Cost Rica, Cocos Islands

When we booked our trip to Costa Rica and Cocos Island we knew we where in for an adventure but the reality far exceeded our expectations.  Tropical, exotic, exciting and incredible hardly do this country justice.  Cocos Island is prehistoric, verdant, raw and it makes the Hawaiian Islands look arid.  In a one mile stretch we counted 14 waterfalls along its sheer cliff sides.  In two weeks we witnessed nature’s wonders including hammerheads in the hundreds, a whale shark, humming birds, monkeys and an active volcano providing an astounding light show as we dined on a gourmet dinner.

  A special note of appreciation goes to Alan of Undersea Hunter who arranged all our tours and transfers.  Thanks to his expertise and planning everything happened in a flawless manner.  The tours were fantastic, the hotels exceeded our expectations and transfers were seamless, in fact all the drivers were there waiting for us.  We cannot thank Alan enough. So that you may jump to what interests you I will outline this by subject. 


Hotel  Grano de Oro , San JoseThis is a very nice older “colonial” style hotel with a lot of charm.  The staff was nice and very helpful.  We typically don’t eat at the hotel, we like to experiment and see what a region has to offer.  Due to time we ate breakfast and dinner at the hotel and they were excellent.  You need a reservation for dinner.  We consider it “fine dining” with a French flair but you can wear shorts or slacks.  A meal for two that would have easily cost +US$120; with tip it was only $63 including 10% gratuity.  The Hotel list all costs in Colones and US$ so no calculator required. We stayed there on arrival and prior to departure and both times we had Superior rooms which were comfortable and well maintained.  On arrival we had room #35 and the only draw back was the street noise.  We are city dwellers and accustomed to urban living.  The rooms do not have AC but the temps were in the 70s and very comfortable.  We can happily recommend the hotel but maybe not room #35. 

Hotel Arenal Paraiso, Arenal VolcanoArenal Paraiso was one more aspect of the trip that was more than we expected; their website does not do their facility justice.  The location is perfect; each cabana has an incredible view of the active Arenal volcano.  Our cabana was large with a comfortable king bed, AC, Cable TV and large bath.  The rooms are more cabin than hotel room but very nice.  My wife the gardener was in love with the lush and beautifully laid out grounds.  There are a great series of hot springs and “cold pools” on the grounds with a nice pool area for relaxing, again all with a wonderful view of the volcano.  The breakfast is buffet and the menu for lunch and dinner is good, varied and reasonable. The highlight of this hotel is dining in the open air, at night, with the volcano full frame.  As you eat you can see lava spilling out and fiery rocks being ejected then cascading down the mountainside.  You can hear and see the flaming rocks break up on their 1000ft long descent.  Again, all while you dine on a steak and sip a cocktail.

Land Tours

Poas Volcano, butterfly & La Paz hummingbird/butterfly gardens and 5 waterfall tour.We departed at 8am and where back by 4pm .  This is a bus tour with walking stints on well paved paths, perfect for all ages.  The top of the volcano is at 10,000 feet and there is a view of the crater and some scenic walks you can take.  It can be cold so a light raincoat or sweater is a good idea. 

The butterfly and humming bird gardens were great.  We were amazed by the number of humming birds and their variety (27 species).  The 5 waterfall tour was amazing, some of the best we have seen anywhere.  There is a lot of mist, so depending on the time of year; a rain coat is a good idea. 

Th horse back tour of Arenal Volcano turned out to be quite fun.  This is a ride through the rain forest and pastures to a viewing station at the base of the volcano.  The ride is through some very interesting terrain and if you like there are even some areas where they let you gallop the horses.  You get up close and personal with quite a few Brahma Bulls and the rainforest section is impressive.  It runs about 3 hours and was arranged via the hotel. 

Cano Negro River Boat TripFrom the Arenal Volcano it is about 2 hour Mini bus ride to the river.  We only had 4 people and the guide was excellent.  Along the way, you get background on the history, agriculture and creatures of the area.  At 50mph the guide spotted a 2 toed sloth 50ft up in a tree, incredible.  On the river tour we saw 3 species of monkeys, caiman, more birds and other reptiles than we can recall.  This is a very easy and leisurely tour.  We departed at 7:20 am were back by 4pm. One note: if you tend to get motion or car sick you may want to bring some Dramamine.  There are no straight roads in Costa Rica.  You are going up or down on very winding roads with lots of potholes. 

The Undersea Hunter

This is a well known operation with an informative website.   Its excellent reputation is well-deserved and we look forward to diving with them again.  Once aboard it is the standard live-aboard routine, crew intro, briefing and then set up your gear as you don’t know what the weather will be like on the way out.  The boat is comfortable and well designed for its purpose.  There were eight crew members and on our trip 12 divers.  The salon is comfortable with a flat screen TV and all the associated AV gear.  We had cabin #6 with a comfortable double bed and bunk above.  There was plenty of room for personal effects.  The ride out took 33hrs arriving early in the morning.  It was a bit rough and we were happy to have the Scopolamine patches.  The meals served were lightly attended as most just rode it out in their cabins.   

The Dive Operation

The diving is done from two 24foot pangas. They are stable, roomy, fast and given the sometimes rough weather allowed us to dive spots you could not get to in a zodiac.  Once you set up your gear on the Undersea Hunter the crew moves it to the pangas on arrival at Cocos and that’s were it stays.  On the Undersea Hunter you have a seat/locker to store misc dive gear in.  There is plenty of room on the rear deck for donning wetsuits along with a fresh water shower and hose for rinsing of gear. 

