Costa RicaCosta Rica

Dolphins at Dirty Rock

Destination: Puntarenas

Something sharp pierced my leg as I snapped a close-up of the Moray eel -- I had accidentally bumped into a black sea urchin. Reaching down to touch it, I brushed up against a rock and felt a second jolt of pain. Wilson's voice echoed in my head "if you don't get any 'tattoos' from urchin spikes, then you haven't really been to Cocos Island. Don't worry, the mark only lasts about a day." Although it was a little uncomfortable, I was secretly glad to complete this rite of passage.

read more close

The sting seemed to forecast good luck and phenomenal diving at Dirty Rock. Dolphins followed our boat to the site, and several lingered to perform acrobatics and then mate. (Afterward we were skeptical as to whether they were playing or mating, but one of the other divers assured us -- in his thick Spanish accent -- that he indeed "saw its penis a couple of times.")

Dirty Rock's dramatic cliffs and valleys made us feel like we were flying. We soared around the underwater mountain peak along with a dozen eagle rays. The sound of squeaking dolphins was a nice change from the usual Darth Vader breathing soundtrack. Yellowfin tuna hunted right before our eyes, and it was only a matter of time before they noticed the approaching school of bigeye jacks. White tip reef sharks, leather bass and creoles were ubiquitous. One, five and then eight curious hammerheads came to investigate, swimming by with their signature twitch.

With so much simultaneous movement within our visual field, the dive team was in ecstasy. Roberto opened his arms wide as if beckoning the jacks to encircle him. They obeyed like magic, making him the new nucleus of their fish tornado. Contentedly watching with his arms crossed above his chest, he looked like a wizard or a genie.

When the jacks tired of Roberto, they began circling me. There were thousands and thousands of them, some the size of my torso, and in their silvery bodies I could see millions of reflections of even more jacks. My eyes didn't know how to process this; it was like peering into infinity.

Fish swirled around my tank like snowflakes caught in a vortex, and I found myself spinning along with them until I was dizzy. The school was so thick that for several seconds I couldn't see anything but silver -- no ocean backdrop, no rocky seamount, no other divers. It was just me and the jacks and the momentum of whatever invisible force kept them moving.

It must have been the sound of singing bottlenose dolphins that snapped me out of my trevally trance. With so much going on, I'm surprised that I remembered to check my air consumption. I had 800 psi, plenty to make a leisurely ascent. A hammerhead appeared to say goodbye, and I watched it shake off a fish that had latched onto its gills. Then it was gone.

And just like that, the starburst dissipated. The dive was over.

We all glowed during lunch at the Sea Hunter. The eruption of life had been sudden and unexpected, and we could only hope that Cocos Island would continue unveiling even more sweet surprises.

That afternoon, Roberto and Guiseppe went on the submarine and Maurizio skipped the next dive to relax. The rest of us went to Lobster Rock in search of the Cocos batfish, an endemic species that looks like it is wearing lipstick.

Because the water was atypically warm, we failed to find any. However we did uncover Commerson's frogfish, a fish that looks remarkably like a sponge. These creatures can sit in the same spot for weeks upon end, expertly blending in with their surroundings. We stumbled upon a solitary female marble ray (females normally travel with a large posse of males, so finding one alone was a bit odd). On the way to the line I found a giant Moray eel with a hole in its throat, and then two tiger shark teeth buried in the sand.

At the surface, I decided to take advantage of the Italians' absence for a prank. "Let's all pretend that we saw two tiger sharks, and they missed it! That really ought to make them cry." We spent the next ten minutes collaborating details. Pulling up to the Sea Hunter, Iris made a last-minute change to the story. "On second thought, let's tell them we just saw one tiger shark. They'll never buy it if we say two" she said. Iris was right. No one would believe we saw two tigers -- particularly not during an El Nino event.

Little did we know what the ocean had in store for us the following day. Cocos Island has a strange sense of humor.

Dolphins at Dirty Rock in Pictures

Best Hotel Deals in Costa Rica!

Get up to 30% off Hotels & Resorts worldwide compared to other major booking sites like Expedia and Priceline with our exclusive pricing ...