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Costa Rica Scuba Diving: PADI Certification in Coco Part III

Destination: Playa del Coco

Sun shining through the open curtains woke me before the alarm clock this morning. I quickly devoured a homemade breakfast of scrambled eggs and gallo pinto at Hotel Vista Azul before rushing to the dive shop, ready for another adventure and feeling fortunate for such ideal weather.

Sadly, any hopes for a morning dive were dashed. After serving me a taste of the open sea, I was cruelly banished to the pool in order to complete Confined Dives #4 and #5, which only lasted an hour.

sea porcupine

Following the pool dives, I took the PADI written exam and scored an 84%. It would have been 90% had I not omitted two questions (my official excuse for forgetting them: my eyes were stinging from excessive exposure to chlorine water). I was officially PADI Open Water Certified.

Now completely addicted to diving, I could not wait to go out again. Not only does diving provide a rush, it is also incredibly empowering. Never before have I held my own delicate life in my hands to such an extent. Sure, above water I control day to day habits like eating and exercise; but breathing, equalization, and buoyancy concerns don't apply.

hotel vista azul rooftop terrace

What an unexpected surprise that marine predators -- like sharks and eels -- are not nearly as grave a threat as my own potential carelessness.

Thankfully, beginners are not allowed to dive alone -- an instructor is always there to lead the way and prevent unpleasant situations.

Departure for my last day of diving was at 8:30 a.m. Our diving posse consisted of myself and six Frenchmen, five of whom spoke little to no English. Fortunately, everyone was overly friendly and willing to communicate using hand signals and broken Spanish.

chocolate starfish

About 20 minutes after leaving, the boat's engine began to sputter. The captain slowed down, and we continued our journey at a tiny fraction of our normal speed. A crippled manatee probably could have out swum us. Luckily, no one complained -- at least it was sunny and we could work on our tans.

About an hour passed, and we finally reached the first dive site: an aptly named island called El Aquario, or the Aquarium. There was so much to look at, it was nearly impossible to focus on one thing for more than a few seconds. Fat starfish, skinny starfish, yellow and maroon seahorses, angelfish, moray eels, leather bass and freckled porcupine fish percolated about the coral next to Moorish idols, Pacific boxfish, and crocodile needlefish.

As we completed the loop around the island, I kept lagging behind the group, stupefied by all of the dreamlike life, color and movement. This was completely overwhelming in the best possible way. I was actually swimming with tropical creatures that I had only previously observed at the doctor's office aquarium back in the U.S.

ascending

The extent to which two people can communicate without words is incredible. Today's dive instructor, Pierre, mimed and pointed to any animals that he saw, directing our attention to them. He even managed to spot a jittery nurse shark that jetted out of our vicinity as soon as it sensed us.

Before long, Pierre began gesturing that I slow down and turn off my camera. Then he prompted me to ascend a few feet, and I couldn't figure out why. Finally, he motioned me to the surface -- no one else.

Above water, he told me that I had been sucking down my air twice as fast as the rest of the group. At the sight of my pathetic, downtrodden face he advised me not to worry -- this is a problem that all beginners struggle with, and I shouldn't be too disheartened.

sea anemone

The dive master went on to explain that this type of blunder can be attributed to one of two reasons -- and for me, it was probably a combination of both. First, I am new to diving, and not used to breathing compressed air. Second, I was swimming about taking pictures, and my body required a great deal more oxygen than those that were merely floating and watching.

Satisfied with this rationale, I waited for the rest of the crew. About ten minutes later, they joined us on the boat, and we were ready to try our luck at the next dive site: Los Tiburones (The Sharks). Unfortunately, the engine was misbehaving again, so we turned back to Playa del Coco. We would stop en route for another dive at Punta Gorda.

enormous fish

By now, I knew the underwater terrain at Punta Gorda fairly well, but Pierre was still able to show me strange, new things that I never would have noticed on my own. The instructor commented on a tiny animal with fire-truck red eyes. It looked like a creature right out of Spongebob Squarepants.

"No matter how many big animals you see, if you look carefully at the small stuff you'll find a whole new world under there," he said, "the ocean is made up of layers, upon layers, upon layers..."

He was right. This little volcano bug was just a tiny spec living in the smallest barnacle, which was attached to a tiny shell atop a larger shell glued to a coral reef embedded in the ocean floor. It was incredible. I could only imagine all of the microorganisms that our human eyes were not capable of detecting.

strange creature the size of a pencil eraser

Before I knew it, it was time to come up. The captain helped us aboard, and informed us that the engine was now completely useless. He had radioed for help, but we would have to wait about forty minutes for a boat to tow us back -- and the journey itself would take about an hour more. Thankfully, I had brought enough sunscreen for all of us -- and a book. My new French friends passed the time by teaching me how to say funny and inappropriate words and phrases in their language.

As we approached the shore, the sky opened up. Rain bouncing off the water was a beautiful sight. We disembarked, and I reflected on this incredibly successful trip -- as well as my new love, diving. I had seen every animal that I had anticipated, with the exception of sea turtles and bull sharks -- which gave me the perfect excuse to start planning my next dive trip.

Costa Rica Scuba Diving: PADI Certification in Coco Part III in Pictures

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