Costa RicaCosta Rica

Day 5: Shark Soup

Destination: Puntarenas

Only one coherent thought ran through my brain throughout the entire sixty-minute night dive: "@%."

Hundreds and hundreds of white tip reef sharks swarmed the ocean floor, breaking off large chunks of coral in search of trapped or injured fish. One white tip wrapped its jaws around a red creole, but was instantly pounced by fifty backstabbing brothers trying to steal its hard-earned meal. The water was electric. Right on top of the action, I could almost taste that fish.

Energy coursed through the water and through every cell of my body. It bounced off the sharks and the other divers and back to me in an invisible game of pinball. With my flashlight turned off, every feverish movement illuminated a trail of plankton that glowed like phosphorescent fairy dust.

And to think that I had almost chickened out of this. Earlier that day, I had taken a two-hour nap on the sundeck to rest up for the feeding frenzy. At 6:00 p.m., the speedboat driver helped me and less than half of my team (everyone else was "too tired") onto the skiff. We motored just a few hundred feet toward Manuelita Island, and one by one my mates entered the water and disappeared into the depths.

I stared tentatively into the ocean. Aside from ambient light reflecting off the surface, I saw only darkness below. The last of my team submerged, and in the distance a supernatural blue cloud glowed from their flashlights. Ignoring the butterflies in my stomach, I jumped into obscurity and swam toward the haze.

All I could see underwater was a narrow beam of plankton illuminated by my flashlight. Up, down, left and right all looked the same, and it took immense focus not to get turned around. In my brain, the voice of the Little Engine That Could repeated: "Just keep swimming straight, just keep swimming straight" in lieu of "I think I can, I think I can." Eager to find safety in numbers, I swam as fast as my flippers allowed.

After what seemed like an eternity -- but in reality couldn't have been more than a minute -- I joined up with the group. Manuelita was completely transformed by layers upon layers of predators weaving in and out of the rocks.

Until this moment I had only seen white tip reef sharks swimming peacefully alone or in small groups -- during the day. Tonight they were on the prowl in numbers larger than I could count, zipping around the coral like angry bees to a hive. The sight was more exquisite than I ever could have imagined, and it somehow eliminated my anxiety instead of intensifying it.

bigscale soldierfishWhile I'm not usually a big fan of violence, I must admit the carnage was intoxicating. I had heard people describe situations as "charged" in the past, but never fully understood what they meant until now. The excitement after dark at Cocos Island was palpable, and it swallowed me whole.

At one point about thirty white tips jammed themselves into one crevice -- like a cork in a bottle. I could imagine them collectively thinking, "Oh, crap." The sharks thrashed about for about a minute and then gave up completely, stuck and helpless with their tails exposed. As tempting as it was to pull one, I didn't dare. Finally they slipped out, one by one, on their own.

Every now and then someone would fall too close, and a fin or a tail would brush against their body as a gentle reminder to keep their distance. With so much chaos, it was all too easy to forget Wilson's one recommendation: always levitate at least three feet above the fray. Not a single one of us wanted to get between those ravenous mouths and their dinner.

king angelfishAfter a while the other divers began to ascend. It seemed like 20 minutes had passed, but my dive watch read 50. Fifteen feet below the surface I paused for the safety stop. At that moment, my flashlight became a magnet for millions of tiny neon worms, all fighting each other for position. When every possible space on the bulb was covered, they swarmed my hand. This tickled so much that I turned it off until reaching the surface.

I propelled myself onto the skiff in a daze. My head was spinning, and I was so high on adrenaline that I might have sprouted wings and flown away. I vaguely remember screaming at no one in particular, "THAT WAS THE COOLEST THING I HAVE EVER SEEN IN MY LIFE!"

Back on the Sea Hunter, I ran into Iris. Still reeling from the experience, she said, "I've seen sharks in action before, but nothing so intense. That was insane -- that was like shark soup."

Day 5: Shark Soup in Pictures