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October 2017    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Vol. 32, No. 10   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Okeanos Aggressor II, Cocos Island, Costa Rica

hammerhead heaven, but not for the faint of heart

from the October, 2017 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver,

One rule for liveaboard diving is to plan your arrival at least 24 hours in advance so as not to miss your boat and be out an entire dive trip as well as a bundle of money. So my dive buddies and I added two days to take in the sights at Club Del Mar on the Pacific Coast in the Jaco area. Costa Rica is a nature lover's paradise, and our van driver stopped so we could view 15 river crocodiles lazing in the mud. At the beautifully appointed condo resort, I gazed at macaws in trees, resplendent butterflies and red squirrels with bushy gray tails, rode horseback to a waterfall and took a zip line through the jungle. What a way to kick off a dive trip.

Okeanos Aggressor IIThen came a 90-minute van ride to Punta Arenas and the Okeanos Aggressor II. The crew put our dive bags on the dive deck, and I climbed aboard and stowed my gear at my tank and in my small locker. We had a welcome drink, met the crew for a quick briefing, followed by a more detailed safety briefing -- we were each given GPS beacons -- once we set sail, about 4:30 P.M.

The compact Okeanos Aggressor II, which in a previous life was the Wind Dancer, is somewhat tired -- some rusty window/porthole frames, chipped paint here and there, worn-out deck chairs, a wonky door between the dive deck and the salon -- but is surely functional. Our 39-hour open ocean crossing was smooth and easy, at least for me, since I had Bonine on board. Two other divers became seasick. We arrived about 6:30 A.M., and had our first dive at 9 A.M., after breakfast.

Our checkout dive was in calm Chatham Bay at Manuelita Island, next to the main island. After the nine divers in our group got our weights set, we settled in next to the rock wall and immediately started seeing hammerheads and white tips. In 30-foot (9m) visibility, the hammerheads would oddly turn away when they found me kneeling on the sandy bottom. Several large marbled stingrays lazed about, one of which, my buddy told me later, nearly latched onto my butt after I had passed over him. Schools of striped grunts, jackfish, black durgons, trumpetfish, snappers, boxfish, parrotfish, small tuna, and even large yellowfin tuna swirled about. It was a great opening dive. But the second didn't measure up. Shy hammerheads stayed 15-20 feet (6m) away, and my images had backscatter and weren't well lit.

Back on the boat, meals were something to look forward to. The first night we had delicious broiled sea bass, a diverse salad, broccoli, rice, rolls and passionfruit flan. All dinners were varied and delicious -- salmon, sea bass with a rich cream sauce, fajitas, BBQ, sushi/sashimi, pizza, steak, pork loin, killer salads with several kinds of veggies, blackberry mousse, tres leches cake, and fruit. Soft drinks, beer, wine and frozen cocktails were part of the deal. Breakfasts were eggs/omelets, bacon, ham, cheese, cereal, pancakes, French toast, fruit and coffee, even espresso and cappuccino. Lunch might be chicken or beef fajitas, refried beans, veggies. One diver celebrated his nitrox certification, another his 100th dive, and my panga with 10,000 dives, all with specially prepared cakes on different nights. The chef accommodated vegetarian/low carb diners, and Eduardo, the waiter, provided extra helpings and free frozen mixed drinks.

Cocos Island National Park - MapThe international makeup of the divers -- Russian, Swiss, Japanese, German, Belgian and American -- made for fun mealtime and cocktail hour conversations about diving the world and world affairs, and for photo/video sharing. A considerate diver from Belgium brought sausages, cheese, and chocolates. Diving 3-4 dives per day took its toll on most of us; most divers hit the sack after dinner.

Our first real hammerhead dive was classic! Swarms of the bizarre creatures came from all sides on the Manuelita deep dive site. In little current and 60-foot visibility, schools of jacks and occasional large yellowfin tunas cruised by. The hammerheads showed less fear this dive, as I hugged rock platforms, sat down or kneeled as they whizzed past. But, to underline the unpredictability of diving, in two more dives here, there was no shark action at all.

Dirty Rock was my afternoon dive, and it was a classic festival of hammerheads swimming five feet over my head. I got shots of two dozen 15 feet (4m) above me with my wide-angle Nikon. And, they were in sunlight -- not common at Cocos this rainy time of year (Early August). I had partly sunny skies all week and warm water, 81-82F (27C).

Rating for Okeanos Aggressor IIThen, back to my too-small two-bunk misnomered "deluxe stateroom" for a shower. The size is somewhat of a downer for the long crossings. There was insufficient room for two people to get dressed at once and the tiny head with shower was tough to negotiate. But, the day finished with a beautiful sunset, with boobies circling as I lay on the bow on a 1970s beach chair (the netting is quite old and needs replacing) with a full rainbow behind me.

The night dive is one everybody should do once, which is probably enough. Fifty or so 3- to 5-foot (1 - 2m) white tips hunted and swirled around the sandy/ coral bottom at 45 feet. My dive guide found a little octopus, along with a spotted moray eel sticking his head out from a crevice, but a half hour was plenty. I skipped the other night dives, as did many. But I did join a daytime panga shore excursion to dip in a spectacular waterfall pool on Cocos Island (set for Jurassic Park) that I hiked to in 15 minutes, up the slippery rocks of the creek. Another afternoon, several divers toured the ranger station.

Day dives were 8 A.M., 11 A.M., 3 P.M., off two pangas, inflatable Zodiacs with a 140 hp outboard, with tanks stored in the middle (where they stayed to be filled with long hoses). Normally, they filled tanks to 3200 psi, but sometimes 10 percent lower. That additional 300 psi helps many divers stay down the full 35-45 minutes at 90-foot depths dived.

