Out to Cocos.
The trip started with a stupid-am flight from LHR to Madrid then on to San Jose, Costa Rica. The first leg was with the budget BA flight then the rest of the flights were all Iberia. The budget BA flight was better than all of the Iberia ones. Avoid Iberia if you can – they’re utterly disinterested in their passengers and Madrid airport is little better than Birmingham’s. Things looked up when we got to San Jose though, as the transfer bus was ready and waiting and we all headed off for a 2 night B&B-basis stop in the catchily entitled “Holiday Inn San Jose-Escazu”, on a main road about 15mins drive from the centre San Jose (Aggressor strongly suggest, or rather, insist you have at least 1 day stop-over in CR, as the boat must sail on time as it is reliant on the tides and once gone, it won’t be coming back unless there’s a disaster or the trip ends). The hotel is a basic Holiday Inn kind of place; could be anywhere but what’s really handy is that it is right next to a public food market. You go in, find a table and then you have about 20 different food and drink stands to choose from – all different styles, and they’re nearly all licenced, so you can buy a beer or cocktail from them too. Once you order, they give you a beeper thing and when your food is ready, you go to collect it. The choice is excellent and nothing we had there was bad though the styles are fairly mainstream (if you’re a fan of some obscure cuisine, you might struggle, but german/thai/pizza/local CR/steakhouse/US/veggie etc. are all there). As for other things, there’s a large shopping arcade down the road to pick up those things you’ve forgotten.
Transfer arrived early to get us away bang on time and off we went for the 1.5hr to Puntarenas to meet the boat, stopping at a kiosk thing on the way. The party consisted of 12 of us from ODC and 10 Japanese divers. Puntarenas seems to be a bit of a hole… the fact that Aggressor’s dock was fortified like a prison and the hulked fishing boats told the tale. We were met at the dock and quickly transferred onto Okeanos Aggressor 2 and after a last bag check, she sailed out for the 36hr crossing to Cocos. We had about 2 hrs in the bay to try to get safety briefing and unpacking done before we hit the open sea, and for those who get motion sickness to get the tablets in. The dive deck is pretty large and everyone had a drainable bench locker to store odds and ends whilst the BCDs and regs were strapped to the cylinders (top tip: keep policing your regs and make sure they’re always fitted to the cylinder – the dive deck gets wet when the sea is rough). On the way out, there were whales in the bay, so that promised good things. OA2 is a fairly large liveaboard and fairly well set up – not as luxurious as some and the fact that the main doors onto the outside of the boat all were “marine style” and tightly fitting should have rung warning bells, especially when accompanied with the warning that no one should go on deck at night alone… Our room was about the waterline and included a small double bed with the bunk single above it, a decent wardrobe, sink with bathroom cupboard/mirror, little flat-screen monitor and a little shower/bog room. Catering on board is pretty good; not the very best I’ve seen on a boat but certainly good enough, with lots of snacks available. Beer and wine is included along with the soft drinks but probably not a great idea during the crossing!
Once clear of the bay, the boat began to rock and bounce about significantly (enough to cause things to fall off tables despite the mats) and the spray drove our party from the whale-watching on the bow. As we moved further out, the dive deck level windows also began to get splashed regularly and the dive deck outside the saloon was regularly awash with half a foot of water… only another 34 hours to go. Of our party, about a third were sick and 3 of the crew were poorly during the nearly 38hr crossing. It is really draining if you get a rough crossing – the sun deck is quite small (and covered) when the pangas (ribs) are aboard and the wind blows hard across it. The bow is sprayed with seawater, the saloon makes you feel a bit dizzy as the horizon is hard to watch and the berths below are noisy with the engines running. Besides, no one can sleep for nearly 40hrs! The crew used the time to let everyone snooze and conducted their various briefings, registration and so forth, so you never had 6 hours of nothing during the day, which helped. I retreated with a sea-sick MrsT onto the sun deck and read my book.
Finally we got there, arriving at in the morning at about 6ish and moored in Chatham Bay. Cocos itself is featured in the opening scenes of the island in Jurassic Park. It is green. Very green. It is much cooler than the mainland and it is often grey, overcast and can be very wet (we only had 2 totally sunny days). When it gets around to raining properly, it absolutely pisses down, as you’d expect for an island that gets 7.6m of rain a year (over 4 times the amount Oban gets, to put that into context). In the evenings, it can be cold – we often sat out in shorts and t-short, but with a zip-up hoodie on. On nearly every shore, the cliffs rise straight up from a tiny rocky coast and in some cases are towering. There’s lots of waterfalls and wild rocky islets so make for a picturesque scene as to travel to and from the dive sites. The island is home to lots of boobies and frigate birds, who hang around being nosy and pecking at the antenna on the ribs. During our time off in the island, we had two shore excursions to see the various ranger stations, explore the beaches, splash about in the streams etc. and one to walk to a lovely waterfall and float about in the plunge pool, watching the little fresh water fish. On shore, it’s muddy, wet and humid. Away from the paths, it’s jungle/rain forest/cloud forest and virtually untouched.
