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Cocos Trip Dive Report-2nd edition


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#1 Steve Douglas

Steve Douglas

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Posted 15 August 2011 - 10:47 AM

Went up here to post my report and see that Steve already put one up. Will read his after I post my own so that there is no influence from one to the other.


Dive Report-July 29th-Aug.9th-Cocos Islands

This was my 12th trip to the Cocos Islands of Costa Rica starting in 1992. Though I have enjoyed the many diving adventures, destinations and expeditions I have done over the last 30 years, the Cocos Islands have always been my favorite place to dive and turning other divers on to the thrills the Cocos have to offer has, in addition, been one of the things I have received great gratification from. Call it 'sharing the enthusiasm'.

The Cocos Islands were long ago declared a World Heritage Site, which means that the area is supposed to be protected from shark finning and long lining ships. This is also one of the reasons why all divers must pay the few island rangers, who live in 2 month shifts on the island, the ever increasing island fee currently having risen to $245.00 per diver. That is a whole lot of money coming in from the 3 or 4 ships currently bringing guests to the Cocos Islands. Despite being frugal by nature, I never minded paying the fees in the past figuring that the money would go to protect the many species of shark and other creatures that are the big draw to the Cocos. I was wrong. After questioning one of the rangers I was told that the fees are actually spread out to all the parks and reserves in Costa Rica so that, in actuality, the Cocos Islands receives very little financial support or any kind of aid to help the rangers prevent the predatory fishing fleets from stripping the very resources which brings the divers to the Cocos in the first place.

In the past, most of my guests have been repeat divers from other trips who also encompassed a great many who had come to the Cocos with me 5 or 6 times. In 2008, my closest buddy and long time dive partner, and who was with me on my first post certification dive, said to me at the Cocos that he noticed that there weren't quite the number of sharks, turtles, marble rays and other pelagic life that he had seen on several previous trips. I didn't pay the comment much mind however, since sometimes you just can't get a whale shark on every dive. I did, however, abort a few dives on the 2008 trip just to pull up brand new shark long lines and their accompanying steel hooks.

That's the prologue which brings us to this current dive report.
My group all stayed at the Alta Hotel. Groups are provided with 2 hotel choices where the Aggressor will pick you up from to take you to the ship. The same applies to the Hunter ships. The Alta Hotel is nice and clean with a great, albeit, expensive restaurant. Unfortunately, these hotels are far from the center of San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica, which makes going for a walk around town impossible. In the past I have stayed at several different hotels much closer to the urban parts of San Jose which always provided me with some exploring to do without having to walk too far. The reason for this new restriction is that the pick up bus does not have to brave the sometimes cluttered traffic of downtown. Of course, you can always stay at any hotel you want but you would then have to take a taxi to one of the assigned hotels for the pick up charter bus to Puntarenas. A few of the guests got to Costa Rica a few days early so they could have fun white water rafting or going on the zip line canopy tours. I have done them in the past and their enthusiasm, once they returned from the day's activities, matched my own.

On the Okeanos Aggressor, diving the Cocos for the first time, were 17 of our total of 20 divers. In fact, 10 of them had never dove anywhere at all but the peaceful, easy diving of the Caribbean. After a rather quick boat trip there done in only 30 hours, those who had gotten seasick on the way were happy to climb out of their cabin beds and were all too eager to finally get in the water.

Despite having booked some of the very best dates to go to the Cocos I must say that this is the first time I was actually disappointed over the course of the trip. This is not to say that the guests didn't find it exciting seeing hammerhead schools or whale sharks for the first time but they were seeing it through a newbie's eyes. I was seeing it through the eyes of someone who had been there several times before and always during the best dates to go which is during the Costa Rican rainy season.

While still monumentally abundant, the massive number of marble rays were considerably fewer. It used to be that one would turn a corner on almost any one of the number of pinnacles surrounding the main island and run into a gathering of 30 or more marble rays. I turned many a corner on this trip and only saw the individuals. The thrill of diving at night on the lee side of Manuelita was a vision to burn into memory. It is where hundreds of white tip reef sharks gathered to hunt frequently going through your legs, over your shoulders, up, down and all around you. The white tips were still there but their drop in number was greatly noticeable.

Whale sharks, every one wants to see whale sharks, and diving the Cocos Islands is one of many places to find them. We did find one and everyone seemed thrilled about that. However, the real draw to the Cocos Islands has always been the large schools of scalloped hammerhead sharks that come in to the island's many cleaning stations during Costa Rica's rainy season. The schools are still there but they were considerably smaller in size and number, and were harder to locate. Even at the famed Alcyone, the Cocos deepest dive open to guests, they came in infrequently.

Any seasoned diver and traveler knows and accepts that sometimes you do everything right in terms of research and timing and yet you still get skunked. Perhaps someone reading this might come to that conclusion as well. I hope they are correct, but I don't think so.

