Costa RicaCosta Rica

Day 3: Adventures at Isla Tortuga

Destination: Jaco

I bounced out of bed this morning, more out of excitement for the Marriott's mouthwatering breakfast buffet than for anything on the day's agenda. After a rich cup of coffee and two trips to the waffle bar and fresh fruit table, I was ramped up for another day of diving.

Herradura Divers met me at the beach just a few blocks from the hotel. We were going to one of my favorite places in the country: the picturesque Isla Tortuga. Although this would be my fourth trip to Turtle Island, I would be getting an underwater perspective that was absent in all of my previous visits.

Along with 15 other passengers, I boarded a covered speedboat at about 9:00 a.m. During the hour and a half journey, I studied my complicated Canon G10 camera and its underwater case with Chris, the dive company's photography expert and owner. Among other hints and tips, he taught me to place the camera inside a bucket of water to help prevent the frustrating fog that often forms within the waterproof chamber.

After much technological fiddling, we arrived at Isla Tortuga where the snorkelers and divers separated onto two smaller boats. Our first dive site was El Aquario, or The Aquarium, which has a maximum depth of 53 feet.

A bit sunburned, I decided not to wear my wetsuit, as wriggling into the skin-tight fabric would graze my sensitive skin. Chris reminded me that wetsuits protect the body from cold-water temperatures and jellyfish encounters, but I stubbornly opted to take my chances. I was born in Connecticut, so surely I could endure a little cold. Big mistake.

bluefish

At first, everything was hunky-dory. We saw Cortez angelfish, crocodile needlefish and a large blue blunthead triggerfish. The triggerfish was as large as my torso, and sported a fascinating squiggly maze along its flanks. I caught sight of an impressive school of grunts interspersed with blue-and-gold snapper. Then, I felt the thermocline -- a sharp temperature gradient that hit me like a blast of cold air.

I spent the rest of the dive freezing, but too stubborn to admit that I had overestimated my endurance to the cold. Francesco, the dive master, pointed out my goose bumps and mocked me with a pantomimed reenactment of my pigheadedness. His ability to exhibit sarcasm with gestures instead of words was very impressive. No more skin diving for me.

yellow fishBack on the boat, we spent an hour allowing the accumulated nitrogen to seep out of our bodies. Chris passed around freshly cut watermelon and pineapple along with some cold beverages. I really appreciate it when energizing, healthy snacks are also offered onboard, in addition to the standard cookies and pastries (such high carb foods tend to leave me feeling groggy and weighed down).

Next, we motored a short distance to La Cueva, or The Cave. There, I spotted a creature that I have never seen before. In fact, I was previously not even aware of its existence: the zebra moray eel. Slightly larger than a common tiger snake eel, this black-and-white-striped species looked like something from another world. I marveled at its appearance, since it clearly had not evolved such a pattern for camouflage.

inflated pufferfishFrancesco was once again my guide, and I passed him my camera to take a shot of me swimming near a sea turtle. After observing an inflated freckled porcupinefish, it was time to come up for lunch.

On the way up, we spotted a school of striped fish each about half as long as I am tall (I later discovered they were barracudas). Reaching for my camera to snap a photo, I realized that I had not clipped it to my BCD jacket properly. It was gone. I thought, "this cannot be happening." Trying not to panic, I realized that I was holding my breath. I had lost my camera just weeks before my ten-day adventure to Islas del Coco.

scorpionfishWhile I wanted to retrace my steps immediately, my rational brain knew that getting separated from Francesco wouldn't be a good idea. Grabbing hold of his flipper, I signaled that the camera was missing. We methodically searched the area, until we found it floating near the surface. An enormous wave of relief flooded over me with the next calm surge of water. This was one mistake that I had no intention of repeating.

We returned to Isla Tortuga and I rested on its bleached white sands, waiting for my racing heart rate to slow down. I searched every nook and cranny for the island's lovable domesticated peccary (a type of wild pig), but failed to find it anywhere. Later, we gobbled down a succulent lunch of rice, barbequed meat, salad and beans. Served with a glass of wine, the meal "hit every spot that I have," as my friend Kim used to say, and was the perfect end to the perfect day.

Day 3: Adventures at Isla Tortuga in Pictures