Cocos 2011

It was Al's big four oh, and having cruised LIDS earlier in the year, the choice for the diving holiday distilled down to Cocos or Bali. Rather than me make the decision (I knew where I wanted to go), I simply said to her "Which one will you regret not doing? Which one will make you say 'I wish we'd gone to....'?"
So, that was it. Decision made. We were off to Cocos. Game on!

In true devilgas fashion, it was all pretty much last minute. Most people book this trip more than 12 months in advance. Transpose months into weeks and that was us!

We booked through Sportif, who were brilliant throughout (thanks Jo & Jane!), for the Wind Dancer trip departing for Cocos on the 30th September 2011.

What follows will be a tips / stuff you need to know based 'review' but will purposely miss out the actual dives. As with my similar omissions in the Martyn Farr C&OE course review, I feel it is unfair to include them here. If you really want to know about them, google "Cocos" with "Dos Amigos", "Dirty Rock", "Viking Rock", "Alcyone", "Manuelita", "Punta Maria" and "Ulloa". One does get mentioned much later, but that's simply because it HAS to be mentioned.

Getting There
Our flights were with British Airways, however it transpired that it was a 'One World' code share and the flights were actually with Iberia. Not a problem, except when it comes to baggage. BA allow you 23kg in the hold and 23kg for cabin, with a generous cabin bag size. However, code share and small print, puts you onto the Iberia baggage limits which is 23kg and 10kg respectively. Unfortunately we hadn't seen the small print so weren't aware of the reduced cabin limit.
My main bag was bang on 23kg, my Bergen hand luggage was 16kg (cameras, regs, electronics etc). The flight out wasn't a problem - the cabin baggage wasn't weighed. The flight back was a different story, and I was pinged for $60 for excess baggage in Costa Rica. Weirdly, this was still marginally cheaper than pre-paying.
So, the lesson from this is to find out who operates the aluminium tube you're traveling in and to pack accordingly or to arrange excess / additional baggage in advance (depending where you think you might get caught).
On-line check-in with Iberia was a pain in the arse. You can only do it when there is less than 24hrs to your flight. Trying to get this done in Costa Rica was worse as the Iberia website was down for the best part of 12hrs.

First flight was Heathrow to Madrid, taking about 2hrs. Second was Madrid to San Jose. This one was around 10.5 hrs. I'm used to flying long haul with carriers such as Emirates and SAA. Iberia was a definite step down. Bizarrely, they play classical music when the plane is taking off and landing.
This shows why I don't run an airline. I'd be playing Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries (helicopter scene in Apocalypse Now for those not instantly familiar with the title) just to get people rattled.
Madrid airport is expensive. Maccy D's is the best option if you want food or drinks and not feel like you've been robbed. Take a 2 pin Euro adaptor just in case you have a longer stop-over in Madrid and need to charge iStuff™.

San Jose
The Dancer Fleet pick up from 2 hotels. The Alta and the Indigo. We overnighted at the Alta. Official orange cabs can be hired just before you exit the airport building. The ride to the hotel was $28, with our man taking a number of shortcuts to beat the lengthy rush hour queues. We booked the same guy for the reciprocal journey on our return. Less traffic meant the fare was $26.
The Alta is a new hotel (built around 1996) but constructed in a unique, pleasing olde worlde style. It is situated on one of the hills leading out of San Jose which leaves it about 1 mile from the nearest shops / restaurants etc. That said, the restaurant in the Alta produces excellent, well priced food. Free wifi is available - ask for the code from reception - as are internet pc's for you to print boarding passes etc. The staff we saw were all extremely helpful.
The hotel has a small gym and a pool which are useful if you have a long wait for the transfer bus. Other than the distance from other 'stuff', the only downer was the Continental breakfast. Not sure what continent it was from, but it was a disappointment.

Transfer to Puntarenas
The hotel to port transfer takes about 2 hrs, picking up at the Alta first and the Indigo second. The Indigo is more centrally located with a wide choice of eateries surrounding it. Rudi was our driver on the trip to Punta, giving lots of info about Costa Rica, the rainforests etc. He also offers activities for the return journey. A river trip costing $45 or a zip-line-through-the-forest trip for $65

Getting to Cocos
Isla Cocos is about 340 miles from the port in Costa Rica. This translates into a 32-36 hour boat trip, so prep yourself beforehand with whatever you need to keep you occupied or to stop you puking your ring. Sea sickness meds are available on board. The boat tends to corkscrew through the water and the crossing can get rough. It's pointless bitching about it as it's a necessary evil, just like the stroll to the Silica Mines on Martyn Farr's cavern course.

