Costa RicaCosta Rica

Living with Lionfish

Destination: Puerto Viejo

On our way out to Punta Uva, I counted 10-12 surfers tackling the intimidating Salsa Brava reef break. As much as I love to surf, there isn't enough money in the world to convince me to tackle these waves at my current intermediate level; they looked downright dangerous.

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In my opinion, large waves aren't that bothersome -- I can just hold my breath if I get tangled up in one. What truly scares me are the reefs and rocks that occasionally break bones and boards. Only one or two of the surfers in the water today seemed like pros; everyone else repeatedly wiped out mere seconds after mounting their boards. I would have to work my way up to surfing the Salsa Brava someday in the very distant future.

Nevertheless, we weren't here to surf: we were here to dive. First, we sped out to the coral wall at Punta Uva. We found lots of colorful creatures to chase after with my camera (now one of my favorite underwater pastimes). Normally I can only expend so much energy in this manner without using up my air faster than everyone else in the group, but today the other divers were spear fishing -- an activity that requires a lot of movement -- so they were sucking down oxygen too.

We dove down about 80 feet, and observed rare black coral, enormous groupers, lobsters and anemones. I watched the hunters spear two medium-sized yellow tails, and tried to keep my distance from their enormous spear guns that seemed more than slightly dangerous. The sport was also a little too violent for me -- I used to be a vegetarian, and had just recently acclimated to catching fish with a pole and line.

Suddenly, one of the dive masters grabbed my fin and led me to the sandy bottom. Sitting there in the crevice of a rock was a graceful striped lionfish. Unfortunately, the effect these creatures have on the Caribbean ocean is not as beautiful as their physical appearance.

Lionfish are indigenous to the Indian and Pacific Oceans, and are thought to have been accidentally introduced to these waters when Hurricane Andrew demolished a Florida aquarium in 1992. Non-native to the Caribbean Sea, they are considered a critically invasive species. One of the most venomous fish in the sea, lionfish can effortlessly pulverize two and a half acres of reef-- and all of the animals subsisting on it -- in as little as five weeks. Because time is a crucial factor, the only viable solution to the problem is to hunt and kill them. Crocodive is in the process of becoming a field station to work toward this goal, and save the reef before it is too late.

After observing the lionfish, we all noticed our tanks were nearly empty. Ascending, I could see droplets of water bouncing off the surface -- while we were busy diving below, a storm had been brewing up above. It was pouring as we boarded the boat, and it looked like it was only going to get worse. I mentally scolded myself for toting along my notebook and backpack, which were now sopping wet.

Our crew hightailed it back to Puerto Viejo -- but we still had Rescue Diver exercises to complete. Since today was my last day, we had no choice but to brave the choppy waters. So long as there wasn't lighting, we could manage.

This ended up being the best physical exercise I've had in months -- far better than any session at the gym. The exercises are normally designed for calm waters, but I had the benefit of attempting them in highly realistic conditions. Strong waves slapped us around, and it was challenging for just one person to stay afloat -- let alone two.

I practiced a variety of techniques and simulations, my favorite being the "lost man" activity. This involves descending to the ocean floor with a partner who holds a spool of rope. My partner remained still while I took a length of rope and made circles around him, looking for the lost man. When the circle was finished, he released more rope and I repeated the procedure. The point of the activity was to avoid getting lost and separated in murky waters -- a wise move considering the poor visibility in this shallow bay.

As we finished up, Roch explained that I would need to practice dragging a limp body short distances on dry land. Interestingly, Crocodive can no longer teach this lesson in public -- there had been multiple incidents where spectators had watched a student struggle to pull Roch's seemingly lifeless body out of the water, and proceeded to call the police -- thinking it was a real emergency. We would practice this back at the dive shop, to avoid creating an unnecessary panic. On the way back to Playa Chiquita, I stopped at Puerto Viejo's bus station to buy the next day's ticket to San Jose. Since there are few departures each day, it is always good to purchase tickets 24 hours in advance, whenever possible.

My sore muscles were screaming for me to go to bed, but I was not quite ready --I still had dinner to look forward to. Louis had been bragging all week how his lunch cafe, Pititas (which is temporarily closed for repairs), serves up the best cheeseburger in the world. After enough teasing, Louis finally agreed to make one especially for me -- and I would be the judge.

He was right -- the burger was phenomenal. Dripping with mozzarella cheese, carmelized onions, and all the fixin's, I happily conceded Louis' point.

This was a delicious way to end my trip. Tomorrow I would be on my way back to the Pacific, but would always hold fond memories of my visit to Costa Rica's Caribbean coast.

Living with Lionfish in Pictures

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