Diving time! Diving is from the pangas (large ribs) which were now hoisted down from the sun deck freeing up loads of sunbathing space. Your kit is placed into the panga and you get suited up on the before stepping in from the sides of OA2. Once in the panga, they zoom off to the site then you get kitted up and roll in. Entries are typically negative entries as the currents and surge are often brisk and can be fierce. At the end of the dive, you just surface (no SMB unless you are away from the group, which isn’t recommended as more eyes make for a better shark watch), the boat will be overhead waiting and you climb the ladder kitted up (with your buddies on shark watch) and the DM/panga driver helps you sit down and de-kit. Typically, there were 3 dives per day as night diving is banned at Cocos and the national park rangers chose where you’ll be diving. To try to get as much diving in as possible, the boats ask the rangers if they’ll be ok with us doing 4 dives a day. This happened twice for us in the week but it does make for a hectic morning – everyone must be out of the water by about 4pm, so you do 3 dives before lunch (~06:30, 09:30 and 11:30). The surface interval between #2 and 3 is very short, so we didn’t bother to take wetsuits off (5mm or 7mm) and sat around talking on the dive deck. Water temperature was around 26-27C most of the time but some of the thermoclines are brutal and drop it down to the low 20s. Viz was not great, typically 10-15m and every dive had a degree of current running (some were the fastest I’ve ever encountered – swimming straight down with an empty BCD, I still got an ascent rate violation on my computer in one up-current) and some were subjected to powerful surge even down at 30m. A lot of our dives were at the hotspot of Manualita Island and the currents raced around the tip and through the channel, creating massive washing machine areas. Given the sea conditions, the boat moved back and forth between the bays (Wafer and Chatham) and we dived the west, north west and north sites, with the exception of Bajo Alcyone to the south. We only needed to abandon one site (Alcyone) on one day, as the sea was so rough, it would have been almost impossible to get into the rib safely. Seabed is mainly rocky with some slow growing hard corals, various soft corals, what looks like giant barnacles (containing bad tempered creatures with strong claws that nip the hell out of your hand if you hold the rocks) and sponges, and some sandy areas, and quite a lot of hate-filled urchins. A typical dive will be a rapid drop down to ~30m then lurk in amongst the rocks to see if any sharks come to the cleaning station, then drift slowly along and finally move out into the “blue” a little when in a sheltered location. The group is encouraged to stay together, as there are plenty of big sharks about (we saw at least 1 big shark on every dive, including the check dive) who would be interested in checking out any divers they came across alone in the blue. The tiger shark that is excessively bold and has attacked several divers (including 1 fatally) was known to be in the area, so they guides were on the alert. Luckily, our group were all pretty experienced and good on gas, and we were all on nitrox so the dives were all just under an hour long (55mins is the briefed time). Everyone on the boat was issued with their own Nautilus Lifeline and shown how to use it if required but it is clear the crew are very wary of losing people!
So what’s there to see? Sharks. Lots of them! We’d be warned that a pod of orcas were in the area very recently and probably were still nearby, so the sharks were likely to be more nervous than usual but there was still plenty to see. There’s so many whitetip reef sharks, you stop seeing them. We also saw loads of hammerheads, some Galapagos sharks, silkies, blacktip reef sharks and a couple of tigers. There was a lot of marbled rays around – almost as many as the whitetips reef sharks. Other fish life is also good. Large schools of snappers and jacks about, some really big giant trevally patrolling around, wahoos, smaller tuna, barracuda, some pretty big groupers, mobs of leather bass loitering near the group to see what we’re doing, a very brave hawksbill turtle (given the tiger sharks around) and a massive passing yellowfin tuna. The really eye-catching thing about these fish is that they are typically large examples and they are often quite bold – some of the bluefin trevally came close enough to be touched easily and the leather bass regularly bumped into us. Trying to stay out of the currents are lots of little box fish, puffers, tobys, gobys and blennys and towards the later dives, we started looking more and more for these overlooked creatures. We did 22 dives over the trip, though I missed 2 due to a bit of a cold coming on.
Crossing back and on to home
The trip back is supposed to be shorter…. ours lasted 40 hours and we missed the tide so the boat anchored out in the bay and then motored in to the dock in the morning. 40 hours of stumbling about, people feeling sick and the endless bumping and tumbling of the boat to the soundtrack of loud engines. On the plus side, 3 boobies had decided enough was enough and took up residence on the rail at the bow and ignored everyone completely until we reached the mainland. Transfer back to the airport was smooth and problem free.
All in all, a good trip and IMHO, well worth going! Would we go again? Probably, but MrsT didn’t enjoy blocking our sink with her chunder, so she might need to be persuaded. So, pros and cons:
- Lots of sharks, rays and big, nosy fish.
- Peace and quiet – there’s only 3 boats licenced to be there and we never saw anyone else in the water and only rarely saw their boats. The rangers are only about 10 strong and the island is large, so you rarely saw them, though their boats were out and about fairly often.
- Remoteness. You feel this is out in the middle of nowhere, a feeling I have also had when diving some of the remote Indonesian islands but this is wild and rocky. If a pirate ship had sailed into a cove there to bury treasure, or a t-rex had walked over the brow of one of the steep hills, it wouldn’t look out of place.
- Lots of sharks, rays and big, nosy fish.
- Currents can be a challenge, as can the long rib rides in rough seas.
- Crossings can be hard work. Ours were particularly poor apparently but it isn’t ever going to be a picnic.
- It’s very remote – 300nm from the mainland. Get injured and you won’t be nipping to a walk-in centre. The boat has good first aid equipment, O2 etc. and the rangers have some gear too but get bent and you’re looking at a fast boat evacuation (paid for by a scheme with DAN that everyone on the trip pays into)… but 300nm is never going to be that fast. Kit breaks? You’d best take spares if it is essential to you. There was only the most basic mobile phone coverage and that was dependant on which bay we had anchored in.
- For us, the viz wasn’t great. On one dive, we could see we were confronted by the famous wall of hammerheads but you could only see 20-30 at a time and only 5-6 were really clear. The colours meant the togs had a tough time, trying to get the cameras to focus onto a pale grey shark in a grey/beige sea.
- Expensive – no way to avoid that. It’s in the back of beyond.
- Iberia airlines – the Ryanair of flag carriers.