Cocos is a rain forest. It gets about 7,000mm of rain per year. When the sun does shine, it's equatorial, so very intense. High factor sun lotion is advised if you're going to spend more than 10mins in the sun. The air temps in October were always warm (around 20c), so shorts and t-shirt were standard throughout the trip.
Anti malarial (at time of our travel) was the cheap as chips Chloroquine. Only mossies I saw were in Costa Rica and on Cocos itself, but neither of us got bitten.
You will probably get the chance to visit the island. There is normally a fee for this, however as we took Park Rangers to the island, mooring and visitor fees were waived. You may also get the opportunity to have your passport stamped with the Cocos Island stamp. It's a unique opportunity which we took advantage of.
It's worthwhile going to the island, if only to stretch the legs. There are various walks there, but they are very much weather dependent.

The Wind Dancer
The Wind Dancer is operated by the Dancer fleet. She's a steel hulled ocean going vessel, sleeping 22 guests plus crew. Below decks are 8 double cabins. Top deck has 2 master suites, crew quarters and the wheelhouse. The middle deck is devoted to the lounge, kitchen and the owner's suite.

The below decks cabins are similar in style to late 1990's high-end Red Sea liveaboards (Miss Nouran, Coral Queen etc). They have a double and single bed in a 1 up 1 down arrangement. There is ample storage for your gear / clothing etc. Power is provided by a single double socket (USA adaptor required) located about chest height on one wall, pumping out 110v. I'd advise taking a lightweight extension lead if you intend plugging more than 1 device in. Additional charging stations, including 240v, can be found in the main lounge and they request you use these if charging gear while it is left unattended.

The bathroom consists of a bog and a shower, but is not a 'wet' room as is common on RS liveaboards. A sink is located in the cabin rather than the bathroom. The cabins have AC, although it is centrally located and serves all below decks cabins at the same time. There is no TV or audio in the cabins. I viewed it as a place to get my head down, drop the kids at the pool and to prep camera gear.

The middle deck contains the lounge. It has a PC and a MAC for guests use. There is also a large LCD TV for showing movies etc. The majority of the lounge is devoted to seating for meals. There are plenty of books, games and magazines on board.

Courtesy of blue O two, I've got accustomed to the upper deck having a second, chill-out lounge. This is not the case on the Wind Dancer. There is outdoor seating (covered) & sun beds but this area is also the designated cancer zone, so was rarely used by us.

The dive deck has dedicated camera rinse tanks and a large dedicated camera table. There is a low pressure hose & blower with which to drive water from ports / housings etc. Only downside is that people seem to think that using the blower whilst their wet camera is sat *on* the camera table is OK. It's not. It blows water onto cameras that have already been blown dry or worse, have been opened. To this end, don't leave your camera on the camera table unless it's watertight.

This may be obvious, but make sure you have some silica sachets to put inside your housing. A few on our trip didn't and had the obligatory fogged front glass as a result. Just as well I carry a fair few of these isn't it?

Breakfast and lunch were always buffet style, with breakfast eggs cooked to order (don't ask for poached unless you can explain it in Spanish!). Dinner, except during the 36hr crossings, was table service. The food was of a good standard, and plenty was available. If you have special dietary needs (vegetarian etc) then you may need a bit of patience. Meals and dive briefings were announced with the ubiquitous liveaboard Pavlovian bell.
A post dive snack was always provided as were packs of crisps, biscuits etc in the lounge. Hot and cold soft drinks and alcohol were all freely accessible. As is the norm, a beer means you're finished diving for the day.

Diving Arrangements
Unless you specifically want air, they will assume that all nitrox qualified divers will dive devilgas. For the 7 days of diving, this will add $150 to your bill (plus 13% tax).
The diving is generally in the 25-35m range, so going oxygen rich is very worthwhile. The mix was usually 28% or 29% and they want you to run it at a max ppO2 of 1.4 bar. It'll gain you an hour or so of extra bottom time over the 7 days.
All diving is non mandatory stop diving, with the usual 3 @ 5 safety stop. Given you're over 340 miles from the nearest chamber, the no mandatory stops thing is a necessary evil.

