Sail to Cocos with Aggressor Fleet: Okeanos Aggressor
Looking for one of the ultimate thrills in scuba diving? That would have to include the opportunity to swim with the big guys at Cocos Island, Costa Rica. On a good day at Cocos, the pelagic action is second to none. Over the course of a week of diving you will begin to ignore the ever present white tip sharks as they move around you, for your eyes will be on the lookout for the unmistakable shape of the unique and impressive hammerhead sharks. Adding to the excitement are encounters with majestic eagle rays, mantas, schooling mobula rays, silky sharks, Galapago sharks, and if you're having a really good day, a massive whale shark, largest fish in the sea.
Of course, as you might expect, access to this excitement comes at a price - both in expense and travel time. Costa Rica itself is easily reached from the U.S. via American Airlines from Miami, or Continental Airlines from Houston. Service is daily and the flight duration less than four hours. All survivors of adventurous trips to Asia will be happy to learn that jet lag is not an issue, as Costa Rica is in the Central time zone, same as the central United States. Generally, upon arrival in the capitol of San Jose, guests will enjoy an overnight in one of many comfortable four and five-star hotels. San Jose itself is a vibrant and interesting city. If you are careful of the cars, it's a good walking city, with interesting shopping, museums, good dining, and even casino gambling. It's also a jumping off point for some interesting touring into the jungle rainforest, wildlife preserves, bird watching, horseback riding, white water rafting, etc.
But if you've come to dive Cocos Island, arrival in San Jose is just one aspect of your journey. Next is a bus ride to the Pacific coastal town of Puntarenas. Depending upon traffic, and the state of the road, this ride can take from two to three and one-half hours. In Puntarenas, your gear will be quickly transferred to your live-aboard dive boat. Don't stray too far from the dock, as the departure is based on the high tide. Having come this far, you certainly won't want to miss the boat.
Setting sail from Puntarenas, Cocos Island is a dot of land 300 miles west in the Pacific Ocean. Remote and wild, Cocos Island rises out of deep water, 5 degrees north of the Equator, some few hundred miles north of the equally famous Galapagos Islands. The crossing to reach Cocos is through open sea, and depending on conditions, can take from 30 to 36 hours. This undertaking is not for the faint of heart or those prone to seasickness. All travelers are advised to come prepared with a good supply of dramamine, scopalamine, or whatever other prevention works for you. Supplement the medication with a few good books, and/or a laptop computer (as I am addicted to) and you can put the extended transit time to some good use. Your dive boat will do its part by offering Nitrox certification aboard ship during the crossing, and/or a Rebreather course. These will help to pass the time, and prepare you for the upcoming diving. It's a tribute to the human spirit that the excitement and exhilaration of the diving experience ahead will (hopefully) make you forget the boredom and/or queasy stomach of the long boat ride.
Seasonality - For adventurous divers, Cocos is a year round destination. However, there are two distinct seasons, each with its own merits. The dry season runs from November to May. It will provide calmer seas, and a more comfortable crossing. It's also the time for silky sharks, and large schools of Mobula Rays. Water temperature will range from 78-82 degrees Fahrenheit. Hammerheads will be present, but in lesser numbers than during the Rainy Season, which runs from June to November. The rainy Season is the time for the large schools of hammerheads, but also brings rougher sea conditions and a tougher crossing on the 30+ hour run from Puntarenas to the first dive sites. During the Rainy Season, water temperature will range from 76-80 degrees Fahrenheit.
Cocos Island receives 26 feet of rain per year, so don't be surprised if you experience an occasional rain shower, or serious downpour, at any season. Like the rain, much of Cocos' marine life are year round residents. These include schooling eagle rays, countless white tip sharks, marbled stingrays, green and hawksbill turtles, king angelfish, butterfly fishes, big eye jacks, leather bass, spotted blue jacks, trumpet fish, puffer fish, yellow and blue striped snappers, etc.
Due to its remote location, Cocos can only be reached via live-aboard boat. There are currently three to choose from, Undersea Hunter, Sea Hunter, and the Okeanos Aggressor. The Undersea Hunter, first to ply these waters, stays year round. The newer (and finer) Sea Hunter is in Cocos June through November. But December through May she now transits through the Panama Canal, relocating to Providenciales, there to ply the Silver Banks. While these are all good vessels, the Okeanos Aggressor is the largest, and thus probably affords a better ride in the rough conditions typical to Cocos. Having just undergone a refit, the Sea Hunter is also an excellent vessel. Operated by diving legend and Cocos expert Avi Klapner, she actually does a bit faster cruising speed than does Okeanos.
Once you finally get to Cocos, the island itself is quite small, less than 14 square miles in area. Over the course of a week of diving, you will easily circumnavigate the entire island, and its small adjacent rocky outcroppings. All of the dive boats mentioned above cover the same dive sites.