Nine of us rode on the gunwales, and because I wear long free diving fins, I sat in the back where I could backroll off without whacking someone. On the mother craft, the deck showers were warm, as were the post-dive towels, and the crew provided fruit, smoothies and snacks after the afternoon dive. Only three night dives -- 6 P.M. -- were allowed by the rangers, who joined two dives, ostensibly to ascertain we were not breaking park rules.

After a 25-minute rough panga ride to Alcyone (discovered by Jacques Cousteau in 1987), we descended 100 feet (30m) down the line in a strong current. I hooked into the barnacle-encrusted rocks to watch hundreds of hammerheads parade in 60- to 80-foot (18 - 21m) visibility, some schooling overhead in the faint sunshine. It was only a 30- to 35-minute dive, but intense and exciting! The park ranger diving with us later said she wished she had brought gloves to hold on because barnacles and sea urchins are everywhere.

A panga waiting for divers to boardAnother dive I dropped to 93 feet (28m) and settled on a rock shelf, resting my left arm on a boulder and my right hand gripping my camera. In 70-foot (21m) viz, with no surge or current, hammerhead after hammerhead paraded in front of me, some turning up over my head at the last minute, permitting breathtaking closeups. Next dive, while shooting one of my buddies swimming into a school of jacks, I watched her disappear into the blue. When I stopped shooting, I realized my group had vanished. Swimming back 150 feet (50 m) and finding no one, I continued on our planned "right shoulder to the wall" dive, and they eventually appeared. Apparently, the guide had them go into the blue for a peek at something, without notifying me. My buddy worried because these are waters where, with the currents, you don't want to leave a diver alone. Though I can handle myself, I think my guide should have noticed my absence and come looking for me. Accidents happen in tough waters.

Regardless, both divemasters -- Carlos (also the captain) and Anibel -- were very thorough, friendly and competent. Carlos was more amiable, with a great sense of humor and a twinkle in his eye, and took great pains to help my 80-year-old buddy with cameras, get below the surface and point out things to see.

Submerged Rock was a nice change of pace. I cruised along the wall with my left shoulder at 80 feet (26m) and dove down through a large, grunt-infested swim-thru. Another left turn and I was humming lazily along, observing a few white-tips, trumpetfish and snappers when the hammerheads once again appeared out of nowhere and started swirling above me, sometimes swooping in. Quick moves and noises startled them, so I had to wait. Chasing or swimming out from the wall doesn't work.

At Dos Amigos (Pequenos and Largo), dozens of hammerheads, a couple of Galapagos sharks and two tigers came on by, some passing within 10 feet (3m) if I remained still.

They added a third dive the last day, when they normally have two, because "they liked our group," but it should have been called off because the current was strong enough to rip off a mask. While I struggled to go down the line with my camera rig, the first group had moved up to their safety stops, with "wide eyes" peering through their masks. I finally got down to 90 feet and put in my reef hook, while others who made it -- two didn't get down and went back to the boat with the guide -- clung to the rocks watching their bubbles whip past horizontally. I relaxed and filmed a half-dozen white tips at a cleaning station, but I think for safety's sake the first guide should have called the dive. Strong currents in these waters have led to more than one diver needing rescue.

Cocos Island with Manuelita Island to the rightThe trip back to Puntarenas was a pleasure, with flat seas, a beautiful sunset and a pod of dolphins surfing off our bow, dancing, prancing, and pirouetting. My buddies and I disembarked to a private van and we toured all day, taking a crocodile river cruise, driving through the coffee plantations, and visiting a huge local crafts store. After a night at the lovely Doubletree, I headed to the airport, fully satisfied with my seven days of diving from the Okeanos Aggressor II.

I should add, however, that upon arrival, I had an issue to resolve. I had made my group's reservations nearly a year before departure, and one of my buddies, an 80-year-old female, had been assigned a double cabin (she had requested a bottom bunk, and, if possible, no other roommate). She ended up with a female roommate, though a third woman who had joined the cruise a couple of months previously, had no roommate. It turned out that the good captain wasn't planning to use one upper deck cabin, but put it in play (at my request, as I was the group organizer), and everyone was happy. This is the second time my buddy had cabin problems (see my undercover review of the Palau Aggressor in January 2016), suggesting that the Aggressor office is lax in assigning cabins logically (i.e., who signed up first). Double-check ahead of time to ensure that you get the cabin or bunk promised you, and speak up once you board.

-- D.S.

Our undercover diver's bio:"I got the diving bug watching Sea Hunt as a kid, got certified in 1983, but didn't start diving the world until 1991. I've logged more than 1,200 dives in the Caribbean, Indonesia, Australia, Tahiti, Palau, PNG, Maldives and the Philippines. While I love the intensity/convenience of liveaboards, I also enjoy resorts for their relaxing pace and beauty. My life goal is to dive on my 90th birthday. (Only 24 years to go!)"

Divers CompassDivers Compass: Club Del Mar was $300/night for a two-BR condo, including breakfast. Excellent dinners were $20-$25 ... Our group numbered seven, so we got one free space; most had a discount awarded to prior Aggressor passengers; one had $500 off as compensation for a bad Palau Aggressor experience ... Normal fare was $5,500 pp/do, including transfers, plus a $439 Cocos Park fee paid on board with a credit card or cash (arranged by Diversion Dive Travel in Cairns, Australia) ... there was some limited cellphone text/voice-only service while tied up at Cocos Island ... Overnight the day before Cocos departure at their approved hotels for free van service to the boat. You can make an afternoon flight after the sailing ... Mine was a 10-night trip, with seven days of four dives per day scheduled, except for the first day, which only had three dives. www.aggressor.com

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