As usual, the 1st dive briefing is the standard long CYA but after that they are brief and to the point.  One interesting note, they do not enforce a “first drink is your last dive policy” they treat you like an adult but do retain the right to not take you out.  The dive guides Edward and Wilson stayed with a team two days then switched so there could be no grumbling about one or the other being better at finding things.


Dives go at 8am, 10:30, 2:30 and 6pm.  This is subject to change due to conditions.  In fact the Spanish contingent preferred to dive first then eat breakfast, so dive time was moved to 7am, breakfast at 8:30.  Due to dive depths I would say Nitrox is a must.  There were a small group that went thru certification on the way out and finished up during their first couple of dives upon arrival.  I would strongly suggest doing this prior to departure. Most dive sites where no more than a 15-20 minute ride.  Due to the weather and sometimes low viz the routine was to gear up just before arriving at the site, roll in (no air in BC)  preferably with cameras in hand, drop directly to 60-70fsw, regroup and then head for the 1st cleaning station.  I would suggest glove/s for all and for photographers I found the reef hook beneficial at a couple of sites.  Most sites have 2-3 cleaning stations.  You drop in on the most likely, stay if action is good or move on to the next.  Dives 1&2 tended to be in the 70-100fsw range and we found you really had to watch the computer.  There is no Deco diving but we regularly pushed the limits of our computers.  Of course you can run whatever profile you are comfortable as long as you let the DM know. 

The Diving ExperienceWe purposely choose the rainy season as it is reported to have better Hammerhead action and we were not disappointed.  Out of 10 days it rained 70% of the time.  With runoff from the island, sometimes pounding rain and heavy overcast the viz could really vary from 20-30 ft at some sites to 70ft at others.  In general I would give it a hazy 40ft average.  Water temps ran a consistent 77 degrees but in some of the thermoclines it would drop to a chilly 65-68.   I was very happy in my 5mm suit and glad for the protection it provided hiding among the urchin littered rocks that could have some decent surge as you stalked the hammerheads.  Julie who gets chilled in anything less than 80 degrees wore her 7mm with hood and 5mm gloves and booties. 

The Hammerhead action started out a little slow then finished with a bang.  Of course it always seems the other Team sees the best stuff but in the end it all equals out.  Yes they saw a bait ball with dolphins, tuna and black tips going at it but we saw a whale shark!Over the course of the week we dove most all of the sites and the reality is you never, never know what to expect.  Vaunted sites turn out to be a bust on one dive while others that you have low expectations for produce incredible action!  This is a truly an area where you cannot afford to miss a dive.  Two members of our group opted out of one dive the whole trip and of course that is when the whale shark showed up. 

Highlights included:

Alcyon: fantastic hammer schools and dozens of white tips sleeping in a pile.  Some serious thermo clines and watch your computer.  Heavy current requiring descent on anchor line.

Small & Big Dos Amigos: again great schools of hammers and one of the spots you seemed to be able to get a little closer to them.  Be prepared for surge.  Lots of it.

Silverado: we saw two of the largest sharks we have ever seen.  One of the Silvertips was as big as some of the Great Whites we saw in Guadalupe. Viz poor both days.  Of course, this is also home to the Red Lip Bat Fish.Dirty Rock: Incredible schools.

Manulita:  Of course one of the highlights is the highly touted “White Tip Night Dive” and it completely deserves its star status.  An amazing and exhilarating experience.  Be prepared to swim and the stronger your light the better.A highlight of the trip to vie with the schooling hammerheads was seeing a Whale Shark, our first.  It was at Manuelita Outside and a moment we will never forget.  It was so unexpected and such a surprise I almost did not believe what I was seeing swim by.  All I could do was dash out of my hiding place screaming WHALE SHARK, WHALE SHARK into my regulator.  It took everything I had to keep up with it and in just over a minute I burned thru 1500psi and it was well spent.

For The Photographer

The camera area is well laid out with 110v & 240v charging stations.  There is a compressed air line and the shelves for storage of housing and gear are ample but a bit small to store my DSLR with 6ft of strobe arms attached.  Hand towels are even provided for drying of housing, ports, etc. Due to the viz, I mainly used my 17-55 lens, conditions just did not lend themselves to the 10.5mm or even 12-24.  I have to say while the diving was fantastic the photography was frustrating.  The main issue is even with the 17-55 on a new D200 I struggled with getting the autofocus to take hold and shoot.  Eventually I went to a “Release” setting that resulted in a lot of blurry shots but a few I would have not gotten otherwise.  If you can manually focus this would be the way to go.  With gray subjects in blue gray, milky water I found out how much I have yet to learn.  I typically had to shoot ISO 400-600. 

In The End

We have had to good fortune to travel some incredible places and without a doubt Costa Rica and Cocos Island vies for the top spot.  Nothing I can say or have written here can truly convey what an overwhelming experience we had.  This is a destination that has so much to offer and is so wild compared to your typical Caribbean diving it should not be missed.  Edward, one of the dive guides said that currently the Ocean Hunter vessels are booked up for the next two years and now we know why!  If you are looking for an adventure book NOW!  But, try to keep it a secret...


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