On this trip, I enjoyed the services of the Okeanos Aggressor, which I found to be a superb craft for the situation. At 120 feet long, with a beam of 26 feet, there are ten comfortable guest cabins. She easily accommodates a full house of 20 guests, but routinely runs with 16 or 18 divers served by a crew of eight. By the way, our crew was excellent. All native Costa Ricans, from Captain Hugo Leiva on down, they are at the same time totally accommodating, and genuinely friendly. Every crew member, from Captain to boat tender, is an experienced diver and/or scuba instructor. The head divemaster, Mario Arroyo, was thorough, friendly, well spoken, and always ready to serve. Mario has been diving Cocos exclusively for the last seven years, and has thousands of dives logged in this exotic site. A professional photographer, he is glad to share his extensive knowledge, and also provides the service of E-6 processing aboard the Okeanos.
So getting down to the nitty-gritty, what is the diving like? Here are a couple of dive descriptions excerpted from my logbook:
Dive Site: Lone Stone
Rig: Rebreather, 40% Nitrox with 50 orifice.
Profile: 98 feet maximum depth, total bottom time of 67 minutes
Had some nice shark photo opportunities throughout the dive, and a very cooperative marbled stingray. Prior to this dive, I had finally taken all the extra lead out of the rebreathers weight pockets, and wore just my weight belt. Felt much more comfortable in the rebreather once the weighting was right. Slowly swimming through the huge rocks, I noticed a vertical crack in the reef, about 25-30 high and perhaps five feet wide. With shimmering sunlight streaming down from fissures in the top, I could see it was packed with fish, hiding from the current, and the ever-present predators. There were silver snapper, yellow grunt, red cardinal fish, and a couple of big trumpetfish in one vertical school, all swaying gently together in the surge. With my buoyancy neutralized, I slowly eased my way into the crevice and joined the school. The lack of bubbles from the rebreather surely did the trick, as I was enveloped by this pulsing wall of piscine life, for a moment, "becoming one" with the fishes.
Dive Site: Dirty Rock
Rig: Rebreather, 41% Nitrox with 50 orifice.
Profile: 95 feet maximum depth, total bottom time 68 minutes.
This is just an awesome reef - many divers mention it as their favorite at Cocos. Visibility was at least 130-140 feet. Huge schools of horse-eyed jacks were spiraling like a tornado at the side of the rock. Camera in hand, I enjoyed going face to face with the patrolling whitetip sharks. Again, the rebreather allowed me to get much closer than I could have done with conventional scuba. Currents and surge were relatively light so I was able to circle the entire reef/rocks a couple of times, taking in the sites like someone strolling in a wilderness park. I had an excellent encounter with a very large and majestic male spotted eagle ray. I swam along side him at close range, shooting my last frame as he passed out of sight. Of course, as Murphy's Law would have it, 20 seconds later he had turned 180 degrees and was swimming right back at me on a head-on collision course. It would have made a great shot…but of course I was now out of film. I suppose if I had been aiming a camera at him, he would have turned off, so I am just glad to have been there to see him. I gave way at the last moment, and the big ray calmly glided right over my head and angled down the wall into deeper water. My gaze followed his graceful fall until he was completely out of site. Towards the end of this, our last dive of the trip, some of the other divers did indeed encounter a hammerhead coming up from the darkness of the depths. Surely nature can be harsh…but apparently also has a wry sense of humor…for we were being teased with that last hammerhead, or perhaps better put "baited," into a return visit to unique and enigmatic Cocos Island.
Things to Bring - In addition to full scuba gear and a good 3-5 m.m. wet suit, I would suggest dive gloves, and perhaps a light hood or neoprene dive cap. Bring your most powerful fins. You will often be in current or surge, and will be trying to keep up with fast marine critters. As you will be doing drift diving in open water, a "safety sausage" is a good thing to have on your b.c. You won't need much clothing on a live aboard, but I do recommend that one bring a warm up suit to wear on the boat, as the a/c can get cold. Remember that this is diving for experienced divers. It can be physically taxing, deep, lots of current, and the whole point is interacting with big pelagic critters. Again I suggest that Cocos is not for the feeble or faint of heart.
The Bottom Line - We enjoyed great weather, sunny skies, calm seas, warm water, wonderful visibility, and plenty of interesting marine life. All of these are common to the dry season during which I visited Cocos Island. Only the lack of hammerheads was unusual, and this is attributed to El Nino. I will certainly return to Cocos, but will probably go in July or August, which are the months of the highest frequency of hammerhead sightings. Cocos is a great place for competent divers looking for big-time thrills, but not a good spot for beginners. Definitely take the training, either in advance or on the boat, and make use of the Nitrox option. It is a fabulous asset here, as of course is the Rebreather technology. There is no thrill quite like coming eye to eye with these fabulous marine creatures on their terms. Ready for some real diving excitement and interactions with "the big guys?" The sharks, and I, cordially invite you to visit Cocos Island.
Wishing you great diving, and a world of adventure...Ken
Ready to see Cocos for yourself? Sail with Aggressor Fleet: Okeanos Aggressor
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