The long lining fishing boats sneak in at night and lay their lines and nets with impunity. The rangers simply do not and cannot stop them. One planned dive at Alcyone was aborted simply because the drop line was engulfed by the long liners shark lines and hooks. The rangers spent a good part of that morning removing the fishing line but never once did I see the ranger's small hard hull boats patrolling. They ride their zodiacs to the dive boats pretty quickly making sure that the park fees are collected but, in truth, that is all I have ever seen them do. The entire time this specific group stayed at the Cocos, never once did the two 30ft patrol boats leave their mooring. Even the Marviva, a patrol boat donated to help protect the Cocos Islands, was no where in sight.

Does all this mean that the diving was bad? Not by a long shot and for those who have never been there, I urge you to go. However, from this diver's perspective, the world's largest 'overstocked aquarium' is a bit less stocked of everything. No longer did I find large turtles resting in the sandy alcoves, whereas the massive schools of jacks so thick that you couldn't see through them to the water used to appear on almost every dive, now appeared on only a few dives. Yes, there were a couple of divers who had spotted a turtle, and the Galapagos sharks seemed to have even increased in number, but at the risk of being redundant, I believe that my friend Randy who, in 2008, said he noticed a decline in marine life, was correct. On the boat ride back to San Jose and into Puntarenas we saw a massive number of long line/shark finning boats, old craft mostly and decimated by the ravages of years on the water but still deadly effective at robbing the seas of its riches.

Of the twelve times I have been to the Cocos, one trip was on the Sea Hunter while all the others have been on the Okeanos Aggressor, a ship older than most but still as comfortable a boat as I have always thought it to be. The Aggressor has always had a consistent crew through the years though you would always have the pleasure of meeting a new member. This year, at least since the last expedition to the Cocos in 2008, the entire crew aside from the captain was new. Captain Alberto Munoz remains the guest's welcoming committee, ship comedian, deliverer of excellent dive briefings and is the 'Main Man in Charge'. I and others did have a bit of a problem with the other dive master who has been on board for one year. It seemed that even after a year, he could still not see a cleaning station directly in front of him and a few times, he stopped to take guest pictures directly on these cleaning stations. If you want the hammerheads, who are notoriously skittish about diver's bubbles, to come in, stay away from diving through and about the cleaning stations manned by many brightly yellow butterfly fish, wrasse and other cleaner fish. He didn't get it and I missed that dive's footage.

The weather during this trip was unusually calm. We had as flat a seas both coming and going as I have ever had. Actually, in all my trips there, I have experienced only one really rough crossing though I know that has not been the case for many others. Diving during the rainy season in Costa Rica often brings the occasional torrential downpours which I usually find exciting. They are brief but amazingly heavy rains. These rains bring the nutrients off the island into the water, the nutrients attract the fish and the larger pelagic marine life to follow. On this trip, while we had frequent drizzles, there were no heavy rainstorms.

As I have always experienced before, the food was plentiful, carb loaded and delicious. Not being a seafood eater on principal, I was offered either chicken or beef as a substitute entree'. Diving the Cocos off the Aggressor is not a place to expect to lose weight. In between dives, platters of delicious fruit (I'm a big lover of Mangos) and other snacks were always supplied as well as cups of hot cocoa which were welcomed by those divers who took a chill. The water temperature was always between 80-82 degrees so my 2/3mm suit was just fine.

It seems as if every time I go on the Okeanos Aggressor there are always some improvements that have been made to the ship. My only real criticism is the horribly small charging station inside the salon area. It was extremely cluttered with everyones battery chargers plugged into only a couple of strips, one of which was my own. In the past, there had always been more room for charging so this one counts as a negative change. It is very important to label everything you bring with you and this includes not only your batteries and chargers, but your cables as well. The area looked like the hydra come alive.

On a personal note, Steve Williams, a long time contributor and moderator on Wetpixel was my excellent cabin mate as well as the perfect person to have on board to help me get used to using my new Nauticam housing for the Canon 7D. Having always used strictly video camcorders, using the 7D was a completely new experience for me with a different workflow and very different ergonomics. I felt like a beginner all over again and was greatly impressed with not only with Steve's knowledge, but his teaching ability. Not every expert on something necessarily knows how to teach or, for that matter, is willing to spend time teaching. Steve held court for several of the guests who were captivated by a Keynote presentation he had prepared. Thank you Steve, thank you big time for your patience to my many questions and concerns.

