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  • Diving in Natures Theme Park; Costa Rica
    By Dan Auber
    Costa Rica might be the last place in Central America where visitors can experience the flora and fauna of the region. Because of its sparkling beaches, active volcanoes and lush, virgin rain forests, naturalists and adventurers consider Costa Rica natures theme park. The country boasts the widest variety of plant and animal life on earth.

    Many years ago, the people of Costa Rica realized the value of protecting the natural environment and the long-term prosperity it could bring to the country. Costa Rica has set aside more public and private lands as wildlife and nature reserves than any other country. Many of these areas have only been explored by a handful of people.

    Costa Rica has the highest standard of living and the highest level of education of its neighbors. To its north lies Nicaragua; Panama is to the south. Its prosperity and peacefulness may be attributed to Costa Ricas stable and democratic government. This multi-faceted country is graced with friendly people eager to show you the beauty and delights of their home.

    El Ocotal is on the Pacific Coast in the Guanacaste region, which is in the northwest quadrant of mainland Costa Rica. In a region known for its shoreline, mountains and active volcanoes, diving is the newest discovery. Coco Island, approximately 350 miles offshore, has attracted divers seeking the big animal experience for many years. Little, however, was known about the resort-based diving in the Guanacaste region. The coast is dotted with islands ranging from 20 minutes to two hours from shore, providing large animal enthusiasts plenty of in-water opportunities and all the amenities of a luxurious resort. This also allows the adventurer ample opportunity for several nondiving excursions.

    the resort

    The Hotel El Ocotal, built in 1981, is only two miles from the fishing village of Playas del Coco. It offers a spectacular view of the Guanacaste coast. Perched high on a clifftop, it overlooks the secluded and sheltered El Ocotal Bay, with its volcanic sand beach. The Hotel El Ocotal was the birthplace of resort diving in Costa Rica.

    Rick Wallace, who helped build the hotel and has worked there ever since, became the new owner in early 1997. He has marked a series of safe and very interesting dive sites that others are now visiting. Upon arrival at the hotel office and adjacent restaurant, you are treated to a spectacular 300 degree view of the bay, the outlying islands and the verdant jungle on the hills behind. There are 43 rooms;from standard to deluxe;that include 12 bungalow suites on 250 acres of land that skirt the Pacific Ocean. Most of the rooms sit high on a hillside and offer a spectacular view of the ocean and outlying islands. The rooms are very nicely appointed, air-conditioned, with satellite TV and mini-refrigerators. The gourmet meals complement the incredible view from the hotel restaurant, which is open for three meals a day and well into the evening.

    There are three swimming pools and a lighted tennis court available anytime for guests. One large pool for swimming laps or accommodating larger parties is nestled on a hillside; two smaller pools are near the rooms. The uppermost pool has a waterfall where you can sip an umbrella-capped beverage while the water cascades over your shoulders as you watch the sun set.

    The Diving: El Ocotal Diving Safaris is on the beach. It is stocked with aluminum 80 tanks and 40 sets of rental equipment. It also carries a complete set of maps covering the different diving locations. Daily two tank dive trips aboard one of the dedicated dive boats leave at 9:00 am and 1:30 pm. Boats carry no more than ten divers at a time, giving you plenty of room to move around, store cameras or change film. Night dives are available upon request. Your helpful, experienced crew does equipment set-up and breakdown, including daily rinsing. Instruction and certification are also available. Because of the enormous efforts to preserve the natural vegetation of the country, there is no dock or pier. Divers are taken on a flattop barge to the anchored boats.

    Few places in the world have waters with such diverse and plentiful marine life. Costa Rica is known today as a unique dive destination, not only for its marine life but also because of its nearby attractions. Divers have the opportunity to visit national parks and rain forests, go whitewater rafting, big game fishing, horseback riding and birdwatching and play on secluded beaches.

    Diving can be great any month of the year. Visibility can vary from 20 to 80 feet on the same day on different dives. This is primarily owing to the abundance of plankton and the other marine organisms at the lower end of the food chain that thrive in the 75 to 85F waters. Although this abundance of food often restricts visibility, it is the principal reason for Costa Ricas profuse and varied pelagic marine population. Its a trade-off divers readily accept.

    Most dives are around volcanic rock pinnacle formations at 40 to 80 foot depths. On most dives, regardless of the location, clouds of small schooling fish meet divers on descent. Recently, at Punta Gorda, just four miles from El Ocotal, divers watched in amazement for more than ten minutes as thousands of Cow-Nosed Rays swam by. On other days, numbers of Whale Sharks, Manta Rays, Hammerheads, Jewfish and turtles are frequently seen. El Ocotal Diving Safaris will also take qualified divers to the outer Catalina and Bat Islands, which are a one to two hour boat ride away.

    Check your local dive shop for books on the dive sites of Costa Rica. For information or reservations at Hotel El Ocotal, contact Tropical Adventures Travel at (800) 723-4530 or fax (206) 441-5431. E-mail may be sent to dive@divetropical. com and you can visit the Web site at www.divetropical.com.