Costa RicaCosta Rica

Day 3: Swimming with the Fishes

Destination: Drake Bay

boat at isla del canoToday was going to be a cloudy day, and Aldea del Rio Tours was scheduled to take us on a boat trip to Cano Island. Despite the lack of sunlight, I had high hopes that visibility under the sea would be sufficient.

This 806 acre island is considered one of the best diving locations in the country, second only to Cocos Island to the northeast. Stone spheres and Indian graves discovered throughout Cano Island suggest that it was previously used as an ancient burial ground. Biodiversity on the island is extremely limited: a few types of reptiles; under 20 species of birds; and only three species of mammals (one of which was introduced by humans) call the island home. Visitors overlook the mundane array of land animals because of the overwhelming variety of wildlife inhabiting the deep, surrounding waters.

hermit crabAt Cano Island, safety is the law. All snorkelers are required to wear reflective inflatable life vests, allowing boat captains to efficiently keep track of every person under their care. Rules and regulations are also in place to protect the environment. In an effort to shelter the majority of the island's biodiversity from human contact, tourist activity is only permitted on the north face of the island; leaving 3/4 of the land largely unaffected.

We arrived after a quick forty minute boat ride from the mainland. Jay and I slapped on flippers, goggles, and life jackets in preparation for our swim, and Vincent stayed behind to take pictures. The water was warm and inviting, and the first thing we saw was an enormous school of rays cruising the depths about 90 feet below us. Due to ear pain, neither of us can dive deep without scuba equipment -- so we swam to the shallow waters closer to the shore.

beach at isla del canoHere, the waves were not too rough, and a rainbow of fish and sea life coexisted among the live coral. The bi-color parrotfish were my favorites, with their protruding foreheads and arresting shades of purple and green. Spotted sharpnose puffers are delicate and dainty, looking more like polka dot ladies' handbags than fish. We also saw golden phase puffers, Moorish idols, barberfish, surgeonfish, and countless others.

After about an hour, we returned to the boat for a break. Here, Jay pulled out a laminated sheet depicting all of Costa Rica's tropical fish, and had me point out which ones I had seen. This gave me a chance to learn their proper names in preparation for our second dive.

snorkelersThe captain had overheard other snorkelers talking about a large school of jacks nearby, and we set off in search of them. At the next site, the first thing we saw was a giant shark with an intimidating mouth combing the rocky bottom. Jay and I looked up to verify that neither of us was hallucinating. "DID YOU SEE THAT?" we both said at once. When we looked back down, the animal had disappeared. White tip reef sharks don't care for shallow waters, so Vincent guessed that we had seen a rare -- and harmless to humans -- nurse shark.

After 30 minutes of further exploration, everyone on the boat began to fiercely signal for me to return. While I was too far away to decipher what exactly they were screaming, their jumping up and down and commanding body language said, "Genna! Come back quick! It's an emergency!" This left me feeling a little panicked; I wasn't sure if there was a shark, a school of jellyfish, or some other threatening sea creature lurking about -- or perhaps I was simply swimming too close to the rocks. In any case, I hustled back toward the boat in record time.

lizard at isla del canoEn route, I saw what all the excitement was about: our captain had found the school of jacks. Hundreds of shiny silver fish about the size of my forearm circled in alternating donut and figure eight formations, leaving a large hole in the middle of the cloud. I placed myself directly in the center, and stared as the mass sparkled and performed unhurried laps around me. The experience was completely surreal. I floated there for another half an hour, and then boarded the boat. We sped off just as the sky opened up.

Day 3: Swimming with the Fishes in Pictures