I have often given thought that when my time comes to dive that big ocean in the sky, that the Cocos would be a perfect place to have my ashes spread. For whatever reason, the Cocos Islands has always felt like my diving home to me. Not sure if that will actually happen, for all I know, they may eventually just flush me down the loo. Never-the-less, I would hope that someone, somewhere does something that will enable my grand nieces and nephews to visit the Cocos and reap the joy and excitement that the Cocos Islands have provided me with over the years.
Steve Douglas
www.kenstone.net
www.lafcpug.org

Steve Douglas
www.worldfilmsandtravel.com

I have worked as an unpaid reviewer for the editing websites since 2002. Most all hardware and software is sent to me free of charge, however, in no way am I obligated to provide either positive or negative evaluations. Any suggestions I make regarding products are a result of my own, completely, personal opinions and experiences with said products.

#2 lemon

lemon

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Posted 15 August 2011 - 11:44 AM

Hi Steve,

thanks for the excellent report. i really enjoyed reading it. i was also just recently in cocos (early july with the underseahunter group). generally, i would agree that this was an off year. in fact, the last two seasons have been down years. while i share your concerns regarding longlining and agree that illegal fishing is likely seriously hurting the park i think another factor is the unusually warm waters the past two years. there has generally been less cleaning action and i believe the hammerheads have been staying deeper. the last two seasons the thermoclines have generally been deeper than usual due to the la nina. fortunately the nina just ended this summer (according to noaa) so things will hopefully improve in the next seasons.

for sure though longlining is a huge problem. while silverado used to provide regular silvertip sightings it seems that the silvertips are all but gone from cocos now. the silkies have definitely taken a big hit from the fisherman as well and according to the DMs you don't really see them that much anymore. these species likely get hit extra hard as they spend a lot of their lives outside of the marine park in the open seas. talking to some of the park rangers it seems that the same fishing ships are repeat offenders and generally whenever they are caught pretty much get off with only a minor slap on the wrists. i imagine they are well protected politically. its a real shame and it makes one fear for cocos future.

i was talking to one of my dive buddies who is also a frequent cocos visitor and he was speculating that the recent decrease in white tips and marble rays may be in part related to the recent increase in tiger sharks hanging out around manuelita. they have to be eating something!

this was my first season diving cocos on my rebreather and i have to say that the difference was awesome. no more "blue diver technique" aka breath-holding to get the hammers to come closer. can't wait to go back as i totally agree with you that out of the many places that i've dived, cocos is hands down my favorite. i just wish underseahunter was still running their combined malpelo-cocos trips. i did that one three seasons ago but unfortunately we didnt see the famous silkies at malpelo.

apologies for the longwinded rambling, just my .02 worth!

best,
alex

#3 Steve Douglas

Steve Douglas

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Posted 15 August 2011 - 02:17 PM

Good to hear from you Alex and hope that you're right about it just being an off year. My gut tells me that it is more than that. Our water temps were always between 80-82 which is the standard for all the trips I have done there except for the warmer temps during the 1998 El Nino. Ran into only one brief thermocline that I can recall. Wish I had had a rebreather on the Hunter as well. If any place calls for one, it is the Cocos.
Never been to Malpelo but there is a group that goes from there leaving from Panama (I think). I have heard that it can be absolutely great but that you can also get there and not be able to dive, a basic crapshoot but I have seen pics of 60 or more morays peeking out of one hole. Amazing stuff I have heard.
Maybe I will wait another 2 years, as I usually do, and go to the Cocos for the lucky 13th time. Here is a video shot completely from our 2008 trip to the Cocos, the first time tigers had ever been there. The tiger clips were from our first check out dive so we didn't leave that spot for 2 days.
Steve
www.kenstone.net
www.lafcpug.org

Steve Douglas
www.worldfilmsandtravel.com

I have worked as an unpaid reviewer for the editing websites since 2002. Most all hardware and software is sent to me free of charge, however, in no way am I obligated to provide either positive or negative evaluations. Any suggestions I make regarding products are a result of my own, completely, personal opinions and experiences with said products.

#4 Steve Douglas

Steve Douglas

    Humpback Whale

  • Industry
  • PipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 2840 posts
  • Gender:Male
  • Location:San Diego
  • Interests:filming/editing/exotic travel. l write reviews of editing software, books, tutorials and Mac based NLE related products for the www.kenstone.net and www.lafcpug.org sites as well as articles for Asian Diver Magazine and wetpixel. I am one of the founding members of the San Diego UnderSea Film Festival

Posted 26 August 2011 - 02:50 PM

Did received an email from Wayne Hasson of the Aggressor Fleet saying he was shown my report and would be looking into some of the issues mentioned and get back to me. Will let all know when that happens.
Steve
www.kenstone.net
www.lafcpug.org

Steve Douglas
www.worldfilmsandtravel.com

I have worked as an unpaid reviewer for the editing websites since 2002. Most all hardware and software is sent to me free of charge, however, in no way am I obligated to provide either positive or negative evaluations. Any suggestions I make regarding products are a result of my own, completely, personal opinions and experiences with said products.