‘Sharktastic’ Shenanigans in Cocos!

Author: Alison Bygrave

After returning from Galapagos in June of 2010, I almost fell of my chair when I was asked if I would like to return to the Eastern Pacific to explore the Cocos Islands with the Okeanos Aggressor in December! Divequest needed a team member that could offer an honest comparative view on two ultimate destinations that clients sometimes struggle to choose between!

I departed from Manchester on an early morning flight, via Newark, landing in San Jose, Costa Rica the same evening. I can now proudly tell Burt Bacharach that I do know the way to San Jose and that song will always hold a special place in my heart from now on!  A same day arrival gave me enough time at the Hotel Indigo for a bite to eat and an early night in preparation for the start of what I was hoping was going to be an epic adventure! On seeing the delightful room at the Hotel Indigo, I secretly wished that I had flown out a few days earlier to spend some time being pampered in this award-wining hotel.

The following morning after a leisurely breakfast I joined some other very excited divers, soon to be new friends, who had started to congregate outside the reception area. At 1100 promptly the Okeanos Aggressor transfer bus rolled into the parking lot and we set off on the 3 hour drive to Puntarenas.

Having worked on a cruise ship out of Northern America and backpacked extensively around South America I had no real preconceptions before arrival on what Central America would hold. Costa Rica certainly lived up to the origin of its name “rich coast” and this is a country that is a perfect destination for the adventure seekers amongst us. Costa Rica is a land rich in volcanoes, rain forests, waterfalls, rivers and enjoys lovely coasts on the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. Hiking, horse riding, bird watching, rafting, snorkelling, kayaking and surfing are all activities that can be enjoyed here. I began daydreaming of an additional week on my holiday to be able to explore Costa Rica, its culture, its beaches and to partake in some of the amazing activities on offer here.

I awoke from my daydream as we pulled into Muelle Coopinpesa harbour to be greeted by the wonderful site of Okeanos Aggressor and crew, awaiting our arrival, ready to whisk us straight off for the 32 hour crossing to Cocos.

A 32-hour boat crossing (which can be a little choppy) is not a relishing or inviting prospect for even the keenest diver. On a positive note it certainly gave everybody time to relax after a transatlantic flight, catch up on some sleep, overindulge in some fantastic gastronomic creations that appeared endlessly from the galley and generally unwind from the stresses and strains of everyday life while getting to know some new diving buddies as the adrenaline began flowing about the adventure that was becoming nearer with each nautical mile!

As dawn broke on the second morning nobody needed an alarm call! We were all out on deck breathing in the fresh sea air as a familiar looking tropical and lush land came into sight on the horizon. I felt like I had been transported to the opening scenes of the Jurassic Park movie (minus the Tyrannosaurus Rex) as Cocos Island lay before me in all its glory. Cocos is an oceanic island of both volcanic and tectonic origin. It is the only emergent island of the Cocos plate, one of the minor tectonic plates. The oldest rocks have been established at between 1.91 and 2.44 million years old and are composed primarily of basalt, which is found by cooling lava.

The topography certainly echoed this as many dives were along sheer cliff faces of volcanic rock. 

Normally on a dive vacation you can pick one or two dives which where outstanding or had a significant sighting, which made them stand out from the rest.

On this trip every single dive DELIVERED!

In 15 years of diving this was THE BEST diving I had ever experienced world over, with the exception of Galapagos. The diving here is not for the faint hearted and may not float everyone’s boat but if like me you enjoy fast currents, pumping adrenaline and sharks galore then Cocos is most definitely for you and if you are looking for a buddy to save on a single supplement I am keen to get back!

Cocos diving is divided into 2 major seasons: the Dry Season (December to May) and the Rainy Season (June to November).

The Dry Season is normally blessed with the calm, sunny weather, with water temperatures in the 26-28°C/80-83°F range, and with visibility ranging from 18-30m/60-100ft. Active reproductive behavior is observed during this time. Large schools of fish are frequently seen at the various distances from the rocks. Scalloped Hammerhead sharks, individuals and in schools, are commonly spotted in the open water. During this period diving can be done easily at all of the diving sites around the island.

During the Rainy Season, the prevailing south wind limits the number of days of comfortable diving at the east and southwest sides of the island. The calm water of the northeast leeward side of the island provides a safe haven for the boats and the necessary protection for the marine life. Water temperature is around 24-26°C/76-80°F, and the visibility averages 12-24m/40-80 ft.

In essence, the dry season has the best diving conditions most of the time, fewer currents and waves, the best visibility, warmest water temperatures, and sunny days but in contrast, the rainy season has stronger currents, more waves, less visibility, colder water temperatures, but more underwater activity.

I joined the vessel in early December which was the transitional period between rainy season and dry season.

The extremely wet climate and remote nature of the location gives Cocos an ecological character that is not shared with either the Galapagos Archipelago or any of the other islands in this region of the world. It did rain every day (as one would expect for an equatorial country!) but nothing could dampen the high spirits of my fellow buddies and rain or shine, we were ready for everything that Cocos could throw at us.

