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The Forza Italiana

Destination: Puntarenas

As I dropped past the fuzzy thermocline where the warm water collides with the cold, two scalloped hammerheads materialized less than 20 feet away. Having never viewed these creatures outside of the Discovery Channel, it was like seeing a pair of unicorns. They were surprisingly timid for such large animals, taking one look at the bubbles coming from our group before turning around and returning to the depths.

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I kicked myself for not snapping a picture of this close sighting, but in the moment all I could do was stare. Watching the sharks swing their mallet-shaped heads from side to side morphed my camera into nothing but a useless hunk of plastic. In their presence, setting the viewfinder and clicking 'record' suddenly became far too complicated.

With built-in GPS systems that could outperform any Garmin, scalloped hammerheads are able to follow the earth's electromagnetic field like a roadmap. Because they must swim to breathe -- there is no scientific evidence that they ever sleep -- they are always on the move, and easy to identify by their distinct sashay. With eyes on either side of their faces, they have to swivel their heads 180 degrees right, then 180 degrees left to see what is directly in front of them. For humans, this would be equivalent to having eyes on our ears (try moving your head like that and you'll quickly become dizzy).

After two smooth morning dives at Punta Maria and Dirty Rock, we tried our luck at Manuelita Channel. On the speedboat I met a trio of best friends from Italy, who had completed thousands of dives together: Maurizio, Giuseppe and Roberto. Ten years ago they were donned "the Forza Italiana," the "Italian Force" in Italian, by their dive leader on a trip to Cocos Island with the Undersea Hunter Group. Feeling out of my league on our second day at Cocos, I latched onto Maurizio and asked him to be my new dive buddy.

Conditions in the channel were fantastic. Panamic soldierfish, bright red creoles, barberfish and Moorish idols were everywhere. The sheer quantity of white tip reef sharks was overwhelming: perfect photography fodder. A huge Galapagos shark swam by, and I held my breath until it passed. The creature was surreal, and I couldn't believe how lucky I was to be sharing the water with it.

With so much to see and take pictures of, my air gauge shot from 3,000 PSI to 500 PSI in no time. Since it takes at least five to fifteen minutes to come up slowly, it is always a good idea to start an ascent with twice that amount. I began to rise, and true to his buddy promise, Maurizio separated from the group to come up with me.

Saying goodbye to the water wonderland was difficult enough, but within a few minutes we saw two massive black sea turtles and a line of marble rays, three feet in diameter, fluttering single file below. This was the icing on the cake.

In their Connoisseurs' guide to Cocos Island, Simon Rogerson and Douglas David Seifert perfectly describe what happened next: "Faced with distractions such as these, it's all too easy to lose track of mundane considerations such as air and time." I made a dumb split decision to jet back down. Since the dive had been fairly shallow, I figured that if worse came to worst I could cut my safety stop short on the way up.

By the time I began my second ascent, I realized that the beautiful creatures had literally taken my breath away -- I was almost out of air. As a backup Maurizio was right by my side in case I needed to share his tank, and I was able to linger at 15 feet for the recommended amount of time. Crisis averted.

Back at the Sea Hunter the two submarine operators, Arak and Shmulik, were waiting to take us on a sunset tour. Sara, Marcos and I sped off on their skiff as one million and one birds buzzed over the island. They took us past countless caves and waterfalls along the rock's steep sides, and when the boat stopped we climbed onto the roof for better views. On the way back, the sailboats in Wafer Bay were nothing but dark silhouettes against a pink sky, and Manuelita Island's profile looked like an ugly pirate face. There was no place I would rather be.

The Forza Italiana in Pictures

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