Each diver is issued with an EPIRB, and its use is demonstrated. Each diver should also carry a DSMB (safety sow-sage as it was described by the guide) and a whistle / dive alert.
Given the remoteness of where you are diving these are essential. Strobes are also recommended.
As far as DSMB's go, I'd strongly suggest getting the tallest and fattest you can find and firing it off as you start your ascent. It wasn't uncommon to surface into 2m+ swells, so giving the boat driver the best chance of seeing you is the order of the day.
80 cu ft cylinders are the norm. Translating this into proper English means you're diving a 12L cylinder, pumped to 210 bar. They're ally, so an extra 2kg or so will be required on the weight belt. 15L are available on pre-order. Twins "aren't catered for".
The tanks are A-clamp (Dancer Fleet - please change this!!), so if you dive DIN, you'll need an adaptor. Worn o-rings were a common problem and one of my pet hates - I swapped to DIN back in 1998 for this very reason.

Diving is from 2 pangas (RHIBs) with divers being allocated to either panga 1 or panga 2. Once your gear is prep'd, it's transferred to the panga, where it will stay for the week. Flippers etc are removed each night.
There is ample space at the front of each panga for camera gear. Our panga usually went out with 3 SLRs, 2 video cameras and 3 or 4 compacts. Each panga has a ladder allowing you to get back in the boat fully kitted, sans flippers.
Entry to the water seemed a bit hap-hazard. I'm used to a regimented approach where either all divers roll in at the same time, or if the boat is crowded, 2 waves roll in (alternate divers). They may have their reasons for doing things the way they do, but I collided lightly with another diver at least 3 times during the week. Nothing major, but still, un-necessary contact.
Tanks are filled in-situ on the pangas, with the boat driver doing the nitrox analysis while you watch.

Both pangas will do the same sites, though not at the same time. This can cause some friction when one boat sees loads of stuff, while the other comes up with diddly. The groups are split in this way to limit the number of divers on each site, which decreases the chances of the wildlife being scared away. So, again, a necessary evil, but there is a very real danger that an 'us and them' situation can arise.

You are asked to be back on the surface with 40-50bar. Whilst this may seem conservative, you can occasionally find you have a 10 min wait before being picked up. Add in a 2m swell, and it's nice to be able to leave the reg in your chops without concerning yourself with when that first tight draw appears. That said, after the first 2 days, dive times are generally limited by no-stop times rather than gas supply. Head in to head out time is a max of 55mins and 35mins for the night dives.

You should get the opportunity to do 3 or 4 night dives. If you're very lucky, you'll get everyone on the panga to STFU for a minute or so so that you can listen to the forest away from the continual hum of the Wind Dancer.
The dive on Manuelita Garden is very much worth doing. I won't say why, but you only get the one chance to do it. Again, if you want to spoil the surprise, google "Cocos Manuelita night dive".

Dive Suit
The water was between 26c and 30c while we were there. This is very much shorty / shorts'n't-shirt territory for me. I did however use my full length 3mm 'sharking' wetsuit. Why?
2 reasons:
1 - we'd learnt, from diving in South Africa, that bare arms and lower legs can look remarkably like a bite sized fish to a shark. Covering these 'white bits' lowers the risk of a shark making a poor judgment call between scaly fish and shaven chimp.
2 - protection. The rocks here are not covered in coral, but covered in large barnacles. They act like a double bastard file on any bare flesh. For this reason, gloves are also a good idea. A lot of dives will see you in currents or hefty swells. Either using a reef hook or just gripping the rock with a hand is the way to go.

Pay very close attention to the dive brief. Especially listen to the bit about cleaning stations. Being able to recognise these will make your trip.
Do NOT chase the animals. Hammerheads are curious, but easily spooked. Swim towards one and the chances are it'll exit stage left at a rate of knots and won't come back.
I cannot emphasise this enough - Do NOT chase the animals.