During my trip we dived our way around the island, which has a perimeter of just 15 miles.

My favourite dive site was Alcyone, which we dived several times during the trip and it never disappointed. The descent down a line, meant one could hang on like a flag in a gale force wind. 30 metres down the current surprisingly tamed and you could let go of the line and join in the shark party, which seemed to be a 24 hour disco! Along with the schooling white tips in their hundreds, the other party guests were Marble Rays, groups of snapper and a dancing Octopus who frequently posed on his rock for the photographers!

Dirty Rock was my second favourite – the fish life was immense, so immense that 3 dolphins came to play for over 30 minutes with us. We witnessed them herding the silver shimmering jacks that glistened in the sunlight, into a group, before dive bombing at speed into the middle of them for an early morning snack.

I also ticked off in my log book Galapagos sharks, Manta Rays, Eagle Rays, frogfish, flounders, goat fish, snappers, tuna, jacks, grunts, eels, crabs, lobsters and on the night dive the Tiger Shark!

Having always been an adrenaline and thrill seeking junkie up for any challenge I didn’t think anything could phase me until kitted up on the edge of the zodiac in the pitch black silence of nightfall for our first ever night dive at Manuelita Deep. Normally night dives are done as dusk sets so you can adjust to nightfall under the water. This is the first time I have ever done a night dive in the middle of nowhere with not an ounce of natural light in pitch darkness and I could smell fear!

Having browsed a copy of a diving magazine on the plane on the way over, I remembered the article about night dives in Cocos and the sighting of an adult Tiger Shark by torch light, when I was asked to jump first I very politely refused!

Once a couple of my fellow dive buddies had taken the plunge I felt a little more at ease as I descended into the pitch black, hoping that if Mr Tiger was hungry I would now not be the only morsel on the menu! My mind was playing games with me and I swear I could hear the Jaws music beating in time with my fast pumping heart. What lay beneath me was a vision that I will never forget. Sharks everywhere! I kept catching their eyes glinting in my torchlight as they scavenged the seabed looking for sleeping pray for dinner. I spent most of the dive just watching them skilfully weaving between the coral bommies and occasionally bumping into them as they rushed to be first to the bounty! Hundred’s of pairs of eyes looked me straight in the eye, more sharks per square foot of ocean bed than I have ever witnessed before and I honestly don’t think I will ever see again unless I return to Cocos. The Tiger Shark was sighted on one of our night dives but I am delighted to say not by me. It may well have swum past me and eyed me up and down but I don’t know how I would have felt to come face to face with such an incredible beast by torchlight! The guys who did come face to face with it made a very sharp exit back on board for a stiff drink!

I did see the Tiger on the last dive of the trip, thankfully in daylight. His striking black lines against his grey body stood out enough for me to identify him even though I must have been 15 metres below him. I watched him majestically cruise overhead and vanish into the distance. That for me was the icing on the cake for our last dive.

This trip also presented some of the most challenging currents, and peculiar thermoclines of my diving career to date. On one dive I was happily enjoying a lush 26°C at about 15 meters on descent down a sheer rock face. We have been briefed on this dive to descend to 30-40 meters if we wanted to catch sight of the hammerheads patrolling the bottom. At about 25 meters the visibility changed and within seconds and it was like diving from a hot relaxing bubble bath into a glass of iced cold gin and tonic and bit of a shock to the system with no real warning! Less light is able to penetrate the water at depth, so there is less conversion of light to heat as depth increases. Generally, as water cools it shrinks becoming denser to create this chilling effect! If you have ever taken your mask off underwater and opened your eyes this is the strange kind of eerie visibility that you get in the middle of a thermocline.

Alison sailed on Okeanos Aggressor in December 2010. Okeanos Aggressor offers 10 nights cruises throughout the year.

Bottle-nosed Dolphin (Evelina Wang)

Scalloped Hammerhead Shark (Alison Bygrave)

A resting White-tip Reef Shark (Evelina Wang)

Portrait of White-tip Reef Shark (Evelina Wang)

Schooling pregnant White-tip Reef sharks (Alison Bygrave)

The White-tip antenatal clinic congregates ahead of Alison Bygrave

Feeding White-tip Reef Sharks (Ibrahim Roushdi)

White-tip Reef Sharks at night (Ibrahim Roushdi)

Midnight feast (Ibrahim Roushdi)

Scalloped Hammerhead Shark (Ibrahim Roushdi)

Orange Frogfish (Alison Bythesea)

Cocos Redlipped Batfish (Alison Bygrave)

The dancing octopus! (Alison Bygrave)

White-tip Reef Shark close up (Wayne Hasson)

Galapagos Shark (Wayne Hasson)

Batfish (Wayne Hasson)

Okeanos Aggressor (Wayne Hasson)

Okeanos Aggressor's dining room ((Alison Bygrave)

Alison suited and booted! (Miguel Sanos)

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