Day 3: The Flounder & The Box Crab
The hum of the engine slowed and the boat finally stopped. Sara and I raced upstairs in our pajamas to watch the crew anchor, but were moments too late. The island loomed just a few yards before us, steep and green and covered in mist. Its stillness was almost spooky.
We stared pensively. "It's smaller than I expected," I said, finally breaking the silence. "Because that's not it," Sara responded, "Turn around." In the distance I saw another, much larger landmass: the real Cocos Island. What I had mistaken for Cocos was actually a smaller sub-island, Manuelita. We had made it. The crossing was finally complete.
At that moment, I wanted nothing more than to grab a tank and jump into the ocean. Unfortunately, it was only 5:00 a.m., three hours before our first scheduled dive. There were 270 species of fish waiting for me beneath the surface, and imagining them while I ate breakfast was torture.
I felt like I was staring at a pile of Christmas presents waiting to be opened, but my parents were making me go to church first. "There might be 500 hammerheads right below the boat at this very moment, but no one would ever know!" I kept thinking.
Finally 8:00 a.m. rolled around and it was time for a relaxing dive at the Manuelita Coral Gardens, a site so close to the ship that we could have swum there. Falling backwards into the bluest water I have ever seen, I deflated my BCD and descended into the silence of the Pacific.
Visibility was clear and the water was warm. Right off the bat I saw a Chinese trumpetfish as bright as a yellow school bus, a mass of razor surgeonfish and fifteen or twenty white tip reef sharks. A school of blue and gold snapper mixed with Moorish idols entered my field of vision, and then a spotted boxfish fluttering faster than a hummingbird. The rust-colored coral looked like an endless hiding ground for lobsters, blennies and eels.
Everything appeared healthier and more vibrant than on Costa Rica's mainland, and these creatures were unperturbed by our presence. My heart skipped a beat as I looked 90 feet up to the sky -- I couldn't remember the last time I had submerged this deep.
After this introductory dive, we moved on to Manuelita Channel. Falling almost directly into a swirling school of jacks, I would have enjoyed the sensation were it not for the current. Much stronger than anticipated, the surge swept us to and fro as it pleased. While I didn't quite feel powerless against it, fighting was near futile. Swimming with enough strength to propel my body the length of a basketball court only moved me a few feet (at best) in the desired direction.
The experienced divers seemed unfazed by the current, while intermediates like myself were calm but unnerved. The only beginner, poor Sara, was downright terrified. Within 60 seconds she returned to the boat and vowed never to dive again (thankfully this turned out to be a bluff, and she was back in the water within 48 hours).
My air had depleted rapidly from so much physical exertion, and within no time I was down to 1,000 PSI (1/3 of what I started with). Intimidating waves crashed overhead against the rocks -- I was warned never to surface in such "white water." Lacking the confidence to come up alone, I ascended as much as I could and tried to conserve. Ten minutes later Mau, the dive leader, summoned us back to the skiff, where Marcos told me he had seen a silvertip shark. His ability to identify animals was impressive -- all I had seen was a fuzzy blob.
Our third dive at Pajara Island revealed lobsters, Pacific creolefish and a shifty box crab the size of a football helmet. Following it along the bottom, I was astounded when a flat pancake of sand suddenly rose up and started swimming like a ray. What was this alien fish? No matter how emphatically I pointed, everyone else ignored it and continued watching the box crab.
Back at the Sea Hunter, I skimmed through the library's species books: I had seen a flounder. With a body that could not have been more than a half-inch thick and bug eyes, it was basically a floating filet just waiting to be eaten. Astonishingly, real-life flounders look nothing at all like my favorite fictional character from the Little Mermaid. I was speechless. Disney had been pulling the wool over childrens' eyes since 1989. As much as I wanted to expose this deception to the others, there was no time -- people were already suiting up for the night dive.
By this point, I was so tired I could barely string a coherent sentence together. Instead of listening to my body, I powered through. Big mistake. After removing a piece of my weight belt, I made it to the bottom with my buoyancy in shambles. An invisible hand kept pulling me toward the surface against my will. The dive computer had fogged and I was having trouble reading it with my flashlight. Terrified of ascending too quickly without a safety stop, I kicked and struggled to keep myself at the bottom. Well on my way to panic-mode, I had no choice but to abort the dive.
Wilson gave me a pep talk back at the ship, reminding me that the first day is always a challenge. Four dives within twelve hours is a lot for anyone, and it is important to follow your intuition even if it means missing an adventure. Fatigue can make a person sloppy, which is not an option under the sea. As stressful and disappointing as it would be to miss a dive, it just isn't worth compromising safety. Lesson learned.