If you find you have a shark chaser in your group, get medieval on their ass...
Our group had a shark chaser. I'd noticed 'it' on the first dive. I saw someone swim towards a turtle, video camera thrust forward. It turned and swam off. I saw the same person do this with a hamster. It turned and swam off. I then twigged who it was. The process would get repeated. She'd see a shark, swim at it, it'd bugger off.
The final straw came when we were doing our 3@5 on one particular dive. A hamster came to eyeball us. I carefully got the camera ready for what was bound to be a nice close encounter, only to see the shark chaser materialise on my left (turns out we'd been unknowingly DSMB mugged) and swim straight at the shark. The hamster f*cked off. Back on the panga, I let rip. It didn't go down well. Tough.
We'd spent £7k on this trip and I was not about to let a moron ruin every dive.

That, ladies and gents, is how not to do it.

This is how to do it....
Find yourself a cleaning station. You did listen to the brief on what to look for didn't you? Now, find a rock you can perch on by the side of said cleaning station then sit and wait. Don't sit in the middle of the cleaning station. That's like putting a bacon buttie in the entrance to a Kosher restaurant. If possible, become the rock. The sharks know where the cleaning stations are. If you're nicely 'hidden' they'll completely ignore you. Swim into the blue though and any sharks that were there will disappear.
It's not difficult, but it only takes one dumbass to mess it all up. Doing my Derren Brown bit, I know you're thinking "shark chaser with video camera?". Yep, you're right. She pulled this trick as well, which earned another bollocking from me.

Remember to look all around you, and to look above as well. One of my problems is that I dive behind a lens. This means I'm always looking for a target and forget to look above. This is especially important on Alcyone.

As mentioned at the top of this page, it would be unfair to describe each of the dive sites, however there is one that needs to be briefly mentioned. Alcyone. It was discovered by Jaques Cousteau, whilst using an echo sounder on his 'other' boat. The boat's name? Alcyone. It is basically a raised rock that sits at a depth of 25-35m and is a hammerhead magnet. Here, you need eyes looking everywhere, especially above you.
Again, I won't go into detail about this site, but it is the best non-metal dive site I've ever been to, and must surely rank in the world's top 10.

Alcyone is the reason to come to Cocos.

If you want to see sharks, generally, you need currents. Sharks like currents.
Most dives will be subjected to a current of some description. If you hate currents, then Cocos probably isn't for you. That said, the currents you dive in aren't that intense. Sure, you can barrel along at 5kts when diving the channel between Manuelita Deep and Cocos, and need to pick your exit point. Sure you can get subjected to a washing machine effect at times, but these are the rarities.
Currents are good. How you dive in them determines how much you'll hate them. Stick close to the rocks and you'll stay out of the worst of it. Swim in the blue and you're asking for it.

Random Money Stuff
Nitrox $150 + 13% tax
Park Fees $225 cash (ours were included in the trip price)
DVD $65 + 13% tax
t-shirt $25 + 13% tax
departure tax $26

I took $800 which was enough to pay for the extras on the boat (our marine park fees had already been paid up front), taxis, departure tax, meals etc, but was not enough to cover tips. Consequently, I used cash for everything except the boat bill ($441 - 2x nitrox, 1x DVD, 1x t-shirt + 13% tax). This was paid for with a credit card.
It's worth taking Euros if your flights go via Madrid. US dollars are widely accepted in Costa Rica. Euros much less so.

Would I go back?
The 'Cocos Problem' is that I went there with insanely high expectations. Everything I'd read, watched or was told was: "Cocos is THE place for hammerheads", "you're going at the best time of the year for encounters", "we had schools of hundreds of hammerheads", "you'll see hammerheads on just about every dive" etc etc. Firmly in my head, was the desire to get the 'classic' hammerhead shot. Several hundred cruising overhead, backlit by the sun. Add in that I expected lots of very close encounters, and you can see where my sights were set.

This didn't allow for the 'shark chaser effect' though.

So, if you'd asked me the question after the first 4 days, the 4 days where I hadn't done anything about the shark chaser, then I'd have said "unlikely". However after having the bust up with Miss Shark Chaser and doing our own thing (be the rock), things dramatically improved. The final 3 days were great and showed just what Cocos is capable of. It's just a shame it took me 4 days to realise what the problem was and to do something about it. Still didn't get the classic shot though, but that's because I wasn't looking up enough.

Did we regret not going to Bali? Uhhhh, no.

So, would I go back?
In a heartbeat!

v1.0.2 3rd Nov 2011 Update to cylinder charging pressure & water temps
v1.0.1 30th Oct 2011 Update to excess baggage charge
v1 27th Oct 2011 Page created

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