away from the ocean. They can survive only because of the heavy, steady rainfall. But it was the slow moving shadows waiting just below the surface of the water that we had all come to see.

    We dropped in on the ocean-facing side and immediately ran into a couple of Scalloped Hammerhead Sharks. These sharks scatter as soon as divers enter the water, but if you are one of the first people in the water, you can see one of the reasons why the sharks are there: They come to the reef to be cleaned by King Angelfish. These brave fish venture out from the protection of the reef to pick parasites off hammerheads.

    The current washing past Manuelita Island was quite forceful; kicking against it got us nowhere, and we eventually drifted to the other side of the island. Here we relaxed in the calm water while watching the life of a coral reef.

    Every dive at Manuelita was different. On one dive I swam among a school of hundreds of Scalloped Hammerheads, just off the tip of the island. Later I swept through a group of hundreds of Whitetip Reef Sharks, all gathered in the current for their own mysterious purposes. In the calm behind Manuelita, I watched a yellow Trumpetfish attempt to hide behind a grouper by swimming behind the larger fish.

    Cocos, the main island of the group, is a volcanic island that rises steeply from the ocean bottom thousands of feet below. It has long been known as a treasure island, a place where eighteenth century pirates buried their hoards. Dozens of treasure-hunting expeditions have been mounted here, all to no avail. Cocos receives the largest amount of rainfall in the world. The only inhabitants of the island today are a couple of park rangers and a few mildewed biologists.

    It rained every day we were there. At times, new waterfalls would spring forth from the island, spewing muddy water that would seem to threaten our visibility. A brown line of dirty water would extend from the island to our dive sites, just a few hundred yards away. Yet, whenever we entered the water, the visibility would be the clear blue of oceanic water, exceeding 100 feet at worst. The currents and tides swirling around Cocos manage to keep the runoff away from the prime diving areas.

    One of the best of these areas is Dirty Rock, which rises like a needle from a bottomless pit. Dirty Rock was my favorite site. Again, divers would drop in on the ocean-facing side and battle currents immediately. There was always something going on at Dirty Rock. Marbled Rays swam around the seamount like bats flitting around a church belfry. Vast schools of Scalloped Hammerheads, numbering in the hundreds, even the thousands, circled the rock.

    I later wrote in my log: “I’ve been kicking steadily in the blue water for five minutes, my heart pounding with the exertion and my lungs hard-pressed to get enough oxygen. Suddenly they are all around me, large eight-foot hammerhead sharks, and I fight to hold my breath while concentrating on getting the picture. Finally I can’t take it anymore, I have to exhale. The sharks bolt in an instant, more than a hundred hammerheads moving simultaneously, disappearing into the blue. I don’t know where I am in the open ocean. I only know that I am crossing over a seamount and swimming through schools of Creole-fish, triggerfish and jacks. The hammerheads hover on the edge of my vision, again gathering in huge schools….”

    Just offshore the sleepy villages of Playa Del Coco and Playa Hermosa, in Costa Rica’s drier northwest, is an untamed and unpredictable marine life factory. And, although water temperatures can vary as much as 10°F from the surface to depth and surge and currents are common, the payoff exceeds any difficulty in the diving. It’s almost impossible to put your face in the water and not run into a legion of puffers (Sharpnose, Guineafowl, etc.), grunts and scorpionfish. Big, fat Green Morays hunt during daylight hours, and delicately designed Jewel Morays pose patiently for every portrait. Off Catalina Island schools of Cownose Rays one hundred strong often circle the island, so looking up toward the surface has its dividends. There is also a plethora of other rays, from stingrays to Manta Rays to striking Bulls-eye Rays, all awaiting even the most careless observer. Blunthead Triggerfish and Blue Tangs poke their heads into the cracks and crevices of the wall in their constant search for food and safety. Schools of sleek jacks frequently swirl past during safety stops. Sometimes Pilot Whales or Sailfish will pass by, usually just at the margin of visibility, to tease you with what might lie in the open waters beyond.

    Closer to shore, sites such as Rainbow, Virador or Punta Gorda harbor all the little critters that turn a slow, leisurely dive into a treasure hunt. Search under the ledges and find big Pacific Seahorses, striking cowries or the elusive Longlure Frogfish. Vibrantly colored Coral Hawkfish dot the rocks with vivid splashes of Crayola color, and off in the sand flats, stealthy lizardfish wait to ambush their next meal. But one of the most unique

    creatures you will see is the Harlequin Shrimp. Usually found munching on

    its favorite snack, starfish, the shrimp

    almost defy the eye with their gaudy


    While poking around the local sites, keep an eye out for napping reef sharks wedged into crevices and under

    overhangs. And, seemingly conjured from the blue water, an army of

    striped grunts will frequently appear, flowing like a blue and yellow river over the rock contours.

    Venturing out at night reveals the other half of Costa Rica’s underwater menagerie. Spindly, pointed Arrow Crabs prowl the rocks by the zillions at a shallow site called Meadows. Blackspot Morays slither through the cracks, and slimy, mucous-covered parrotfish

    shimmer in the glow of a dive light. But the best part of any night dive comes when the lights are switched off and

    biolumenescent plankton agitated

    by the movement of fins and hands cause the dark water to erupt in a galaxy of pinpoint lights.

    Topside, ocean breezes flow through the somnolent town of Playa Del Coco, easing away working world tensions. Divers, fresh from their blue adventures, swap stories at the many inexpensive eateries, where fresh Mahi Mahi and a cold beer can be had for as little as five dollars, and tall tales waft freely on the wind.

    The land attractions of Costa Rica are equal to its underwater attractions. Monteverde has become a place of refuge for the new agers, the old hippies and the newly wealthy. It has a mystique and appeal that draws people from all over the world. Here, I watched kinkajous, strangely human animals, come down from the treetops at night to raid hummingbird feeders, where, during the day, dozens of hummingbirds hover.

    In Palo Verde National Park I came across a Tamandua Anteater and a tropical porcupine, then boated through flocks of birds making their way north after the winter. This park was chock-full of wildlife. We camped in a small grove of trees and woke up to

    the sounds of a troop of howler

    monkeys. Dominant male baboons howl like demons at each other, their calls carrying across miles of forest.

    Aboard the Temptress, a small cruise ship holding 60 passengers, I visited the spectacular and remote Corcovado

    National Park. I walked through its rain forest, spotting spider monkeys, frogs, toucans and parrots. I then relaxed for hours in the cool waters of a waterfall. We visited the beach of Manuel Antonio Park, where white-faced monkeys stole food from careless sun-worshippers, and sloths napped in fig trees overhead. On Cano Island, I watched basilisk, or Jesus Christ lizards (named for their ability to walk on water) run across the surface of a small creek.

    Costa Rica is the rarest of places: wild yet safe, young yet wise. The people are truly friendly and excited about visitors. I was once standing under a bridge trying to photograph a basilisk lizard when it suddenly ran off, disturbed by an excited, shouting human on the bridge above. It turned out to be a Costa Rican man I had met a few months earlier. He recognized me and was so excited about seeing me again that he almost fell off the bridge! It was a grand display of warmth, one that embodied the true beauty of Costa Rica.