>I released my grasp on the rocks and drifted down current toward the newcomer, anticipating his immediate departure. Instead, he circled me curiously, playfully, almost puppylike. I shouted toward the other divers, who continued to stare obliviously at the hammerheads.
>My interaction resulted in a decidedly cool postdive reception. As I climbed into the skiff, my dive buddies greeted me with groans and boos, and someone pelted me with a wet towel. Despite the tough crowd, I was unable to wipe the enthusiastic grin off my face until I heard a hushed threat about my camera being thrown overboard. Although I had scored some amazing shots, perhaps my trip hadn't gotten off to the greatest start popularity wise.
>My fellow passengers didn't stay angry with me for long, however. By the end of the week nearly everyone had been treated to a whale shark interaction. Anywhere else in the world, this might seem unbelievable, but in Cocos, pelagic interactions like this are commonplace. You really need only one word to sum up Cocos Island and its underwater offerings: wild!
>Unlike many bucket-list dive destinations, Cocos is in no way reminiscent of a beer commercial. Sunny, white-sand beaches lapped by warm, gentle surf are not a feature of this feral island. Rather, beaches here are composed of coconut-sized rocks rimmed by large, crashing swell, and with an average annual precipitation of more than 275 inches, rain is a probability that cannot be avoided. Many Cocos veterans actually prefer to travel here during the rainy season, when cool upwelling from deep water provides sharks with ideal metabolic conditions. For some visitors, this season is not as attractive, because other features of the rainy season include multiple thermoclines, cool water temperatures, variable visibility and swelling, surging seas. Cocos has a wild reputation to uphold, after all, and this means untamed conditions both above and below the ocean's surface. Divers tend to find it easy to forgive this caveat when they find themselves looking up at a school of hundreds of scalloped hammerhead sharks.
>Once visiting divers are acclimated to the conditions at Cocos, divemasters will begin introducing them to some of the more advanced signature sites. One example is guano-covered Dirty Rock (Roca Sucia) on the north side of Cocos Island. This jagged pinnacle rises 15 odiferous feet above the ocean surface, but its underwater features provide a stark contrast to its unappealing topside appearance. On one visit, I backrolled directly into a huge, churning baitball complete with feeding yellowfin tuna and bottlenose dolphins. It was so dense and distracting I could easily have spent an entire dive concentrating my photographic efforts on it. As with many Cocos dives, this pinnacle's steep walls reveal cleaning stations frequented by hammerheads, silkies and the occasional fat Galapagos shark. A short swim away lies an adjacent pinnacle that tops off at 60 feet and is a great place to view lobster, turtles and the massive resident school of horse-eyed jacks that often swirls overhead.
>West of Cocos Island is Punta Maria, a football-field-sized seamount rising to within 75 feet of the surface. It's dotted with cleaning stations and divided centrally by a sand channel — a perfect hiding spot for divers. This is an ideal place to experience close passes by large Galapagos sharks and scalloped hammerheads. Whitetip reef sharks and squadrons of trevally are often seen hunting at a smaller, adjoined pinnacle, and the adjacent deep water is a reliable place to spot schools of snapper and big-eyed soldierfish.
>Southwest of Cocos are two sloping islets called Dos Amigos. The larger islet, appropriately called Big Dos Amigos, boasts a huge arch-shaped swim-through at a depth of 70 feet that is commonly inhabited by large marbled rays. Both Big Dos Amigos and Small Dos Amigos have numerous, busy hammerhead cleaning stations at depths of about 100 feet. Whitetip reef sharks are always seen here, and divers can also spot eagle rays, hunting trevally and tuna, and schools of jacks or snappers.
>The last dive of my trip had arrived, and my no-decompression time was dwindling. In my immediate future lay endless photo downloads, packing, a very long boat ride and a multiconnection flight home. I tried not to be depressed as I began my ascent, recalling what our divemaster told us during each briefing: No dive at Cocos is complete until you surface.
>As I mentally divided my camera and dive gear into airline-approved, 50-pound parcels, a shape in the distance caught my eye. It grew larger, and as it approached I recognized the now-familiar shape and motion of a whale shark. I left my camera at my side and watched as the huge fish passed within feet of me, then veered off, giving me a Cocos-style farewell that will bring me back again and again.
>Cocos Island is accessible only by liveaboard dive boats operating out of mainland Costa Rica. The crossing can be rough, so divers prone to seasickness are advised to use preventative measures. All diving is by boat.
>Seasons: Conditions at Cocos vary greatly with the season. January to June is the dry season, bringing a greater chance of sunny skies (though showers are still commonplace) and calm seas. July to December is the rainy season, with copious precipitation, generally rougher marine conditions and colder water.
>Conditions and Skill Level: Diving is intermediate to advanced due to extreme thermoclines with cool (high 70s°F) water temperatures, changing visibility and strong currents and surge. This is not a destination for new divers.
>Gear: A 5mm to 7mm full wetsuit is recommended. Gloves are crucial, since divers are expected to hold onto rocks to maintain position in the current and surge. Surface signaling devices are required.
>With this report in mind, the Costa Rican government recently expanded Cocos Island National Park's marine protected area (MPA) to encompass more than 3,700 square miles of ocean, an area larger than Yellowstone National Park. Nevertheless, illegal fishing is rampant. While not surprising, knowledge of the activity does little to buffer divers' first heartbreaking glimpse of the immense collection of fishing line, gill nets and hooks recovered from Cocos' waters, viewable during a visit to the ranger station at Wafer Bay.
>Passionate surveillance and intervention by the Costa Rican Coast Guard, Área de Conservación Marina Isla del Coco (ACMIC) park rangers and various nonprofit organizations aim to limit fishing pressure and preserve the health of this incredible UNESCO World Heritage Site for future generations.
>© Alert Diver — Winter 2012