We got to Santa Catalina, on the Pacific coast, late at night. Too late for supper or a last drink. Which was too bad because we were both bone tired and some sustenance would have been welcome. Next morning was go go go, we woke up to a great view but we had to get going pronto. The dive shop was expecting us at eight.
We chose to dive with Coiba Dive Center. Why? To be honest it’s one of those things, luck of the draw. We wanted the Coiba island experience and we found two shops that offered it, except that the first one we called said they were going to a conference or something when we were there, but the second one answered promptly, were really nice, and were like, ok, let’s make this happen. So we went with Coiba Dive Center, and no I’m not getting a cut of anything they sell.
The history of Coiba island is a bit grim. Today it is the largest island/natural park of the Americas, but not too long ago it was a prison island. The story goes that the prisoners that died there were sometimes fed to the sharks to ensure a healthy shark population and deter escape attempts. As the island is about an hour away by speedboat, I think the odds of swimming the distance rather remote, and so the story is suspect, but who knows, maybe the occasional cadaver did get a sailor’s funeral. Some prisoners apparently escaped on rafts, though what they did once they reached the coast and the jungle is unclear. Today, asides from park rangers and monkeys, no one lives on Coiba, and the fishing is heavily restricted (we did see a boat of poachers however). The environment is thus pretty pristine, additionally it looks like a cold bottom current surfaces around the island and brings a lot of nutrients, it makes for food rich waters and tons of fishes. Really. Tons. I’m talking frickin’ moving walls of barracudas and storms of jacks. It also attracts “the big stuff”, manta rays, all kinds of sharks, whales… You can see why we went.
We packed a three day bag and settled on the open air boat for the hour long ride. A second boat brought all the supplies we would need for the three days. A generator provided electricity during the night, and you knew it was time to get up when the fans in the dorm stopped working. It was not advertised as a luxury trip and it wasn’t, conditions were pretty spartan and we bunked with other divers.
My gopro doesn’t like low light, but you get the point. However it was not all slugging it out in the trenches, Rosie our cook kept us well fed with her tasty meals, the boat crews handled all the gear and our DM Cory was knowledgeable and super nice below and above the waves. Cheers to all of them.
The typical day started with breakfast at 0700 and by 0800 we were on the boats moving, after the first dive, a surface interval on a secluded beach, second dive, lunch back at the camp and one more dive in the afternoon. After the last dive, because we are not savages, we would stop on a deserted islet or other and enjoy a well earned beer.
Nothing gets the taste of salt water out of your mouth as efficiently as beer. After that it was back to the camp for supper, and some free time before hitting the sheets and doing it again. Nine dives over three days.
We met some cool people, Bonne from the Netherlands, Jessiebear and Emily from London, as well as Angel and Bentres from Spain (we drank most of their rum one night, so thank you gents and salud).
Spending even just three days on a beach ringed jungle island exposes you to all sorts of things, we were bullied by a tribe of Capuchin monkeys while on a short hike, saw wild sea water alligators mere feet away from our dorm, and learned that the bay where we sometimes chilled between dives and boarded our boat every morning was at night visited by crocs. Swimming at night was strictly verboten. Skimming a light beam just above the surface would make the reptilian eyes shine in the darkness. There were crocs on some of the islands where we stopped for breaks or beers as well. You did not get the fluffy bunny hippie nature feeling, so much as the something will try to eat you nature feeling.
You may wonder if in such an environment bugs might be an issue. The answer is yes.
I even had bites on the soles of my feet, and I’m sure it would have been even worse had I not bathed in insect repellent. At this point there’s only one thing to do, apply Benadryl in stick form and whatever you do, do not scratch.
The dives themselves were challenging. These were clearly not for beginners. Though as Luis pointed out (that would be the extremely helpful and customer oriented owner of the Sol y Mar hotel where we stayed in Santa Catalina itself), life is not for beginners. Still, the dives were demanding, but worth it. Big time. Every dive, even the ones where you screw up a little or are difficult, make you a better diver.
For starters the water got frequently cold to the point of intensely unpleasant. Granted I’m a wuss, but a full 7mm with a hood would have gone a long way to making my dives more enjoyable. I just was not expecting this, and the shorty over a long 3mm just did not (for me) cut it. Above the thermoclyne you were okay, but once you crossed that oily threshold the glacial waters began. I found the cold water particularly hard on my eardrums as well, but maybe that was just the tale end of a cold or something. There was also quite a bit of current at certain sites. Enough to hold you in place even while fining vigorously or dump you out into the open ocean if you were not careful. Finally visibility was often, how shall I say, piss poor, yes that’s it. So if you took but 10 seconds to get a closer look at something you could loose the group. And we did. Viz under 10 feet, green water heavy with particles, stop to check out a cool critter and we were alone. Of course the group must have been just around the next rock spur, but there was no way to know where. Not even bubble columns were visible. So it’s nice to be up to date on all your basic protocols, like search for a minute than slowly ascend.
But did we see hammerhead sharks? I know some of you are wondering, but (insert diver’s frustrated arrrrgh here) no we did not. There were sightings just days before but no luck for us. We did see tons of white tip sharks, many dolphins (always a big yay), so many eels that you got complacent, including a rare one, smaller, called the jeweled eel.
It was also puffer fish paradise, not to mention the seahorses and the frog fish, including a tiny baby one. I need to get a better camera… There were also other things we were less familiar with.
And rays, all kinds of rays, we did not see the manta (arrrrrgh) but schools of eagle rays (video when we get back home), stingrays, and the electric shock giving bull’s eye ray among others.
This post really does not do justice to the adventure that was Isla Coiba. Yes, it was on the rough and ready side, but it was an awesome experience. I will post some videos when I can, but overall, the take away is if you can, do it. Coiba Dive Center were awesome, and Cory (aka the DM with a spoon) was personable, professional and erudite. Do not expect Caribbean conditions, the Pacific is a different beast and it is awesome. Sorry for the typos, I’m not editing this, I think it’s time for a beer. Also the trees around our house are infested with monkeys. Plus I just walked around barefoot a little nervously in the backyard/jungle because snakes are assholes. In the words our the caretaker here: Poisonous snakes? Yes, very big ones.