Day 1: The Crossing to Cocos Island
I arrived at the Puntarenas pier four hours early and spent my spare time walking along the boardwalk and daydreaming of Cocos Island's hammerhead sharks, giant moray eels and endemic rosy-lipped batfish. Savoring the anticipation, I plopped down on a park bench and reflected upon how quickly I'd come to be here. Just eight short months ago I earned my PADI open water and advanced scuba certifications, and now I was off to explore a tremendous place that most divers only dream of.
After lunch, I met my cabin mate for the next ten days, Sara. Outgoing and close to my age, Sara and I became fast friends. She explained that she had been to Cocos Island once before with the Undersea Hunter Group, but was only able to snorkel. Now scuba certified, she couldn't wait to dive.
By 3:30 p.m. Sara and I boarded the stunning 115-foot Sea Hunter cruiser. Its spaciousness and attention to detail made us feel more like we were in a floating five-star hotel than on a ship. I had never before associated adventure with such luxury. On the lower deck, our air-conditioned cabin had ample wall plugs for iPods and computers. Fleece blankets and flip-cap water bottles sat on the beds, along with maps of Cocos Island.
Ascending to the middle floor, we walked through a sitting area with couches, blankets and a large screen TV. This was all connected to a dining area with booth seating and an industrial strength espresso machine. The outdoor preparation area was equally well designed, with camera baths and cubbyholes where each of us had a designated space to charge and store personal photography equipment. On the third tier, I envisioned myself lounging on the sundeck equipped with pool chairs, a stereo system and barbeque.
The vessel started its engines around 4:30 p.m., and moments later we were summoned to the common room for our first briefing. There, a shaggy-haired man introduced himself as Wilson, the ship's bubbly cruise director. Throughout the trip, his amicable nature and laid-back demeanor never failed to make us smile.
Wilson's personality was magnetic and entertaining, and he reminded me of a Columbian version of Captain Ron -- the lovable character played by Kurt Russell in the 1990's blockbuster hit. Wilson explained the ship's policies and procedures, and asked us to take care of the most important and fragile thing in our cabins: the septic system (no flushing toilet paper!). If we were ever to feel stressed or panicked, above or below the surface, he instructed us to shout "OOH-SAH!" in a deep, throaty tone. We couldn't help but laugh at the ridiculousness of this request, and this broke the ice in a room full of strangers.
Of the 19 passengers and 14 staff on board, we represented eleven countries and seven languages: English, German, French, Spanish, Italian, Hebrew, and Portuguese. Almost everyone in our motley crew had some sort of enriched air certification. This is recommended for Cocos Island, where the most phenomenal sights are generally found in waters of 100+ feet. Containing more oxygen and less nitrogen, enriched air is safer for lengthy submersions at these depths, minimizing nitrogen buildup in the body and post-dive fatigue. By giving divers more time at the bottom without decompression, nitrox enhances the odds of glimpsing something spectacular.
Anticipating this, I had traveled to Guanacaste, Costa Rica one week earlier for an enriched air course. Deep Blue Divers quickly became one of my favorite scuba shops in the area -- not to mention the only one capable of mixing nitrox, or air composed of more than 21% oxygen. Diving with them also gave me plenty of last-minute practice for Cocos Island. Now miles offshore, last week seemed like an eternity ago.
By sunset everyone had migrated to the bow to watch white cumulous clouds transform into shades of orange, pink and purple. There were enough veteran divers on board to fill an encyclopedia with underwater tales. Bottlenose dolphins danced alongside the hull at breakneck speeds, rolling over to show off their bellies. Traveling at 10 knots per hour, I was nervous that the vessel might slice them in two -- but it soon became clear that these mammals could easily outrace us.
When darkness fell, the dolphins swam off with astounding grace. With less than 340 miles of open-ocean between me and the dive trip of my lifetime, I closed my eyes and focused on breathing the salty Pacific air. And so the journey began.